Where tech aligns

Digital Calories

Software developers keep dishing out apps rife with salts and sugars. Who will serve us wine instead?

The internet today is similar to a Big Gulp. A huge cup of colorized water that can come in any flavor you want, with an infinite slurp of sugary dopamine hits.

We can think of the content we consume online as food – but we also have to think of what Marshall McLuhan taught us with “the medium is the message” – we need to think of the type of medium as part of the content-diet.

After I woke up from the sugar coma, where did I go? Is there an exit door in this Wonka Nightmare factory? Does Hotel California serve something else besides fentanyl-laced feedback loops of identity politics? I tried to escape and the last thing I remember, I was running through the tabs as I had to find that post back in the page I was before. “Relax,” said the night man, “we are programmed to receive great targeted-ads. You can check out your cookies any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Where would you go if you could leave the candy store? Back in Vienna before the first Great War, there was a strong culture of cafes – all types of people would gather there to discuss, exchange and, many times, vigorously disagree on ideas. Vienna cafes were built as places for ideas – as we transitioned to the digital world, the digital architecture hasn’t been aimed at building online-places like these.

And we don’t have to build places with the aim of being “non-addictive.” Our digital content diet has to be turned to oatmeal instead of using powerful chopping machines, ovens, stoves, and fridges to come up with consumable content. If the consumable medium could be either vegan fruit salad or freshly hunted elk meat, would be great for humanity – all I’m asking is if we could just have something that isn’t one giant high-fructose corn syrup fountain. The question is if there is the possibility we can have a nice wine instead of a world in which there’s only soda. In the Viennese cafes you could choose from a big list of options of sweets, but they still also had actual food.

French fries are a great example of addicting food – it hits all the sensors on your tongue. It’s soft on the inside, it’s fried on the outside; though mostly salty, with the proper dipping sauce, whether ketchup or a Wendy’s Frosty, it can also be sweet. This is one of the formulas to make a product addictive – hit as many sensors as you can. When talking about digital products, many savvy entrepreneurs would ignore the idea of making non-addictive products, because then you would lose all retention from the users. Here, I’m not advocating for discontinuing all addictive digital products in favor of non-addictive ones. What I’m saying is that all we have in the digital realm is french fries; we don’t have its wine equivalent, which can be very addictive as well, and a great business, but is at least more rarified. This is a matter of high culture against low culture; and software developers are not building products that could achieve the former.

For instance, can we build dating apps that don’t cater to our base impulses, with successions of one-night stands? Is there a way to reconfigure the whole format toward long-term monogamy? An app so improved would not let you chat with more than one match at a time. The filters for a user’s preferences would make room for nuance and realistic expectations as opposed to aspirational platitudes. Swiping can become a habit, similar to rushing through a lurid wax museum. Few apps seem intent on breaking that habit and letting its users find the one person with whom they can build a life.

Social media apps generally rely too much on documentation. Users attend a concert with phones ready for the right moment, to take ownership of what should be a collective experience. What if we could use social media to regain that original intention? Let’s say someone designs a party event app that lets people in a given area and with shared interests meet in person; so much so, that they forget the very device that brought them together in the first place. Some of the most interesting innovations come from dissatisfaction with rather than an appreciation for a medium. I believe we’ll see founders that hate social media so much that they will start party apps, with the intention that people throw the best parties and get a bunch of different people to have a great time – all so people stop staring at their phones.

We have seen hardware products for reading books and taking notes that embody this approach, and in the realm of software there are tools-for-thought apps carrying out this ethos. But I think there’s the possibility to rethink and redesign most of our software in a way that we can have digital monuments.

Can we build platforms for data infrastructure and feel confident they’ll be looked at with the amazement that today we look at the aqueducts from Ancient Rome? Can we build streaming channels that channel glory like the Colosseum? The answer is uncertain. Modern architecture has taken on a sameness that software developers would do well to avoid. Glass slabs and black monoliths have taken over the financial districts in Frankfurt, São Paulo, Mexico City, Shanghai, and London. Indeed, their resemblance to the black glass monolith we carry in our pockets, and which consumes much of our waking life, seems hardly coincidental.

It would be a tragedy to have a unilingual internet. A world in which all local traditional clothing gets washed away, and every meal is the same generic recipe as everywhere else. It would be tragic to see all the digital content go towards the same direction of being candied. It would still be tragic even if our deep fried digital content became the finest of wines. But, still more tragic, the digital world is a great distance away from the vineyard, and subsisting entirely on Big Gulps.

There are some signs of hope, such as long-form podcasting. Yet even here they have to be promoted through these sugary clips to entice you to listen to the whole thing. When was the last time you were sold a wine with the mechanism to take a shot of a sugar-laced version of the product? This is to illustrate how the current market is so over saturated with sugary mediums that you have to engage in it to pull people out into a long-form medium that doesn’t destroy your attention span.

The new paradigms of computing, virtual reality, and audio assistants offer completely different options. One is a completely encapsulating medium strapped to your face, maybe with headphones or even a sensory deprivation tank, all for the purpose of setting up walls against the intrusions of external stimuli. On the other hand, the audio-assistants offer a technology that completely fades into the background to the point of formless ambience the sounds are more humane and non-intrusive; enabling relaxation and focus, even as privacy implications lurk beneath the noise

Maybe there’s a third, narrower way out. Maybe we don’t submerge ourselves into the experience machine, theorized by Robert Nozick, floating around aimlessly for the rest of our lives, but rather use virtual reality for augmenting certain areas of our remote work. Maybe we don’t bug all our rooms with intelligent devices that listen to us every waking hour (both smart speakers and our smartphones), but we have devices with removable microphones and cameras, to be plugged in when needed. Maybe we can have private keys to our locally encrypted smart speakers that don’t need to connect to the internet but to a locally stored memory. Maybe that way we can have this mediums without total loss of privacy – that would be closer to the idea Vannevar Bush thought off back in 1945:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Maybe we can figure out a way to build beautiful places, both in the real world and in the digital realm that resist the cold uniformity of our financial districts. Consider a digital realm that breaks from base habits, from isolation, and empty calories; that engenders more stable behaviors akin to the contemplation felt when walking into a museum or a church, that is more human and less remote. Maybe we can build places online that serve content in a way that doesn’t feel like fast food and we can finally enjoy the equivalent to a glass of wine, in our digital-content diet.

Lots more where that came from.