Future technologies must be designed to free us from our screen addiction

OpenAI’s bot will compete at The International August 2018.
OpenAI’s bot will compete at The International August 2018.
Image: Reuters/Jason Redmond
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Looking back at technology over the years, it’s funny how quaint the older stuff seems: From simple telephones to basic games, innovation used to focus on functionality, task and purpose.

Since then, tech has gone from Space Invaders to literal space invaders, with software eating the world and devices crawling their way up from our pockets and onto our bodies. But the real change has come from how they now hook into our minds.

Every digital experience is self-aware, tweaking and customizing itself to be better, more enticing—to suck users further in and increase its all important “active users” metric. But that begs the question: in this time of ruthlessly efficient entertainment design systems, are we still having fun?

Playing the game

Years ago, the world of gaming discovered an important method to keep players coming back for more: unpredictability.

An early import to digital gaming from its more salubrious cousin, gambling, unpredictability creates an addictive ebb and flow of endorphins for users.

Let’s take the video-game Space Invaders as an example. Originally, you’d shoot the Invaders and each one would increase your score by a predictable amount. But what if—once in a while—you could get a better gun? Or a new ship altogether? And what if those rewards were delivered at unpredictable moments, so the players always felt like slightly superior rewards were just out of reach?

New games like Diablo and Destiny have pushed this to the point where gamers question whether they’re even really enjoying the experience, or just being manipulated by jostled waves of stimulation.

Now, replace the prospect of new ships and weapons with entertainment. Most tweets and Facebook posts are probably not delivering much to you as a reader. But give it a couple more scrolls and you feel like you might hit the jackpot—your ex just broke up with their boyfriend! That lead you’ve been chasing just came back from holiday! Someone favorited your tweet/Vine/Instagram.

These endorphin loops are not random—they’re distributed with just the right pace of irregularity to keep you coming back for more. This is a core part of the design philosophy behind many modern services.

When you add notifications to the mix, you can see why they are becoming such sticky, interruptive parts of the experience. They tear us from the present with a promised (but unpredictable) burst of private joy.

In this way, technology has become better at creating feelings—it is increasingly adept at making use an emotional experience. But I don’t think this is making us feel better.

Peace time

There are a few teams who have real incentives to design exceptions to this. Enter the Apple Watch.

A few months into ownership, my own Apple Watch feels designed to buck a lot of this baggage. Yes, it’s arguably more interruptive—but because of this, you soon realize that you only want to let it host interactions that actually matter to you. Those with certainty and immediate value: Someone is calling you right now. It’s about to rain. You need to get off the night bus. You need to turn left at the next junction.

Unlike so many digital experiences, such alerts don’t drag you back into another app—they prompt action in the real world.

As a wearable, the Apple Watch has to check itself; it’s not meant to recreate the same loop of endorphin spikes as so many other formats. Pulling wearers in at every opportunity would risk provoking a backlash against the new technology.

This might be tough for many app designers to accept. When true native apps arrive for the platform later this year, some might try and continue playing the old game—but I think people have had enough.

Other examples are rare but you might look to systems like Asana and Basecamp as similar out-of-loop experiences: these record the state of projects, so that teams spend less time chasing each other and more time getting things done.

In both cases, it’s about productivity, whether in business or in personal life. It’s about a system designed to take your time seriously.

There is some precedent for this trend. Years ago, at the front of another technology wave, companies competed to try and keep users coming back again and again, so that they would spend more and more time on their sites. Eventually, one service broke the pattern. It made its mission to jettison users away from their product, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

That was the burgeoning world of web search, and the innovator was Google. It made itself a fleeting, near-invisible but everyday element of your online experience.

It turns out that the next wave of technology may not be about further digital immersion, but about pushing that iceberg back under the waves of our real world lives. And if that’s not something to feel better about, I don’t know what is.