Will Doenlen

The silent cultural power of enterprise software

Every day billions of people at work load the exact same software with the exact same interfaces to get their work done. We have the exact same collective experience of using tools like office software, email clients, chat clients and project management software that form the backbone of our work. We don’t just work inside of these tools — we live in them. We plan our business meetings alongside our personal lives in Google Calendar. We write down our thoughts on a new strategy in Notion and then build a 5-year life roadmap page in our spare time. Our thoughts and actions conform to the software that we use, both inside and outside of work.

Software automates culture by setting the constraints of what’s possible. This is part of what makes software powerful in the first place: by creating a well-defined user flow with limited, specific inputs and outputs we can use software to automate and scale what was previously a manual, human process. In return, we lose freedom and flexibility. If the code we write can’t process a novel situation or thought then we’re left with either an absence or an error.

Who designs the software? It’s mostly corporations that are looking to serve other businesses. They’re designing for specific use cases that come up in work. They’re not designing for your brief and wild human existence. And yet we continue to use their software in our daily lives as if they did. The consequences are profound.

For example, they are going to give you a document editor that will allow you to produce a serviceable document for your coworkers. They are not going to give you a document editor that lets you explore all of your sprawling, nonlinear thoughts that don’t make any sense because the corporate world does not value that as an output.

They are going to give you calendar that represents your busy time with cheerful, colorful blocks on a grid. They will not give you a calendar that expresses the concept of free time because unstructured free time is not something to be optimized for or celebrated in the corporate world.

A user flow is not just an expected way to use software — it represents a point of view and a way of modeling the world. We learn to expect the rigidity of thought in software and accept that we cannot express ourselves and the fullness of our lives in the intimate digital homes we make. After a while we learn to model our own thoughts and actions after what our tools allow us to express. And if your language, culture or identity don’t mirror those of the software creators then you’re forced to even further erase yourself so you can fit into what the tool allows. We end up with a kind of B2B tunnel vision where everything has the bland patina of a corporate conference room. It turns out it’s their world and we happen to live in it.

Of course, none of us consented to that. I don’t think there’s a grand corporate conspiracy here, either. In many ways it’s the path of least resistance and an emergent property of the system we live in. Building B2B software is lucrative and our lives are closely intertwined with work. Winner-take-all markets result in massively scaled software that everyone ends up using. It’s unsurprising that we would use these products in our personal lives. But the impact is still the same. We lose sight of ourselves and all that’s possible.

Creating a different outcome requires imagination and active resistance. We urgently need versions of the mundane, daily-driver software we’re all used to that create room for creativity, the inherent messiness of our lives and the massive variety of reality. It’ll allow us to create software modeled after our own lives and culture rather than the other way around — and hopefully we’ll get a piece of ourselves back.