Speaking at FIfFKon 18 in Berlin, Germany

I was invited to be a panellist at this year’s FIfFKon in Berlin, Germany. While I said hi to the people at All Systems Go!, my main objective in Berlin was to attend the annual conference of the FIfF, the association for people in computing caring about peace and social responsibility.

The most interesting talk for me was held by Rainer Mühlhoff on the incapacitation if the user. The claim, very broadly speaking, is that providing a usable interface prevents your users from learning how to operate the machine properly. Or in other words: Making an interface for dumb people will attract dumb people and not make them smarter. Of course, he was more elaborate than that.

He presented Android P which nudges the user into a certain behaviour. In Android, you get to see for how long you have used an app and encourages you to stop. Likewise, Google nudges you into providing your phone number for account recovery. The design of that dialogue makes it hard to hit the button to proceed without providing the number. Those nudges do not prevent a choice to be made, they just make it more likely that the user makes one particular choice. The techniques are borrowed from public policy making and commercial settings. So the users are being an instrument themselves rather than a sovereign entity.

Half way through his talk he made a bit of a switch to “sealed interfaces” and presented the user interface of a vacuum cleaner. In the beginning, the nozzle had a “bristly” or “flat” setting, depending on whether you wanted to use it on a carpet or a flat surface. Nowadays, the pictogram does not show the nozzle any more, but rather the surface you want to operate on. Similarly, microwave ovens do not show the two levers for wattage and time any more, but rather full recipes like pizza, curry, or fish.
The user is prevented from understanding the device in its mechanical details and use it as an instrument based on what it does. Instead the interaction is centred on the end purpose rather than using the device as a tool to achieve this end. The commercialisation of products numbs people down in their thinking. We are going from “Don’t make me think” to “Can you do the thinking for me” as, he said, we can see with the newer Android interfaces which tries to know already what you intend to do.

Eventually, you adapt the technology to the human rather than adapting the human to the technology. And while this is correct, he says, and it has gotten us very far, it is wrong from a social theory point of view. Mainly because it suggests that it’s a one-way process whereas it really is an interdependency. Because the interaction with technology forms habits and coins how the user experiences the machine. Imagine, he said, to get a 2018 smartphone in 1995. Back in the day, you probably could not have made sense out of it. The industrial user experience design is a product of numbing users down.

A highly interesting talk that got me thinking a little whether we ought to teach the user the inner workings of software systems.

The panel I was invited for had the topic “More privacy for smart phones – will the GDPR get us a new break through?” and we were discussing with a corporate representative and other people working in data protection. I was there in my capacity as a Free Software representative and as someone who was working on privacy enhancing technologies. I used my opportunities to praise Free Software and claim that many problems we were discussion would not exist if we consequently used Free Software. The audience was quite engaged and asked a lot of questions. Including the ever popular point of *having* to use WhatsApp, Signal, or any of those proprietary products, because of the network effect and they demanded more regulation. I cautioned that call for various reasons and mentioned that the freedom to choose the software to run has not yet fully been exploited. Afterwards, some projects presented themselves. It was an interesting mix of academic and actual project work. The list is on the conference page.