When the internet was first introduced, users sat in awe at the innovation that it presented. It was a communications platform and a distribution method for information and data. The world wide web took something that previously traveled through the mail or over phone lines and turned it into instantaneous communication. It was a simpler time, when the internet was mostly used for chat programs, chat rooms, and email.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the internet’s influence in our everyday lives is increasingly more pervasive these days.
The internet of the Millennials—that network that matured from dial-up in the 90s and laid the groundwork for modern infrastructure—was designed to draw attention to things such as brands and products. The so-called “click-based” economy trained an entire generation of content creators to be inspired by the ability to generate revenue through attention-grabbing content and headlines. Becoming a viral sensation became the new American dream and produced enough literal overnight successes for people to take it seriously. By taking everyday people with webcams and turning them into media empires, social media paved the way for both the rise of “personal brands” and the inevitable infatuation we display for a steady stream of social updates.
Now, we are moving into a new era—one that could change the very design of the internet.
Start by looking at the Center of Humane Technologies. A nonprofit created by former employees of Google, Facebook, and Mozilla, the group is lobbying for research into the adverse effects of technology on children and human development. Where once we shrugged off accusations proclaiming the addictiveness of tech, this group is funding an awareness campaign on the societal tolls of technology, hoping that broader awareness can effect change on a grand scale. This sea change would eventually move us away from attention-based design and create an initiative that embraces a more purposeful aesthetic— one that looks to address the mental and emotional needs of users through purposeful design.
“Time Well Spent” is another concept starting to make the rounds in technology circles, and meant to address these same concerns. Time Well Spent is the theory of designing technology, even from a software perspective, to take the user’s sense of meaning into account. Mark Zuckerberg recently invoked it in a lengthy post meant to reinforce the idea of using Facebook to make and maintain personal connections and relationships. This is the first of what is sure to be many utterances of this phrase due to the positive connotations it can convene: prioritizing the values and health of the user in design from the ground up.
With so much weight being placed on mental health and emotional stability, it’s no wonder that the internet—the thing that has become the foundation of our digitally-enabled modern world—would eventually be held to the same standards as everything else. Although our connected world has allowed us to do many wonderful things, it has also conditioned us to accept the amount of control that we as users have ceded to technology itself, trusting more in algorithms and machine-generated recommendations than our own intuition.
From a new communications network, to a place to launch an enterprise and gain attention, to, perhaps, a place where meaning can be found—maybe even created. Is it possible for technology to become humane?