tommorris.org

Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


I'm not an experience-seeking user, I'm a meaning-seeking human person

After an evening of cynicism last night, reading a bloody awful article by a pompous twit, and travelling on bloody slow trains, and then logging on to Twitter and seeing a bunch of bloody fools debating things they are completely ignorant of without even a modicum of philosophical charity, I found something which restored my trust in the human race: psd’s talk at Ignite London. It combines giving naughty link-breaking, data-sunsetting corporate types a spank for misbehaviour with an admiration for I Spy books. I had I Spy books as a kid, although mine were products of the late 80s/early 90s and had the Michelin Man, although in not nearly as an intrusively corporate way as Paul’s slides of current day I Spy suggests. Do forgive me: I’m going to do one of those free-associative, meditative riffing sessions that you can do on blogs.

The sort of things Paul talks about underly a lot of the things I get excited about on the web: having technology as a way for people to establish an educational, interactional feeling with the world around them, to hack the world, to hack their context, to have the web of linked data as another layer on top of the world. The ‘web of things’ idea pushes that too far in the direction of designed objects (or spimes or blogjects or whatever the current buzzword is), and the way we talk about data and datasets and APIs makes it all too tied to services provided by big organisations. There’s definitely some co-opting of hackerdom going on here that I can’t quite put my finger on, and I don’t like it. But that’s another rant.

I’ve been hearing about ‘gamification’ for a while and it irritates me a lot. Gamification gets all the design blogs a-tweeting and is a lovely refrain used at TED and so on, but to me it all looks like “the aesthetic stage” from Kierkegaard applied to technology. That is, turning things into games and novelties in order to mask the underlying valuelessness of these tasks. Where does that get you? A manic switching between refrains. To use a technological analogy, this week it is Flickr, next week it is TwitPic, the week after it is Instagram. No commitment, just frantic switching based on fad and fashion. Our lives are then driven by the desire to avoid boredom. But one eventually runs out of novelties. The fight against boredom becomes harder and harder and harder until eventually you have to give up the fight. There’s a personal cost to living life as one long game of boredom-avoidance, but there’s also a social cost. You live life only for yourself, to avoid your boredom, and do nothing for anybody else. Technology becomes just a way for you to get pleasure rather than a way for you to contribute to something bigger than yourself.

In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the alternative to this aesthetic life was typified by marriage. You can’t gamify marriage, right? You commit yourself for life. You don’t get a Foursquare badge if you remember your anniversary. The alternative to aestheticism and boredom is an ethical commitment. (And, for Kierkegaard anyway, ultimately a religious commitment.1) And I think the same holds true for the web: you can gamify everything, make everything into Foursquare. Or you can do something deeper and build intentional, self-directed communities of people who want to try and do something meaningful. Gamification means you get a goofy badge on your Foursquare profile when you check into however many karaoke bars. A script fires off on a server somewhere and a bit changes in a database, you get a quick dopamine hit because an ironic badge appears on your iPhone. Congratulations, your life is now complete. There’s got to be more to life and technology than this. If I had to come up with a name for this alternative to gamification that I’m grasping for, it would be something like ‘meaning-making’.

Gamification turns everything into a novelty and a game (duh). Meaning-making turns the trivial into something you make a commitment to for the long haul; it turns the things we do on the web into a much more significant and meaningful part of our lives.

In as much as technology can help promote this kind of meaning-making, that’s the sort of technology I’m interested in. If I’m on my deathbed, will I regret the fact that I haven’t collected all the badges on Foursquare? Will I pine for more exciting and delightful user experiences? That’s the ultimate test. You want a design challenge? Design things people won’t regret doing when they are on their deathbed and design things people will wish they did more of when they are on their deathbed. Design things that one’s relatives will look back in fifty years and express sympathy for. Again, when you are dead, will your kids give a shit about your Foursquare badges?

A long time ago, I read a story online about a young guy who got killed in a road accident. I think he was on a bike and got hit by a car while driving home from work. He was a PHP programmer and ran an open source CMS project. There was a huge outpouring of grief and support from people who knew the guy online, from other people who contributed to the project. A few people clubbed together to help pay for two of the developers to fly up to Canada to visit his family and attend the funeral. They met the guy’s mother and she asked them to explain what it is that he was involved in. They explained, and in the report they e-mailed back to the project, they said that the family eventually understood what was going on, and it brought them great comfort to know that the project that their son had started had produced something that was being used by individuals and businesses all over the world. This is open source: it wasn’t paid for. He was working at a local garage, hacking on this project in between pumping petrol. But there was meaning there. A community of people who got together and collaborated on something. It wasn’t perfect, but it was meaningful for him and for other people online. That’s pretty awesome. And it’s far more interesting to me to enable more people to do things like this than it is to, I dunno, gamify brands with social media or whatever.

This is why I’m sceptical about gamification: there’s enough fucking pointless distractions in life already, we don’t need more of them, however beautiful the user experiences are. But what we do need more of is people making a commitment to doing something meaningful and building a shared pool of common value.

And while we may not be able to build technologies that are equivalent in terms of meaning-making as, say, the importance of family or friendship or some important political commitment like fighting for justice, we should at least bloody well try. Technology may not give us another Nelson Mandela, but I’m sure with all the combined talent I see at hack days and BarCamps and so on, we can do something far more meaningful than Google Maps hacks and designing delightful user experiences in order to sell more blue jeans or whatever the current equivalent of blue jeans is (smartphone apps?).

The sort of projects I try to get involved in have at least seeds of the sort of meaning-making I care about.

Take something like Open Plaques, where there are plenty of people who spend their weekends travelling the towns and cities in this country finding blue memorial plaques, photographing them and publishing those photos with a CC license and listing them in a collaborative database. No, you don’t get badges. You don’t get stickers and we don’t pop up a goofy icon on your Facebook wall when you’ve done twenty of them. But you do get the satisfaction of joining with a community of people who are directed towards a shared meaningful goal. You can take away this lovely, accurate database of free information, free data, free knowledge, whatever you want to call it. All beautifully illustrated by volunteers. No gamification or fancy user experience design will replicate the feeling of being part of a welcoming community who are driven by the desire to build something useful and meaningful without a profit motive.

The same is true with things like Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. Ten, fifteen years ago, if you were carrying around a camera in your backpack, it was probably to take tourist snaps or drunken photos on hen nights. Today, you are carrying around a device which lets you document the world publicly and collaboratively. A while back I heard Jimmy Wales discussing what makes Wikipedia work and he said he rejected the term ‘crowdsourcing’ because the people who write Wikipedia aren’t a ‘crowd’ of people whose role is to be a source of material for Wikipedia: they are all individual people with families and friends and aspirations and ideas, and writing for Wikipedia was a part of that. As Wales put it: they aren’t a crowd, they are just lots of really sweet people.

What could potentially lead us into more meaning-making rather than experience-seeking is the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky refers to. The possibilities present in getting people to stop watching TV and to start doing something meaningful are far more exciting to me than any amount of gamification or user experience masturbation, but I suspect that’s because I’m not a designer. I can see how designers would get very excited about gamification because it means they get to design radically new stuff. They get to crack open the workplace, rip out horrible management systems and replace them with video games. Again, not interested. The majority of things which they think need to be gamified either shouldn’t be, because they would lose something important in the process, or they are so dumb to start with that they need to be destroyed, not gamified. The answer to stupid management shit at big companies isn’t to turn it into a game, it’s to stop it altogether and replace the management structure with something significantly less pathological.

Similarly, I listen to all these people talking about social media. Initially it sounded pretty interesting: there was this democratic process waiting in the wings that was going to swoop in and make the world more transparent and democratic and give us the odd free handjob too. Now, five years down the line and all we seem to be talking about is brands and how they can leverage social media and all that. Not at all interested. I couldn’t give a shit what the Internet is going to do to L’Oreal or Snickers or Sony or Kleenex or The Gap. They aren’t people. They don’t seek meaning, they seek to sell more blue jeans or whatever. I give far more of a shit what the Internet is doing for the gay kid in Iran or the geeky kid in rural Nebraska or a homeless guy blogging from the local library than what it is doing for some advertising agency douchebag in Madison Avenue.

One important tool in the box of meaning-making is consensual decision making and collaboration. There’s a reason it has been difficult for projects like Ubuntu to improve the user experience of Linux. There’s a reason why editing Wikipedia requires you to know a rather strange wiki syntax (and a whole load of strange social conventions and policies - you know, when you post something and someone reverts it with the message “WP:V WP:NPOV WP:N WP:SPS!”, that’s a sort of magic code for “you don’t understand Wikipedia yet!” See WP:WTF…). The reason is those things, however sucky they are, are a result of communities coming together and building consensus through collaboration. The result may be suboptimal, but that’s just the way it is.

Without any gamification, there are thousands of people across the world who have stepped up to do something that has some meaning: build an operating system that they can give away for free. Write an encyclopedia they can give away for free. All the gamification and fancy user experience design in the world won’t find you people who are willing to take up a second job’s worth of work to get involved in meaningful community projects. On Wikipedia, I see people who stay up for hours and hours reverting vandalism and helping complete strangers with no thought of remuneration.

It may seem corny, and it’s certainly not nearly as big of an ethical commitment as the sort Kierkegaard envisioned, but this kind of commitment is something I think we should strive towards doing, and helping others to do. And I think it is completely at odds with gamification, which seeks to basically turn us all into cogs in some kind of bizarre Skinner-style experiment. We hit the button not because we are getting something meaningful out of it, but because we get the occasional brain tickle of a badge or get to climb up the leaderboard or we get seventeen ‘likes’ or RTs or whatever. Gamification seems to be about turning these sometimes useful participation techniques into an end in themselves.

Plenty of the things which make meaning-making projects great are things any good user experience designer would immediately pick up and grumble about and want to design away. Again, contributing to the Linux kernel is hard work. Wikipedia has that weird-ass syntax and all those wacky policy abbreviations. Said UX designer will really moan about these and come up with elaborate schemes to get rid of them. And said communities of meaning will listen politely. And carry on regardless. Grandma will still have a difficult time editing Wikipedia.

When I listen to user experience designers, I can definitely sympathise with what they are trying to do: the world is broken in some fundamental ways, and it is certainly a good thing there are people out there trying to fix that. But some of them go way too far and think that something like “delight” or that “eyes lighting up” moment is the most important thing. If that is all technology is about, we could do that a lot easier by just hooking people up to some kind of dopamine machine. Technology should give us all our very own Nozickian experience machine and let us live the rest of our lives tripped out on pleasure drugs. I read an article a while back that reduced business management to basically working out how to give employees dopamine hits. Never mind their desire for self-actualization, never mind doing something meaningful. Never mind that the vast majority of people opt for reality with warts than Nozick’s experience machine—the real world has meaning.

The failure of meaning-making communities to value user experience will seem pretty bloody annoying, if only to designers. There are downsides to this. It sucks that grandma can’t edit Wikipedia. It sucks that Linux still has a learning curve. Meaning-making requires commitment. It can be hard work. It won’t be a super-duper, beautiful, delightful user experience. It’ll have rough edges. But that’s real life.

A meaningful life is not a beautiful user experience. A meaningful life is lived by persons, not users. But the positive side of that is that these are engaged, meaning-seeking, real human beings, rather than users seeking delightful experiences.

That’s the choice we need to make: are technologists and designers here to enable people to do meaningful things in their lives in community with their fellow human beings or are they here as an elaborate dopamine delivery system, basically drug dealers for users? If it is the latter, I’m really not interested. We should embrace the former: because although it is rough and ready, there’s something much more noble about helping our fellow humans do something meaningful than simply seeing them as characters in a video game.


This post is now on Hacker News, and Kevin Marks has written it up on the Tummelvision blog.

  1. This is one thing I disagree with Kierkegaard very strongly on. But not for any high-falutin’ existentialist reasons. I just don’t believe in God, and more importantly, I don’t believe in the possibility of teleological suspension of the ethical, which makes the step to the religious stage of existence rather harder! I’m not even sure I’m in the ethical. It could all be a trick of my mind, to make me feel like I’m some kind of super-refined aesthete. Or it could be rank hypocrisy. But one important thing to note here is that the aesthetic, ethical and religious stages or spheres of existence, for Kierkegaard, are internal states. The analogies he uses don’t necessarily map onto the spheres. So, you don’t have to be the dandy-about-town, seducing women and checking into Foursquare afterwards to be in the aesthetic. If you are married, that doesn’t mean you are in the ethical stage. Nor does being overtly religious or, rather, pious, mean you are in the religious stage. Indeed, the whole point of Kierkegaard’s final writings, translated into English as the Attack Upon Christendom is that Danish Lutheranism was outwardly religious but not inwardly in a true sense.