Sebastian Deterding: Designing for the Good Life

We've built fantastic tools for productivity and work - and yet, we're more stressed and tired than ever. Could we be fetishising productivity, and do we need to design for something higher?

Sebastian Deterding is a senior research fellow at Digital Creativity Labs and principal designer at coding conduct

WARNING: Live-blogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. Post will be updated over the next few days.

We should have, by now, have achieved an abundance of leisure time because of all the technology we’ve invented. Do you remember when e-mail was fun? Many people have noticed this – Ian Boost calls this phenomenon “hyperemployment”. On top of our job we’re doing Tweets and Facebook updates and so on…

Disconnection is becoming a reactive trend – and even a business. People are demanding their time back. Who from? The digital industries, which are making our lives more frictionless. What are they storing in their data centres? Data? Clicks? Eyeballs? No. Time.

We are designing for this. We talk about gamification and persuasive design, to extract more time from people for our services. The gaming industry does the same – but it doesn’t brag about it like we do.

The curse of ubiquitous computing

In the early 1990s, Xerox Parc predicted our time of ubiquitous computing. It’s a fundamental shift from the old one of personal computing: one user, one device, one application. Now we have multiple device, accounts and connection demanding our attention. This demands a fundamentally different way of organising our attention. It’s less like a watchmaker, and more like a taxi driver in Shanghai.

This issue of being surrounded by attention-seeking devices needs a new paradigm of design: calm technology. Amber Case has tried to articulate this in a book. Think about ambient, glanceable interface, or non-primary attention interfaces, like the BMW system that reads out the options as you turn a chunky knob.

Time Well Spent is a movement to move the battle for attention towards our best interests.

But there are some problems with these approaches. This attention shift is only the tip of the iceberg with the changes are coming. As Lawrence Lessig put it, code is law. Digital designer and product amber are becoming the new rulers of our world. Privacy and data control – do you want your Kindle history to be used against you in the future? Who should an autonomous car chose to kill if a death is inevitable. Can predictive crime systems be biased?

Are we thinking about the accessibility of the public services as we make them digital? As we make traditional goods smart, are we preparing for the unintended consequences. We throw away our old devices which are full of rare elements – and which are taken apart in other countries, destroying their environments.

The solutions have problems

Sebastian Deterding

The thing is, we sort have solutions for all of these issues. So, why don’t we stick with it and use this stuff? Or, to ask it another way: why should we?

Pride in craftsmanship? Yes, but it doesn’t always carry the day.

Can it make money? “Good calm tech is good business”, or “Good accessibility is good business”, “Safety is goo business”, etc. The problem is that there are plenty of examples where these aren’t true.

Move fast and break things.

That’s good business and terrible ethics. Uber used a tool called Greyball to ensure that the regulators can never can Uber vehicles. That led, eventually, to Uber being banned in London. There were probably lots of interesting, crunchy design challenges in doing that – but that’s craftsmanship in the service of bad ethics.

The justification for many ethical violations is either “I need to make rent” or “I need to feed my family”. All of us have ethical bounds – but we don’t think too hard about it. We try to avoid it.

The other argument is “it’s not “technically” illegal”. Would you want your financial adviser or your car safety engineer to work the same way? Why would they not hold you to the same standard? As long as we construe ethics as the lowest legal boundary, we get Uber.

Ethics should be a positive vision of the good life we want. As Richard Buchanan said, products are vivid arguments as to how we should live out lives.

The problem with silicon vision

Surely the tech industry is full of vision? Well, at it best it’s the letter that Apple employees get about making something meaning. But you end up with obsolescence driving iPhone sales and tax avoidance on an international stage. And when it’s imitated, you end up with failures like Juicero.

What is the vision start-ups are creating? Consumerism. Most startups just make cheaper consumption for more people.

So, what about the way we organise our own lives? You life’s work? The thing you would sacrifice yourself for? That leads to white collar workers driving themselves to exhaustion. We seem to seek opportunities to work ourselves into the ground – it’s a form of self expression, of articulating your self-worth. We celebrate time-management apps, and crunches and hackathons.

No product expresses this more than Soylent – which is optimised for nutrition and efficiency, not taste and texture. You can take eating and food preparation time – and use it for other things. Like e-mail.

These are the values of Calvanism – the obligation you feel toward your assigned activity, because it is assigned to you by God (except stripped of the “God” bit).

You could sum it up as public life maximises the public good, private life maximises personal fulfilment, but as soon as you’re in the office, it’s only about efficiency and productivity. And we then tell ourselves that growth is the public good. Productivity is personal fulfilment. And that allows work to colonise our public and personal lives.

This is not just the tech world – it infected the whole of our society between the 1950s and the 1970s. With religion in retreat, we flee wither into extremism or economics running hot. Travis Kalanick’s mantra was “growth above all”. But it’s not fairly shared, and it’s not good for us in the long term. And it’s not sustainable.

Questioning Ends

NEXT17 attendees

Why are we here? Is there one end we can shoot for? Aristotle suggested happiness – not pleasure, but well being. growing our own capacities for their own sake. For him it was philosophy, but not all of us are philosophers. We might all have very divergent ideas of what well-being might look like.

How can we enable both collective and individual deliberation on this?


There are periods of our life when we deliberate rather than do. And when we do, we do for its own sake. This is leisure time, when we think about ourselves and how we perfect ourselves. It’s not about restoring ourselves for work, but realising that there is more to us than work.

Back in pre-modern societies, we had time and space for this. Think of cathedrals, which would insulate you from everything else. It was practices like the sabbath or the Sunday, which were about coming together as a community, and putting your workplace in its place.

Can we find secular cathedrals and sabbaths to help us regain this?


Athens was built on slaves. A slave cannot have leisure. If you want people to have real leisure, they need a degree of economic security. Inequality and economic precariousness is driven by automation and productivity gains – and the benefits of those are not shared.

In conclusion

This is about more than individual action. We’ve built societies that make it all but impossible to put anything above shareholder value. Can we design to disrupt that? Can we design for higher things?