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Digital Literacy

Digital Detox 2020/6: Aesthetics and attention

By Dr. Jeni Henrickson, Instructional Designer, DLINQ

Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

— W. S. Merwin

Digital detox: that space between an unrelenting rush of words and imagery, and absolute silence.

Digital spaces often overwhelm us with color and sound and emotion-filled rhetoric at every click. It can be difficult to filter out junk from that kernel of data which you seek — not to mention, difficult to filter reality from fiction.

As Dr. Amy Collier and Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak expressed in earlier posts in this series, I view digital detox as a kind of in-between space — not a complete silencing of the digital, but rather an opportunity to remove all things “toxic” while retaining digital elements that I personally find joyful or helpful. I am particularly interested in the aesthetics of our digital worlds — the use of imagery, sound, flow, and emotion that capture and hold (or, alternately, distract) our attention. The manipulation of these aesthetics (and the data behind them), which is increasingly being used to defraud and divide us, is a major concern, however.

Though aesthetics, at its narrowest, may be viewed as a philosophy of art and beauty, it goes well beyond the visual look of something. In the world of user experience (UX) design, for example, aesthetics includes the full range of interactions experienced in a digital space or with a product, from form to function to flow (including structure, navigation, and movement through, or interactions with/in, the digital space or object — with the ideal flow state being complete immersion in the activity at hand — see the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

Products that the Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction give as examples embodying a positive aesthetic experience include Philips’ Wake-Up Light, which simulates the gradual rising of the sun, slowly brightening in intensity over a half-hour, and an alarm clock that mimics the chirping of birds rather than jarring you from sleep with an unearthly beeping.

Apple provided us with the iPhone in 2007, the first exclusively touch-based personal device, bringing a new type of aesthetic to a widespread audience. And virtual reality devices today are introducing an entirely different level of aesthetic experience to our digital worlds.

Aesthetics are not about making something “pretty,” but rather about making things more appealing, functional, accessible, and enjoyable, while concurrently decreasing cognitive load (the amount of strain put on working memory while engaging in an activity). A thoughtful consideration of aesthetics when designing digital spaces and products can help focus the user’s attention on the item or experience at hand, minimize distractions, and lead to more memorable and pleasant interactions or experiences, along with deeper learning.

I personally view aesthetics in design as things impacting our emotions and senses — images, sounds, tactile interactions (touch devices), smells, flavors, or things that evoke these sensations. Words are both auditory and visual in my world. Poetry, for example, can impact me in a similar way that a powerful photograph does, and the choice of an illegible font in online text can inhibit my engagement with a written piece to the point where I stop reading a post that might otherwise be enlightening.

What serves as an appealing aesthetic can vary widely from person to person. I invite readers to consider what their personal aesthetic is. For example, are you energized by color and motion and fast-paced dialogue, or do you prefer quiet and focused discussions and minimal visual distraction? What life experiences do you think have influenced your aesthetic? Did you grow up in a big city, on a remote farm, in mountains, in desert? The geography of our lived spaces influences our aesthetic.

Artic expedition pulking toward Thor
Photo by Matthew Whalen of our expedition team crossing Baffin Island in Arctic Canada.

For me, time spent in wilderness, particularly Arctic wilderness, has influenced my aesthetic. The Arctic is an exceedingly diverse area teeming with all sorts of life, not to mention diverse groups of people who have inhabited its many regions for thousands upon thousands of years. On a cursory glance, however, photos seem to show the region only as a frozen white land, barren of life, with the exception of a lone polar bear here and there. It is the image that predominates when you search “Arctic” on the web.

I encourage you to think about your digital spaces in similar terms as you do physical ones. Not everyone identifies with nature or the outdoors as a safe, quiet, or focused space, for example. For some, wilderness is scary, stressful, and full of hidden danger. What do safe spaces look and feel and sound like to you? What holds your attention in a positive way? What types of imagery and noise trigger fear or stress?

I find that when I intentionally seek out spaces (both physical and digital) that speak to my personal aesthetic, not only do they get my undivided attention, they bring me the most joy, focus, clarity, and growth. Though these spaces in my physical world often take the shape of wilderness areas, I also find them in cities: in gardens, parks, art museums, libraries, small cafes, and meandering paths along waterways (rivers, streams, lakes, oceans).

In my digital world, these spaces take the form of clean designs with powerful targeted imagery, intuitive or playful flow, legible type, adequate white space, responsivity to different-sized devices, clear content focus, and minimal distractions (no ads, auto-popups, visual clutter, background noise, or abuse of color). Some examples of learning sites that I’ve worked on that employ my personal aesthetic include Raptor Lab and EarthXplorers.

No matter what your personal aesthetic is, here are some ways you can alter the aesthetic experience of digital spaces (and help mute attention-seeking gimmicks), without completely shutting out the digital world:

  • Be aware of deceptive web practices and attention gimmicks and report them. Deceptive practices include disguised ads, forced continuity, and friend spam. Check out Dark Patterns for more examples and suggested responses. The Data Detox Kit by Tactical Tech also offers some great advice and tips on this topic, as well as other ways to detoxify your digital world.
  • Turn off auto-play to mute unwanted noise and motion. You can choose this in settings for some social media, and in web browsers as well.
  • Use an ad and privacy blocker to get rid of visual noise and unwanted tracking. DLINQ recommends Privacy Badger, Ghostery, and Disconnect.
  • Mute your devices or turn off sound. I personally keep my phone always muted. I recommend watching videos and movie scenes with sound off, too. It will give you a new perspective on what’s being communicated.
  • Turn off likes in your social media. You can do this in Facebook and Twitter, for example. Instagram has been slowly rolling out turning off like views for accounts beyond your own, so users can’t see how many likes each other’s images or videos have gotten. I find this refreshing. I am not a fan of using “likes” in learning spaces, especially.
  • Read a (print) book or listen to an audio book. Reduce eye strain and hyperlink distractions, while experiencing a totally different aesthetic.
  • Pause before you react to anything online. Try not to let inflammatory images, videos, or text set you off. Take a deep breath and ask yourself if this is just someone trying to stir your emotions. Investigate the source to assess authenticity.
  • Read up on algorithms and machine bias. I recommend checking out ProPublica’s selection of articles on Machine Bias, and Project Information Literacy’s Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms.
  • Mute notifications on all your devices. Be deliberate as to when you check email or other messages. And put away digital devices when engaging in conversation with others, sharing a meal, etc.
  • Seek silence daily, even in short doses. Find a quiet spot at home, outdoors, in a library or cafe, wherever you can shut out distractions that most stress you.
Did you miss the first five Digital Detox 2020 articles? View them on our blog

Did you miss our 2019 Detox articles? View them on the Digital Detox webpage

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Digitally Detox by Using A Critical Focus

Featured image by Dr. Jeni Henrickson, DLINQ

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