I did a lightning talk at UX Bristol. Here’s a rough idea.
Change ruffles feathers
Whenever a new technology comes along and with it, new forms of behaviour, you hear a chorus of dissenting voices. From blaming the youth of today to citing an evolutionary threat to human existence, the accusations fly.
Here’s a recent screen shot from Google highlighting just some of the things that are currently ‘killing the art of communication’.
Aren’t we really just bemoaning change? Conflating ‘new’ with ‘bad’ and ‘old’ with ‘better’, forgetting that what is now old was once cutting edge.
Douglas Adams summarised it nicely:
“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
That’s what we’re doing. And it’s what we’ve always done. When the typewriter became the default way for people to write, we were queuing up to pronounce the death of style, the art of letter writing, and even our own humanity.
“The art of letter-writing has been banished by the typewriter, and these Byron letters may now be examined with as much veneration as one would regard an Egyptian hieroglyph.”
– The Pall Mall Gazette, 17th Dec 1896
We’re also becoming much less adept at talking:
“[Do you] realise how much the increasing use of dictation and the typewriter is doing to limit and corrupt the art of speech? That method of correspondence has killed the art of letter writing.”
– The Times, 14th Feb 1935
And the loss of the quill is detrimental to us as a species:
“In the spacious days of the quill, letter-writing was in very deed the writing of letters – no tapping of the keys of a machine, no barking of short lengths of jargon into the ear of a shorthand writer or the mouth-piece of a Dictaphone. The rapidly-quickening whirl of the daily round has, with centrifugal violence, shot off the laborious quill-driver into the outer darkness. In this stead, reigns the Robot [and] with the quill goes much of grace in performance and delight in craftsmanship.”
– The Times, 21st August 1923
There’s also a matching pattern in education, and probably in every other field of human endeavour.
But the fact is, we communicate instinctively. Our methods might change, our style and language might evolve, but we’re still a social species. We worry about whether we’re becoming less intelligent, antisocial and immoral, blaming technology for this supposed decay. But all we’re really doing is judging ourselves against inconsistent standards which shift with every generation.
However, it is also blindingly obvious that our methods of communication do change. More interesting than applying a crude value judgement to our evolving technology, is thinking about what influences the way we use and develop these new habits.
It’s not the technology, it’s us. And just as our habit of bemoaning change has followed us down the years, so have some of the pressures and influences that cause those changes. Three of the factors that spring to mind are celebrity, acceptability, and the balance of power. There’s cross-over between them, but broadly speaking:
Celebrity: Our fascination with the beautiful people and how they live their lives leads us to imitate; or occasionally the way a community organises themselves around a certain technology.
Then: advertising a product e.g. cigarettes.
Now: Stephen Fry on Twitter (and getting stuck in a lift), Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock becoming one of the focal points of Tumblr.
Acceptability: What the social conventions are of the day – often disputed and seen as part of our General Moral Decline.
Then: incorrectly addressing a superior; listening to jazz music.
Now: getting out phones in restaurants, txt spk, drunken photos on Facebook.
The balance of power: Who has access to a new technology, and how they might use it to further their own cause.
Then: the Gutenberg press, 17th century coffee houses, mass-produced paperbacks.
Now: the drive to get the whole world online in the belief it will empower them; Arab Spring activists reporting and organising on Twitter.
“It is important to understand that new platforms of social media didn’t cause Arab Spring but played a role of communication that aids the revolutions in the long run.”
– Saleem Kassim, Twitter Revolution: How the Arab Spring Was Helped By Social Media
Technology is just the tool. While it might change how we outwardly behave, it’ll take a real shockwave to change our inner nature. Among all this hand-wringing about our intelligence, social activity, and moral behaviour, I think we already know the answers to this: we’re fairly simple, generally social animals who will communicate with whatever method is to hand.
So, no. Technology isn’t killing communication. And if it isn’t driving it either, what influence can UX designers and the whole digital industry have? What should we be concerning ourselves with? Within the framework of ever-shifting technology and stubbornly human humans, I think there are a few areas where we can and should have a voice.
Findability: How do we structure and organise our information so that it can be found by people who are looking for it, without them having to wade through irrelevance? Of course, irrelevance is subjective, so how we serve answers to people with different questions and perspectives. Information science and psychology has led to the Dewy system, taxonomies, folksonomies, tags, indexes, free text search, curation… but the appropriate structure depends on the format. How can we help users navigate through the new and old, the fixed and temporary?
Permanence: Will something be where I left it? People generally want tangibility and solidity of information structures. But the web isn’t a permanent fixture. Snapchat-style messaging further erodes permanence, and then there’s the EU ruling about search results. Who should say when something is/isn’t available? Should we keep everything forever, even if it’s outdated or untrue? Which leads to…
Verifiability: How can users determine what is true and what isn’t? Who has authority – in content and in position? What if there are two competing truths? How can we represent these fairly e.g. the climate change debate? We might grumble that Wikipedia is inaccurate, but at least we know. 75 years ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica was considered the ultimate authority, but its imperial tone and single point of view – never mind its accuracy – wouldn’t be any more appropriate on the web today.
These are the same questions which were once asked of our librarians, then the early architects of the GUI and the usable web, and now to us. The same human conversation played out across a different technological framework.
In short, if we were once information architects, the growth of digital means we’re now communication town planners: helping to build structures which react and respond to the way we communicate today, and the way we’ve always behaved.