From Frustration to Delight

by Andrew McAfee on September 3, 2010

I’ve written before about Sherry Turkle’s new book on adolescents’ use of the Web, social media, and connected devices. Turkle thinks it might well be overuse; she sounds alarm bells about what the new tools could be doing to their emotional development, much like Nick Carr highlights what they could be doing to our intellect. I don’t know if she’s right or not, but I do find one aspect of her work striking: since when did we start to worry that the social kids were spending too much time with computers?

When I was an adolescent, there was a very strong negative correlation between the amount of time you spent in front of a computer and the number of your peers, male or female, who wanted to hang out with you (trust me; my field work on this matter was extensive). That is just not the case any more. These days you’re not a weirdo if you know too much about digital technologies; you’re a weirdo if you don’t know enough about them.

How would you react to someone who didn’t know what Facebook was, or how to use Google? If they weren’t Amish, or very poor and rural, wouldn’t you suspect them of being part of a particularly strange cult (after all, most cults have websites now) or a family that decided at least a dozen years ago to go live off the land?

In a short space of time, a few digital resources have become something between enormously popular and pervasive in America. These include Google, Facebook, the Apple iCosystem, Amazon, and Twitter. These are not resources for the geek elite; they’re used by essentially everyone. They’re collectively responsible for a huge amount of computer sales and screen time. More fundamentally, they’ve turned screen time from a signal of geekiness, a job requirement, or a necessary evil into a straightforward aspect of modern existence.

How did this happen? It wasn’t by fiat; we don’t live in North Korea. And it wasn’t by hype or clever marketing. Those help spark demand, not sustain it; you can’t fool all the people all the time. Network effects were important in explaining the success of some of these, as were brilliant strategies for building and exploiting platforms, but I want to highlight something else all these resources have in common: they all delight their users. They don’t delight all of them every time, of course, and some constituencies very much dislike each of them, but overall I don’t think it’s too strong a claim.

They do so, I believe, by being some combination of simple, social, and useful. But I don’t want to dive deep here into an examination of technology delight. I just want to stress that it now exists, and that it’s a wonderful, unexpected, and underappreciated phenomenon.

For most of their history, information technologies entranced geeks and dismayed the rest of humanity. The geeks built the kinds of hardware and software that they wanted to use, even when they were trying to build for others. It’s only in the past few years —   the eras of the Web and especially Web 2.0 —  that technologists have escaped from that trap and started delivering resources that delight normal people rather than alienating them.

This is without question a good thing. Turkle, Carr, and the other tech pessimists might have some good points, but we shouldn’t let them obscure the big picture. The world of technology has passed an important tipping point: it’s expected to delight us now, not frustrate us. Users are increasingly going to expect and demand that the techs they use make sense to them. This will be the case at home and (more slowly) at work; once normal people see that information technologies don’t have to be frustrating and alienating, they’re going to lose patience with those that are.

This feels to me like a one-way street. I can’t see how we’ll ever retreat back to technologies that alienate us, just like we won’t go back to buying cars that break down a lot or cathode ray tube TVs. We can look forward to more, different, and greater delights from technology, rather than more tools built by geeks for geeks. How is this not great news?

Do you agree with me that we’re now entering an age of delight from technology, and that we’re not going back?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you think.

Gary Oftedahl September 3, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Based on my wife and my experience with the iPad, your comment on “entering an age of delight” strikes home. We all too often mourn and reflect on the good old days. My wife and I were recently discussing the changes in our lives since our exposure over a year ago to the iPhone, and the more recent acquisition of the iPad on April 3. (Interesting how certain days resonate and stick in my memory, and others fade)

As we were perusing the many wondrous sites available on the iPad, sitting comfortably in our recliners (Flipboard, USA Today, NYTimes Crossword, Twitter, Facebook, Appstream, Fotopedia, etc.), she commented on how “bad” it was we were spending so much time on the device.

My comment was that it wasn’t “bad” or “good” it was just what it was. I concur that while it may be nothing more than a “big iPod” the iPad is part of the new technology which is allowing us to enter the age of delight you describe. I must admit, I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m enjoying the ride…even as a crusty aging baby boomer

Olivier Amprimo September 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Dear Andrew,

One comment is on the points raised by Turckle and Carr’s points. I think their implicit assumption is that people over consume the services in reference. Like any thing, too much is bad but I am not quite sure the majority of us are over consuming. They seem to overlook that our attention span is limited so that consuming more Internet stuff means consuming less newspaper or TV. Anyway, what is behind is a requirement for more intelligence in the way we consume information. That is the purpose of Information literacy.

Another comment is on the delight vs. frustration of technology. Yes, the trend is towards more intuitive services yet most of us still have to deal with painful tools, as the replacement cycles, particularly in organisations, are 3 to 5 years for a variety of reasons, including amortization, senior management awareness and comfort levels.

The network effect you mention refers to the massification / democratisation of technologies. “Cool” technologies become mainstream, in other terms the form progressively the mass market. With the social web and now the mobile web, we have seen a tremendous growth of services, applications and devices that create choice and therefore competition. One can do the same action via 5 to 10 different services. One can consume the same information via distinct and competing devices as well as under different formats. The market is driven by demand, not by supply so that suppliers have to invest in marketing to attract consumers, design to reduce the adoption barrier and find new channels and business models. That is very familiar. What looks like a point of no return in other, more mature industries is just a step. Markets consolidate and competition shrinks to the point the supply side dominates again. Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff have recently written along those lines at Wired recently.

Wilson Zorn September 7, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Strange, I feel it’s gone from delight to frustration. I find the notion that technology delights to be borderline-shocking, but perhaps I am simply too jaded. Rather I am ongoing more and more disappointed by the bugs in each new technology introduced and the fact that so often some large portion of these bugs will simply never be addressed. It seems that the technology industry is full-force taken by the notion that propelled MS Windows and Office (and by no means just those) to rapid adoption: release it no matter how crappy so long as it does a few dramatic productivity-gaining things very well. Then focus on maintaining the edge in NEW features while never resolving the many things that make a piece of hardware or software difficult and/or annoying each day of use.

Regardless of my own disenchantment with most hardware and software, it seems to me that just as people buy and discard cheap apps and try hardware as it comes out that more often people simply drift from one thing to another. I believe it was Rogen who promoted the notion just recently of “release and move on” rather than trying to refine or polish something until it shines. And economically and culturally (and especially as those intersect these days) that makes solid sense. But most people I know complain about the problems on their iPhones and so iPads and so forth after mere moments of delight, betraying that this delight is not sustainable on the technology as we see it. I well grant that tools are not being built by geeks for geeks but they are being built with “just barely good enough to ship and with enough marketable features to sell for now.” And what has changed in the meantime has been that need has indeed come into the picture, as it is fair to say that it is difficult, both culturally and practically, to not employ many of the emergent technologies. I “need” to be on Facebook to connect to casual acquaintances, I “need” to have a mobile device that works. These needs are urgencies for most, and legitimately so. So young and old I posit we are adopting out of these needs rather than “delight.”

rharbridge September 8, 2010 at 1:44 am

First let me state that I agree with you completely. I delight (and love) technology a ridiculous amount. I also find it very difficult to think negatively or pessimistically about technology.

So let’s try…

One thing I would point out here is that ‘delight’ isn’t always healthy for you.

What really is being stressed here is the same argument that is declared everywhere: Too much of anything can be bad for you. (Addictions for Farmville, or World of Warcraft are the obvious ones, but social media over use just like TV over use can be bad for physical health as well.)

To further defend those kinds of articles/thoughts:

I think it is worth thinking about from time to time the impact adoption and more importantly dependency on new tools has on populations. Technically if we had not had a worldwide industrial revolution would we be in a global climate crisis? (On the other side: if we were, how would we know?)

Realistically momentum continues to gain around Technology as does our adoption and dependency upon it. I am glad however that periodically people share opinions on potential consequences or negatives of increased dependence on technology. Especially because it is so difficult for me to think of any negatives Technology brings when leveraged effectively or designed well.

So can we go back? Sure. Will we? Not unless something completely unexpected happens.

We will look back though. It will be interesting to see how many people think back as the ‘good old days’ hundreds of years from now. :)

Always enjoy your thoughts though and agree wholeheartedly that technology is empowering, delightful, and (as Wilson suggests) frustrating. Just like perhaps our families, friends, work and lives can be. :)

Technology Evangelist,
Richard Harbridge

Deb Orton September 10, 2010 at 1:16 am

Andrew, I could not agree more. It seem each generation “worries” about the impact of change. We have entered an entirely different level of connection through and with technology. I simply marvel at how much 17 and 20 year old sons know due to their use of technology and the availability of information to them. I am no more worried about this generation, than my parents worried about us.

Maid Service Mississauga September 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm

I personally believe we’re still adapting to the technological invasion on our lives that happened so quickly. Looking at myself over last 10 years I come to a realization, that I’m becoming more and more practical, the technology itself is becoming more like a tool, than a goal in itself. I’m spending less time using technology, more and more in analog realm (real conversations face-to-face, playing offline games with friends, striving for limiting online time with people I can spend time with offline).

At the same time I need to be more and more tolerant of short attention span when talking with younger generation, quite often I was among group of people and all 6 of them were in one room, all with laptops and on facebook – at the same time. I think I’m too oldschool to feel it’s all okay. Missing out on opportunity to talk and interact with real people because you’re checking out some pics… Come on!

We are entering an age of delight from technology – there’s less and less geekiness about the software and hardware, it’s more intuitive with every iteration, and feels like a natural part of our civilisation – a spoon, hammer, shoe, ipad, wifi… In that sense it’s age of delight, but the transition period is frustrating.

Ms Office 2007 June 16, 2011 at 4:06 am

inevitable setbacks

Funny Jokey September 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Andrew, you are a gem. I wonder how come you could write so well like in this post. I wish i could do the same like you did funny quotes. I get to read some funny stuff also on your blog for my lol

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