Experiencing The World In An Unmediated Manner Is The Most Beautiful Thing We Can Do
I just finished watching the Ian Spalter episode of the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design. It’s a known fact that scientists who are totally immersed in deep scientific research into the mysteries of life become religious. What they find in the smallest parts of atoms and the largest parts of the universe is so awesome that they start to believe in a higher force. I find it reassuring that the designer of one of the most popular apps on the planet, Ian Spalter, concludes his episode with the discovery that to experience the world unmediated, without any tools, just with our natural senses, is the most beautiful thing we can do. The designer that is responsible for zillions of hours of mediated experiences of the world concludes that the unmediated experience is unrivaled. The universe is not without irony.
In the episode, we can also see Aza Raskin. He is said to have designed the infinite scroll: the fact that your Insta feed never ends but always fills up with new pictures if you get to the bottom of the screen. He is very regretful of his invention. He realized that on a philosophical level, on a mental level of how we experience the world, he removed the stop signs of social media app use. He compares the experience of using Instagram to drinking alcohol. With alcohol, you have to fill another glass, walk to the fridge or some other action to start a new glass. Although this doesn’t stop hardcore alcoholics, people at least need to take action to get a new shot. Every time you start a new drink, you are conscious that you do so. With infinite scroll on Insta, you have no idea. The result is of course known. Millions of people spend zillions of hours too long in their feed.
Both social apps and phone software manufacturers are redesigning their software to combat this. But so far, social media use is not decreasing. The devil is out of the box.
I don't think Spalter’s story is about demonizing social media apps. They are a lot of fun, can connect people, are entertaining experiences and so forth. It’s wonderful if you can connect to people you love but circumstances prevent you from reaching out to them in real life. There is also research that says that people are getting depressed. But that is not what it’s all about. The story is about who we are as humans and what the best experience is. The story is about what happens if you spend too much time experiencing the world in a mediated manner, what happens to your mind, your spirit, your soul. The story is about the apex of human experience.
What is especially interesting in Spalter’s story is that he is a User Experience (UX) designer. He has the talent to design user experiences that are so engaging that more than a billion people use the app. That is an amazing talent. The irony is that because he is a talented UX designer, he sees that the unmediated experience is the best, that God is the ultimate UX designer. Because he spends his days looking at screens and designing screens, he sees that a world without screens has a far superior experience.
When I was studying architecture, I read a quote somewhere that we should only use a piece of nature to put up a house if it makes the location better. I saw it as a call to do the best design work you can do. I saw it as an ethical underpinning of the craft. I see smartphones and apps in the same way. Do these things make the experience of life better or worse?
The best human experience comes from mindfulness, from opening your mind, from opening your senses, from focus and attention. Somehow using a smartphone and social media apps seem the opposite of that. It seems we are moving in the opposite direction with that.
I am in the middle of an experiment. I also work as a UX designer just like Spalter. I also discovered that the best human experience is unmediated. For about a year now, I do not own a smartphone. It’s a test. An experiment to find the answer to the question: does not owning a smartphone and not using all the seamless apps make life better or worse? After a year of this experiment, I have come to the same conclusion as Spalter. The best experience of life is an unmediated experience. Talking to people instead of sending WhatsApp messages, looking with my eyes at things instead of through a lens to take pictures for Instagram, finding my way by following road signs instead of Google Maps, looking at the sky to see if there will be rain instead of the Yahoo weather app, even waking up from an alarm clock instead of a smartphone alarm is a way superior experience of life.
Pushing a physical button to set and snooze my Braun alarm clock is a superior user experience than touching the shiny glass surface of an iPhone. Taking photographs with my Fuji X70 is a far far more satisfying experience than the camera app on an iPhone. Putting on a record on my Onkyo CP-1050 turntable is far more enjoyable than scrolling through Spotify. Even pressing three times on the physical button 3 to get the letter f to send a text on my Punkt is more enjoyable than any predictive text input algorithm. If you look at user experiences in the largest possible way, on the level of our lives and not just on the level of the individual app and task and needs, most apps on phones score lower than other tools.
I’m not even starting on all the alerts that fuck up your flow. I’m not even mentioning all the time I have extra in a day because I’m not spending half of it glued to a glass screen.
I’m not saying that I can avoid using a smartphone for the rest of my life or that I need to try. I’m not saying that in the old days everything was better. In a couple of years, I cannot pay at the supermarket, open or start my car, open my house, pay a bill, log in to my mail account, or enter a music festival or board a plane without a smartphone. I’m just saying that from a user experience design perspective, the experience of life through a smartphone is not all that great. If you compare it to a mindful experience of life. I found that the mindful experience of the smallest things in life is far superior to a mediated experience of amazing stuff. A drop of water in a spider web on a Sunday morning in September is far more satisfying than a picture of Kim Kardashian’s ass on Instagram (is she even still a thing on Instagram? I wouldn't know).
It’s not just that the mediated experience on Instagram is not as good as a mindful unmediated experience, the experience of the reality on Instagram is an inaccurate depiction of life. Duh.
“It turns out that life […] is not what Instagram’s feed[…] images made us believe.” — Nicolo’ Andreula and Vera Sprothen
Should we abandon all technology? No. I just think Spalter discovered the apex of human experience: the unmediated mindful experience. Mediating an experience only makes it worse, less mindful. My hypothesis is that that realization will make him a better designer. It allows him to step outside design, outside the bubble of drooling over beautiful user interfaces. It allows him to see the bigger picture of what we should be doing: make life better, not worse, look at humans, not data. Technology should be a tool for the mind, not a tool to numb the mind. Now tools like Instagram are just tools to make money, to exploit the weaknesses of the mind. They are not elevating humanity, the human experience.
Can we start to design technology to elevate the human experience once again, to makes our lives better, not worse? Spalter’s story gives me some hope. An app designer that realizes that his app is not the apex of user experience and that there is a whole human experience outside is a good start. A user experience designer that doesn’t like smartphones and apps might just be the best one for the job.