Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: September 12, 2011

We need a literacy for connectedness

“Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force ever seen on this planet. But you wield it like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun. The problem … is it didn’t require any discipline to attain. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge yourselves, so you don’t take the responsibility for it.”

– Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)

Mobile phones are a powerful, disrupting force to markets and societies. At a personal level, the device becomes an extension of our self, as important as any limb.

An entire generation of Americans are growing up in an always-on, always-connected world. But we don’t ask questions — we just slap a phone in their hands.

Printed media’s finite nature has traditionally been viewed as a weakness. That’s why the long tail of Amazon’s web store and Netflix’s warehouse have transformed industries.

Limits are not inherently bad. Books and newspapers have endings, and those endings provide a mental break. We’re freed from our compulsion to consume because there’s nothing more to see. You turn the last page of the morning’s paper and there’s no more news of consequence until tomorrow. That’s relaxing, but the connected generation doesn’t have this luxury. In the mobile world, there are always more news articles and social notifications to check on. We constantly worry that we might miss out on something, and the only break we get is by forcefully pulling ourselves away.

App developers take advantage of our emotional attachment to devices. They add frequent notifications and features designed to bring attention. Financial incentive is a reason — increased use translates to more advertising revenue, in-app purchasing, and app downloads — but developers are also self-centered. We like to think that our thing is the most important thing, so it has to behave like it’s important.

Our pursuit of user attention and the unprecedented capability of devices has created a perfect storm for reshaping behavior. Use of mobile devices may not quite resemble addiction, but certainly becomes a habit. In my own research I’ve learned that mobile use tends to be habitual with users feeling compelled to check their phone every few minutes.

Is habitual mobile use destructive? Maybe. Scholar Sherry Turkle likens mobiles to private media bubbles, and while there is great value to being connected, there is also a threat to social development.

Social life is often conceptualized as a series of theatrical stages. For every situation there are societal norms you are expected to act out. Mobile use rewrites the script. I have met strangers and had very interesting conversations while waiting in line, sitting in an airport lobby, and sharing a meal at a conference. The social script in each situation afforded the opportunity for the positive outcome. I’m concerned that Turkle’s private media bubbles will encroach on these norms, someday making it expected that we use those shared times to check up on our mobile device. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Connectivity is a lifeline. We feel a sense of loss when we are deprived of our mobile device for whatever reason. This is the same mental compulsion that drives us to frequently check notifications and to inspect our person before moving from one place to another. It’s painful to walk away from our phone for an extended time.

We teach our youth many skills for the real world. Home economics. Financial literacy. Outdoor survival. The next will be disconnection — how to live in harmony with mobile phones, how to use them responsibly. I call it the literacy of connectedness.

And it’s not entirely on users to learn. Mobile developers need to adopt social responsibility in design decisions. If your app makes heavy use of notifications, make it easy for users to turn them off or customize. GMail has done this very well lately, offering a priority inbox that ranks important messages. I’ve set my phone to only notify on those handful of critical daily emails.

At an even deeper level, phones should offer a way to disconnect without powering off. I’m thinking something like this — I come home after a long day and want to relax. I tap into my phone and tell it to hold non-critical notifications for a few hours. Then I pour myself a glass of scotch, kick back, and unwind, temporarily freed from the chains of connectivity.

I opened this post with Ian Malcolm criticizing John Hammond’s attitude toward genetics in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. “Genetic power is the most awesome force ever seen on this planet, but you wield it like a kid who’s found his dad’s gun.” As I consider how the mobile community thinks about phones and applications, I’m struck by parallels — we never pause to consider societal outcomes. That’s something we ought to get better at. That’s something we have to get better at.

We’re building a world for the next generation, and while we may not be polluting the air or poisoning the water, the things we build today can still jeopardize quality of life as much as they improve it. Let’s start taking connectedness seriously.