How Technology Makes Decisions for Us

We don’t really need to know how things work in order to use them, do we? More and more, technology is hidden behind “user friendly” controls. But there is a growing case to be made for the dangers of our increasing technological ignorance – or incompetence.

I have no idea how to repair my car’s engine. I can’t even change the oil. With today’s high level of manufacturing precision, less and less is that a problem. My car’s dashboard lights up to signal a needed repair or beeps to tell me its time for a checkup. I rely on that.

This faith in buried technology was summed up fifteen years ago by the design guru Donald Norman: “The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even aware of its presence.” But that means that we are more and more dependent on designers to decide what is important — or not. And they tend to emphasize the value of convenience.

Evgeny Morozov cited Norman’s dictum recently in The New York Times, noting: “The hidden truth about many attempts to ‘bury’ technology is that they embody an amoral and unsustainable vision.” We don’t know how much electricity our appliances consume. We don’t worry about how “cookies” buried in our internet services transmit information about us. And we don’t think about the cumulative impact of the billions of daily transactions we take for granted. (See, “Machines of Laughter and Forgetting.”)

Author of To Save Everything, Click Here, Morosov urges us to embrace an “aesthetic of friction” to slow us down, to increase awareness of the costs and implications of our seamless convenience.

Two years ago, Jared Lanier, the digital Media pioneer, similarly warned us about this in his book, You Are Not A Gadget. He urged us to learn how to program our computers, warning: “program or be programmed.”

Frankly, though, I doubt consumers will welcome the slowing down provided by additional friction to increase their awareness of the unwanted effects of technology. Nor do I think most of us will want to learn how to program our computers. (I certainly will not want to change the oil in my car.) Laudable as those goals are, we will continue to prefer the easy help offered by buried technology.

But Morozov and Lanier are right to see the dangers. Our friendly user interfaces seduce us to be manipulated or allow us to be just plain careless. The design gurus are responding to the market, and they will continue to nudge us in the direction of convenience.

An analogy is the calories contained in our food. If we want to lose weight, we need to check out the information about calories now posted on most of the bottles and jars at the supermarket. That’s the first step. Then we have to plan around all the options we have for our meals. Finally, we have to decide to eat less of what we usually want.

This is more than merely managing the information. Our minds jump to conclusions, and our bodies demand what our appetites dictate. Much as we like to think we are in control of our actions, we welcome the decisions we have already made.