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Topic: I’ve met dots that existed only to inform me of the existence of other dots, new dots (Read 35 times) previous topic - next topic

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I’ve met dots that existed only to inform me of the existence of other dots, new dots
I've met dots that existed only to inform me of the existence of other dots, new dots, dots with almost no meaning at all.
The sudden arrival of a new class of tech skeptic, the industry apostate, has only complicated the discussion. Late last year, the co-inventor of the Facebook "like," Justin Rosenstein, called it a "bright ding of pseudopleasure"; in January, the investment firm Jana Partners, a shareholder in Apple, wrote a letter to the company warning that its products "may be having unintentional negative consequences."

All but conjuring Oppenheimer at White Sands, these critics offer broadsides, warning about addictive design tricks and profit-driven systems eroding our humanity. But it's hard to discern a collective message in their garment-rending: Is it design that needs fixing? Tech? Capitalism? This lack of clarity may stem from the fact that these people are not ideologues but reformists. They tend to believe that companies should be more responsible -- and users must be, too. But with rare exceptions, the reformists stop short of asking the uncomfortable questions: Is it possible to reform profit-driven systems that turn attention into money? In such a business, can you even separate addiction from success?

Perhaps this is unfair -- the reformists are trying. But while we wait for a consensus, or a plan, allow me to suggest a starting point: the dots. Little. Often red. Sometimes with numbers. Commonly seen at the corners of app icons, where they are known in the trade as badges, they are now proliferating across once-peaceful interfaces on a steep epidemic curve. They alert us to things that need to be checked: unread messages; new activities; pending software updates; announcements; unresolved problems. As they've spread, they've become a rare commonality in the products that we -- and the remorseful technologists -- are so worried about. If not the culprits, the dots are at least accessories to most of the supposed crimes of addictive app design.

When platforms or services sense their users are disengaged, whether from social activities, work or merely a continued contribution to corporate profitability, dots are deployed: outside, inside, wherever they might be seen. I've met dots that existed only to inform me of the existence of other dots, new dots, dots with almost no meaning at all; a dot on my Instagram app led me to another dot within it, which informed me that something had happened on Facebook: Someone I barely know had posted for the first time in a while. These dots are omnipresent, leading everywhere and ending nowhere. So maybe there's something to be gained by connecting them.

The prototypical modern dot -- stop-sign red, with numbers, round, maddening -- was popularized with Mac OS X, the first version of which was released nearly 20 years ago. It was used most visibly as part of Apple's Mail app, perched atop an icon of a blue postage stamp, in a new and now ever-present dock full of apps. It contained a number representing your unread messages. But it wasn't until the launch of the iPhone, in 2007, that dots transformed from a simple utility into a way of life -- from a solution into a cause unto themselves.

That year, we got the very first glimpse of the iPhone's home screen, in Steve Jobs's hand, onstage at MacWorld. It showed three dots, ringed in white: 1 unread text; 5 calls or voice mail messages; 1 email. Jobs set about showing off the apps, opening them, eliminating the dots. Eventually, when the iPhone was opened to outside developers, badge use accelerated. As touch-screen phones careered toward ubiquity, and as desktop interfaces and website design and mobile operating systems huddled together around a crude and adapting set of visual metaphors, the badge was ascendant.

On Windows desktop computers, they tended to be blue and lived in the lower right corner. On BlackBerrys, red, with a white asterisk in the middle. On social media, in apps and on websites, badge design was more creative, appearing as little speech bubbles or as rectangles. They make appearances on Facebook and across Google products, perhaps most notoriously on the ill-fated Google Plus social network, where blocky badges were filled with inexplicably, desperately high numbers. (This tactic has since spread, obnoxiously, to news sites and, inexplicably, to comment sections.) Android itself has remained officially unbadged, but the next version of the operating system, called Oreo, will include them by default, completing their invasion.

What's so powerful about the dots is that until we investigate them, they could signify anything: a career-altering email; a reminder that Winter Sales End Soon; a match, a date, a "we need to talk." The same badge might lead to word that Grandma's in the hospital or that, according to a prerecorded voice, the home-security system you don't own is in urgent need of attention or that, for the 51st time today, someone has posted in the group chat.

New and flourishing modes of socialization amount, in the most abstract terms, to the creation and reduction of dots, and the experience of their attendant joys and anxieties. Dots are deceptively, insidiously simple: They are either there or they're not; they contain a number, and that number has a value. But they imbue whatever they touch with a spirit of urgency, reminding us that behind each otherwise static icon is unfinished business. They don't so much inform us or guide us as correct us: You're looking there, but you should be looking here. They're a lawn that must be mowed. Boils that must be lanced, or at least scabs that itch to be picked. They're Bubble Wrap laid over your entire digital existence.

To their credit, the big tech companies seem to be aware of the problem, at least in the narrow terms of user experience. In Google's guide for application developers, the company makes a gentle attempt to pre-empt future senseless dot deployment. "Don't badge every notification, as there are cases where badges don't make sense," the company suggests. Apple, in its guidelines, seems a bit more fed up. "Minimize badging," it says. "Don't overwhelm users by connecting badging with a huge amount of information that changes frequently. Use it to present brief, essential information and atypical content changes that are highly likely to be of interest."

These companies know better than anyone that dots are a problem, but they also know that dots work. Late last year, a red badge burbled to the surface next to millions of iPhone users' Settings apps. It looked as though it might be an update, but it turned out to be a demand: Finish adding your credit card to Apple Pay, or the dot stays put. Apple might as well have said: Give us your credit card number, or we will annoy you until you do.

The lack of consensus within the mounting resistance to Big Tech can also be found within the perimeter of the dot. After all, it's where the most dangerous conflations take place: of what we need, and what we're told we need; of what purpose our software serves to us, and us to it; of dismissal with fulfillment. The dot is where ill-gotten attention is laundered into legitimate-seeming engagement. On this, our most influential tech companies seem to agree. Maybe our self-appointed saviors can, too.
Love is like a magic penny
 if you hold it tight you won't have any
if you give it away you'll have so many
they'll be rolling all over the floor