Happiness: a ‘Tesign’ for life

Feature Story

Happiness can be hard to come by. Since Aristotle walked the streets of ancient Athens preaching the good life, the search for happiness has fed the imagination and driven innovation. Can our contemporary world of high-tech connectivity provide the satisfaction we have always sought? “Tesign” - the combination of technology and design - is here to help

A fleeting feeling of warmth, a hit of serotonin, happiness is a slippery concept. It is the feeling of wellbeing that comes from good health, but it is also the feeling of satisfaction that comes from overindulgence. Happiness is the comfort of safety and security, but it is also the rush of reckless risk-taking.
“Tesign” really can improve our lives, offering access to unlimited information and creating opportunities to build new types of community, maybe even freeing us from manual labour and in some imagined scenarios, leading us to a life of ease and… happiness.

Enhanced communications technologies such as instant messaging, the free flow of data offered by open data and the automation of manual work by robotics may seem to make this future inevitable. In the most optimistic speculative worlds, “tesign” will lead us to the technological Eden imagined by the poet Richard Brautigan; “Where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature ... and all watched over by machines of loving grace.”

But “tesign” offers a double-edged sword; the filmmaker Adam Curtis ironically adopted the closing lines of Brautigan’s poem as the title of his documentary in which he argues that technologies invented to liberate humankind have instead “Distorted and simplified our view of the world around us.” The promise of happiness is exploited to fix our eyeballs on social networks in the name of driving up advertising viewership. The online world can be a hotbed of untruths and misinformation, it can be an incubator for doubt and insecurity. The needs of the individual become almost irrelevant in systems designed around big data. AI and automation leave workers fearing for the future of their jobs. The happiness “tesign” promises to deliver may not be addictive in itself, but it can certainly drive addictive behaviours - a phenomenon that has shaped the design of our online lives.

Ultimately, the choice between these two visions of “tesign”, and these two versions of happiness is our own to make as individuals and as communities. The technology is out there to be used; we can become uncritical consumers of information and producers of data, or we can harness the opportunities offered by “tesign” on our own terms. Humanity’s never-ending search for happiness will continue to drive forward the development of new technology.

Over the following pages we will hear from individuals who give serious thought to the effect that technology has on their personal happiness. And we will look at cities where technology is being exploited to positive effect, with the aim of generating higher levels of happiness to the benefit of the whole community.