Why are we outsourcing our taste and self-expression?
In the past few months, a curious set of buttons have appeared at the base of my Gmail messages. They’re a set of canned responses to whatever text is in the preceding email: “I’m interested,” “Sounds good!”
I laughed when I first saw these buttons because they seem so absurd: I can’t fathom feeling inconvenienced by typing “Sounds good!” just to literally save five seconds. Why is this such a high priority?
As humans, we prize predictability, and Google reminds us how predictable we are every day. A recent study reminded me of just how much we are creatures of comfort: at any given time, people tend to have no more than two dozen regular haunts. I’m sure Google Maps knows of every one of mine, and auto-populates with a single letter. I’ve already outsourced my navigation skills, my calendar-remembering, and my photo-tagging to Google. And now, they are encouraging me to outsource my very words.
What we have to remind ourselves of is that it’s not just a convenience. Every time we use a button that says “Sounds good!” we are also feeding the machine-learning beast. It increases the likelihood that we’ll respond the same way in the future. We’re parrots mimicking each other, outsourcing our communication and expression to tech.
We need to ask ourselves: what am I exchanging for this convenience? What are they collecting as a result?
These small ways in which we seek convenience are death by a thousand paper cuts to qualities that we seek as humans: individualism, serendipity, discovery. We’ve consolidated our expression. Our spaces are becoming the same, as we observe in the ‘Airbnb Aesthetic’. Our photographic expression is so similar that it’s become a pattern. Even our thought leadership is so predictable it’s parody.
We are collectively feeding a system that chews up expression and spits it out in a prioritized fashion. The “Youtube Face” is the result of us gaming the algorithm for clicks. The irony is that this very expression is actually the algorithm gaming our culture. We are meeting the machines where they are. On Radiolab, Robert Krulwich describes this as feeling like “a slow downward slide.”
Design for serendipity rather than convenience
How do we as designers respond? We can create experiences that emphasize serendipity and randomness rather than convenience and predictability. These, in turn, pave the way for creative expression.
We can find inspiration in unlikely places.
I take solace in the idea that humans are random beings who can still confound the system, like in this story about how humans refused to follow a pattern of performance because we’re still, well, random. I love the creativity that emerges from “risky playgrounds”. Or the woman who spurred random acts of kindness when her bike was stolen, simply by making an unexpected sign.
There was a game that David Sedaris once talked about, in which he would pretend he was just dropped into his current location without knowing where he was. (I’ve tried desperately to find a link to this story… let me know if any of you find it!) How can we as designers build this sensation into our experiences? And how do we make sure that what’s unique about places and experiences are preserved? How do we maintain our individual self-expression, and those of people who use our products? How do we stay creative and curious?
Before his untimely death, Anthony Bourdain, hero of curiosity and discovery, said, referring to people who follow his detailed visits from his show, “I much prefer people who just showed up in Paris and found their own way without any particular itinerary, who left themselves open to things happening.”
The prescriptiveness with which we’ve designed our lives results in a less fearful existence, but in order, as humans, to learn, to be creative, to connect unlikely things… we need to be uncomfortable.
Let’s stop feeding the machine-learning beast. Let’s leave ourselves open to things happening.