Published April 21st, 2020
by Steven Clark

The recent failure of multiple high profile apps reminded me of something I wrote not too long ago. Unfortunately, I’m unable to link to it – I pulled the post after being threatened multiple times with legal action by its subject. I’m sure nothing I wrote was convincingly litigious, but I had a baby on the way and didn’t fancy wasting precious time defending a blog in court. And while I remember, shout out to the police officer that phoned me and asked nicely if I would take it down at their behest, only to be told no. I’m sure the conversation felt like a worthwhile use of their time and training. 

Anyway, here’s the part I thought of:

“I’m occasionally asked why I care about the Gary Vee wannabes and the great howling maw of charlatans that traffic in hustle, disruption and superficial gestures towards popular social movements now that they’re widely accepted. Besides my own general entertainment, it’s because it doesn’t have to be this way. Some professionals in this industry, of varying disciplines, have spent the better part of two decades trying to convince people that websites, marketing and apps are magic and there seems to be no shortage of boomer technophobes and email-virus-downloaders in positions of power or influence willing to believe them.”

I think one of the most frustrating things about working in technology, or any field adjacent to it, can be knowing its limitations. Technology is a wonderful thing, I’m glad we’re all agreed, but when you boil it down, designing digital solutions usually amounts to nothing more than processing, interpreting and/or displaying data in interesting or useful ways. We’ve talked before about our now loose definition of what constitutes innovation and today’s culture of “solutionism”. What we haven’t really discussed is the expectations this helps to create in design professionals and business (or even world) leaders. There exists an assumption that an ability to create digital solutions for everyday problems can be applied to anything and everything, even drastically scaled up to address global crises. And now that we’re in the middle of one, it’s probably a good time to think about how and why this happens.

One of the greatest (great meaning large or immense, I mean it in the pejorative sense) innovations of the 20th Century was the practice of using propaganda techniques developed during wartime to market mass-produced products to western peoples. This new field of Public Relations made use of Freudian psychoanalysis and converted populations primarily concerned with fulfilling their basic needs into ones where the views and desires of individuals were paramount. The internet and digital products that we most often associate with it, namely social media platforms, have helped accelerate and globalise this phenomenon, allowing for mass communication and greater access to goods across borders like never before imagined. Entirely new fields of marketing have surfaced which enable and encourage non-stop data harvesting. A practice that exists to make micro-targeting people a viable reality – a necessity in this ever-increasing hyper-individualised consumer culture that we have thanklessly inherited. This mass media machine that manufactures demand (and consent) has steadily become more and more a part of our everyday lives and jobs, so much so that a new cottage industry has emerged to sell you the virtues of logging off and techniques for coping with prolonged exposure. The irony in the first line of every new ad voiceover being some variation of “we know it’s hard to switch off” and your Facebook normie friends talking about “unplugging from screen time” is that this state of affairs is mostly by design. Who knew that having your brain permanently plugged into a Generation Game-style conveyor belt of shit products and even shitter takes wouldn’t be particularly good for you? For clear evidence that it isn’t, read more of my posts.

How your brain stores bad takes

Now when it comes to designing digital solutions, like anything else, there’s a distinct difference between identifying what people or organisations need and what they will buy. For example, imagine you want to build a product to digitise and streamline employee grievance processes, so you start by talking to C-suite contacts and some of their employees. At this point, you might discover that a key problem with this approach is that leaders are not always in tune with what their people are willing to use, even if they show an interest. Many leaders are also victims of the same delusion I mentioned earlier and think complex problems in their business – even those largely caused by their managerial incompetence or even a lack of funds – can be mitigated with an app. Let’s say the app is developed and sold to a few companies, and at first it sees some modest activity from their employees. Yet some time later, we discover that the platform has been mostly abandoned. Why? Because, when it was being used, nothing submitted by users was actioned in a significant way. This might seem obvious, but an end to end process can’t always address root issues within an organisation in a meaningful way. Like most digital solutions, it only processes data and communicates relevant information to various parties. Whether anyone acts on that information or cares enough to engage with it is another story. And that’s fine – apps aren’t implemented to directly address problems like apathy, interpersonal conflict or office politics, even if doing so is a hoped-for byproduct. But these things can become insurmountable challenges for the thing you’ve invested time and money in to have any real impact or long term viability.

Think about how often you’ve worked somewhere and were forced to use an application or system you hated or couldn’t grasp easily to perform some arbitrary function of your job. Solutions like the one in my example can end up being implemented largely because they give management something to point to and say that a larger, often more complex, problem has been addressed with minimal effort on their part. It’s probably comforting to have this outlook, as it absolves someone important from doing more work or being held accountable for something (and we wouldn’t want that!) but this is a depressing reality that permeates throughout all kinds of organisations. It can happen anywhere, even in places where employees are clear and demonstrably correct about the root causes of problems they face every day, and the possibility of those issues being addressed by anything digital is minimal at best. 

Maybe you’re not in the business of designing anything of your own volition. What if the extent of your role in a project is just to create solutions for briefs provided by a large organisation with sizable budgets? That’s where digital consultancies like Deloitte and Accenture usually come in. These businesses are paid insane amounts of cash, usually hundreds of pounds per staff member per day, to plant dedicated teams of digital specialists in various businesses to work on internal projects. And I’m sure they deliver, with considerable success. But, there have been a handful of reports recently that suggest at least some of these projects turned into complete clusterfucks and massive money pits for the organisations that hired them. Only a couple of weeks ago, the guy in charge of a jobs website developed by Deloitte for the state of Florida had to apologise unreservedly to the public, calling it a “fiasco’ and informing potential candidates – many of whom are newly unemployed thanks to the Coronavirus – that they’d be reverting to paper applications for the time being. Before this colossal increase in unemployment that resulted in a surge of users (which admittedly would be hard for any digital solution to handle), the employment service had been insisting candidates browse the website using Internet Explorer to avoid potential issues, a browser no longer officially supported by its own developer. Around this time last year, a wonderfully detailed account of a “cyber-revamp” project involving the car rental company Hertz and Accenture was published. Hertz claimed that Accenture reneged on building the agreed functionality outlined in the contract – like responsive design – in an effort to later charge more for its inclusion:

“Accenture also failed to test the software, Hertz claimed, and when it did do tests “they were seriously inadequate, to the point of being misleading.” It didn’t do real-world testing, we’re told, and it didn’t do error handling. On top of that, despite having specifically requested that the consultants provide a style guide in an interactive and updateable format – rather than a PDF – Accenture kept providing the guide in PDF format only, Hertz complained. When Hertz confronted the consultants about the PDF problem, guess what the response was? Yep, it wanted “hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional fees” to cover the cost.”

Hertz is presumably still in court after filing suit against Accenture last April in an attempt to recoup some or all of the original $32 million project costs and the additional $10 million in fees. It’s worth thinking about what it must take to come forward with a story like this, accepting that some blame may be apportioned to you or your colleagues for the immense amount of money spent with very little – or nothing at all – to show for it. It can’t be hard to imagine that for every organisation that goes public with a story like this, there are several more that didn’t. 

Hop in! We’re building an app

Solutionism is also not unique to digital design or technology. Uncircumcised and self-aggrandising graphic designer Stefan Sagmiester has taken a punt at designing compact packaging for food parcels in refugee camps. When the packaging is done with, it can be filled with sand or soil to create an alternative to bricks and used to build a temporary shelter. This stylised graphic of something that I’d guess hasn’t been field-tested in any way is presented as an ingenious concept, albeit with a caveat that Sagmiester is looking to partner with organisations to help make it a reality. Don’t be fooled though – with this statement, Sagmiester is washing his hands of responsibility. If whoever’s in charge decides not to implement the meticulously-researched invention he conceptualised in isolation without partnering with or funding any orgs that might ultimately facilitate it, then that’s their loss. Is it possible to even define a problem, never mind a solution, when you’re seemingly far removed from anyone familiar with the reality of the situation within refugee camps? Also, doesn’t a myopic focus on making packaging for meals more compact, cost-efficient and “useful” sort of distract from the larger socio-political issue of why these camps exist in the first place? Nah, I’m sure it’s fine. Thanks for the shelter made of cardboard and sand, Saggy Boy, but now that it’s raining my roof’s about to droop like your middle-aged penis [NSFW].

But refugees? That’s old shit. What if we had something more pertinent or apocalyptic we could tackle? That’s where hackathons tend to come in, engaging with local tech communities to collaborate and solve problems, usually with the public good in mind. Now, hackathons can and have produced useful concepts, particularly when the challenge set is reasonable and the remit includes something digital does well, like data gathering. These are typically big events, conducted by authorities or groups that have some expertise on an issue and are hopefully knowledgeable and practical enough to set a reasonable goal for participants. Of course, sometimes they aren’t – sometimes they become forced fun or an excuse to throw tech at a problem so vast or vague that, beyond the mental exercise and potential networking opportunity, there are no worthwhile outcomes. The prevalence of events like these inspired the Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon, founded by two NYU graduates:

“Lavigne and Winger-Bearskin, who met at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, became disenchanted with hackathons when they noticed that many aimed to “hack” world hunger or income inequality in one weekend.”

The event consciously asks participants to create solutions addressing things that objectively aren’t problems, something tech industries worldwide regularly do without irony:

“‘Is a need being filled or is the need manufactured and then constantly reinforced?’ Lavigne asked. ‘The Stupid Hackathon is the perfect framework for satirizing the whole tech community.’ Three Stupid Hackathon teams set out to create wearables that detect boners. Categories for hacks included “edible electronics,” “commodities to end climate change” and “Ayn Rand.” Participants, in general, ignored them.”

What may be worse than an unironic bad hackathon is when organisations announce their intention to conduct – or reveal the outcomes of – a hackathon they’ve held internally. MIT announced their 48-hour beat the pandemic virtual hackathon at the end of March to address the Coronavirus crisis and, uh, “beat the pandemic”, I guess. I imagine it’ll be any day now. Closer to home, service design company Snook have been known to post at length about how they can apply their design-thinking prowess to the climate crisis. I expect just not using all of the post-its required to do so would ultimately be better for the environment. Organising in-house hackathons with your colleagues or group, particularly when focused on problems of this magnitude, ignores the whole larger community aspect of hackathons. Much like Sagmiester, you’re most likely intentionally broadcasting to the world that you’ve decided you somehow have the resources, influence or expertise to tackle these big issues in some way. If only someone important would pick up the phone and ask – or more realistically pay – for your help in doing so.

And look – I get it. We all want to help. We all want to clap for our heroes. We all want to feel like we’re not paralysed by the scope and scale of the issues that surround us and that our knowledge and experience is in some way helpful or applicable. Broadly speaking, this attitude is a good thing – an impetus many people have to impact and improve the world around us. Too often though, this becomes an exercise in self-promotion and enrichment – the real intent being to raise the profile of an organisation or individual and cement them as somehow capable of addressing these huge scale problems in the minds of dullards. If successful, many of these dullards who happen to be in positions of wealth or power will then, either naively or cynically, engage with these people in heavily-publicised photo ops in an effort to distance themselves from any responsibility to act on given issues. This is often despite them arguably having the funds or influence to do so. Why does this happen? Most likely because they lack the desire to act themselves, as this would require spending or doing far more than they, their funders or their preferred constituents would consider reasonable. Let’s also not understate the ego or delusion required to sincerely believe you, your app development business or your local tech community have the ability to solve complicated, often political, problems at a national or global scale with apps or “design thinking” – even with the potential help of world governments or venture capital. Particularly in the face of supposed tech consultancy giants like Deloitte and Accenture apparently failing to successfully develop a working careers website for a single US state or building a functioning digital solution for car rentals.

Imagine Black Mirror was making this point

We are a hemisphere run by people who are just about tech literate enough to make PowerPoint presentations, now permanently stagnant thanks to our propensity to communicate workshopped messaging in attempts to enrich ourselves or protect the powerful rather than take any action that might result in progress. The responsibility lies instead with you, the individual consumer, to change your habits – particularly when it comes to consumption – despite nearly all media featuring targeted messages heavily suggesting that your consumption continues unimpeded. New digital solutions are often conceptualised and introduced to facilitate this perceived need for habit change. We don’t need to worry about how our incompetence and mismanagement is stressing out our staff, we’ll just encourage them to use a meditation app. We don’t need to properly fund the NHS, we’ll just build apps that encourage people to eat better, exercise more and access community services. We don’t need to intervene to stop any of the one hundred companies currently producing 71% of the world’s pollution, we just need to produce tech that encourages the public to save and conserve energy. Of course, to some extent this is reasonable – the average person’s habits will need to change to address many important challenges – but by and large, these technocratic solutions are a distraction on the road to armageddon. Tinkering around the edges and offsetting responsibility to distract from the larger problem – that someone much wealthier than you is benefiting from all of this at the expense of any future worth living in. And thanks largely to the success of public relations, most people you know probably love them anyway.

Digital Digital Marketing Marketing Product Design

by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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