The Binary Privilege of Technology

Dear Sara,

I’m cooking chicken and keep coming back to your insight about Apple Watch’s design: that it lets you record a message and send it as either voice or text, but not both. I think this is actually a great example of how privilege normalizes cultural choices.

Form influences design. The fact that designers made an exclusionary choice rather than an inclusive one is a reflection of the underlying binary structure of digital technology, and desire for efficiency in business culture. They’re models that prefer on/off choices, and that value is reinforced in everything from the structure of the code itself, to the ways most technologists are encourage to write it.

Design propagates value. Designers’ choices present as the users of technology as the ideal choices. When we follow the directive value system of a product’s design, we propagate that value into the world, and enhance it with our authority.

Volume influences preference. Propagated value gains momentum by more people expressing and receiving it, as technology adoption standardizes, and two things happen. 1) People who prefer the available options (which currently omit a lot of the sensual experience), amplify their use of the technology. And 2) the volume in the feedback loop influences the cultural norm around that value, making people less likely to demand an alternative.

I bet most people, most of the time, choose to send text, since that has already become the standard of non-phone-call communication. I’d be curious to find out if that’s true or not.

I guess this is just a long way of the saying “the medium is the message” but I feel a certain urgency to have more discourse (collectively) about it. The underlying cultural assumptions that drive our behavior often change much more slowly than the adoption of new technologies. The asymmetry of that tension is bound to have some consequences, yes? It feels like we’re turning the crank on the fault line. Glad your big brain is on this.