It Must *Be* Good
The need for companies to do the right thing
You wake up to the sound of your phone. It's early, cold and still dark outside. Half-asleep, you reach for it. Your eyes adjust to the light. Five new messages. Twelve new emails, mostly spam. You open your feed. One friend request. Twelve people liked your picture. You browse your feed. You like some pictures, watch an ad about Hawaii. Your day is packed with calls. Any spare moment is filled with more scrolling and browsing. After a long day of work you finally close your laptop. You feel exhausted. Time for dinner. Empty fridge. Ordering food takes 45 minutes. You fill time by scrolling your feed. Finally, the food arrives and you eat while watching a show. You settle into bed and take one last swipe before you drift off to sleep.
Technology is so loud
We’ve come a long way, but our technology is loud, so so loud. As Adam Wiggins (1) describes:
"In pursuit of connectivity, computers have come supremely good at begging for our attention. Red badges, notifications, inboxes, and feeds are baked into every operating system and most apps."
It's becoming increasingly clear that our relationship with technology is not as healthy as it should be. We are constantly bombarded with notifications, messages and updates, leaving us unable to disconnect and recharge. We are always on, always connected and always available.
How did we get here?
How companies initially start
But how did we get here? Most services and apps that have become harmful started as new positive ambitions to change the world for the better. Instagram began as a well-built photo filter app, a way to share your life with friends. I'm pretty sure that the founders didn't anticipate that it would turn into a dopamine indulging app of self-centeredness.
Imagine the early days of popular products like Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube and how different they are today. The process usually goes something like this:
The founder comes up with a grand idea for an app that will change the world. Initially, the app is built with a small team of skilled engineers and designers. They deeply care about the user experience and obsess over every detail, and they don't really worry about monetisation yet. However, to start growing they need money to support staff, marketing and an office. To get the money, they take on venture capital and give away a percentage of the company. The investors often expect a return on investment in the order of magnitude of tens or hundreds of what they paid in. This investment immediately introduces misaligned incentives that will, in the long run, not align well with building out the best user experience. Instead of a sustainable company the company is now put on a growth trajectory of a gigantic scale. Moreover, it's only at this scale where the 'model' really works, leaving the company and its founders with no choice of going towards two paths: advertisements or selling personal data.
So, you get Instagram that started out as a well built photo app, but is now an addictive theme park where product managers try to add more and more engagement features. Venture capital becomes this beast that can become uncontrollable to even it's founders.
But simply getting rid of venture capital is not the answer. I am convinced that you will need large amounts of capital to get something highly ambitious done in the world. But that doesn't mean that capital needs to be used to squeeze out entire parts of the population or lure people into addictive behaviour. Earlier, I critically wrote about Uber and its role in society. In this piece I said that venture money should be used for the right reasons:
"I am hyper-aware that disrupting something as fundamental as car ownership will always be controversial. Venture capital itself isn't unethical, the world progresses on it. But it is the constructs in which people behave that is questionable. Business incentives will never fully align with ethics. It is in the nature of capitalism to look at numbers rather than humans."
Capital should be used to make the world a better place for everyone. For capitalism to thrive, this must be paired with strong ethical values and a company culture that is conscious of its impact on society and the planet. I realise that writing an essay about that is easy, to actually achieve it is a whole other job.
Free is complicated
To align a company with its customers and shareholders there needs to be a model that is beneficial for all. Software makers should ask themselves if their incentives are aligned with those of the users or of its shareholders. For a lot of the modern day apps, the incentives are fundamentally misaligned.
This all starts with the business model. When it comes to software, free is... well, complicated. When your business is advertising, your marching orders are to connect more people and maximise the time spent on your app. The incentives between companies offering "free" apps and the individuals using them are misaligned. While these apps may not generate revenue through advertisements, they can still profit by collecting data on users.
Instagram benefits from you spending as much time as possible in their app, because they make money from ads and personal data. If you scroll through Instagram, every tab will bring more money into the pockets of the company and its shareholders. Everything is designed to lure you into more swiping, more scrolling, more liking.
At the same time, advertising on the internet has allowed millions of small businesses reach new audiences. On top of that, billions of people rely on useful services that are provided for free - these wouldn’t be able to exist without advertising. However, what remains is that the advertising model is designed to maximise people’s attention. The features that make the app addictive are an attempt to increase the gains for its shareholders. It is unfortunately trivial that the 'user' comes second in that story.
Once upon a time, land was considered the ultimate form of capital, and nations and empires fought to lay claim to as much of it as possible. But now, the entire earth has already been claimed and conquered. The brightest minds of our generation have set their sights on a new frontier: attention. Like the colonists of old, they compete fiercely to capture and hold onto as much of it as they can, using every trick and tactic at their disposal.
From Netflix to YouTube, Instagram to Headspace, devices and apps have become little monsters, screaming for our attention. We live in an era of increasing distraction and busyness, as companies fight to capture our precious hours.
It became the new way to make money: to command the attention of consumers, to shape their beliefs and habits, and to drive their behaviour in profitable directions. The modern economy is no longer based on land, but on the precious commodity of our time.
The right business model is paying
Alignment between a company and its users starts with a healthy business model. A business model where parties agree on the mechanics of the transaction and where incentives aren’t hidden behind difficult third party deals.
At first glance the only way forward seems to be paying in the form of subscriptions. You pay, the company delivers - it can't be clearer than that. If you're not satisfied with the product, you can cancel your subscription. Headspace benefits financially from you making mindfulness part of your daily routine, because they monetise through subscriptions. If they fail to do that, they will probably lose you as a customer. This positive alignment is powerful, because it is now in Headspace’s best interest to do everything it can, to stimulate you towards the positive act of meditation (2).
However, relying solely on subscriptions can be problematic. Many people around the world do not have the financial means to pay for software and rely on services being "free". In fact, the majority of companies with a "freemium" model find that more people choose the free version over the paid version. Additionally, businesses face the risk of high customer churn as customers have more options and can easily switch to a different provider if they do not see value in their current service.
Be on the good side
Venture capital, colonising attention, customer alignment, ads or subscriptions... navigating this complex landscape can be challenging. And the truth is, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one company may not work for another and it’s up to software makers to make the right decisions. They have an obligation to make software that doesn’t exists to harm the people. Apart from business models or venture capital, we simply need to do the right thing. As the writer and designer Frank Chimero writes: “it must not only look good and feel good, it must also be good.” (3).
I believe that software can create positive change. However, the ones that we have now have been built by corporations to capitalise on our attention and money. The question is, how do we keep the good aspects without succumbing to the bad aspects? What can companies do, but more over what can you do as software maker?
First of all, believe that doing the right thing will eventually lead to a net positive result. While this is hard - so hard - to see in the short term, you have to trust that this is the only way. It needs to be engrained in everything you do.
Doing good isn't straightforward. There isn’t a simple answer to complex questions. The ethical approach is to engage with the difficulties rather than avoiding them.
With big technological advancements such as artificial intelligence on the horizon, the stakes will be even higher. When technology gets a soul, we all have to fight for that soul to be friendly and kind.
Making good software is extremely difficult, being 100% ethical and positive is even harder. However, by choosing to persist and recognising that this path will be rewarding in the long run, we can continue to strive for excellence and do good in the world. It requires a commitment to a higher standard, and a willingness to put in the work to make something that is more than just profitable. It requires us to think beyond our own interests and to consider the wider impact our software will have. Deal with the struggles. It is time to reimagine software. It's time to be good.
- Adam Wiggins describes in eight essays how we can make computers better. He uses interesting examples and I recommend reading them yourself.
- There is a max where more upselling of Headspace won't positively influence you anymore. When this happens, companies will need to find alternative ways to make money. However, for capitalism to thrive, this must be paired with strong ethical values and a company culture that is conscious of its impact on society and the planet.
- The title of this piece is a reference to a quote from Frank Chimero: “it must not only look good and feel good, it must also be good.” He wrote this in a talk titled The Good Room (2018). This talk inspired me in a lot in writing this essay.
- Images are from the movie Her (2013). In the movie a man named Theodore falls in love with a highly advanced operating system named Samantha. The movie raises questions about what it means to be human and the role of technology in our lives. The images are copyright to their respective owners.
- Thanks to Guido de Bruin, Samuel Beek, Carla van der Poel, Arno de Bruin, and Freya von Noorden Pierce for reading various drafts of this essay.