Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


I recently enjoyed viewing a recorded talk by Adaptive Path interaction designer, Ben Fullerton. In his talk titled, “Designing for Solitude” Ben explains the importance of solitude, privacy and disconnecting from technology and media. He gives us a brief history on solitude and points to many historical figures who used it to their spiritual and creative advantage. Ben finishes his talk by asking “Are we afraid of the dark?”. In other words, have we gotten to the point where we are we so immersed in technology, that the anxiety we feel from being disconnected is more than we can handle?

This is a challenging question, especially for those of us whose job might include a sense of guilt around designing more anxiety-generating products and services. Print and packaging designers have the environment to ponder over. Digital designers may unconsciously worry about our inner environment and how they might be affecting people’s mental health. With problems like ADHD, acute anxiety disorder, addiction and an ever-increasing separation from our natural world, these concerns are real.

We have a constant stream of devices and “clutter” competing for our attention. Even if you vow never again to own a phone or computer, you’ll find it hard to avoid the television which ironically, is used in many public places to fill the empty/quiet space so desperately needed in our busy and information-saturated lives. Bars, restaurants, health clubs, doctor’s offices, gas pumps…even government buildings now have the TV turned on, eliminating any “quiet time” we may encounter as we wait for our number to be called. In the past, these distractions were welcomed. Now with so much already talking to us, they’ve become a nuisance—a distraction we find almost impossible to ignore.

In short, our lives are filled with clutter and there seems to be no escape.

Disconnecting is good for us. It makes us more settled, allows us to evaluate our situation more clearly and lets creative ideas and solutions rise to the surface. Depending on what we’re doing while we’re disconnected (going for a walk, painting, playing with the dog, etc.), it can also help remove us from the world of thoughts, which is actually quite refreshing considering the amount of time we spend communicating and reading news, email, blogs, tweets, etc.

It takes courage to disconnect and break from the clutter of media and technology. Last year, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat which I enjoyed doing, in part, to disconnect. Unlike previous experiences, this time I had problems settling into the profound silence one finds in such a place. As a remedy, a teacher suggested I go to my car and check my email! He recognized the difficulty of disconnecting and his prescription was to give me a little dose of modern life so I could relax again. Just one more hit, man!

Seeking solitude is becoming more and more important in today’s always-on world. But maybe we should go to the source of the problem and ask “If so many of us are connected all the time—whether it be email, social media, print media, phone, radio, TV or all of the above—why is it that we are?” After all, what really are the rewards to being connected all the time? Does it make us any happier?

It reminds me of the old saying, “No one on their deathbed ever said ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” Maybe it should be revised for a 21st century audience to be, “No one on their deathbed ever said ‘I wish I’d posted more tweets.’”

Dr. Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona showed that people who have more substantive, deep conversations throughout the day are happier than those who spend more time engaging in small talk (i.e. social media). And in an article for the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque shares a hypothesis. He proposes that “despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.” Might technology and social media not do what they—seemingly—promise to do?

What they seem to do is help fulfill our innate desire to connect with others. Like food, water, sex and shelter, we have a need to be with each other. We’re social animals (some more than others). But with the advent of social media like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, we’ve put ourselves into social over-drive. Is it possible that new media is pushing our biological buttons just like candy pushes our buttons for the taste of salt and sugar, pornography for sex and McMansions for our desire to have a large roof over our heads? Has man-made invention once again made us into a lab rat?

Our clutter and connection to media and technology will only increase as advertising finds its way into new nooks and crannies and as one device talks to another device, which talks to all your “friend’s” devices, and so on… Everything is talking to us. It’s like the profound and memorable opening to the movie Contact, where we’re traveling into out space away from Planet Earth. As we move farther away from Earth, all the human-generated radio and TV broadcast noise slowly diminishes.

Certainly, the majority of technology and media aren’t what we would consider “harmful”. I don’t want to bore anyone counting the ways technology and media have benefited us. But when singularly relied on for authentic social interaction and re-creation, technology and media can quickly take on a very shallow and trivial role, sending us into dis-ease. They have the potential to clutter-up our lives with unnecessary anxiety, “priorities” and information tid-bits. Through repeated use, they can become what feels like a security blanket. They’re experts at creating value where there wasn’t any before.

In truth, we are still learning how to live with a lot of new technology—Facebook, Twitter, location-based apps, smart phones… It’s still too early to say whether or not these technologies are fads or here to stay. One thing is for sure, we have an exponentially larger amount of “clutter” in our lives than people just 15 years ago, ever had. How we manage it is the responsibility of each of us.

We need to evaluate what adds real value to our daily lives and throw away the rest. My own practice includes giving away books that are collecting dust, canceling magazine subscriptions, deleting RSS feeds that no longer interest me, making it a rule to follow only a few on Twitter and cutting out anything else I consider of little value. As much as I enjoy interacting and working with technology and media, I know that in order to allow other things in life, I must make some room first.

Related Posts:
The Human-Tech Experiment


2 Comment

  1. 1 Molly

    Great article. Good to know others are pondering these issues as well.

  1. 1 Tweets that mention Clutter | Studio Notes - Musings on design matters, technology and culture -- Topsy.com
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