You Are Not a Gadget: An Argument for Human-Centric Design

Introduction

One of my professors-come-colleagues, Dr. John Alberti, teaches a course called Writing for the Digital Age. I took the very first offering of the course and loved it. It got me thinking about digital spaces in a brand new way and many of the methodologies we used to analyze and compose digital media are still a major component of my thinking to this day.

I’ve been thinking about that class a lot lately, as I’ve recently become more interested in online interactions, social conventions that have arisen around online spaces, and cyber-security. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and researching in the area, some of which you can see in my posts on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Cyberphobia. Since starting this active learning, I’ve started noticing tech information everywhere. It’s always been there, of course, but now I’m more tuned in, and so found out about You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier.

Basic Synopsis

In a nutshell, You Are Not a Gadget is a cry for technology to focus on putting power back into the hands of individuals. We’ve been creating hardware and software that emphasizes the power of the hive-mind, but Lanier argues that this is the wrong way to go. Instead, we need to focus on making technology that works with and for humans as individual people, which will in turn increase the power of society as a whole.

Thoughts on Philosophy

I am a very malleable, highly suggestible individual. I’ve become aware of that in recent years, and that knowledge has served me well, particularly when reading things like manifestos and personal philosophies. I find it easy to fall into the trap of thinking whatever I’m currently reading has to be right and “holy cow, how did I never see this before,” and “this is now the Truth.” But as I grow older and experience more, I’ve started forming some solid philosophies of my own. So, I’m much more comfortable disagreeing with others while still respecting and understanding their thoughts. This quality was very helpful when reading You Are Not a Gadget, since it deals with such a nebulous and constantly-changing field that must be frequently reevaluated.

Major Takeaways

Though I didn’t agree with everything he said, a few things that Lanier said really struck a chord with me, finally putting to words some things that had been irritating me for a while.

The tools we use shape our thinking. If a tool doesn’t allow us to do something, we will begin working in ways that replace or eliminate that original desire. The more time spent doing this, the less willing we become to change our habits. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be, if we are unaware of it happening.

We tend to defer to computers and blame ourselves for something being hard to use. A lot of issues that crop up in technology are the result of user error. But not all. Sometimes software and/or hardware is to blame for something not working in a way that is conducive to our use, and we need to stop constantly feeling stupid when something is difficult for us. Sometimes it’s you, but sometimes it’s not. And it’s the job of the designers to create a user experience that actually allows for user experience, not one that is designed for a perfect hypothetical.

We design digital spaces, not the other way around. The entire digital world is a human creation. Unlike the natural world, which operates according to its own laws, we have created digital spaces from the ground up. That means that we can change those digital spaces, since anything that was made by humans can be changed by humans. It’s not like the rules are written in stone — everything can be changed at any time.

We no longer have to settle for tools that don’t work for us, but can instead create systems that begin with the individual in mind. Don’t like something? Change it. Everything is malleable and can be made to work for you. You’re the human with a brain and powers of reasoning — don’t forget that computers are just tools. (For now.)

Recommendation

If you’re interested in digital spaces and their utilization, pick up You Are Not a Gadget. It’s a quick read that’s full of interesting thoughts and well-formed opinions.

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