From Frustration to Delight

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.