The software of regret

Computing should enable us to have richer lives; it shouldn’t become life.

At a recent meeting, Tim O’Reilly, referring to the work of Tristan Harris and Joe Edelman, talked about “software of regret.” It’s a wonderfully poetic phrase that deserves exploring.

For software developers, the software of regret has some very clear meanings. There’s always software that’s written poorly and incurs too much technical debt that is never paid back. There’s the software you wrote before you knew what you were doing, but never had time to fix; the software that you wrote under an inflexible and unrealistic schedule; and those three lines of code that are an awful hack, but you couldn’t get to work any other way.

That’s not what Tim was talking about, though. The software of regret is software that you use for an hour or two, and then hate yourself for using it. Facebook? Candy Crush? Tumblr? Words with Friends? YouTube? Pick your own; they’re fun for a while, but after a couple of hours, you wonder where the evening went and wish you had done something worthwhile. It’s software that only views us as targets for marketing: as views, eyeballs, and clicks. Can we change the metrics? As Edelman says, rather than designing to maximize clicks and page views, can we design to maximize fulfillment? Could Facebook measure friendships nurtured, rather than products liked?

Computing should enable us to have richer lives; it shouldn’t become life. That’s really what the software of regret is all about: taking over your life and preventing you from engaging with a world that is ultimately a lot richer than a flat, but high-resolution, screen. It’s certainly harder to avoid writing the software of regret than it is to avoid writing spaghetti code that will make your life miserable when the bug reports start rolling in. But probably more important. Do stuff that matters.

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  • I’m reminded of the quote, often misattributed to Bertrand Russell, “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time”.

    This post seems like a rather harsh remonstration. Is there any significant medium for which the primary metrics are not driven by marketing, vs. a quest for fulfillment? And how would one define effective metrics for fulfillment? I suspect that all of the example applications listed above have contributed some measure of fulfillment to some of their users.

    While there may be a few common themes in what matters to most people, many aspects of mattering seem highly subjective (to me).

    • Mike Loukides

      That’s true, though there’s time you enjoy wasting and time that you just waste, and regret afterwards. That’s an important distinction. And it doesn’t matter that it’s subjective. Subjective is important; we don’t have to agree about what’s valuable and what’s wasteful.

      But what I object to is the sense that these organizations (Facebook in particular) see me purely as the target for marketing. When you do that, you’ve really stopped thinking about offering me non-regretful value, whatever that value might be. You’re just thinking about the next click.

  • precise

    hmm for that you may need
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