I am a huge believer in the future of smartphone photography. I see a future where everybody captures everybody’s special moments and we all work together to share these moments for the betterment of our world and society. But it would be naive to think that there is not an equally dark side to this future. As mobile devices become more ubiquitous so does their ability to capture those moments that we really would rather not be captured. The more we try to stop people capturing these moments the more we make it a “thing” and the more people will try to capture them and the further they will be spread. Its human nature.
So this weekend there was a very unfortunate incident with a young teenage girl at an Eminem concert in Dublin, Ireland. I won’t go into the details but they are particularly nasty and involve the photography of an under-age sex act and subsequent distribution via social media of what is essentially (and legally) child pornography. For a while the hastag #slanegirl was trending globally, indication that a large proportion of the internet were both viewing and distributing these images and helping spread the story.
As much as I think that smartphone technology and the design of social media encourages these incidents to be recorded and spread worldwide I also think that it is so sad that our culture encouraged people to stand by, watch and even record the incident. It is the same sadness that I feel when I consider the people who shared and helped spread the incident online, of which there were 10’s of 1000’s.
As a father myself with a young daughter I really worry about what this incident will do to the girl’s mental well being and what effects it may have on her future.
Technology is designed for cognitive offloading, it is designed to become an extension of ourselves. Specifically well designed technology, like Twitter, is designed to be used on impulse. Acting on impulse without thinking is an evolutionary developed characteristic and can be seen in the simple example of fight or flight. Sometimes we make the wrong choice and our choice backfires. Slanegirl made the wrong choice and it will resonate with her forever.
However, the users of the technologies (smartphone and twitter) also made impulsive choices without thinking. These impulsive choices will also be recorded forever. Twitter specifically is designed to make sharing of these events easy, but it also impresses a sense of urgency and group think on its users. Trends are time bound – twitter tells us to be a successful tweeter we must make timely commentary on relevant content. When people see such commentary trending they get caught up and ultimately become part of the trend which has an additional effect of recruiting others to the trend. Maybe later, once the trend subsides, some of these people can think about their actions, but at this stage its too late, the digital footprint is set in stone. There is no going back, and I wonder how they feel right now. And as the story proceeds, I wonder how they will deal with the knowledge that they are no involved in the story itself, and possibly even criminally involved (as other outlets suggest http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/what-happens-when-hundreds-of-people-retweet-child-porn).
There is a dark side to this technology, we all need to think before we use, even if it goes against our evolutionary coding, because what we do will stay with us forever. Technology can be designed to exploit our weaknesses as a UX professional I know these tricks of the trade all too well (c.f. darkpatterns.org ).
Perhaps we need evolution 2.0, a way of looking at technology and assessing its value and purpose before using it. For example we can look at our smartphones and Twitter accounts and think critically about what we are doing and the wider long term implications of our actions.