Over the past months, I’ve been reading several books on consumption, culture, design, and the environment. Before I close out the bulk of my secondary research, I want to highlight a few emerging themes regarding our digital production and consumption habits. (I still have to read The Information by James Gleick and Glut by Alex Wright)
I. Either Never Satisfied or Always Curious
"Our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end", as Neil Postman paraphrases Henry David Thoreau in Technopoly. A lofty statement, but one that addresses a fundamental question underlying the torrent of technological advancement in the last 20 years - where is all this headed? While some believe the innovations in technology are leading to a singularity as futurist Raymond Kurzweil proposes, other thought leaders question the insatiable demand for new information and our dissatisfaction with the here and now.
John Thackara, author of In The Bubble, illustrates our growing dissatisfaction with the analogy of a boy, sitting under a tree, looking out over a landscape. In one case, the boy exists before the invention of the internet, cellphones, pagers; the other case describes the boy existing now. Which boy is more thoughtful in the moment, satisfied with the solitude of thought? Those not part of the Millennial generation might agree with the latter. Some, such as writer Clive Thompson, argues otherwise, saying the boy is actively seeking inspiration to share rather than waiting for some serendipitous apple to drop.
With his analogy, Thackara references the Italian concept of dolce far niente, describing one’s ability to find pleasure in idleness, literally meaning “sweet doing nothing”. Elizabeth Gilbert also writes about the concept in her book, Eat, Pray, Love. Both authors question whether we can enjoy a moment to ourselves without being able to communicate that feeling to others. In On Paradise Drive, David Brooks criticizes Americans who have never been satisfied with what they have and who are constantly pursuing the next best thing. Applied to our various communication devices, are we loosing our ability to be satisfied with our current place in life by chasing digital bits of potential affirmation?
II. Seamlessness and Time
A longtime priority of interaction designers has been to erase the boundaries between experiences with technology, i.e. create a seamless experience. This can range from how easily a user can charge or sync an iPod with his/her computer to the consistency of content design across devices (phone, tablet, computer, television). A fundamental promise of technology: save the user from the drudgery of tasks and make the ones required of them easier.
In Everywhere, Adam Greenfield points out that, as does computer scientist Mark Weiser, seamlessness can make experiences, “hard to tell when one thing ends and something else begins”. Think of it this way: where and when can you check your email? text or call a friend? Practically anywhere. With this ubiquitous power, our divisions of time – work time, family time, play time – are removed. Thackera also warns that even the design of our spaces can make our bodies, “physically desensitized from its sense of time”. Moreover, Postman laments that the promise of technology is to give us more time by accomplishing tasks faster, “Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph.”
Our attempts to create efficiencies with technology and task completion begets more space for other activities; this space however is often filled with more of the same activity – a consequence described as the rebound effect. The concept explains as technology allows easier access and faster use of a resource (time), the more of that resource is used. The effect leaves us wondering where all our time went.
III. Information as Metaphor: Water, Garbage, Food
Open access to a seemingly infinite amount of information is often framed as metaphor. In The Middle Mind, Curtis White describes the abundance of information as a deluge, leaving us to drown in sea of entertainment and communication when all we wanted was a drink. Postman moves up the pessimism scale, declaring, “Information has become a form of garbage”. Beyond subjectivity, his point is reinforced with the advent of content farms – creating content on a mass scale as quickly as possible to seed hundreds of websites for daily use, only to then be forgotten and “thrown away” into a far off database.
The most consistent metaphor used is information as food. Douglas Rushkoff quotes Shakespeare in his Frontline report, Digital Nation, saying “we are consumed by that we are nourished”. The more quickly we snack on tiny morsels of information [sic], the more our ideas are shaped into bursts of disconnected thought. In his report, Rushkoff points out as undergraduate college students produce and consume information through endless multi-tasking, their ability to defend a thoughtful, consistent argument in an essay is diminished. Gone are the days musing by Walden Pond.
Exploring similar themes in his new book, The Information Diet, Clay Johnson states, “information consumption is as active an experience as eating”, equating our cravings for salt, fat, and sugar in cheap foods with our desire for affirmation. By quickly viewing and sharing information, we fall prey to our desires of affirmation and recognition (as many media companies have learned), resulting in “information obesity”. Similarly, this rapid, cyclical behavior leads Microsoft researcher danah boyd to describe social media as being the “psychological equivalent of obesity”.
IV. The Cloud as a Virtual Attic and Digital Hoarding
While Postman describes information as garbage, more and more it seems to be something we can stash away in our cloud. Given the amount of storage available for various cloud-based services (generally advertised as being “unlimited”), producing and saving information is effortless. We are no longer limited by available storage on our computers and devices; we can save our digital content on nearly infinite levels. For example, as of today, I’m only using 88 MB of 7,671 MB available to me on my GMail account. Why delete an email when I can just have it on hand?
To me, this is a form of hoarding – saving items of little or no utility for the chance of *possible* use in the future. Seemingly irrational, our digital lifestyle has become a paradox of loss aversion, a decision theory determined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Loss aversion states that we can make decisions based on our desire to avoid loss rather than acquire gains; fears of loosing our digital information forever can be alleviated by storing that information in the cloud. In his classic routine, George Carlin jokes that our homes are just places to store all our stuff. I would argue that our cloud-based services are not only means to access our content anywhere, but are actually digital attics where we can just store all our stuff.
V. Conspicuous Consumption vs. Conspicuous Production
Way back in 2001, David Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise, which described a new upper class of now grey-haired bohemians who express their values with a bourgeois budget. It’s not enough to eat “morally neutral sausages”; Bobos must eat sausage made from local, free-range pork using a recipe passed down through the generations, costing far more than any offering from Jimmy Dean. ”Shopping, like everything else, has become a means of self-exploration and self-expression”, he writes. Through conspicuous consumption, we display our values and beliefs.
It is now 2012. Our consumption as communicating success has shifted to boasting through production of content. We are all our own PR firm and with the tools of social media, we can broadcast our lives and interests with a simple click or tap. This sentiment is echoed by Kickstarter co-founder Yancy Strickler and entrepreneur Zach Klein in a recent post, pointing out that conspicuous production is now our means for transmitting values. With every upload and post, we are not only showing the world what we have or what we find interesting, but we are also searching for affirmation. I doubt anyone would continue to post content without feedback from friends, family, or strangers.
In another book by David Brooks, The Social Animal, he mentions the ancient Greek concept of thumos: the human desire for recognition of one’s own existence. With today’s social media tools, our ability to fulfill our own personal thumos is for the taking (or clicking); but the question remains – if everyone is seeking recognition, can we all respond to one another despite the cacophony of requests?
VI. Starting to Lean Back
Apple founder Steve Jobs, in addressing a conference, said, “We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.” What Jobs is referring to is the notion of “hot” and “cool” media, a concept first introduced by the late theorist Marshall McLuhan (also recently covered by Paul Ford in our Content Strategy class). “Hot” media are highly defined mediums which engage one sense of the viewer and require very little participation. On the other hand, “cool” media are low definition mediums that demand more viewer participation and require more attention.
Another closely related classification of media are “lean-forward” and “lean-back” mediums. Television is a “lean-back” medium where viewers want to be entertained and are in a relaxed, passive state. In “lean-forward” mediums, the Internet, for example, viewers are more engaged users of the medium and are in a more active state. But as Eli Pariser points out in The Filter Bubble, the Internet is becoming a “lean-back” medium.
Increasingly, we are watching more video content online. In fact, nearly a third of all Internet traffic is from watching movies and shows on Netflix. Both YouTube and Vimeo have recognized this trend and designed LeanBack and Couch Mode features respectively, so users can watch content on a television or by simply “leaning-back” in a chair. Notwithstanding online video content, our Internet tools and apps allow us to sort through and parse vast amounts of information, easing the burden of search. This does not sound bad at all, but Eli Pariser warns, “as personalized filtering gets better and better, the amount of energy we’ll have to devote to choosing what we’d like to see will continue to decrease.”
Brooks, David. Bobos In Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Brooks, David. On Paradise Drive. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Brooks, David. The Social Animal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
Clive Thompson, “The Instagram Effect,” Wired, January 2012. link
Douglas Rushkoff. “Digital Nation,” Frontline. Produced by Rachel Dretzin. Boston, MA: WGBH Studios, 2010. link
Greenfield, Adam. Everywhere. Berkley: New Riders, 2006.
Johnson, Clay. The Information Diet. Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2012.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Nancy Miller, “Manifesto for a New Age,” Wired, March 2007. link
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.
Peter Svensson, “Netflix’s Internet traffic overtakes Web surfing” MSNBC. May 17, 2011. accessed January 18, 2011. link
Postman, Neil. Technolopy. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Thackera, John. In the Bubble. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
White, Curtis. The Middle Mind. New York: HarperOne, 2003.