Positive computing, satisfaction and the lack of it
Shortly after writing my entry on the joys of engineering and the banality of products, I found that Rafael A. Calvo and Dorian Peters had addressed much the same issue in the Winter 2013 issue of IEEE Technology and Society (pp. 19-21). In fact, they say they're soon to publish a whole book on the subject, to be called Positive Computing. I've added it to my reading list.
In the mean time, the book's title comes from a 2011 position paper written by Tomas Sander, who looks at the role of information technology in pursuing the "positive psychology" proposed by Martin Seligman. The basic idea is to create computer applications that promote what psychologists and economists call "subjective well-being", rather than applications that merely allow us to do things faster. Tibor Scitovsky might have had exactly this in mind if he were writing The Joyless Economy today.
I'm sure that plenty of applications already exist that promote well-being in one way or another. Calvo and Peters specifically mention SuperBetter, bLife and the Mindfulness App, which seem to implement ideas from the positive psychology school. The promises made by these applications might be a little saccharine for my tastes, and I have certain misgivings about aspects of Seligman's ideas, but I think there's reason to believe that great games, for example, can provide meaningful and satisfying challenges.
On the other hand, I'm sure that there is plenty of software out there that promises meaningful and satisfying experiences, but ultimately provides only superficial simulacra of such experiences. The development and use of such software might be driven, in part, by a wish for fast and easy access to desirable experiences.
Whatever the motives of producers in creating the products that they do, Scitovsky calls for consumers to become more sophisticated in their choice and use of products. In a computing context, for example, word processing software may make it fast and easy to edit and format documents, but it's still up to writers to strive for meaningful words, and up to designers to strive for attractive pages. If they don't, word processors are just a fast and easy way to produce unsatisfying junk. I've previously made similar comments about communication technology that I can now interpret as a need to be more sophisticated about the communication tools that we use.
Seeing that Scitovsky and others were writing about these notions back in the 1970s, I wonder why we still appear to be prioritising fast and easy over meaningful and satisfying. I suppose that Scitovsky's critics might argue that history has shown him wrong, and that the majority of people really do value fast and easy products over what a few elitists think are more worthy pursuits, Maslow's hierarchy of needs be damned. But when I see the degree to which Australians appear to have convinced themselves that we're "doing it tough" despite enjoying one of the highest levels of material wealth that has ever existed in the world, I suspect that the critics and their followers might just have chosen to pursue the fast and easy path because it is itself the fast and easy choice.