Finsterworlds: Bringing light into technological forests through user empowerment

Authors: Johannes Schöning
Posted: Tue, August 13, 2019 - 1:12:03

I am really fascinated by novel technology. This had already started in kindergarten, but when I studied computer science I read Mark Weiser’s seminal paper “The Computer for the 21st Century.” This paper awoke my fascination for HCI and Ubicomp, so I decided to work in this field as have many other fellow researchers. Even though Weiser’s paper was so much ahead of his time and many of his predictions and visions came true, which I admire, I was disappointed that the last sentence never actually turned from vision to reality: “Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.” Today, technologies are often still developed in such a way that users are not empowered, but instead are subject to a restricted user experience that is limited to a single platform. By empowered I mean that “in its strongest sense, that the users of the technology are empowered to solve their own (accessibility) problems.”

I am a passionate hiker and love to hike through the woods, but I personally believe that it is getting harder and harder to ignore the negative impacts of many novel technologies: Machines are entering our lives—not vice versa—and unfortunately most are not “as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.” While they shed light on some things, they also can make us blind to the important things in life. We see more and more technology that creates “dark forests,” or “Finsterworlds” (by the way a great movie), that restrict users in their possibilities and force them to stick to closed platforms.

I hope that there are two key challenges to bring light to Finsterworlds—our technological forests of today, which are often as dark as the Black Forest. First, I think that we need to have a broad understanding of computer technologies. Therefore, we need a solid computer science education from early on. We have highlighted this recently again in our article on “education in a digitized world.” Second, we build too many “dumb smart” technologies. We plant too many “bad trees.” On a daily basis I see new dumb smart technology presented at conferences and tech shows. The solutions look cool, but solve problems that do not exist. Those technologies are often still developed in such a way that users are not empowered, but instead are subject to a restricted user experience that is limited to a single platform. The business models around those technologies are designed to collect as much personal data as possible. The “sweet technological porridge,” a reference to the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, of the Silicon Valley giants has made us “full and lazy” and prevents the critical and creative use of novel technology in a way that it is empowering the users. For sure, most developers have good intentions when designing those technologies, as they want to:

  • Improve efficiency and ease of use
  • Reduce human error
  • Make the user experience more pleasant
  • Make more informed and better choices for them.

But in my opinion, many of these developments are making people lazy, as they don’t have to think so much for themselves or remember what to do. That said, we also see in contrast a recent trend toward developing “happy apps” and devices for mindfulness, sports, and brain exercises. I have been discussing this a lot with my colleagues. Diana Beirl, Nicola Yuill, and Yvonne Rogers nicely captured this trend in their recent CSCL paper on Amazon’s Alexa. But those happy apps, those little flowers, cannot grow if they do not have light. 

We as computer scientist also need to remove our rose-colored glasses and stop looking at all the technologies with too optimistic eyes. With the ACM Future of Computing Academy (FCA), we recently published a proposal arguing that the computing research community needs to confront much more seriously the negative impacts of our innovations. To ensure that this more serious identification occurs, our proposal argued for incremental changes to incentive structures in computing research, focusing on how we evaluate the quality of research reports (e.g., papers) and research proposals (e.g., grant proposals) to cut down all the “dark trees.” I hope if we tackle those two challenges, we will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods, while empowering users. 

Posted in: on Tue, August 13, 2019 - 1:12:03

Johannes Schöning

Johannes Schöning is a Lichtenberg Professor and Professor of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at the University of Bremen in Germany. His research interests lie at the intersection between (HCI), geographic information science and ubiquitous interface technologies.
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