Comment Writer Gwydion Elliott looks at our relationship with technology following the Android 12 update, discussing how recurring data breaches and politics have ruined technology, despite its potential for good

Images by Maxim Ilyahov

Android 12, Google’s latest mobile OS update, has just arrived on Pixel phones. While recent updates have felt like tweaks to an established system, this new arrival brings a radically different look to Android phones. Aiming to provide comfort and individuality while drawing on the natural world, this update is a window into the world of tech – what it means to us, what it could mean, and who is in control. 

The central new feature to Android 12 is the colour system, which picks out a palette of tones from your wallpaper and sprinkles them around the interface. No longer will your calculator or calendar app be the same as mine – instead they’ll be decorated with a colour scheme based on your wallpaper. Google’s design team hopes this will make using your phone feel more comfortable and individual. Beyond this, new animations and varied button shapes challenge the sterility of traditional user interfaces. Google’s new widgets are bold and eye-catching, their circular or even flower-like shapes a lively alternative to the iPhone’s rounded squares and rectangles. 

Over the past decade our relationship with tech has been soured time and time again

I do not think Google’s focus on creating a more personal and playful device is a coincidence. Over the past decade our relationship with tech has been soured time and time again. Edward Snowden leaked documents in 2013 which showed that governments around the world are spying on their citizens through their tech. In 2016 Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States after millions of voters were fed misinformation through Facebook, placing people in echo chambers of thought increasingly detached from reality. Just two months ago, Facebook’s own research was leaked, showing that they knew Instagram was linked to a host of mental health issues. There is a growing feeling that technology is pervading and controlling more and more parts of our lives. Android 12 is in part a response to this. 

Comfort, individuality, a return to the natural world – all these feelings stand in direct opposition with how tech can make us feel today. These are emblematic of what we want tech to be: helpful, intuitive, comfortable, and above all else, human. We do not want to be reminded of privacy breaches, fake news and corporate monopolies. In replacing sterile interfaces with ones brightened by colour, individuality and natural shapes, maybe we can feel more at home while using our phones.

It’s not out of the question, but I must say I doubt it. The designs really are lovely, but no UI overhaul can actually fix the underlying issues of our relationship with tech. On top of that the design change looks less like a rethink of how it should feel to use a phone and more like a rethink of Google’s own brand, when you consider that Google’s apps and services are the ones being updated. Facebook will most likely still look like Facebook, Instagram will still be Instagram, and we will still be using these apps and functions in exactly the same way. It seems most likely that Google’s strategy here is to simply create a new brand image, one which uses personalised colours and organic forms to distinguish itself from the competition and give users the impression that only Google truly knows them. We will have to wait and see how the operating system develops, but my instinct is that this is simply new and very pretty packaging for our same old relationship with tech.

This space can feel sterile, and free of autonomy, and yet nobody seems to know what else the internet could look like

The world of the internet is highly corporatized – all communication and social interaction, as well as self-expression and commerce, is mediated by a handful of extremely large corporations. These corporations provide services in the hope that you will agree to let them profile you and sell tailored ad space to advertisers. This space can feel sterile, and free of autonomy, and yet nobody seems to know what else the internet could look like – what architectures, spaces and forms of creation could exist in an internet owned by the public. That is because there has been no space for us to try, no gaps between the corporations where different spaces could flourish. I think this gap is what Android 12 hopes to respond to. It creates the image of a more human tech ecosystem, while being itself an update produced by one of the largest internet corporations which currently sits at the epicentre of web navigation, a company which thrives by generating enormous profits from the collection and sale of users’ data. 

I do not mean to lump all this blame and animosity on Google’s UI designers. They have done a great job creating an attractive and unique update, which feels like a breath of fresh air amidst very repetitive styles. But the update does present an opportunity to think more deeply about what tech is, and what we want it to be. The aesthetic change helps highlight the corporatisation of internet space, as well as its deep and often troubling links to our politics and mental health. And in that sense nothing has changed; just a fresh coat of paint on the same old rusty car.  

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