An Ethic of Digital Technology Design

It is well documented that our brains are attracted to immediate gratification. A myriad of studies have been done on self control and delayed gratification (remember the children’s Marshmallow experiment?), and humans are naturally myopic, especially when it comes to consumerism. Multiple forms of entertainment are readily available, at our fingertips all the time. On average, teens spend up to nine hours a day on social platforms (most of this through mobile). And adults are not free from this – we also spend around nine hours a day looking at screens, with 30% of all online activity attributed to social media.

We know technology is addictive, and businesses are always creating new means of hooking consumers. Not to posit that all this technology is bad, of course (we are a digital agency after all!), or that it has a permanently detrimental impact on humans and our functioning, but the point is that we just don’t know yet. We don’t really know how it impacts cognitive development and decision-making. But we do know that our attention spans are shortening while the variety and velocity of information being thrown at us from all angles is growing.

Changing Times

It used to be that when we wanted to know something we had to seek out information- whether it was going to a library, or looking it up on computer or our mobiles. Now we have notifications sending us information all the time; news, social media activity, dating, travel updates, the list goes on. Furthermore, when interrupted (think of how you were going to take ‘just a moment’ to check that message), research shows that people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task. In many ways this has aided a shift towards a more passive consumerism- we are no longer citizen consumers who seek and discern information to weigh its value, but just consumers.

The Moral Question

This is the era of the micro-moment, where we are constantly bouncing around and between different media and devices. Advertisers and businesses are building new strategies and means of communication to break through all this noise, to elevate user experiences and foster loyalty to their brand above the competition. As new innovations emerge in the world of e-commerce we are learning about what people respond to and what they don’t. Likewise, scientists are continually learning just how adaptable our brains are to these changes. So, when you consider this ever-increasing rate of new technology, an interesting question arises: should some form of ethic or morality play a part in all this technology and software design?

Thinking about our tendency towards gratification, addiction and decision-making, should we who are on the other side of the screen have some responsibility to the consumers we are targeting? Obviously there is the very valid argument that we all are autonomous individuals who have the ability to set up boundaries, or just say no. But, as Tristan Harris, former product philosopher at Google pointed out in an Atlantic article last November: “You could say that it’s my responsibility to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” Is it a losing battle?

This is a dilemma because a significant part of what we strive to do in our work is to enhance the user experience, to remove friction and purchase barriers for our clients. And we take pride in the work we do. We want to improve access to systems and products, to leverage the best technology to foster that relationship between brands and consumers. But should there be a limit? Maybe, maybe not. But either way it should be talked about.

It’s a hard question, but it is one worth considering. Maybe in the future devices, apps and websites will have warnings that are part of the cookies notifications, informing viewers they are accessing sites that are potentially addictive and may impact their decision-making. Or perhaps the future of technology is about empowerment. Maybe technology will, instead of sucking up every spare moment, help us set boundaries so that we can be more present and intentional with our time by pausing or segmenting notifications and messages. Maybe it is the brands that help us to seize each moment and fully value our time that will gain competitive advantage.


This article was shared in .Net Magazine‘s December 2017 issue.