When the Internet becomes for each of us exactly what we bring to it

The human body by @WorldandScience

The Internet is neither good nor bad. It’s neutral—it becomes for each of us exactly what we bring to it. In our real life and our internet life, we live inside whatever we build. – Glennon Doyle Melton

I would like to believe that the above quotation from Doyle Melton is true and perhaps it is but not quite in the ways we expect.

Back in 2008, I did a usability review of a food pump, the Fresenius Applix Smart food pump to be precise. It frustrated me and I wanted to think about it from a usability point of view (which was my job before I turned peritoneal dialysis nurse for my baby). Sad and afraid, I wanted to analyse my frustrations.

This post unleashed a torrent of abuse unlike anything I had ever experienced online before or since. The stuff people thought was ok to write at the bottom of the blogpost, just because it pressed all their buttons, was amazing. I stand by the review it is measured and balanced – but aha, do I? No, I don’t. I haven’t kept it up online. The comments contained personal attacks on me: rude, offensive stuff about me as a human being, as a usability consultant, and as a food pump user.

I tried to remain open-hearted. I read each comment and responded on and offline. People admitted: yes, there were problems with the pump; yes, the problems I had named; yes, if it was being used on the heavy unstable stand next to a child or a fragile person and it fell on them, then yes, it could kill them; and yes, it was irritating being woken up by it… and so on. However, responding like this was exhausting and in the end, it was easier to take down the blogpost, than have to do that each time, even though it is a thorough usability critique of a flawed design.

And, I know this in my heart too, because it sat next to the Baxter peritoneal dialysis machine which was a master class in excellent design. I always wanted to write a blogpost about it too, but even tonight as I think about the machine we slept next to for 20 months to keep our baby alive, I am surprised by the tears in my eyes. No, I don’t want to write a review and potentially bring down another fierce, murky investigation into a painful part of my life.  But, we did swap foodpumps and it was miles better – a bit 70s style but much better. Alas, I can’t remember what that one was called, I should have reviewed that too, for completeness sake, and seen what happened.

Did I attract all that horrible energy to my website?

So, the main question I am asking is: If the Internet becomes for each of us exactly what we bring to it, did I attract all that horrible energy to my website? Perhaps, I did.

I voiced my frustrations and I got back in return lots of frustrations, not about the pump itself because it helped their lives and they were quite loyal to it, but they were projection rants and I very easily became the problem. I was an easy scapegoat. I understand that, because eating and drinking are fantastic activities I love to engage in, and if I couldn’t do that so easily and needed a foodpump, well I would be really sad, but glad at the same time that I had something to help me. However, I would never go online and abuse someone because I feel sad. This is because, ultimately I own my impact, as davidji says. Or do I? Did I own it the day I pressed publish? Or older and wiser, is it something I see that I learnt, starting that day?

Three things before pressing publish

Thinking again about that blog, what do I think now? Doyle Melton has three pieces of advice to help me: 1. Remember, you are what you post. 2. Post with intention 3. Dispense compassion.

1. Remember you are what you post

All I had in me at that time were my frustrations, my sadness, and my fear which @Iyanla Vanzant says underlies all the painful feelings like hate and anger. So, guess what showed up? Fearful, painful feelings of hate and anger all over my blog to echo right back all the pain in my heart. That open heart of mine, which really was so wounded and which I held up to the Internet to completely get shot at. I could have protected it, protected me, and waited until the day I could have shared in a more empowering way.

2. Post with intention

I definitely had an intention and it wasn’t good. It was to tell that Fresenius and give them a piece of my mind.

In a former life (one before the scary one) I could have performed usability testing right across a broad spectrum of patients in-situ to find out what was really going on and what everyone thought, in a professional manner, in order to provide insight and potential for improvement.

There is a 1 in a million chance of a baby being born with renal failure, so, I am not sure they are the target market for this food pump. But, you know what, in a former life, I wouldn’t have wanted to do that job. I would have been too angry and too scared to witness other people’s pain.

So why did I want to do that job, now? Because, I was angry, I was scared, and I wanted a witness for my pain. I wanted to not to have to use the pump. I wanted to breastfeed my child and hold her in my arms all night; not have her hooked up to two machines which I couldn’t detach her from without washing my hands for 20 minutes. I wanted a child with working kidneys and I wasn’t going to get that off the Internet. I was on my knees with exhaustion praying for a miracle, praying for hope and love (which is the very definition of a miracle given by A Course in Miracles). The miracle came a long time later, just not in the form I wanted. It came with fear, anger, and denial, and taught me hope and love, but that is another story.

3. Dispense compassion

Melton Doyle says seek to understand rather than be understood (rather like mystic St Francis of Assisi’s Prayer) and listen to others, which is something I know for sure. I say it in every blog – we all want to be seen, felt, heard. @daniellelaporte puts it so succinctly: We all want to be experienced. But, it begins with ourselves, because if I had been listening to myself that night perhaps I wouldn’t have been so eager to get validation online and open myself up to a whole load of criticism reflecting something I put out and something I was constantly giving myself. Constantly! The strain I was under was immense, I just couldn’t see it, and I just couldn’t forgive myself. All I could do was criticise myself for doing things sometimes with fear and anger and pain that were just too much for me to bear.

Be the change you want to see

You can only listen to others when you listen to yourself first, because then you are certain of what you believe and it is in those moments when you stand in your own compassion, your own listening, and your own heart, that you can see what people are saying is really all about themselves, like what you are saying is all about you and there is very little connection. We all have our pain and wounds. But, the connection comes when in that moment that you can be self-aware and lean in and give them what they need. Other times you have to be aware that sometimes people will ask too much from you and you need to judge what you can give (you may even have to run away, and run you should, run as quickly as you can). But, until you can give with great strength, then keep it off line and look after yourself, because sometimes the Internet is just another far too easy option for us when we go looking for love and hope in all the wrong places, armed only with words that don’t contain any love and hope for anyone who shares our pain.

Trusting technology, ourselves, and others

Trust is a feeling of confidence or conviction that things can unfold within a dependable framework that embodies order and integrity. The feeling state of trust is important to cultivate in a mindful practice.  -John Kabat-Zinn

In the olden days in Kerala, India, so the story goes, when a new bridge was opened, the architect responsible, and his family, would stand under the bridge whilst a herd of elephants would walk across the top.

Nowadays, we have design standards and systems by law, as well as extensive testing and simulation. In safety critical software systems, like those used in aeronautics and medicine, we build redundancy, duplication and fail-safes so that we trust that we have enough time to intervene and prevent a disaster in the event of system malfunction. Back then the architect and family had no choice but to have the four essential trusts (in self, life, God, others) which spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant talks about in her book Trust.

But can technology emulate trust? The following urban myth is still doing the rounds, and raises a laugh even today, I sometimes tell it in lectures when I am talking about software engineering:

Seminar leader: Imagine you were on a plane, sitting on the tarmac and you found out that your software team had written the software which controls the plane. How many of you would immediately get off the plane?  [Everyone’s hands but one go up.]

Seminar leader: Wow you must really believe in your team.

Answer: Are you kidding me? With my team the plane would never make it down the runway.

When I worked with architects and engineers, trust was an issue which came up time and again. They would never use a piece of software if they didn’t know exactly what it was doing, even if the result seemed right. The stakes were too high.  I have to trust it was a recurring theme.

Trust in tech: Computer says no

As designers, we want people to trust and collaborate with the software we create and, we do that with the usual ways talked about in human-computer interaction: usability, user agency, robustness, transparency, observability, familiarity. We have Ben Schneiderman’s (or Spiderman’s, as one of my students wrote in an exam once) eight golden rules of interface design, originally dialog box design – because that is what we are doing – having a dialogue with a computer. These rules cover: consistency, shortcuts, feedback, closure, error prevention/handling, undo, internal locus of control, and short term memory reduction. And there are many more of managing user input (see the design theory series).

But does it convince the user? To which the answer is, well that depends on the user and their relationship with uncertainty.

Mathmo Trust: The Erdos discrepancy

Mathematicians are a little bit more relaxed about uncertainty and acknowledge that they are doing their best with the tools available. This is demonstrated by the Erdos discrepancy which is basically: Well we know there is likely to be an error in there somewhere, but it’s good enough for now to help us to get to where we want to be.

Normally, though when looking at mathematics we look for accountability in peer reviewed journals. We look to the history of the proof to see how it has been used in the past and how we can trust it. In the same way that with Blockchain you look at the ledger and you have accountability.

What is trust anyway?

At the bottom of any trust issue is the fear of someone, or some tech, or ourselves being found out as inadequate.  It is mainly ourselves though. I have seen many people not attempt things, from not using a computer, not doing a coursework, not sitting an exam, not having a conversation, the list is endless. All because that person fears that they will be found out as inadequate, because with the fear of inadequacy, comes the fear of rejection. 

Research done by social psychologist, Ray Baumeister, has shown that it is enough to for us to anticipate being rejected, and we will begin to make unhealthy choices (like not doing something) and start to believe that we are worth less.

A definition

Trust is one of those words that has no corresponding picture like table, chair or orange does, and since our learning is contextually conditioned, we make a connection to our first experience of a given word. Consequently, trust is like beauty, truth, joy in that it means different things to different people. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Due to our semiotic desire to create meaning from polarities: light and dark, joy and pain, it is logical that we reach for heartbreak in order to remember love and  for rejection to remember acceptance.  And, because we are embodied, we interpret all our future experiences through the lens of the first one. So, if you have had your trust violated at a young age, it can be nigh on impossible to trust again. This is because you don’t trust the new experience to turn out any different, so you misbehave and alienate yourself from others, thus proving that you were right.

Trusting others

Google’s Aristotle project researched what makes a perfect team and found that the key factor was psychological safety which is the confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

We all want to feel safe, and feel connected. It is the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We want to trust people and we have to feel safe in a relationship in order for us to be ok. Otherwise we feel inadequate. Once that begins we then attack others with our criticism, because defensiveness helps us to regain some equilibrium. However, I am with Nina Simone on this one:

You’ve got to learn to leave the table
When love’s no longer being served
To show everybody that you’re able
To leave without saying a word

Trusting ourselves

Iyanla Vanzant poses these questions:

  1. Do you trust your own voice?
  2. Do you trust that you can hear the voice of God?
  3. Do you trust yourself to see and hear what others are really saying and doing?
  4. Do you trust (no matter how hard it may be) that there are no mistakes in life?

The voice of God and trusting life is often a step too far for many people. But, at the very least trusting our own voice is necessary. This involves knowing ourselves and knowing what happens when your buttons get pressed.

It is also very important to be present in any given moment to allow yourself the opportunity to really see what other people are saying and doing, not what you think they might be saying and doing.

And finally, when people do demonstrate how they behave, whether they are good to you, or careless with you, it is important to learn that. Do not assume that they will/can/want to, behave any other way. Rather like software, we are all programmed to respond in certain ways. And, we can trust that people will behave as they always do. People will not behave differently just because we want them to.

As Maya Angelou once put it:

When people show you who they are, believe them.