What a Dutch street intersection can teach us about social interaction design

Sebastian Greger

Do you remember the times before mobile phones and the internet? The most instant technology for distance communication was the land-line telephone: Devices were spread out around the country, connected by wires, and a voice connection could be established between them by entering a numerical code.

Yet, this simple technology allowed for a stunningly rich variety of interactions, serving a wide array of human communication needs - all based on mutual, verbal negotiation of the interacting parties (often you first had to have yourself handed on to the intended person by some other household member).

Those were the days when interaction chiefly meant humans talking to humans. Today, an abundance of complex abstraction layers is available to mediate through ever more specific channels: BBQ invitations are sent out through systems that reduce participation intent to attending/maybe/no, joy over a friend’s new job is expressed by pressing “like buttons” and family news are announced by sharing photographs with hundreds of what prevailing platforms refer to as “friends”.

Spaces for self-organizing interaction

Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman is best known for popularizing “Shared spaces”, the design of urban spaces where traffic self-organizes based on its participants’ interaction rather than signs and traffic lights.


Tom Vanderbilt shares a quote from a visit to Monderman’s entirely sign-free “squareabout” in the Dutch town of Drachten:

“When government takes over the responsibility from citizens, the citizens can’t develop their own values anymore,” he told me. “So when you want people to develop their own values in how to cope with social interactions between people, you have to give them freedom.”

This reminds of the way “social media” has developed from the simple phone call to today’s online platforms: What we have built around ourselves is an increasingly complex system of tools that bear the risk of limiting social interaction by pushing it into prefabricated molds.

When looking at the current development, it often appears to be considered a desirable state to have human interaction, with all its facets and nuances, reduced to such encounters that can be pressed into the database architecture of an application or platform.

The risks of oversimplified models

The social online space is based on just the kind of traffic signs Monderman eliminated in his design: They are the attempt to force users into using only the crosswalks painted on the ground, rather than crossing the street where they see fit (with the surrounding traffic adjusting to it).

“You are not a gadget”, Jaron Lanier titled his 2010 manifesto. In the introduction, he describes the consequences of the reduction of instrument sounds to a limited range of MIDI notes when that model of translating music into binary data was developed:

By now, MIDI has become too hard to change, so the culture has changed to make it seem fuller than it was initially intended to be. We have narrowed what we expect from the most commonplace forms of musical sound in order to make the technology adequate. (Lanier 2012, p. 10)

Even a count-down animation cannot prevent jaywalking (seen in Bilbao)

Human sociality reducing itself to a state where the limited modes of interaction provided by “social platforms” seem fuller than they are - a scary vision.

What is needed is a refocus on a direction where we remove the “intended points of crossing the street” by tearing down the traffic lights and instead provide truly “shared spaces”. We need to reconsider whether creating a huge MIDI-like structure for social interaction is really a desirable state?

When we ask people to live their lives through our models, we are potentially reducing life itself (Lanier 2010, p.70)

And since humans - other than music notes - have their own will, this question is of highest relevance also in another regard: If digital social services fail to accommodate what their users experience as rich social interaction, they may vote with their feet and just grab that good old telephone instead - even though these do not tend to have wires any more. _Have you encountered instances where interaction design limits rather than enriches human interaction? I would be happy to hear your examples and opinions._


Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget. Penguin Books Ltd (UK).

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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