Thursday, May 22, 2014

TECHNOLOGY: The Upcoming Politics of User Design

I may look like a cultural pundit to you, but in my day job I work as a consultant in the Information Technology space. (I know, thrilling). As a result, I've spent the last five years working with IT departments on how to deliver service to their consumers. 

The biggest thing I've noticed in those five years is what I thought would be a conversation about technology (i.e. is my software better than your software) was actually a political discussion -- what do you want to do for your constituents, and how.

Data Must Be Free
The original thoughts about politics and technology had to do with data, and the freedom thereof.

The infinite ability to copy digital media (music, movies, etc.) and to distribute such media quickly led to political battles around commercial control. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was an initial push against the idea that data must be free. On the other side, Richard Stallman pushed for free exchange of data. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation sprung up around the idea of using this new opportunity as a tool. 

Current City Council freshman Ben Kallos went to Albany, demanded that the state voting records be put online. Even though the law required these votes to be publicly accessible, they could only be accessed in person. When his requests fell on deaf ears, he brought a hand scanner to their offices and began scanning them himself.

User Interface: The Next Battle
You'll notice that in the Kallos story, the data was already (theoretically) available, but the ability to access it in an easier way was what the state resisted.

The West Wing had an episode called "Take Out The Trash Day" based around the government practice of dumping all its unpleasant stories on the same Friday afternoon, in hopes of flooding the bad news on a day when people already don't like reading the paper. 

A great example of this was the release of John McCain's 1200 pages of medical records were dumped right before Memorial Day weekend.

Usability is every bit as political as access. In my work, we sometimes call this "Security through Obscurity" -- keeping things out of public by making access unusable.

Currently, the League of Independent Theater is working with Councilman Kallos and several other Councilmembers to provide access for community organizations to short and long term rentals of city-owned spaces. Access already, technically, theoretically exists. I'll give you a hundred dollars if you know how, when, or what you need to do to get it. is probably the biggest battle we've had to date around just this issue: user interface. At the end of the day, access to health care got reduced to literally, the usability of health care. How do you sign up, and how do you get it?

The difference between usable and unusable is the difference between Google and Yahoo; the difference between the iPad and the Palm Pilot. It's this millennium's version of "the medium is the message".