Digital Sucks. So, let’s choose to make better decisions

The best part of 20 years ago a very smart woman told me something I strongly disagreed with at the time: love, she said, isn’t a feeling. It’s a decision. In my 20-something’s surge of passion and romance, I denied it all. There was no way love was anything as prosaic as a decisions. It was magic and breathless moments and all the rest of the tell-tales of young lust. The intervening two decades – over half of which have been spent married to that woman – have proved her right, to me at least. The passion and the…

The best part of 20 years ago a very smart woman told me something I strongly disagreed with at the time: love, she said, isn’t a feeling. It’s a decision. In my 20-something’s surge of passion and romance, I denied it all. There was no way love was anything as prosaic as a decisions. It was magic and breathless moments and all the rest of the tell-tales of young lust.

The intervening two decades - over half of which have been spent married to that woman - have proved her right, to me at least. The passion and the excitement come and go, but great decisions make for a great marriage - and a good life.

The same goes for the reason digital sucks: because we make decisions that make digital suck. It doesn’t have to. It really doesn’t. We just make it do so. And we do that, because we don’t really think through the consequences of the actions we make when building products.

The law of unintended consequences in powerful, and should be considered when with start thinking about disrupting ecosystems. “Ecosystems” can be a weasel word, hiding the fact you are talking about people’s lives, jobs, homes and communities. Social media may allow a greater degree of connection between humans than ever before, but it’s also the midwife of fake news and psychological harm. And while Facebook, for example, is very quick to take credit for the growth in connectedness, it’s been much slower to acknowledge the rest of its role.

Killing the corner shop with VC money

And that brings us to the Silicon Valley whipping boy of the week: Bodega. The company is, for all its cliched startup talk of reinvention, essentially the vending machine brought into the 21st century. That’s not the problem – although given the supply chain logistics involved in vending machines, it does give some sense of the scale of the problem they face. No, the problem is this attitude, expressed in a Fast Company interview:

Bodega’s logo is a cat, a nod to the popular bodega cat meme on social media–although if the duo gets their way, real felines won’t have brick-and-mortar shops to saunter around and take naps in much longer. “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald says. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

Gosh, imagine that. No more than 100 feet to grab the necessities, then back into your den. You can have other groceries delivered to your house by ordering from your phone. You can stream all the entertainment you like. Hey, why go out? Why have social contact?

For all its convenience, this technology – if used at the scale they’re planning — is fundamentally anti-social. By eroding the profitability of the corner shop, it erodes the social structure of the neighbourhood - the points where people run into each other’s lives. That’s a very genuine form of connectedness that we’re the poorer for losing.

Iris and a babychino

I spend my Fridays looking after my two year old daughter (she sleeping now, which is why I’m writing…), and this morning we bought bread, and a magazine and coffee from local shops. And yes, all of that could have been ordered and delivered, but part of the reason for going out and shopping is the social interaction, of chatting with Hélene in the bakery and Bob in the coffee shop; of being part of a community.

Creating space for the community and making money

On the other end of the scale, there’s Apple’s keynote and, in particular, the under-discussed retail section presented by a clearly nervous Angela Ahrendts in her first keynote appearance. Her segment has come in for some deserved mockery for its attempt to rebrand Apple Store as “Town Squares”, which is undeniably cheesy. But the underlying philosophy here is a good one: they want to make their stores more that just retail centres, but places where people can meet, hang out and take classes. Yes, of course there’s a commercial imperative in making people more loyal to the Apple brand. But if they’re actually improving the social infrastructure of our towns and cities by gifting the use of their space to the communities, that’s a pretty good model of corporate responsibility, of making your business improve life, rather than eroding its essential fabric.

Apple is the biggest company in the world, by some measures. It’s certainly amongst the most wealthy. They can afford this. But that doesn’t take away from the decision to try and enhance the social fabric of our communities with their stores. (No, I’m not going to call them Town Squares. Sorry, Angela.) Equally, Bodega is well VC-funded. And there’s a whole chain of decision making that has prioritised making money through offering convenience over the social interactions that make up our communities.

Digital sucks only because we make decisions that create that suckage. Digital itself is a neutral tool. If we make better, more thoughtful, more considered decisions, it will suck a whole lot less.