Did we design this future?

 

I have held this discussion before, but a recent video from FastCompany reinvigorates a provocative aspect concerning our design future, and begs the question: Is it a future we’ve designed? It centers around the smartphone. There are a lot of cool things about our smartphones like convenience, access, connectivity, and entertainment, just to name a few. It’s hard to believe that Steve Jobs introduced the very first iPhone just nine years ago on June 29, 2007. It was an amazing device, and it’s no shocker that it took off like wildfire. According to stats site Statista, “For 2016, the number of smartphone users is forecast to reach 2.08 billion.” Indeed, we can say, they are everywhere. In the world of design futures, the smartphone becomes Exhibit A of how an evolutionary design change can spawn a complex system.

Most notably, there are the billions of apps that are available to users that promise a better way to calculate tips, listen to music, sleep, drive, search, exercise, meditate, or create. Hence, there is a gigantic network of people who make their living supplying user services. These are direct benefits to society and commerce. No doubt, our devices have also often saved us countless hours of analog work, enabled us to manage our arrivals and departures, and keep in contact (however tenuous) with our friends and acquaintances. Smartphones have helped us find people in distress and help us locate persons with evil intent. But, there are also unintended consequences, like legislation to keep us from texting and driving because these actions have also taken lives. There are issues with dependency and links to sleep disorders. Some lament the deterioration of human, one-on-one, face-to-face, dialog and the distracted conversations at dinner or lunch. There are behavioral disorders, too. Since 2010 there has been a Smartphone Addiction Rating Scale (SARS) and the Young Internet Addiction Scale (YIAS). Overuse of mobile phones has prompted dozens of studies into adolescents as well as adults, and there are links to increased levels of ADHD, and a variety of psychological disorders including stress and depression.

So, while we rely on our phones for all the cool things they enable us to do we are—in less than ten years—experiencing a host of unintended consequences. One of these is privacy. Whether Apple or another brand, the intricacies of smartphone technology are substantially the same. This video shows why your phone is so easy to hack, to activate your phone’s microphone, camera, access your contact list or track your location. And, with the right tools, it is frighteningly simple. What struck me most after watching the video was not how much we are at risk of being hacked, eavesdropped on, or perniciously viewed, but the comments from a woman on the street. She said, “I don’t have anything to hide.” It is not the first millennial that I have heard say this. And that is what, perhaps, bothers me most—our adaptability based on the slow incremental erosion of what used to be our private space.

We can’t rest responsibility entirely on the smartphone. We have to include the idea of social media going back to the days of (amusingly) MySpace. Sharing yourself with a group of close friends gradually gave way to the knowledge that the photo or info may also get passed along to complete strangers. It wasn’t, perhaps your original intention, but, oh well, it’s too late now. Maybe that’s when we decided that we had better get used to sharing our space, our photos (compromising or otherwise), our preferences, our adventures and misadventures with outsiders, even if they were creeps trolling for juicy tidbits. As we chalked up that seemingly benign modification of our behavior to adaptability, the first curtain fell. If someone is going to watch me, and there’s nothing I can do about it, then I may as well get used to it. We adjusted as a defense mechanism. Paranoia was the alternative, and no one wants to think of themselves as paranoid.

A few weeks ago, I posted an image of Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop with tape over the camera and microphone. Maybe he’s more concerned with privacy since his world is full of proprietary information. But, as we become more accustomed to being both constantly connected and potentially tracked or watched, when will the next curtain fall? If design is about planning, directing or focusing, then the absence of design would be ignoring, neglecting or turning away. I return to the first question in this post: Did we design this future? If not, what did we expect?

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