The Digital Place You Love Is Gone: Loss in Hyperspace

Progress has an impact on our selves…not just physical progress, but digital as well. Our field of user experience certainly focuses on progress. I’m interested in “at what cost.”

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So, I am starting with a great book by the wonderful Melissa Holbrook Pierson: the Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home. She talks about how important place is to us…and what we experience when it changes, and changes drastically. “Cognitive maps, formed by the brain upon first viewing a place, really don’t like to be changed,” she writes.

Her other books like The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles and The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road also deal with place, self, and change as well. Core to her ongoing thesis, she writes in Place: “Deep down, my home, my cradle, is still where it always was. Your home is still within you, the box it made and then hid inside.”

I’m also heavily indebted to the great Pervasive IA that Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati put out last year, especially Chapter 4, “Place-making.” As they write, “Place-making is the capability of a pervasive IA model to help users reduce disorientation, build a sense of place, and increase legibility and way-finding across digital, physical, and cross-channel environments.”

Sometimes those memories have to do with family, with friends, with people…but usually people in a place. In effect, I’m using the working definition of ‘place’ as being the intersection or the amalgamation perhaps of ‘place’ (in a physical or digital sense) and ‘time,’ usually duration. So a sense of place exists because we spent time in that physical surrounding.

Memory is core to our sense of self. In “Easy to Slip,” Lowell George of Little Feat writes about that loss: “All the people you can’t recall. Do they really exist at all?” Our sense of self is tied to our sense of place. What happens when we return to those places, and they’re changed. Do those people really exist at all anymore?

Our sense of self is strongly tied to place. Many of us can tie memory to a mall or house or synagogue. Here is where you had your first kiss, there is where you shoplifted a bag of Swedish Fish with Frieda Jones and almost got caught….and when progress radically alters that landscape, we are lost.
[insert image 3, Azalea Mall]

Now, the place you loved is so much broken signage, disappeared, non-existent shops, broken pavement, or at worst, simply nothingness. Atreyu lost. The Nothing won.

Altered landscapes affect our cognitive processes, whether physical or digital landscapes. At one time, this is what folks longed for. Even Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan reflected its meme, now long forgotten. And, sometimes, our digital home just gets bulldozed. Sometimes we look back with fondness at our first forays into a digital anchor.

How many remember TheFacebook? Then renovation radically refaces our home. When several of these changes happened, lots of folks expressed their anger. And when it moves the line even further afield, frustration, loss, and anger bubble up to the fore.

“What we are is where we have been.” Pierson nails it, and it applies strongly to our sense of place digitally. So we pine for a nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. The impending suburbanification of the digital experience promises to fragment our relationship with our digital homes. As carriers fragment connectivity with paywalls and tiered services, that sense of place breaks down.

Some firms have been thinking ‘out of the box,’ or, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s words, they’ve been “destroying the box.” Working at radically altering how we think about debt, tasks, and time, Ready for Zero, Clear, and Harvest App all have done some wonderful things in reinventing how folks handle these interactions. They are, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s vernacular, “destroying the box.”

It’s all great stuff. Responsive and adaptive design approaches combined with ubiquitous computers and pervasive information architecture yield wonderfully future-oriented visions. Yet at some point, don’t we just wanna go back in time? Strains of Huey Lewis waft somewhere behind us.

We remember the scene in ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ where Napoleon tries out Uncle Rico’s time machine purchased off the Internet. As viewers, we know what a ridiculous concept this is. Most people guffaw when Napoleon is electrocuting himself, yelling at Kipp to turn it off, then exclaiming, “This thing doesn’t work!” Yet the real pathos is Uncle Rico coming out of his room, holding his groin, and moaning, “I coulda told you that.”

The pathos is that Rico wanted to go back to that moment in the ’70s when he felt so alive, and when he had so many possibilities. He wanted to believe. He was willing to electrocute himself because he wanted to go back to that moment. And so at the end of every hard-working day, people find some reason to believe.

What We Can Do

Mitigating this sense of loss takes a long-term approach to design sensibilities. While much of our work concentrates on the New, the Now, and the Nascent, we ignore digital loss at our users’ peril. As I ponder this area, I’ve come up with these guiding (and, alas, overlapping) principles that seem to help me:

  1. Realize the effects that design changes have on users – Realize what your design decisions will do to any existing experiences or mental models. Will users really miss the current version of your tool? If you’re eliminating a tool, do you have an obligation to let folks know where they can go? Should Geocities have directed users elsewhere? Should Apple direct folks to tools when iWeb disappears?;
  2. Avoid unintended design disjunct – Think about how the design approach affects folks. Don’t create a disjunct in your design such that folks get angry, frustrated, sad, confused, or just distraught;
  3. Know that we all will wanna go home, go back in time – Allow for graceful return to previous versions. When it’s not possible, provide sufficient time for a move to that new version.

I’m not finished with this thread. Yet riffing off Pierson, Resmini, and Rosati puts me in good company as I attempt to solve the loss in hyperspace.

Joe Sokohl

For somewhere around 20 years, Joe Sokohl (principal at Regular Joe Consulting, LLC) has concentrated on crafting excellent user experiences. He helps teams effectively integrate appropriate user experience into product development. He is a cofounder of RUX and served on the board of directors of the Interaction Design Association.

2 comments on this article

  1. Kristopher Kinlen on

    +1 for The Neverending Story reference. Great article!

  2. Salik Shah on

    Nostalgia can be a great ‘feature.’ Who knows, Joe, just like folding camera or handmade animation, the charm of old web ‘techne’ might lure some brilliant minds to come up with cool stuff in the days to come?