Some rationals to stop talking and start acting.

We want to make the world a better place.

When people from our guild –the digital product scene, digital agencies, developers, entrepreneurs, you name it– discuss their works purpose, most of them want to contribute to a brighter future. Some don’t really care. But literally no-one I met so far works intentionally on destroying the world we live in or the humans who use our products. And to be fair: We also build a great product but I have no idea if we eventually have any kind of negative impact with it.

We (digital workers) are making the world worse.

So why are many well respected organisations concluding that digital products have a negative impact on users well-being? To quote the world economic forum, digital media has for example negative effects on long-term memory, the length of attention spans as well the ability to find a significant other. An other study by Pew Research and the Elon University finds that digital tools fuel digital addiction, distrust, stress, anxiety, depression, inactivity, sleeplessness and many more unintended effects on a personal level as e.g the legendary fomo. The Pew research center also lists comments from experts about the impact of digital life, which include some comprehensible arguments:

“My kids are 14 and 12. Their social and emotional lives have been negatively impacted because they tend to seek less real-life interaction with friends because they can so easily interact with them online.”

Kat Song, communications and digital strategy director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

“I feel the negative aspects of the digital world have personal consequences for me, an impact on my well-being. The rise of hatred, the manipulation of politics and so on – these are not distant events with no personal impact.”

A research scientist and internet pioneer

Why are many products negatively impacting the world or people we love?

So if product folks want to make the world a better place, why are many products negatively impacting the world or people we love? Our guild is not investing a lot of effort (in terms of paid work time) in making sure our good intentions withstand the ways a real human being and the real world works.

One example: Facebook fuels narcissistic behaviour

When Mark Zuckerberg founded facebook , he “was just trying to help connect people at colleges and a few schools”. Following he worked with his team hard and eventually succeeded with his mission. No bad intention involved. But over the years, facebook got one of the main companies that can make users mentally ill. While its a widely known fact that the use of instantly rewarding products like fb, instagram, snapchat and co. creates algorithmic addicts, other psychological diseased go with it. A study from 2013 even concludes that Facebook addiction (is) a significant predictor of narcissistic behaviour.

As the causes for addiction as well as for narcissistic behaviour were already researched before 2004 when fb was founded, the team could have taken countermeasures against their product fueling it. They could have also anticipated the long-term impact on humans of their product, measured the patterns of usage and brain-stormed unexpected use cases in an early stage of their product. But Probably they though: it won’t get that bad. We won’t make the world worse with this.

The result of this: 311.000.000 google results for facebook addiction, 13.800.000 results for facebook narcissism, and the list goes on. So facebook made the life and overall happiness of many people less good - the opposite of what they wanted to do. And what all off us want with our products.

How can we make sure that our products will not have a negative impact on peoples lives

So how can we make sure that our products will not negatively impact peoples lives? “Until we get that crystal ball app, the best we can hope to do is anticipate the long-term social impact and unexpected uses of the tech we create today.” Two frameworks for this are ethical OS and Tarot Cards of tech. I am really excited to use them in the upcoming weeks.