Responsible Use

Over the past year, I’ve had numerous people tell me that they or someone they know deleted the Facebook app from their phone. Why? Were they removing an app that they never used? No. In each case the reason was the same – “I use it too much.”

Deleting an app we “use too much” is an interesting phenomenon. It’s an acknowledgement that we think we spend too much time with our phones (or more specifically, a certain app). We want to be spending our time doing other things, but have trouble modifying our behavior. It’s a common issue, and the evidence of our collective awareness – and increasing guilt and frustration – is everywhere.

For example, in a sermon I heard recently, the pastor referred to his iPhone as “my precious.” Everyone in the congregation laughed at the joke, no doubt because intense feelings of attachment to our phones is common. A friend’s honest confession sums it up best: “I know I’m addicted to my iPhone. I know it.”

Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President of Design at Apple, describes the “unique relationship that people have with their iPhone:”

It’s probably the object you use most in your life. It’s the product that you have with you all the time.

Having our most-used object with us all the time can make it difficult to give our attention to anything, or anyone, else. In fact, in addition to deleting apps from our phones, we are designing other ways to force a separation between ourselves and our devices in order to reconnect with other people.

For example, a tablecloth has been designed with zippered, built-in phone pockets to keep our devices from interfering with conversation while dining. A beer mug has been designed that stands upright only when rested on a phone, ensuring it stays out of commission. To the same end, a restaurant now pays customers to check their phones at the door. And in a new dinner game, the first person to reach for their phone wins the prize of footing the bill.

As we invent new ways to separate ourselves from our phones, we must realize that our device attachment is more than skin deep. Philosopher James K.A. Smith points out how touch-screen devices appeal to – and even shape – our desires for control and power:

The technology affords and invites rituals of interaction. … The material rituals of simply handling and mastering an iPhone are loaded with an implicit social imaginary. To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as “available” to me and at my disposal – to constitute the world as “at-hand” for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.

Comedian Louis C.K. goes further. He observes that we constantly interact with our phones in order to mask our deep-down feelings of loneliness and emptiness:

You know, underneath everything in your life is that thing – that empty, forever empty. … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone. … and sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car and you start going “oh no, here it comes – that I am alone,” it starts to visit on you – you know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad. … That’s why we text and drive. … People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second.

In addition to our own motivations, we must also realize that our phones and apps are designed with the specific goal of eliciting our constant use. Jonathan Ive, commenting on his work as a designer, said:

I guess it’s one of the curses of what you do. You’re constantly looking at something and thinking, “Why is it like that? Why is it like that and not like this?”

When we ask these questions of our devices, the answers can be telling. For example, why are notifications always set to “on” by default? How does this default preference, designed into the system, affect my behavior?

In the case of digital products like Facebook, what are the designers trying to achieve? What are the actions they would like us (the users) to take? Why is it the way it is? Most often, the answer involves the goal of fostering as much engagement (use) as possible. Why? The more people use a digital product or service (especially those that are “free”), the more money the company makes (usually via data-driven advertising). Writing of Twitter’s upcoming ipo, The Verge’s Casey Newton writes:

Like any social network, Twitter’s top priorities include increasing its number of active users and – just as importantly – increasing the time they spend using the network.

Simply put, most digital products are designed with a bias towards eliciting as much use as possible.

This brings us full circle – to deleting Facebook in order to use it less. It begs the question of responsibility. As consumers and users, what is the measure of our responsibility to self-control and self-discipline in our use of digital devices? As digital product designers, what is the measure of our responsibility to encourage moderation (not just maximum use and profit) in the way we design our products to be used? Both are topics I wish to explore further. For now, however, I just want to raise the questions – as I’m not sure they’re even being asked.