Towards a new digital humanism
27 July 2020
Can product and service design, as well as innovation processes, help bring back humanism through digital spaces?
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
Thus begins the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“, published in 1996 by John Perry Barlow, the co-founder of the Internet rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. At that time, many of us lived in a new digital Arcadia where arts and technology converged, a virtual space where people could fully develop their creativity and live an existence outside the legal, social and commercial constructs of the Real World™️. A new Renaissance with a humanistic approach, in which technology was at the service of the integral development of the human being. And we thought it would last forever, but it did not.
In fact, the Barlow Declaration was a response to the passage of the first Internet regulatory laws in the United States. Twenty-five years later, the struggle for non-regulation remains an almost forgotten chapter in the history of the Internet. The giants have arrived. First the traditional ones, when cyberspace began to smell like a fresh market and the big marketing and advertising agencies launched their conquest of new territories. Then those who, like Caesar or Palpatine, wanted to save the Republic and ended up imposing their own Empire, one where we stopped being citizens and became products. Companies like Google or Facebook, which did not come from the old industrial world but were born in and for the Internet, began their journey promising to enforce and comply with mottos as diffuse as “Do no evil”.
That is how they transformed cyberspace: they put the world’s information in order, accelerated the implementation of infrastructures that allowed almost universal access, created new communication systems and offered humanity all kinds of free products that surpassed those we had been using in terms of functionality and user experience. And so we happily went from basing our digital life on public open source systems to depending on private ones, owned by large corporations, which we pay for daily with our data. We left IRC to start using Messenger, and then WhatsApp; from the blogosphere to Twitter and Facebook (and all their offshoots); from local servers to storing everything – everything – in the data centres of Google and Amazon.
The Galactic Senate, also known as Word Wide Web Consortium or W3C, is the international body that regulates standards of use on the Internet, ensuring compliance and protecting the rights of the digital citizen. Although more than 400 public and private institutions are represented in the consortium, it is currently controlled by the large corporations, which promote the approval of standards based on their own technologies.
In this way, the old Arcadia has been transformed into a large shopping centre, where technology and creativity no longer serve the development of the citizen but become a driving force for business. And we, its inhabitants, willingly accept it in exchange for the convenience of the “free” products served by the giants of the sector. It does not seem an easy situation to reverse. How can we, from the processes of innovation in products and services, bring humanism back to the Internet? And how can we extend this vision from the digital world to the Real World™️? It is often said that innovation processes lie at the intersection of three axes: business, design and technology. Let’s take it one step at a time:
Let’s face it: we do it for money. Or at least we wouldn’t be doing it if there was no money involved. And that’s fine. Sometimes we forget that all the scientific, technological and artistic developments of the Renaissance were financed by the great fortunes of the time, which in many occasions did not seek the spiritual growth of the human being, but to win a war, to take over a new market or to pass on to posterity in a beautiful portrait.
It is more or less the same with any of our current clients. It is our responsibility to channel their resources to create products and services that, in addition to generating economic benefit, will result in the well-being of people and the protection of the environment, thus aligning ourselves with the United Nations Agenda 2030, articulated through the Sustainable Development Goals. But our advantageous position close to the boards of directors gives us great additional power (and responsibility): we can redesign the organisations we work for.
Little by little, but in an unstoppable way for more than a decade, the very concept of the company is being redefined. The classic vision of the company as an “instrument to generate profit” is giving way to a new approach in which the success of companies is measured by a triple bottom line: economic, environmental and social. It is no longer a question of creating non-profit organisations to alleviate the problems affecting people and the planet, but of using the power of the market to provide concrete solutions to social and environmental problems. Capitalism with purpose. Profits, turnover and dividends become a means, not an end. Initiatives such as the B Corporation certification are increasingly popular, and it is the responsibility of design, marketing and communication professionals to help companies transform themselves, and of consumers to demand this transformation from them, especially those that currently dominate the market and the Internet.
Design, and in particular product and services design, is perhaps the activity that has the biggest and most immediate impact on society nowadays. From innovation studies emerge the products that we do not only buy but also love; the services that we depend on; the brands that we declare ourselves fans of; the trends that we sign up for; the devices that we turn into extensions of ourselves; the social networks through which we communicate and establish links with people all over the planet… Of course, all of this is the result of a joint effort between designers, technologists and business specialists. But it is the designer’s responsibility to observe users, understand them and advocate for them. It is not a coincidence that in recent years all kinds of humanities professionals have joined this discipline: psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers…
It is also significant how over the last two decades we have been changing the term by which we refer to our main stakeholders: from “consumers” to “users”, and from there to “people”. The change is not trivial. It reflects a reality: neither all the users of a product or service use their own resources to “consume” it, nor is there a valid way to standardise their behaviour and facilitate its modeling. Each person is unique, and their desires, fears, needs and limitations depend on their context, which also changes at every moment. This is what makes us human.
This is why the process of research and analysis prior to design is vital from the point of view of humanism. Aggregated data does not represent every person. Data-driven design is a very powerful tool to identify needs and behaviours, and to direct the processes of continuous optimisation of a product, but we must be extremely critical with data based design techniques if we want to avoid biases and carry out a truly inclusive design that does not leave anyone out.
We must also understand that the designer’s goal is not to always simplify and make people’s lives easier at any cost, however, tempting the mantra “keep it simple” may be. Innovation must help people, but not replace those tasks that make us human. Only we are responsible for our decisions, and therefore we have the duty to understand what technology does for us. Facilitating all processes cannot be the only goal. There are tasks and processes that must be difficult, because that is what makes them meaningful. A machine that takes over the care of a baby can make the parents’ lives much simpler, but it steals the parenting experience from them. What otherwise risks becoming mechanical has to be kept human.
It is more important than ever to integrate ethical reflection into our design processes and to anticipate, as far as possible, the various ramifications that the future use of our products and services may have. When Twitter was first conceived, did anyone imagine that it would eventually become a global communication medium? That it would then, by its very structure, favour the creation of echo chambers and information bubbles? That this would eventually contribute significantly to the emergence of new extremist movements? And more importantly: what would have been the effect of this reflection?
The classic definition of engineering coincides with that of design: identifying problems and solving them by applying creativity. The difference is the approach: while the designer uses empathy and his knowledge of people, the engineer uses technology. Their responsibility is to develop new resources and integrate them into products and services to improve the experience, optimise processes and reduce costs. In recent years, two trends have emerged that are shaping not only the digital landscape, but the frameworks of social relations among citizens. On the one hand, the rise and popularisation of new technologies based on artificial intelligence and the processing of large amounts of data on users. On the other hand, the concentration of infrastructures in the hands of the great technological giants.
The first trend poses a huge challenge from an ethical point of view and forces us to choose whether or not to use a promising technology before having developed the necessary ethical and legal framework for it. The reality is that the market is pushing, and we already find ourselves with unresolved questions such as: Whose responsibility is it if artificial intelligence makes the wrong choice? How do you decide what data to use in the training of an intelligent system in order to avoid bias? How can you audit the intelligent algorithms, to understand how they justify their decisions? Is it legal to use private data (given voluntarily, although almost unconsciously) to identify citizens individually, which allows us to improve security levels at the cost of a loss of freedom? Is it acceptable to use autonomous weapons, which do not need a conscious and responsible operator to make decisions that involve the loss of human lives?
Some moves are encouraging, such as Facebook withdrawing its facial identification solutions for third parties from the market, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) giving up the business of autonomous weapons or Apple leading the global crusade for privacy, but technological progress and social demand (civil and military) are always faster than ethical reflection processes, and it is the responsibility of designers and technologists to remain vigilant.
On the other hand, to the emergence of new technologies that favour the control of the population we must add that during the last two decades we have witnessed a change of paradigm in the concept of the Internet: from a public space based on community infrastructures to a set of private digital spaces based on proprietary infrastructures, in the hands of a handful of companies that have more power than most states on the planet.
The digital giants have sown the world with data centres, processing centres and communication networks, offering these services to humanity free of charge in exchange only for the custody – and use – of our data. It is a poisonous gift that makes them the owners of public agora. Perhaps the time has come to rethink the very structure of the Web, and encourage the use of technologies such as Dfinity, a new standard that would allow the creation of apps that would run on the network itself rather than on servers owned by Facebook, Google and Amazon. The Internet Computer Protocol (ICP) is another initiative trying to make the web a democratic and free place again.
The emergence of the Internet was a milestone in human history, probably comparable to the construction of the Roman roads or the invention of the printing press. Firstly, because of its impact as a catalyst for other technologies, facilitating instantaneous communication at a global level and real-time collaboration of teams distributed around the planet for the first. But above all, because it offers a new public space in which all of humanity has a place; a global agora to try out new models of citizen participation, and a stage for collective creation and development that has never been seen before. These are the ideal foundations on which to build a future with humanism at the core, centred on the integral development of the human being and the protection of the environment. Designers and professionals working in innovation processes have the opportunity to contribute significantly to this future.
Alan Kay, engineer and designer, and one of the pioneers in interaction design, once said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Shall we get down to business?