Seen side by side like this, one can compare phases of the design process one experiences against the articulation of the need for coherence and clarity from one’s mind’s eye. As someone who has long been immersed in the complicated confusions that characterise the earliest stages of the design process – for so long as to discover one has become trapped within the ‘fuzzy front end’ incapable of navigating one’s way out of the conceptual stage and into the clarity and focus of the formgiving phase – yesterday’s exploratory journey into articulating a solution to the challenge of seeing too much was a revelation.
I find myself feeling stronger and more empowered this morning, sensing the emergence of yet-to-be-developed cognitive tools and mental frameworks as a way to overcome the moment of inertia of a habitual comfort zone, and burst through unseen barriers into forward momentum. In this very moment, I can pause to appreciate my own academic background that allows me to fluidly express myself by drawing upon concepts and theories from disparate disciplines. I am not struggling to articulate myself with only the cognitive tools available to any one particular narrow field of study. I can pick and choose between the laws of theoretical physics and the aesthetic representation of creative manifestation, not unlike having access to a rather large box of Lego bricks with which to express oneself.
I have also noticed the difference in the flow and structure of my writing between the works produced now, this past week, and the similar attempts to conceptualize and articulate my explorative journey back in 2005-6. In addition to exploring the interstitial spaces between business and design – the left brain and the right brain – I was new to writing as a form of personal expression and to blogging online. Microblogs were not yet the global phenomena they are today – Twitter itself was only launched in July 2006 – the blogosphere was at its peak that year as a space where people came together for conversation and internetworked links to each other’s work. The decade and a half since then offers rich fodder for reflection on the trajectory taken by personal expression online and I can see elements of my future ‘twitter voice’ in my old blogposts.
Imho, a large part of what is enabling my current ability to think and write – without the struggles and hesitations that have so characterized the past 5 or 7 years where gaps of weeks or months would go by without a blogpost – is due to the singularly uncharacteristic break I have taken from the digital sphere these days.
Since the start of 2021, I have effectively not participated in Twitter since the 11th of January barring one announcement on the 5th of February that I was changing the account name back to prepaid_africa. And the consequence of this digital social silence has been an almost complete lack of exposure to content categorized as News.
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its consumers. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. (Simon, 1971, 40)
I do not feel the lack.
A fortnight ago when I first experienced it, this indifference surprised me, since a large part of my professional activity in social spaces has been the curation of business news from the African continent, an initiative begun in January 2011. Now, with the evidence of the growing body of writing completed since March 17th and its ponderously articulated thinking about thinking, I want to take a moment to look more closely at the impact, influence, and role that my continued isolation from fast moving content is having on the evolution of my thinking and mindset right now.
The easy answer, referencing the oft-quoted Herbert Simon, is that my mind has been liberated from the chains of information consumption and thus is discovering its ability to reflect upon itself again. That is, my attention – freed from the designed persuasiveness of the current structure of the digital sphere – is now available to me for my own domestic needs instead of being flooded with the rapidly accelerating streams of content from around the world.
However, I have never been satisfied with the easy answers, and so I continue to sit here to see where this exercise of thinking in written words will take me. As the daughter of an early adopter, I approach this reflective exercise with the dual experiences of having first encountered personal computing in my senior year 1982-1983 where I learnt to program TRS-80 machines in BASIC running on DOS 1, and being among the first customers of landline based dial up connectivity in 1995. I have observed and experienced first hand the evolution of design for human interaction – as a teenager; as a user; as an engineer; and, as a designer. None of this is new to me. And a key reason I have never owned or used a smartphone.
But for all my efforts to suppress and diminish the impact of this evolution of UX, UI, and the necessarily deep research into human behaviour that supports these design trajectories, even whilst maintaining some semblance of connectivity and digital experience, it seems to me that what I have been experiencing over the past 18 to 24 months is the combined effects of an accelerated convergence of all the technological and design factors of the increasingly competitive attention economy.
That is, as user acquisition reaches saturation point for mega social platforms, each of them separately steps up the intensity of their efforts to acquire and retain new users to satisfice the requirement of infinite growth that underpins their wealth formation structure. For each tech giant, this might be a discrete activity within their own UCD teams, but from the perspective of a user who is not yet a part of any major platform save one, it could mean becoming part of the target group of the last remaining adopters of novel technology yet to be converted – and, their efforts simultaneously experienced as an individual at once and all together. For I cannot deny I feel as though I have emerged from an extremely intense period of digital experience.
As I recently observed, unseen efforts to provide automated benefits through pre-programmed predictive text and inputs for ‘easier writing’ still continue to hamper my efforts to express my unassisted humanity on my own blog and website. I do not wish to be the target of the stepped up efforts to discover what it would take to convert me to the norm online. But digital user research has never faced the ethical barriers to product testing that actually recruiting users for research groups required back in the day. My digital existence is simply one of many in some big data pile’s analysis as ‘hard core resisters’ to embracing social media frou frou, categorized by a world where if one does not have their face in a book one is not deemed to exist. What is there to stop any UX team from running any number of product tests on me online to see what might work to “convert” me?
I do not wish to go back.
This may change at some indeterminate point in time, but for now I find myself seeking out the narrow confines of my own hosted website as a personal playground in which to explore my thoughts and emotions in search for magic, and as a parallel to the development journey I undertook 15-16 years ago. Within my own space, I can insulate myself as much as is possible against the increasingly hostile atmosphere online peppered with micro-aggressions and seek to preserve the dignity of my mind. Only two days ago I noticed this change in tone that had occurred online and its subsequent impact on myself. I am not a persona or a user. I am a human being looking to retrieve my rich inner life from the digital demons who have eaten it unseen.
As part of this current life work then, I must consciously expose myself to an entirely different range of sources of ‘brain food’ rather than mindlessly continuing exposure to the overdose of dopamine inherent in current digital design directions creating a sensation of numb (and dumb) automated responses to carefully crafted stimuli. I will lose the ability to think and create and envision otherwise; for big data does not seek to identify the nature of the users it herds together and clusters into target segments categorized simplistically for a variety of product testing. I must claw back my own inspiration and imagination from the normative forces driving technological development of platforms that deal in the mass monetization of the billions rather than the qualities that distinguish the individual.