Urban Planning for Cyberspace

The home screen on my iphone is grayscale with white light reduced. Almost like a kindle. When I look at the screen, no app stands out. Each is an identically shaped, boring gray blob. They are so indistinguishable that I often just search the name of the app I want to use. Every button press does the same exact thing–opens an app. So there is only one decision to make: which app do I open? I almost never open an app that I did not intend to use before I turned on my phone.

When I open Facebook on my computer it immediately sucks me in. Everything is colorful. The first post in my feed has 17 links, each accessing more and more links. The array of options is dizzying. There is an endless scroll, with massive amounts of potential links. A click might open up a list with even more links, send you to a friend’s page, or bring you to a message. I have not once, after going on Facebook to do a certain thing, done that thing and nothing else.  

Before I wrote the last paragraph, I opened up Facebook to get some inspiration. Without realizing what I was doing, I liked a post and scrolled through a photo album. Even back on the google docs page, I still felt distracted. 

My question is which of these two spaces—simple iPhone home screen, or Facebook feed—do we want to live in? We will spend some portion of our lives in digital space, so we must ask how we want to structure this space, just as urban planners think carefully about how to structure cities. Facebook’s content is certainly designed to grab attention and hold it. But there are certainly better and worse ways to structure the content. Should apps have endless scrolls? Should we allow for a page to have 80 links to novel content, like Facebook? 

The google docs page I wrote this article on is an example of a well structured digital space. The page has 53 buttons to click, almost as much as my Facebook feed, but these gray, practical buttons are not distracting. Every button does something. Some offer lists of more gray buttons, but they always terminate in a distinct action. Italicize, highlight, indent. There is no endless stream of information. The structure of the google docs page is like a well-pruned tree with a low number of branch splits. After a few junctions at most the branch terminates in a leaf. A distinct action. An end. I have a grasp of all the possibilities this page offers, I know what sorts of things I can do, and I know how I could figure out how to do anything I might want. 

Facebook has no structure that I can grasp skillfully. It is an endless network; we can estimate its structure but never truly get a grip on it. Some clicks terminate in an action like posting content or sending a message, but in almost all actions more buttons are presented. Each new post presents an enormous number of options. You can respond, like, or share. Or you could look into who created the content, who shared or liked it, or where and when the post was created. 

Some features of Facebook do work towards creating a structure that allows for skillful use of the product. On one interpretation, Facebook’s addition of a like button to messages to a friend seems like an imposition into personal communication. Messages to a friend become something that can be “liked,” and as such no longer demand a verbal response. On another interpretation, the addition of a like button is to some extent a patterning of Facebook’s endless content. Like buttons are simple, most people know how to skillfully use them, and clicking them does not lead to distraction. Spreading the like button across Facebook content discretizes the content into “things to be liked and commented on.” And in this we might find a return of agency, we might be able to navigate the world of Facebook more skillfully because the possibilities have a common pattern. 

I’ve so far sketched out a few structures digital landscapes can take and what we might like or dislike about them. Now I’d like to paint a picture to reorient the question back towards human agency, human experience. 

I’ve been sailing for 10 years. When I hop into the boat, my brain filters and presents the relevant factors at play. The sound, vibration, and acceleration of the boat, the shape of the sails, positions of the controls, the response of the water to my steering, all of these perceptions seamlessly invoke skillful actions. Gusts of wind tell me how to sail through them to get the maximum speed. I have a grip on my environment, I can easily predict what will happen next and continuously respond to data that allows me to update the prediction. Something might happen which vastly changes my prediction of how we will be doing in the race come the next turning mark. But even when the landscape ahead of me changes rapidly I can still stay attuned to all the relevant details, performing all the proper actions.  

The experience of a beginner sailor is clearly quite different. Everything—vibration, wind patterns, sail shape—is meaningless. Nothing solicits an action. The beginner is merely an observer. A key contrast here is that the expert sailor enacts a goal, to sail the boat well, that emerges naturally from his actions. In a sailboat race the sailor is embedded in a social context with rules and norms that guide the action. The beginner sailor can perceive this social context but is not yet part of it.

My contention is that when I open my phone and see the identical gray application icons and find the one I want and tap it, I am acting like the expert sailor. I have a grip on all the possibilities the phone screen presents, I am ready for the possibilities that most apps afford. And I know generally where to find each app, and when it might be appropriate to use each app. Weather, I might want to check in the morning. The alarm clock I should set at night.

But if I open the Facebook app, I become a beginner sailor. I have no way to predict what will come next in the news feed, it is a slot machine. I can never get a grip on all the possibilities the page provides and seamlessly produce, from these perceptions, actions that are fundamentally purposeful. The situation is not entirely hopeless. I can approximate the Facebook space, turn the endless network into a limited domain with a set of actions. Say I usually just check my event invites, check my messages, and scroll through a few posts. To me Facebook no longer presents infinite options but presents definite options that I know when and when not to pursue. Yet there will always be a hidden side to Facebook, options and links that linger as ever-present possibilities that occasionally draw us in. There is no escaping the expanse of the endless newsfeed, no technical mastery of such a thing is possible. 

Why not? Most obviously, it’s just too massive. Further, the content–clickbait, enticing advertisements, suggested content–is designed to hook, distract, and addict. And novel content lurks behind every link. The problem is that Facebook is structured so user’s activity patterns do not cohere into a purposeful trajectory, but rather conform to Facebook’s profit motive–the motive to keep you on the website. The design of a sailboat is clearly quite different. Here, the interests of a boat builder and a sailor are closely aligned; both have in mind the same purposeful activity of sailing.

Do we want to be the perpetual beginner in all interactions with technology? Clearly not. So we must structure the digital landscape to afford discrete possibilities for acquiring expertise within a bounded domain. Given the human ability to become skillful at a huge range of activities, this should not be too challenging. Facebook, certainly, could do a better job. 

The digital landscape presents an unprecedented scenario in which corporations can completely structure the landscape of a world we inhabit. When immersed in such a world we can lose the ability to act skillfully and purposefully. Certainly the physical worlds of shops and schools and museums is structured by economic interests, with places like shopping malls designed to get something out of the user. It’s hard to be purposeful and skillful in a casino. But unlike the physical world, the digital landscape is structured for most users by only a few main players. In a month, the average person might act in many different physical spaces, but use the same five apps every day. Social media sites are much more pervasive than any analogous physical space. 

At one end, we have the gray app screen. One choice, no psychological manipulation. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Netflix autoplay. The tech user is reduced to a mindless consumer of entertainment, things happen on the computer screen yet the viewer does nothing coherent. If, as I might predict, apps slowly decline in prevalence, supplanted by smarter, more seamless integration of humans and technology, tech use could become more like the Netflix autoplay and less like the gray screen. In such a world the tech user would no longer be human.

Authors

Eli Burnes
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review

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