Article on Technology Stagnation from MIT Technology Review caught my eye, on further read it confirms a lot of fears re: What are we really making, and Why?

The article summarizes a new book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by economist Robert Gordon. Basically, the century 1870-1970 produced a lot of innovation that improved our lives significantly… since then, eh not so much.  The computer and internet revolution productivity gains were a temporary boost, but the smartphone/web app digital ‘revolution’ have us at a relatively flat .4% total factory productivity. (That’s an economist’s measure of productivity, not the common sense decline one might guess from the time wasted on Angry Birds, listicles, and blogging during work)

So for UX Designers, who are primarily working digital, are we part of the problem or part of the solution?  Despite what the new digital economy cheerleaders like Fast Company and WIRED report, digital innovations might be empowering convenience; but does that really make our lives better? How does Snapchat or Instagram compare with rural electrification?  Face it, Big Digital is really just monetizing the internet by selling ads (Google, Facebook) and hardware  (Apple) is essentially providing the  platform for them.  The Facebook ‘Free Basics’ project to deliver free internet in developing countries backfired when we realized they were just prioritizing access to Facebook. Like your local free paper, which is mainly advertising and the occasional comic.

When you think of it, the entrepreneurs we idolize don’t really contribute a lot to the economy. They hire relatively few knowledge workers (compared to manual labor-heavy manufacturing and construction that produce, you know, things), and create services that rely on minimally compensated freelancers (think TaskRabbit, Fiverr, Uber).  In fact, they propose to just give unemployed a basic wage in place of the jobs they are going to remove with automation, robots, and artificial intelligence (well, not they, but, you know, the government).

It is really a lot like the rise of the financial sector, which doesn’t really create a lot of value except for a small few.  And when they fail, they really screw it up for the rest of us — just ask any baby boomer who should be retired but can’t because their 401k tanked. All that STEM brainpower went to figuring algorithms for credit default swaps instead of ensuring clean drinking water (you know, like for Flint MI).

What is the end result of this? Some say it’s causing a new class divide.  Income inequality, the declining lifespan of white males, Trump voters…

Where does this leave Designers?  We can choose where not to apply our trade, but that is harder when most of the positions we’re being hired for are styling a landing page or creating the next social app for whatever fill-in-the-blank niche hasn’t been saturated.  We need to be promoting the big D thinking, the systems view, and helping our business uncover the real problem to be solved or job to be done.

For example, take education — Tyler Cowen says all the low-hanging fruit is gone, we’ve moved most of the population from low levels of education to college degrees; moving more marginal students to college requires more effort and won’t yield large gains.  Not to mention the debt they’ll have.  Yet most of our school systems (Texas anyway) are still on the college-for-all kick and cutting vocational tech.  Hell, many even think UX Design is something you can train for in a 10-week immersive (less time than it takes to get a plumber certificate).  And the ‘digital innovation’ around education is more tools for engagement (polls, videos, presentations), record keeping, and testing (ugh) — repicking the low hanging fruit. Design thinking would propose a whole new system, rather than making a broken one more efficient.

I think the technology stagnation is more a result of not focusing on the real problems, which is harder (they do call them ‘wicked’) and doesn’t make a lot of money fast. You can’t ‘flip’ it.  Unless we designers focus more on problem solving than the latest styling tools, we’ll continue to be part of the problem.

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