Sitting here in 2020 among the havoc of COVID-19 and everything this year has brought so far, I reflect on the past 20 years from a digital perspective and ask myself, “where have we taken ourselves?”
Since the change of the millennium, we have seen a leap in technology and the internet, but is it accurate to label that leap as “advancement?”
Of course, many great things have come out of the last 20 years as a result of the ever-tightening bond between humans and technology. No doubt, Apple’s iPad has changed more than one industry for the better including the medical field. And the impact tablets have had on people with Autism is incredible.
But as I hope for even brighter future lit by more than device screens and smart bulbs, I can’t help but notice how much of the digital world is veering down a road darker than most might have anticipated. And, unless we develop greater awareness and appreciation of the fact that we are flesh-based humans and not the 1’s and 0’s that we spend so much of our time sending and receiving, then not even Alexa or Siri can save us.
Let me take you back to November 2005. At 25 years old, I just purchased my first laptop — a Dell Latitude. It was probably my first significant online purchase. And one of my first bigger Black Friday splurge. The laptop came with Windows XP (you know the grassy field, blue sky wallpaper). I used that machine for everything. It was that same year when my contract web design picked up. While working a full-time job, I would also work on client projects when not attending classes at ITT Technical Institute (an institution no longer in existence).
I begin to describe that time, not to give a personal history, but to explain how it was a time where technology and the internet were at a sweet spot.
After the dot com bubble of the late ’90s, people began to recognize the internet’s deeper value and made smarter investments with it. In the early 2000s social connections began to form online with Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. Netflix began to grow in its DVDs-by-mail subscriptions. More and more e-commerce became possible with improvements to web technologies, shopping cart solutions, and payment processors.
Web 2.0 and ”rich web apps” began to emerge where functionalities only seen on desktop applications were now possible on the web. One popular web technology for creating interactive content and rich web apps was Flash. Flash eventually reached its demise with its many accessibility and security flaws, but in its hay day, it provided a well of interactive experiences.
Web design as a profession was still new. There were no website creators and content management systems were basic.
Digital marketing was still very new. There were search engines to try and rank high on, banner ads to run, press releases to write, and email newsletters to send, but not much else. The rules of the internet were clear for the most part.
Early to mid-2000s was probably also the time where marketing guru, Seth Godin had his most attention as he helped us rethink what modern marketing and branding meant. He and others helped the underdogs and the little fish believe that they could build just as much loyalty from customers as the Apple’s and Coca-Cola’s of the world
Facebook was still in its infancy in 2005. Back then the feed or wall was a simple list of all your friends’ latest posts, nothing more. MySpace made for a lot of ugly profile pages, but it was fun to customize and get lost in what the things you could do with it. Back then you could still start a blog (with Blogger most likely) and not feel like you’re too late to the blogosphere.
Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 which changed phones forever. Upgrading to the new model or the new OS was exciting. Apps were getting better and websites were learning how to adapt to these smaller screens.
Technology and the internet were advancing at a healthy pace from 2000 to 2010. Then things got more complicated and have been spiraling ever since.
Smartphones, smart devices, and the internet of things have been nothing short of an arms race. Small changes to a device or OS are given new version or model numbers while more and more micro-features and gimmicks crowd our interfaces. Giants like Amazon flood the market with every kind of smart device they can throw Alexa on. We’ve become over-connected and over notified now that we can get an alert notice on our phone, on our wrist, on our laptop, on our smart speaker, and where ever else we want all at the same time.
Nearly every website looks like the same these days and you can get that same look in a couple clicks with no designer or developer needed. Great, but now you look like all the other guys.
As a web designer or web developer, you have your choice of countless frameworks to build with that can be layered on top of one another. This hoarding of frameworks and libraries leads to bloated website size and slow load times.
Systems that power large enterprises have become bloated with years of patchwork and band-aids instead of taking the proper steps to craft an acceptable and reliable experience.
For as long as the internet has been around, how well have we done to make the web accessible to all people with an internet connection? I’m talking mostly about people with disabilities. Try using your website with only your keyboard. Or try looking at it after you’ve blurred it as a person with low vision would see it. We left this for the government websites to worry about, but what we’re seeing is more and more sites getting called out for not following accessibility standards.
Amazon has gotten too big. It reminds me of B&L from Pixar’s Wall-E. Do we need to get everything from one place? From a business perspective, I admire that they could grow as large as they have, but at some point, they missed the lesson in authenticity. There’s something to be said for a successful business to want to stay small so they can stay authentic and connected to their customers. Small is relative here. A company can be much smaller than Amazon is today and still, be large and wildly successful. Disney failed in this lesson as well. Buying up enormous entertainment franchises and studios is not what old Walt probably had in mind. Apple is heading this direction as well as they throw their hat in the online streaming entertainment business.
The big get bigger and the small get smaller. I’m not suggesting we redistribute wealth or anything, but just because a company can buy up all their competition, doesn’t mean they should.
Social media has become nearly a monopoly where very few have any chance of capturing market share away from the likes of Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. So many people use these sites and nearly all websites and apps connected to them are tracking your online activity.
It’s not just the social media giants who are using your behavior to sharpen their aim to throw ads and whatever else they want at you, but it’s also much of the marketing and advertising world. “Personalization” is the new accepted practice and has taken much of their guesswork out of showing you what you might like. Machine learning follows you around from device to device, website to website, app to app building a profile that matches you to the content it feels you’re more likely to act on.
The ironic thing is that most people let social media, advertisers, and marketers come in and invade their privacy.
Public social media feeds have become catalogs for predators. Kids are far too vulnerable with social media apps that default to public profiles. Facebook started with the right idea: a closed network made up of only the people you allowed in it. Social media should have kept to the same model. Your profile starts as private and you and the friends you allow see each other. I’m not saying that model is bulletproof, but it’s better than public feeds of all our vulnerable kids on display for anyone to see.
There’s a reason social media and the gaming industry are so interested in your kids. It’s all too easy nowadays to exploit the addiction forming parts of young brains. It’s not just kids that are susceptible to the psychological games our apps and games play on us. Leveling up in a game, earning a badge, getting a like or a comment, or even something as simple as seeing that you have new email to read — every little win like these stimulates the pleasure centers of your brain and your brain can’t get enough. So your kids especially get more and more addicted to their devices and games.
There’s a mountain of rumors and theories about how our smartphones and devices are constantly listening to us, how our TVs can emit specific frequencies our phone can hear that are then sent back to the TV advertiser, how the government is embedded in leadership at Google and Facebook, how voting outcomes are a result of manipulating social media behaviors, and on and on.
To feel like we’re not constantly being monitored or tracked, we have to install special browsers, and extensions, use offshore email providers, and pay for our internet to be routed through VPNs. It seems not only are we protecting ourselves from hackers but big brother as well.
Our lives have gotten so connected to the internet and devices, that we give up privacy. It’s just easier to give in to the urge to constantly check our phones and to ignore the ads that follow us around. At this point, is the internet just too big and there’s just too much data about you floating around for anyone to do anything about it?
I don’t think that’s true. It’s not too late to improve and correct society’s digital course.
We need to ask more questions about why things are the way they are.
We need to question privacy policies.
We need to question how the companies we affiliate with are funded.
We need to ask if our company websites are accessible to people with disabilities.
We need to question why some of our digital products are so complicated.
We need to question if we need that smart device.
We need to question complicated digital ecosystems.
We need to question if we are dependent on Google’s ecosystem of products and services.
We need to question what company big or small gets our loyalty.
We need to question how much time we spend on our phones.
We need to question that app or social media network our kid is interested in joining.
We need to question how the internet works.
We need to question if our data and home networks are protected.
While I don’t want to be stuck in 2005 using the same Dell laptop, I do want us to advance in communication and technology. I want us to be authentic and remember that we are humans. I want us to build things for the sake of providing real value and not just to fill the ether with digital noise. I want ALL businesses and government officials to respect privacy, the safety of our children, and the vulnerability of mental and social health.
I have listed below all the links that I shared throughout the text above:
iHelp for Autism, SF Weekly, Aug. 11, 2010
Adobe Flash Cut-Off Will Kill Millions Of Websites, Forbes, Jun. 22, 2020
The Ultimate Guide to Amazon Devices, Creative Bloq, Jul. 14, 2019
Here’s Why All Website Designs Look the Same Now, Digital Information World, Jun. 17, 2020
The Growth of Webpage Size, KeyCDN, Oct. 4, 2018
Web Accessibility Lawsuits: What’s the Current Landscape?, Essential Accessibility, May 6, 2020
How Ads Follow You Around the Internet, Vox, Feb. 3, 2020
The Tech Industry’s War on Kids, Richard Freed, Mar. 12, 2018
Are Our Phones Listening to Us?, BBC News, Sep. 9, 2019
How the CIA Made Google, Nafeez Ahmed, Jan. 22, 2015
The Best VPN Services for 2020, PC Mag, Jul. 27, 2020