Surveillance Capitalism, Algorithms, Data: understanding my role as a designer in the 21st Century
Hello, my name is Sofia, and I am a student from BA Graphic and Media Design. In this blog post that you are reading right now, I would like to lightly touch upon the topic of “Technologies, Practice + Space” in regard to my own DPS experience so far.
Prior to this DPS year, my thought about design’s role in our society or different industries was fairly simple: it should solve a problem, it should satisfy the clients’ need, it should bring value to the users, etc. But most importantly, I never believed in the concept that design can change the world. This is definitely an arguable statement, but I would like to say that my DPS experience has added more complexity and layers to my “understatement” about design.
Since the DPS year began in the midst of a global disaster (the infamous COVID-19 pandemic), I knew that my professional study experience would take a huge turn from what I originally expected- and so, as anticipated, everything was moved to the digital world. This was also how I became even more addicted to the Internet, and more aware of all the aspects of what technologies can bring to our life- whether being positive, negative or a complex mix of both.
A collaborative remote work I participated was an app development project, where user interface and interactions are the core of my design practice. At the beginning I treated it solely as an experience to learn new skills. However, after delving into the details and processes of app development and specifically interaction design, I began to notice some interesting situations. For example, after releasing the app we received quite a few responses saying that by having a “sign-up page” (which is very common in apps nowadays) would lead to a certain level of distrust since they think that their information would likely be leaked or sold to those giant tech-companies such as Google or Facebook, and we were seemingly identical to what they call a “Data Sucker”. Not only I was shocked to see this kind of feedback because my team did not have any intention with our users’ data, but I was also intrigued by the fact that such a small design decision could impact the perception and behaviours of our audience.
This experience brought me to this Netflix documentary, called The Social Dilemma, where ex-executives & designers from tech-giants were interviewed about the fundamental design and development processes that construct our apps nowadays. The content was both informing and alarming to me, since I realised how these subtle modern app design principles have such an impact on the way we socialise, and they have become the new “addictive tools” that manipulate the audiences and their information. In addition to this, it is common practice that the developers would collect user analytics to tailor and provide better app experiences. Although the positive aspect of it is quite obvious being a method to help creating a better service, there is also huge concerns over what and how much data/user information an organization can obtain and what can they do with them. A good example would be the “Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal”, where the data of millions of Facebook users were collected without their consent by Cambridge Analytica, mainly for political advertising. With this hideous incident in mind and a certain loss of trust, I suppose I should not have been so surprised to see the negative reaction and attitude from our users towards the simple “sign-up page”. How much power can these tech-companies have over the handling of individual’s personal information? To what extent can we be “watched” without being abused by the organisation’s monetisation power? Lastly, how can design generate the power to help changing this “industry standard” of practice? These questions might not have definite answers, but I personally enjoyed in asking them.
Furthermore, the combination of all mentioned above would lead to the most important aspect of a business- monetisation. Monetisation for tech-companies and app developers nowadays heavily revolve around the area of advertisement. In order to provide a platform that serves for both the advertiser and the users, these apps and technologies needed a well-designed system that attracts & retains the users and also further extends the potentials by adding algorithms to the existing equation. The inclusion of algorithms was inevitable, due to the fact that we are now living under “the age of surveillance capitalism” (it’s also a book by Shoshana Zuboff, highly recommend) and also the era of quantifying literarily everything (21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari). Not only the apps or technological services have become highly profitable platforms for advertisement, but it has also evolved the complexity of the product itself. An example mentioned in Yuval Noah Harari’s book was how our music preferences can be quantified and used as data; the algorithm and AI can create music based on your most listened compositions, which might lead to the disappearance of “real” singers or song writers. This might sound intimidating, but there have been several rumours about how Spotify has been creating “fake” singers and suggesting them to different users on their platform. Our data and preferences have separated each user from each other as far as it has ever been, in other words, I could open my YouTube account and the home page would look completely different from my brother’s because of how complex YouTube algorithms have become. The evolution of algorithms and quantification of everything have brought more fear and uncertainty to our concerns over the future of technology. I also wonder what role can design play in the ever-growing complexity within these fields, and exactly how much power are designers able to hold in order to bring any change.
These snippets of my experiences and readings provided me some perspectives to how design and technology are heavily reliant on each other, and how the combination of both could bring such an impact to the mass. This has inspired me to delve further into my responsibilities and capabilities as a designer in the 21st century- to understand and consider the ethical, environmental, social, political perspectives along with the heavily networked + fast paced technological developments.
The Social Dilemma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaaC57tcci0&ab_channel=Netflix
21 Lessons for the 21st Century- Yuval Noah Harari
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism- Shoshana Zuboff
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