The relationship between technology products and customers today can feel like one of predator and prey. Hooked on proto-monopolist hyper-growth dreams, tech businesses see user dependency as the ultimate success. This is why companies want to “capture” markets and build “moats” to achieve “user” “lock-in.” It’s how prison wardens define success, too.
This prison mindset has resulted in products that are intentionally addictive, obscure what a person is signing up for, and where, as a rule, every conceivable advantage is tilted towards the company. Tracking pixels, forced arbitration clauses, always-on surveillance, and other invasive practices that would have shocked us two decades ago are givens today.
This feels inevitable. Even permanent. But other paradigms for how people and technology can relate are possible. We know because they’ve existed before.
Take the Clapper. The home improvement product from the ‘70s that had the simplest UI imaginable: two claps and something turns on, two claps and it turns off.
The Clapper uses an interaction model that clearly puts humans over tech. It allows a person to direct technology to do what they want — even theatrically and sarcastically, as the TV spot shows. With the Clapper, there’s no question who’s in control.
The Clapper is an example of what I’ll call a Zeuser Interface (ZI). An interaction model where humans get the Zeus-like capabilities rather than the technology. If the tech of today borrows from the interaction paradigm of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey — where we think the machine is benevolently helping us until the moment we discover it really isn’t — interfaces like the Clapper are closer to Zeus standing on Mount Olympus sending lightning bolts to do his bidding.
Imagine a Zeuser Interface like the Clapper for your home internet. Two claps and do not disturb goes on, WiFi turns off, and distracting notifications do too. Two claps in the morning and everything turns back on. To qualify as ZI, this version of the Clapper would need to respond to human command without surreptitiously gathering up data in stealth surveillance mode at the same time. Few tech companies have that kind of willpower today.
A more recent ZI example is a Kickstarter project called IRL Glasses that black out video screens when a person looks at them. Rather than being captive to ambient ads and screens, a person wearing IRL Glasses chooses what they see and what they don’t.
In a more speculative direction, imagine a camera sensor programmed to ignore anyone who closes their eyes while the picture is taken. This would give the subject of a photograph control over their appearance in a picture rather than the photographer. This sounds strange, but just as the photographer’s ability to capture an image is based on technology (the camera), technology could rewrite those dynamics in new ways as well.
In a real life example of this, the model Gigi Hadid was sued by a photographerfor posting a photo of herself on Instagram that the photographer had taken. He said the photo was copywritten. She countered by saying that since she chose to smile and make eye contact with the camera, she was the coauthor of the photograph. The photographer’s lawsuit against her was dismissed.
Zeuser Interface is a fun thought experiment, but it’s not hard to imagine the ways it goes awry. When personalized media diets allow people to hold conflicting notions of truth, a world where we chose our own reality could make filter bubbles look diverse and inclusive by comparison. We would each be Kings and Queens of our castles of Self with little regard for what goes on beyond our moats. Not far from where we are today, actually.
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