TL;DR: The mobile screen is a safe-space, a cocoon of familiarity. To be accepted in you have to design for uninformation: negentropy.

The other week I attended the API World conference in San Jose. API stands for application programming interface, which provides “a set of functions and procedures allowing the creation of applications that access the features or data of an operating system, application, or other service.” Basically, it’s a great way to get computer systems and services to talk to one another. MuleSoft has a great explainer video on this. Let’s call it computer-to-computer communication, or C2C for short.

In recent years, API has turned from an acronym into the proper noun API First, which is a business model. API First is basically platform-as-a-service (PaaS), but the infrastructure is software—pure IP—rather than hardware. API First companies enjoy the highest valuation multiple, surpassing any other aaS.

As the article states:

For fast-moving developers building on a global-scale, APIs are no longer a stop-gap to the future—they’re a critical part of their strategy. Why would you dedicate precious resources to recreating something in-house that’s done better elsewhere when you can instead focus your efforts on creating a differentiated product?

Thanks to this mindset shift, APIs are on track to create another SaaS-sized impact across all industries and at a much faster pace. By exposing often complex services as simplified code, API-first products are far more extensible, easier for customers to integrate into, and have the ability to foster a greater community around potential use cases.

At the conference I immediately noticed something: it’s the quietest conference I’ve ever been to. And that’s with 6,000 people in attendance. Quiet, of course, is relative; there was conference noise, but people didn’t really talk to one another. Instead, they were glued to their screens. That in and of itself isn’t unique in today’s society, but it was remarkable for a learning and networking event.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss this observation when considering the attendee persona: 6,000 people who make computers talk to one another. This is all they do, all day long.

However, the next day I took a shared Lyft to Facebook, to meet up for lunch with a former mentee. In the car were two other passengers, exclusively glued to their mobile screens Even just greeting my co-riders made the entire situation awkward. One of the riders needed to be dropped off at the Google campus, where I witnessed the same scene: almost everyone outside, who was either sitting or walking somewhere, was glued to their screen. Even when walking with others (bicycle riders, thankfully, were still paying attention to traffic). Then, at Facebook, yet another mirror image of this behavior across campus.

Again, there are some persona similarities here: Google and Facebook are platform companies, and their APIs are heavily leveraged across the internet.

But, there was another key cohort in the mix: millennials.

The second half of the Millennial generation are the first digital natives. They grew up with an always-on internet, Yahoo, AOL Instant Messenger, etc. Along with Gen Z, they now live inside Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat, and other social platforms. It’s the only world they know and human-to-human (H2H) interactions with strangers are often unwelcome, awkward (see above), and frequently even unnerving.

Theories of Human Communication

In 1948, Claude Shannon published his paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” turned into the book “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” a year later. The book itself created information theory, which mathematically defines how information can be measured. If you want to understand the internet, the book is an excellent read—or, it could just really bore you to death.

But beyond measuring entropy and redundancy, information theory has to be understood in the larger communication context:

Information is a measure of uncertainty, or entropy, in a situation. The greater the uncertainty, the more the information. When a situation is completely predictable, no information is present. This is a condition known as negentropy. Most people associate information with certainty of knowledge; consequently, this definition from information theory can be confusing. As used by the information theorist, the concept does not refer to a message, facts, or meaning. It’s a concept bound only to the quantification of stimuli or signals in the situation. (“Theories of Human Communication,” Third Edition)

A New Reality

While information theory is a mathematical concept that does not refer to a message, facts, or meaning, I believe it does inform us on today’s society, which I call “Screeners” (people glued to their screens). Screeners cut across generations, but are increasingly found in recent generations, in the following ascending order: GenX (1965-79), Millennials (1980-94), Gen Z (1995-2015). But Gen Z has yet to meaningfully enter the workforce.

As noted above, these generations have trouble with human communication. By human, I mean verbal, real-time, human-to-human exchanges that can include strangers. This can include telephone conversations, so these exchanges do not have to be face-to-face, but they’re definitely not asynchronous like screen exchanges. Verbal communication necessitates an immediate response. Whereas, while messaging does appear to be real-time, nothing in the social protocol dictates that responses need to be immediate, although often they are.

But why can’t recent generations handle reality anymore; or why are they creating a new reality? There is probably a progression of factors, but at least one seems to be parenting. Helicopter parenting, an extreme form of living vicariously through your children to give them the best opportunity at a life better than yours, was probably an early harbinger. Strangely, it apparently works. This was followed by Lawnmower parenting, also known as Bulldozer or Snowplow parenting, where parents go to extremes to assure that their child will never experience disappointment or have to make a choice.

One [child] didn’t like to eat food with sauce. Her whole life, her parents had helped her avoid sauce, calling friends before going to their houses for dinner. At college, she didn’t know how to cope with the cafeteria options — covered in sauce. (NYT)

But the biggest influence is probably behavior design, “…where psychology and technology meet – a systematic way to influence a desired behavior, one step at a time. (Peep Laja)” What the Smashing Magazine and Peep’s articles are saying, is that designers and developers have figured out what makes us tick. Effective behavior design can be as addictive as crack cocaine. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be this way; behavior design can be used for either good (“Ethical Design”) or evil (“Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us Into Temptation”).

Why is this important? Because the world’s largest companies by market capitalization are platform companies, many of which operate social networks. One of them dropped its mantra of “Don’t Be Evil” from its code of conduct (you may also want to google, teehee, Tristan Harris or Meredith Whittaker). And two others, Facebook and Tencent (WeChat), who have minimal user overlap, have virtually digitally enslaved over half the planet with behavior design, preying on our frail human psyche.

So, that genie is out of the bottle; there is no going back. If you want to be successful in digital design you must incorporate behavior design (duh!). But that doesn’t mean you must use behavior design for exploitation. It does, however, mean that you have to design for uninformation: negentropy.

It doesn’t matter if you are in B2B or B2C, or their variants, there is no more human-to-human (H2H). People are freaked out being addressed as humans, which requires thought and analysis for response. You are not designing or developing your APIs and applications for humans. You are designing and developing for their devices, for their screens, for one computer to talk to another computer. For the recipient, situations must be completely predictable, be devoid of change (“information”).

You are optimizing for C2C. H2H has simply become marketing B.S.