Designing for Post-Connected Users — Part 1, the Diagnostic

I toured the world twice—first in 2009–10, then in 2013–14. Only four years between the two trips, but it felt like a century internet-wise. Where I had to go wifi-hunting in 2009, in 2014 the web was absolutely everywhere—even in places with no mobile coverage, such as remote El Chaltén in Argentine Patagonia. Yet, I had the feeling this advent of a truly connected world wasn’t much cause for celebration. Indeed, I met many who struggled with an increasing need to disconnect.

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I’m so glad I’m taking a year off. Off from work, off from stress, off from modern life.

…Do you have WhatsApp?

Twenty-something European trekker in Northern Laos

I heard this line from fellow travelers numerous times, be it in Laos, Costa Rica, or New Zealand. I actually said it myself! As absurd as it sounds, it’s a perfect illustration of our ambiguous relationship with the internet.

Hyper-connected, hypo-social#section1

Has the internet become repulsive? It certainly has in the eyes of Italian artist Francesco Sambo. His HyperConnection series depicts a dark and creepy humanity transformed—or tortured—by technology. Strikingly, Sambo is a savvy internet user, showcasing his work through Behance and SoundCloud.

HyperConnection, CC BY-NC-ND, Francesco Sambo.

Artists are often the first to capture the collective unconscious. Antisocial network I and II by Congolese artist Maurice Mbikayi are skulls made out of keyboards. “The […] sculptures ask questions such as to whom such technological resources are made available and at what or whose expense? What are the consequences impacting on our people and environment?” states Mbikayi. Less morbid but equally shocking is the alienation depicted in the Strangers in the Light series by French photographer Catherine Balet. In a very visual way, she questions us: are our babies born in a mad world?
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Strangers in the Light by Catherine Balet
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Digital malaise#section2

Not only does hyper-connection alter our social relationships, it also makes us dumber, as pointed out as early as 2005. It threatens our health too. Twenty-first-century afflictions include digital fatigue, social media burnout or compulsive internet use.

Cures for these rising internet-related disorders include such radical solutions as rehab centers, or disconnection.

“I was wrong”#section3

Most of the experiments in living offline have begun with the same cause and led to the same conclusion: the internet drives us crazy, but it brings us much more than we realize.

“The internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are,” says journalist Paul Miller in his famous “I was wrong” piece on The Verge. When you disconnect, you’re not just cutting the link with a network of computers, you’re actually isolating yourself from the rest of society. Miller also emphasizes that there is no such thing as a divide between virtuality and reality. To me, the best example of this is the sharing economy of “virtual” communities such as AirBnb or Kickstarter that is all about changing the “real” world.

The cure is worse than the disease#section4

A lot of people today feel torn between two extremes. They aren’t against modern ways of interaction per se, but they won’t close their eyes to the excesses. The concern becomes even greater when the developing minds of children and teenagers are at stake. Many parents believe their digital-native offspring aren’t capable of using the internet moderately. You can’t blame them when you come across stats such as 20 percent of French young people are addicted to their mobile.

Is disconnection the only alternative to unhealthy internet use? That cure is worse than the disease. There must be another way.
Internet users are ripe for a new era, for the next step. A “more asserted, more mature” use, in the words of Thierry Crouzet, another famous disconnectee. Neither hyper- nor dis-connected: post-connected.

I see the advent of post-connected users wary of addictive or invasive tools. Post-connected users are also well aware that a social network centered on the individual, rather than on the group, inevitably leads to narcissism. They see the internet as a means for more direct human relationships—not a thing that feeds on our continual attention.

The internet pictured as monstrous should sadden us all, for it is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, one which has done so much for knowledge, education and human rights. Besides, it isn’t addictive by nature, we have turned into a drug.

We are the drug dealers#section5

We love it if other people listen to us. Why else would you tweet?

Psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin interviewed by WSJ

We, the web makers, have designed interactions which encourage selfishness and competition. We created tools that cause fatigue and stress. We practically invented hyper-connection.

It is therefore our responsibility to design for post-connected users. If we’ve been powerful enough to create addiction, then we must surely have the resources to imagine post-connected user experiences. How? I’ll give you some leads in my next column.

In the meantime, I would very much like to discuss this topic with you. Have you ever felt the urge to disconnect? Do you agree there is such a thing as post-connected users? Would you say addiction is the sign of a successful design? Your comments, criticism, and true stories are most welcome.

14 Reader Comments

  1. I’m definitely excited about designing for people’s health rather than giving them tools for addiction. It may take awhile to convince clients that designing for global well-being is the ultimate goal though… 🙂

    As for disconnectedness, I switched from a cellphone to a landline five years ago and haven’t looked back. It’s extremely freeing to not be able to be connected all the time. Daily doses of being disconnected help keep me healthy, and I imagine everyone has a different level that’s healthy for them.

    I don’t agree that addiction is a sign of successful design though, unless, addiction is your goal. Designing for your goals, while also designing for disconnection is entirely possible. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It makes me think of the Wii, where after playing for awhile it’d prompt you with a nice invitation to stop playing and go outside. I wonder if there’s any research on if that actually worked or not…

  2. Maybe pre-post-connected, or anti-connected, or never-really-was-all-that-connected-anyways would be a better fit 🙂

    I kept thinking about designing for meaningful interpersonal connection via a platform while also encouraging that connection to persist and improve outside of the platform, and wondering if the Nintendo Wii considered that as one of their goals. Unfortunately, any google search with “Nintendo Wii” and “connection” is going to get you a lot of unwanted results, so tracking down the right info may be hard.

  3. I wouldn’t say ‘anti-connected’ as the simple fact that we’re discussing this topic here on ALA proves we’re both connected (and enjoying it). Your approach to connection and interaction design looks “mature and asserted” to me. You’re also looking for a third way.

  4. The early 20th century was captivated by cars, railroads, airplanes, ships. Technology & progress were going to eliminate war, disease, famine, religion, inequality.

    #LOL

    Standards of living were raised worldwide. We did make great progress on many social ills. But it took decades (and in some cases, a century) to recognize, regulate and redress the second order effects of our new tools.

    #seatbelts #unleadedgas

    We’re in another era of rapid creativity. Let’s reduce harm by accepting a simple fact: desire for greater efficiency and optimism ALWAYS outpace danger and consequence recognition.

  5. I agree, not anti-connected. Maybe cautiously-connected. Trying to keep control over connection rather than vice-versa. I imagine that’s a big subset of users – seeing the dangers and possibility of hyper-connection while also seeing the many benefits and approaching it with moderation.

  6. When building mobile apps / websites addiction is the goal. People using the product is the whole point – hopefully more than once because they are ‘engaged’ but ideally many, many times because they are addicted. This is one of the metrics used to gauge success and ultimately is what makes the $$$. I’m not sure changing this paradigm is possible – but look forward to the second article.

  7. Hans, as @stephencreates just told me on Twitter, “the fault lies in blurring engagement with addiction”. I heartily agree. I don’t think you can build lasting relationships on addiction. Addicts turn against their dealers eventually. I’ll give examples in the second part indeed.

  8. GREAT insight. The term “post-connected” is a good one. OF COURSE, we’re all connected. However, we can also choose to disconnect.

    I just got back from a week at a resort in the Dominican Republic where I deliberately tried NOT to use my phone (which didn’t really work there anyway) or the PCs set up in the business center. It was easier than I thought and wholly refreshing.

    That said, I couldn’t imagine being successful with that approach in the US.

  9. While I was reading Antoine’s piece I serendipitously came across something by Ev Williams that meshed so perfectly. Let’s look at it this way. People who have something to sell to us, directly or indirectly (we’ll lump them all under the moniker “advertisers”), aren’t interested in our time as such. But what else are they able to measure? And since they can’t directly measure what they really want, tools get built that optimize for the proxies that can be measured.

  10. The notion of a “post-connected” user smacks of teleological, and technological, bias. We have always been ambiguous about our relationship to technology; take the word ‘phoney’, for example. To posit a “post-connected” subjectivity on the brink of the digital divide is to put the post-modern cart before the horse. Consider the point of privilege from which an individual experiences Internet ennui… Perhaps the issue is that we are not connected enough, as you state above, in the sense of community, and our devices are instead functioning as a hall of mirrors, incessantly reflecting, and more insidiously, defining, our state of being.

    Otherwise, great piece!

  11. Thank you for all your comments. I’m glad we can have such an interesting debate here.

    A few words on the “post-connected term”. I’ve been discussing this topic with fellow designers and entrepreneurs for months now. We had the feeling the opposition between hyper- and disconnected was a sterile one, a manichean view. We analysed the situation and identified this major change factor: maturity. We are now facing a growing number of mature users looking for a more meaningful relationship with the internet. It’s not just they want to be “cautiously-connected” or moderately-connected—they want to go beyond the fact of being connected. As such, we believed the prefix “post-” was the best to describe their new approach.

    We’re not so presumptious as to compare post-connected with post-modernism. We just believe the alternative to both hyper- and dis-connection needs a name to raise awareness and gain recognition.

  12. I found this article very interesting to read, because I am consistently trying to disconnect whenever I am not at work (I am a web producer for a living). In the past several years, I have found the internet, especially the social internet, to be defeating, depressing, and something that compromises my sense of self. I have had the opportunity to also see others who love using the social internet and it never feels like they are truly a part of our offline conversations.

    The best and most progressive months of my life have been when I take self-imposed sabbaticals from the internet. I am excited how the rest of this column shapes up. Where else can I read about these concerns?

    Thanks!

  13. i agree with this article ” Most of the experiments in living offline have begun with the same cause and led to the same conclusion: the internet drives us crazy, but it brings us much more than we realize”.Harga Sleeping bag

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