Most of the people I know constantly complain about the role and use of digital technology in their lives. Too much time on Facebook, always distracted by emails, annoying notifications and all the ‘digital rubbish’ their smartphones and computers bring into their lives. Only a couple of years before, most of them were looking forward to the new iPhone releases, while today they are more and more skeptical about what Apple and the like are going to present next. The overall assumption that technology is here to make our lives better is now met with a growing skepticism, even resentment. The reason is twofold: first, constantly growing technological pollution that causes fatigue and enforces many unwanted behaviors, and second, the inability of digital technology to resonate with current values people share.
Move from user-centricity to human-centricity
The digital technology we currently have is born within a ‘design for addiction’ paradigm1, where the success of tech innovation is measured by the time people spend on or with technology. However, there is no clear future vision or understanding of what this technology is aiming at teleologically and what current values or daily conduct it is building on. Constant expansion and ubiquitous presence might be a valid raison d’être for producers (companies) but consumers have currently started to doubt it. Modern gadgets are born in small and very hermetic worlds like Silicon Valley, cut off from the rest of the planet where most of the people they design for live. The itch for problem-solving2 has turned into the itch for pure innovation, or innovation by inertia. While technological innovation occurs each day, consumers no longer appear excited about it because many gadgets are not addressing problems they are experiencing or do not resonate with things they really value.
The aforementioned problems can only be solved when producers try to understand the relevance of what they are doing to people’s daily life conduct as well as values their consumers share. When technological innovation is driven by the problem-solving itch and in accordance with the present zeitgeist, it will be able to fit into the lives of consumers. While many modern producers and designers lack the capacity to have a vision or overall aim for their innovations, people on the consumer side still do have meanings, problems and aspirations in their lives. This is why technology companies should adopt a human-centered approach—not only a user-centered one.
Social scientists as creators of new technological narratives
So how can social scientists conducting business research help? If we are to have a significant impact society and business-wide, we need to escape the purely critical and deconstructive mindset and become creators of new technological narratives. After all, to overcome the growing skepticism toward consumer technology, we need to be able to dream better futures that resonate with people’s ideals and their current conduct. Instead of merely helping companies to adapt technologies to current practices of “real people,” we need to be the ones who articulate technological philosophies that resonate with emerging narratives and shared imaginaries. Otherwise, we’re at risk of ending up living in a world where the very raison d’être for a technology-infused life is missing.
1. By analogy with Natasha Dow Schull’s concept of ‘addiction by design’ in her 2012 book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton University Press.
2. As depicted by Eric S. Raymond in his 1999 book The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. O’Reilly & Associates