Designing the cognitive future, part IX: High-level impacts

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Tue, March 22, 2016 - 10:27:21

In previous blog posts I have been writing about how interactive technologies are changing or may change our cognitive processes. In this post I reflect on the high-level impact of these changes, and identify four main areas of impact, each with its own opportunities and risks: human connections and information, control, creativity, and (in)equality.

In terms of human connections and information, I identified two risk-opportunity axes. The first axis goes from social isolation to higher levels of empathy, while the second goes from bias to representative diversity in access to information and communication with others.

The first axis goes to the heart of arguments such as those in Alone Together about the risks in having technologies isolate people and cut them off from others [1]. At the same time, there is the opportunity for interacting with people we would not otherwise be able to reach, and even  better understanding others’ points of view. Anxieties about the impact of personal media on society are not new. For example, in early 19th-century England, there was a significant amount of concern about the growing popularity of novels that cited themes similar to those brought up these days with regard to interactive technologies, such as lack of intellectual merit and the potential to cause insanity through isolation [2]. On the positive end of the axis, technologies could help us re-engage and find the time for face-to-face activities, helping form important bonds, for example, between parents and children. The challenge for interaction designers is to enable opportunities for personal enjoyment while also encouraging and designing for social uses that enable previously unavailable forms of communication.

The second axis, referring to bias versus representative diversity in information access and communication, brings about a new version of a familiar challenge. As I mentioned in my previous blog post on communication, people used to have very localized biases in terms of the information they could access and the people with whom they could communicate. We are now replacing those biases with new biases brought about by personalized experiences with interactive technologies. At the same time, the opportunities to engage with a wide, representative variety of information and people are unprecedented. This access to a more diverse set of people could potentially lower the social distance between us and those who are different from us. Social distance is often a prerequisite for supporting armed conflict [3], and interactive technologies could help in this regard. The challenge for interaction designers is to make people aware of biases while enticing them toward accessing representative sources and communicating with representative sets of people.

In terms of control, the risk-opportunity axis goes from loss of control over our information and decision-making to greater control over our lives and bodies. Loss of control may come through the relentless collection of data about our lives, together with the convenience of automating decision-making, which could lead to significant threats in terms of privacy and manipulation. On the other hand, the same data can give us greater insights into our lives and bodies, help us make better decisions, and help us lead lives that more closely resemble our goals and values. The challenge for interaction designers is to keep people in control of their information and lives, and aware of the data and options behind automated decision-making.

In terms of creativity, the risk-opportunity axis runs from uniformity to greater support for inspiration, expression, and exploration. While there is currently more variety, a few years ago it seemed like most conference’s presentations looked alike due to a large majority of presenters following the paths of least resistance within the same presentation software. This is an example of the risk of uniformity, where even great tools, if most people use them the same way, can lead to very similar outcomes. There are obviously plenty of examples of ways in which interactive technologies have enabled new forms of expression, provided inspiration, lowered barriers to existing forms of expression, and made it easier to explore alternatives. The challenge for interaction designers is to do this while enabling a wide range of novel outcomes.

A final and overarching area of impact is political, social, and economic equality. The risk-opportunity axis in this case goes from having a select few with unequalled power due to their access and use of technology to having technologies that can be used to reduce inequalities in a fair and just manner. If interactive technologies can be thought of as a way of giving people cognitive superpowers, they could potentially bring about significant imbalances, giving us the risk identified above. On the other hand, we could design interactive technologies in such a way that will encourage these superpowers to be used to make the economy and social order more fair and just. This could be accomplished through the capabilities of the technology (e.g., enable high-income people to feel what it is like to live in low-income regions), or by designing interactive technologies that can easily reach the most disadvantaged and marginalized populations in a way that can enable their participation and inclusion.

What are your thoughts on these topics? How do you feel technologies are currently affecting you across these axes?


1. Sherry Turkle. 2012. Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY, USA: Basic books.

2. Patrick Brantlinger. 1998. The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth Century British Fiction. Indiana University Press.

3. Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. 2007. On combat: The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace. PPCT Research Publications Belleville, IL.

Posted in: on Tue, March 22, 2016 - 10:27:21

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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