When We Build

August 9, 2015

“We make our world what it is, and we become the kind of people who live in it.”

A few years ago, I started writing about a talk by Wilson Miner from 2011’s Build Conference. Miner builds websites like I do, and his talk is about what people like us are doing—whether we realize it or not—when we build the things people use on the internet. He manages to weave some technical concerns together with personal and historical anecdotes and comes up with something very good—very human. I even transcribed the whole talk for myself so I could reference it later. I’ve revisited the piece every so often, thinking now will be the time to write about it. But each time, I get something different out of it, and can’t quite resume where I’d left off. So what follows will be only fragments.

Miner begins with McLuhan on technology and how the automobile shaped the entire 20th century, not only in terms of technology and infrastructure, but culture.

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. —Marshall McLuhan

After all, the automobile brought us not only the suburbs but the sexual revolution. It’s never clear what kinds of cultural changes a technology will bring, but Miner predicts that the screen (the computerless computer, pure interface) will redefine the 21st century the same way the automobile defined the 20th. We’re increasingly surrounding ourselves with screens—in all of our pockets, yes, but also in airports, elevators, and taxicabs. This harkens to The Architecture of Happiness and how we choose to surround ourselves with things that bring out certain qualities in us. Or at least that’s the idea. A monastery makes a certain kind of person, and so does the screen. In Miner’s rephrasing:

We make our world what it is, and we become the kind of people who live in it.

This is something we should think about: what kind of person does a Facebook make? Or Amazon, Uber, or Tinder for that matter. If you build websites or apps like I do, what qualities are you bringing out in the people who use them?

Because technology certainly can bring out the best in people. Miner opens with something I’ll prefer to depart from him with: a quote from Steve Jobs that captures the very best of what technology can be:

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list….That didn’t look so good, but then someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle and a man on a bicycle blew the condor away. That’s what a computer is to me: the computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

So, someone who builds technology can have an outsized impact on people, but that isn’t always a good thing. Along with Miner’s, there’s another talk from around the same time that I keep coming back to. This one is Paul Ford’s closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival, entitled “Ten Timeframes.” Ford lays his thesis out in the very first sentence:

There are 200 of you in this auditorium. So every minute I don’t talk saves about three-and-a-third hours of human time. That’s a pretty serious ratio. Every one of my minutes is collectively 200 of yours.

When we build something for others, we have a responsibility not just to the task but to all who’ll be impacted by it. We can help or harm, save or waste time—on a larger scale than we could without an audience. And this is a fundamental ethical responsibility, regardless of any contractual or financial obligations to clients or employers. This responsibility is even more urgent, I think, when people don’t have a choice about whether to use our software. Perhaps you work on an app that people use to file health insurance claims, or schedule visits with an incarcerated loved one. Your time and effort will save or cost theirs. When we build, we have responsibilities as contractors, to be sure, technical specifications to meet and the like. But these do not trump our responsibilities as human beings, to each other.

The only unit of time that matters is heartbeats… When I look out at this room I see a comparatively small number of faces but I also see a trillion heartbeats. Not your own heartbeats, but those of your users. The things that you build in the next decade are going to cost people, likely millions of people, maybe a billion people depending on the networks where you hitch your respective wagons, they are going to cost a lot of people a lot of time. Trillions of heartbeats spent in interaction…

And that’s my point, and it’s a simple point. The time you spend is not your own.

The time we spend is not our own. Let us never forget that when we build.