nonsensical demarcation

universal fantasy and its delusion

Technology is socially constructed and therefore subjective. Though we talk and think about it as objective truth, or as something universal, or at the very least something that can stand on its own.1 The consequences of this assumption are enormous and dictate how we make technology.

Ironically, this delusion is specially unmasked when we try to move a technology from one context to another. For example we see this clearly in technologies used to leverage digital rights such as freedom of information and freedom of speech, as they usually depend or play with the deeper layers of the internet infrastructure of the place being used. Protocols such as OpenVPN and WireGuard work and have worked in many countries for years, but when a country censors the protocols, any technology using them becomes obsolete in said region. At this level of understanding it's obvious why it's not working.

The unmasking of the delusion becomes foggier (though it can be revealed with feedback and user research in that new context) when a technology was built on a set of assumptions that the new context does not support. Things such as continuous connectivity, high speed connections, hardware capabilities, and even digital literacy hinder the possibilities the technology was meant to enable to its users. Nevertheless they can be changed and improved by harnessing a better understanding of the ecosystem they will be used. At this level we still think about it as something technological, though it's because of our assumptions, being tool makers, of where the initial technology was meant to work or if we were designing to a community we know very little about, then our assumptions of that context and the people using the technology.

Though it's even more puzzling when the assumptions come from cultural variables like habits, needs, ways of living, and expectations of what the technology does or how it should behave. 2 When these frictions are identified, the most common solutions rely on improving documentation, creating content such as tutorials, and building local communities that can close the gap. Another workaround is simplifying the technology, however (in my opinion) this could create additional problems as there is a greater assumption from the user on how the technology works and they may end up using it in ways that can put them at risk.

The delusion that technology is universal is pervasive but it gets eroded every time I have to use my travel plug adapter... Not even electricity is universal! We come together as groups and try to define standards to make all this artificial world come true, and we have done a pretty good job but if you pay attention you see the cracks everywhere. Our modern life requires layers upon layers of these stack technologies aligned and is often the easiest reason to see and understand why our technology brakes when we try to incorporate it in another place, other reasons are those that we assume, but the hardest are grasping other cultural norms and ways of understanding of how and why to use a technology.

Finding the limits of a technology in a given social context could well be a definition of user research. We try to uncover how a technology attests the different ways of thinking and using it, the ecosystem the tech is inserted in, and how people relate to it or similar technologies. Knowing this and why there are these frictions, we can make better decisions in the direction of the project, bringing clarity to which solutions we should prioritize due to vision, budget, and timeline. Unfortunately this is sometimes seen as a failure or as unwanted information by the team, but it's actually a gift as it can foster new ways of thinking about the technology and could potentially emerge a better design thanks to the frictions identified from the research.

You might think, Well, what about UTF-8? or the curb-cut sidewalks?, but I'd say those are the exceptions and the examples that foster our illusion to build beautiful and elegant solutions in the world. Understanding when I'm falling into delusion and when fantasy empowers me to create a better world is an integral part of dealing with the reality of this space.

  1. Philosopher of technology, Andrew Feenberg, writes about this in detail in Ten paradoxes of Technology.

  2. I wrote about this for UXPAMagazine as a result of a user research project I did for Tor Browser back in 2021.