Ruined by Design is one of the most important books I’ve ever read for my career. I knew I was in for a ride when the foreword described a classic scene from the early days of psychology field.
I don’t know Mike Monteiro or Vivianne Castillo. They sound like good people. I don’t know, and I might not care. We need more people from inside the industry saying these things.
The book spends most of its time critiquing the “evil” tech companies, their leadership, and the people who idolize them. When I read it, I kept thinking, “Thank goodness I don’t work there. My company has actually made the web a better place.” But my conscience still felt a degree of unease. I didn’t feel off the hook, and I recently realized why:
Those of us lucky enough to work on an honest, valuable, and resilient product aren’t exempt from the problem. We could still be in our own slowly flooding rooms. If we take our work for granted and just keep mopping along, one day, we will inevitably drown too.
When that happens, that’ll be one more part of the free internet dead without the walled gardens even having to do anything. The best defense is a good offense. We can fight all we want, but we have to make sure we’re strong, too.
In the early 1900’s, some psychiatric hospitals gauged patients’ readiness to integrate back into society through a simple and peculiar test. The patient was ushered into a room with a sink, where the hospital staff would place a plug in the sink, turn on the faucet, and wait for the sink to overflow. As water bubbled over the ledge and splashed onto the floor below, the patient was then handed a mop and the staff would leave the room, closing the door behind them. If the patient turned off the water, unplugged the sink, and mopped up the water that had spilled onto the floor, they were deemed as ready to go home and enter back into society. But if the patient opted to frantically mop as the water gushed over the sink, failing to turn off the faucet or remove the sink’s plug, they were deemed insane and prescribed more time in the psychiatric hospital: they failed to acknowledge and address the root of the problem.
Many of you in the tech industry are frantically mopping.
Starting my job at Automattic is bringing back many memories of my “origin story” on the web. Where in the past I brushed off what I did as a hobby, then pursued it as a way to make a living (not entirely by choice), then went full-heartedly into it as a vocation, I feel like I keep connecting the dots in my life backwards. Recently, I’ve tried to be more proactive about it. Instead of realizing something later–wondering why I didn’t pay attention to certain tendencies or things I gravitated to, I am being proactive. Down to what I put in my geek designer fanny pack.
For example, I’m choosing to make Mozilla Firefox my default browser again. To be fair, it was inferior for some years–but it was my default browser back when I used WordPress.org software for the first time. Then recently, I heard Jen Simmons talk about her role at Mozilla and some of the neat new features aimed at designing for the browser built into recent versions of Firefox (the inspector is superior to that of Chrome’s), so I made the switch. Listening to The Big Web Show was part of my official “Ok fine, I’ll be a designer” journey, and I had missed listening to that kind of banter–I just couldn’t get into listening to things produced by the [classical, elite, graphic] design community 😕, and maybe I should have taken that as a sign. (That being said I have been known to play episodes of Design Observer no-stop on the weekends while cleaning my house; a podcast that is essentially NPR for designers).
There’s also the bit about wanting to be more intentional about using good products made by smaller companies, and software from open-source, or open-source-adjacent projects too. It’s not to be completely smug about it–at some level, it’s just fun. The internet was getting boring, stale, and bland for me, and part of it was the fruit of me blindly saying “ok” to the [new Microsofts] in my life.
…now, let’s get rid of some of these silly add-ons. Some things never change ☺️.
“Firefox is made by Mozilla, the non-profit champions of a healthy internet. Mozilla also tackles issues like privacy, misinformation and trolling by investing in fellowships, campaigns and new technologies designed to make the internet healthier.”