User Empowerment Instead of “Sweet Porridge”

Digitalisation cannot be worked through with checklists, but instead must be met with ideas and creativity. We need to use the opportunities of digitalisation now and not let them pass us by.

Such a massive transformation of all areas of our society is unprecedented and is causing plausible uncertainty for many people. This makes it even more important not to let ourselves be frozen by this insecurity. As Richard von Weizsäcker already noted, it is “more important to act ethically on a path of shared insecurity than to lead dogmatic fights for allegedly definitive truths”. But what strategies can we apply to utilise digitalisation, which is fundamentally changing all sectors of our society, in a way that benefits humanity?

From User-centred Design to User Empowerment

In my field of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), it was recognised early on that people are more than just ‘operators’ of technology. Building on this, the basic principles of user-centred design (UCD) were postulated back in the 1990s. In this ‘wave’, we started viewing technologies as tools for us to use in order to help people fulfil their tasks in a better way. The ‘Silicon Valley’ model supports the rise of companies pursuing the goal of assuming a sole market-dominating position. We started rethinking the development of interactive systems. In recent years, there have been trends in HCI that once again demand rethinking. These are referred to as the Fourth Wave of HCI. Technologies are meant to empower their users, they should open up additional possibilities and strengthen them, not patronise them.

This approach leads to an inherent conflict between UCD and empowerment. Designers and developers must allow users to adapt the technology and therefore avoid both one single prescribed use as well as overwhelming the user with too many functions. Today, technologies are often still developed in such a way that users are not empowered, but instead are subject to a restricted user experience that is limited to one platform. The ‘sweet porridge’ of the Silicon Valley giants has made us ‘full and lazy’ and prevents a critical and creative use of technologies. Our opportunities to freely move about in the digital world are very restricted.

New Digital Social Models

We must conceive new models for the digitalisation of our world. As responsible citizens, we can accept neither Silicon Valley’s liberal model nor the ‘digital societal models’ of some authoritarian states without critical discourse. Politics and society are tasked with devising an ethical and open model for the digitalisation.

The ‘Silicon Valley’ model supports the rise of companies pursuing the goal of assuming a sole market-­dominating position. In consequence, users on these platforms are often restricted in their possibilities by the ‘sweet porridge’. Totalitarian state regulation and control of citizens through digital means, as we are currently observing in China, also contradict a democratic and liberal society.

So far, Germany and other Western countries have not succeeded in formulating counter-models to both of these extremes. Leading this important and complex social discourse requires broad education on various topics of digitalisation. Only when we understand digitalisation can we master it and use it to bridge existing gaps in society.

Prof. Dr Johannes Schöning (34) is Lichtenberg Professor and Professor of Computer Science at the University of Bremen. He researches and teaches in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). His working group’s research interest lies in the intersection between HCI, geoinformation, and interface technologies. He earned his PhD at the University of Saarland in 2010 and completed his degree in Geoinformatics at the University of Münster in 2007. He is a member of the ACM Future of Computing Academy.