Default Settings


After two years of near-flawless performance, my install of (gasp!) Windows Vista suddenly stopped working in myriad annoying ways, and so I spent this morning first restoring my system to factory settings and reinstalling all my stuff, and then restoring all my custom settings, while doing work on another machine.

It was appropriate, then, for me to check The Technium on a break, and find this article: “The Triumph of the Default”, in which Kevin Kelly writes about one of “the greatest unappreciated inventions of modern life,” the default setting. “A default is more than the unspoken assumptions that have always been present in anything made,” Kelly writes.

For instance most hand tools were “defaulted” to right hand use. In fact assuming the user was right handed was so normal, it was never mentioned. Likewise, the shape of hand tools assumed the user was male. … [But] a default is an assumption that can be changed. … The upside to endless flexibility and multiple defaults lies in the genuine choice that an individual now has, if one wants it. Technologies can be tailored to your preferences, and optimized to fit your own talents.

However the downside to extremely flexible techniques is that all these nodes of exploding possibility become overwhelming. Too many mind-numbing alternatives, and not enough time (let alone will) to evaluate them all. The specter of 99 varieties of mustard on the supermarket shelf, or 2,356 options in your health plan, or 56,000 possible hairdos for your avatar in a virtual world produces massive indecision and paralysis. The amazing solution to this problem of debilitating over-abundant choice are defaults. Defaults allow us to choose when to choose. … My freedoms are not restricted but staggered. … In properly designed default system, I always have my full freedoms, yet my choices are presented to me in a way that encourages taking those choices in time — in an incremental and educated manner. Defaults are a tool that tame expanding choice.

He goes on to consider the ramifications of default-setting, given that most users leave most defaults in place unaltered:

The privilege of establishing what value the default is set at is an act of power and influence. Defaults are a tool not only for individuals to tame choices, but for systems designers — those who set the presets — to steer the system. The architecture of these choices can profoundly shape the culture of that system’s use. Even the sequences of defaults and choices make a difference too. Retail merchandisers know this well. They stage stores and websites to channel decisions in a particular order to maximize sales.

And after exploring that idea for a while concludes:

By definition a default works when we — the user or consumer or citizen — do nothing. But doing nothing is not neutral, since it triggers a default bias. That means that “no choice” is a choice itself. There’s no neutral, even, or especially, in non action. Despite the claims of many, technology is never neutral. Even when you don’t choose what to do with it, it chooses. A system acquires a definite drift and clear momentum from those inherent biases, whether or not we act upon them. The best we can do is nudge it.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →