Happiness Is a Warm Gun

In 2017, we've talked a lot about why digital (products) suck(s) and what we can possibly do to make things better. One pretty clear lesson from the past year is that we have to change our design objectives.

In 2017, we’ve talked a lot about why digital (products) suck(s) and what we can possibly do to make things better. One pretty clear lesson from the past year is that we have to change our design objectives. In her book Designing for Happiness, NEXT speaker Pamela Pavliscak writes:

The truth is we have never designed technology with well-being, broadly speaking, in mind. We’ve designed for ease, productivity, engagement, and delight. Each has proven inadequate to really fostering well-being. What if we re-frame how we design technology to intentionally focus on happiness with a capital H?

Pamela is not the first to write a book on this subject. Over the past couple of years, there’s been a continuous flow of publications about the connex between happiness and design. Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design, published in 2014, is a prominent example. Stefan Sagmeister gave a TED talk with the same title as early as 2004. In 2013, he curated “The Happy Show” in Toronto. And in 2017, Mo Gawdat came up with Solve for Happy. His take is driven more by engineering than by design, which seems fitting for a Chief Business Officer at Google [X] and a serial tech entrepreneur.

What they all have in common is the notion that happiness is something that somehow can be designed, engineered and produced. Basically, they are optimists regarding tech and a happy life. This is of course conform with the basic premisses of modernity, especially faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress and human perfectibility, and with rationalization and professionalization (to quote Wikipedia). But is it true?

Adam Tinworth seems to disagree. He advocates designing for contentment instead of happiness, which is both easier to achieve and better to sustain, with human psychology kept in mind. Instead of consumption and consumerism, designing for contentment includes designing for meaning, creativity, autonomy and agency, all of them prerequisites for happiness. But no guarantee.

Andrew Keen profiled himself early on as a digital sceptic and internet critic (and was ridiculed a lot for that). As one of the few people in the tech industry with a classical education, he was able to see some dangerous trends at least ten years earlier than others. In three books, he explained how today’s internet is killing our culture, how the social revolution is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us, finally stating that the internet is not the answer.

And he remains to be one step ahead. In his upcoming book How to Fix the Future, Andrew offers some solutions to the myriad of problems the digital world faces in 2018. To a reader who has followed this blog over the course of the last few weeks, it’s no surprise that Andrew refers to a humanist approach – smart human beings instead of smart technology.

Again, this is probably anathema to the church of tech. Yes, we live in a world where technology is worshipped as a solution to each and every problem. “Tech is the new religion, offering hope of salvation in a troubled world,” as News agency AFP puts it in the lead of a story about CES. And tech pioneer Anthony Levandowski already founded a new religion to worship the AI god (no joke).

To an extent, we have come full circle from God who created mankind to mankind who creates their own tech god. But that’s nothing new. From the early days on, mankind created their own idols, false gods, tin gods without life in them. Psalm 115, written at least 2,500 years ago, reads:

Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

This is the story of humanity. Remember Apple’s famous 1984 Macintosh commercial? Apple’s mission back in those days was illustrated by a strong metaphor – the hammer that smashed the 1984-style dictatorship. The Macintosh as a tech icon for liberation, creativity, and thinking different.

Happiness is a warm gun.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash