The Technium

Triumph of the Default

[Translations: FrenchGeorgianItalian, JapanesePortugueseSpanish, Sindhi]

One of the greatest unappreciated inventions of modern life is the default. “Default” is a technical  concept first used in computer science in the 1960s to indicate a preset standard. Default, for instance, as in: the default of this program assumes that dates are given in two digit years not four. Today the notion of a default has spread beyond computer science to the culture at large.  It seems such a small thing, but the idea of the default is fundamental to the technium.

It’s hard to remember a time when defaults were not part of life. But defaults only arose as computing spread; they are an attribute of complex technological systems. There were no defaults in the industrial age. In the early days of computers, when system crashes were frequent, and variables a lot of trouble to input, a default was the value the system would automatically assign itself if a program failed or when it first initiated. It was a smart trick. Unless a user, or programmer, took the trouble to alter it, the default ruled, ensuring that its host system would probably work. So electronic goods and software programs were shipped with all options set to defaults. The defaults were preset for the expected norms of the buyers (say the standard voltage of the US), or expected preferences (subtitles off for movies), or best practices (virus detector on). Most times presets work fine. We now have defaults installed in automobiles, insurance programs, networks, phones, health care plans, credit cards, and anything that is customizable.

Indeed, anything with the slightest bit of computational intelligence it in (that is any complex modern artifact) has defaults embedded into it. These presets are explicit biases programmed into the gadget, or system, or institution. But a default is more than the unspoken assumptions that have always been present in anything made. 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. Not just tools: early automobiles were designed assuming the driver was male. Anything manufactured must make a guess about its presumed buyer and their motivations; these assumptions are naturally designed into the technology. The larger the scale of the system, the more assumptions it has to make. A careful examination of a particular technological infrastructure will reveal the broad assumptions that are buried in its design. So American optimism, high regard for the individual, and penchant for change are all wrapped up in the specific designs of the American electrical system, railroads, highways, and  education.

But while these embedded biases, common to all technology, share many attributes with the concept of a default, they are not a default proper. A default is an assumption that can be changed. The assumption of right-handedness in a hammer, or pliers, or scissors, could not be switched. The assumption of a driver’s gender as manifested in the seat position in an automobile could not be altered easily in the old days. But in much of modern technology it can be. The hallmark of flexible technological systems is the ease by which they can be rewired, modified, reprogrammed, adapted, and changed to suit new uses and new users. Many (not all) of their assumptions can be altered. 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. For example, your avatar is given a standard default look (kid in jeans) to start out. You can alter every default description later.  Think of it as managed choice. Those thousands of variables — real choice — can be managed by adopting smart defaults, which “make” a choice for us, yet reserve our full freedom to choose in the future when we want to. My freedoms are not restricted but staggered. As I become more educated I go back to my preferences and opt in, or opt out, or tweak a parameter up or down, or ditch one thing for another. But until I do, the choices remain veiled, out of sight, and house-trained, obediently waiting. 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.

Contrast that expansion to the classic hammer, or automobile, or 1950s phone system. Users simply had few choices in how the tool was used. World-class engineers spent years honing a fixed universal design to work best for the most people, and there’s still an enduring beauty in those designs. The relative inertness of industrial artifacts and infrastructure was compensated with elegant and brilliant access for the average everyman. Today you may not actually make a lot more choices about your phone than 50 years ago, but you could. And  you’ll have more choice in where to make those few choices. These unfolding potential choices are nested within the adaptive nature of mobiles and networks. Choices materialize when summoned. But these abundant choices never appeared in fixed designs.

Defaults first arrived in the complex realms of computation and communication networks, but they aren’t excluded from hammers, or cars, or shoes, or door knobs, for that matter. As we inject adaptability into these artifacts by manufacturing them with traces of computer chips and smart materials, we open them up for defaults as well. Imagine a hammer handle made of some kind of adaptive material that would reform itself to your left hand, or to a woman’s hand. You might very well have the option to designate your gender, or age, or proficiency, or work environment, directly into the small neurons of the hammer. And if so, then the tool would be shipped with defaults.


But defaults are “sticky.” Many psychological studies have shown that the tiny bit of extra effort needed to alter a default is enough to dissuade most people from bothering, so they stick to the default, despite their untapped freedom. Their camera’s clock blinks at the default of 12:00, or their password remains whatever temporary one was issued them. The hard truth, as any engineer will tell you, is that most defaults are never altered. Pick up any device, and 98 out of 100 options will be the ones preset at the factory. I know from my own experience that I have altered very few of the preferences available to me; I’ve stuck to the defaults. I’ve been using a Macintosh from the day it was introduced 25 years ago and I am still discovering basic defaults and preferences I had never heard of. From an engineering perspective this default inertia is a measure of success, because it means the defaults work. Without much change, products are used, and their systems happily hum on.

Therefore 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. If you let hungry students make their desert choice first rather than last, this default order has an impact on their nutrition.

Every element of a complex technology, from its programming language, to the user interface design, to the selection of its peripherals, harbors a multitude of defaults: Does the system assume anonymity? Does it assume most people are basically good or basically up to no good? Are its defaults set to maximize sharing or maximize secrecy? Should its rules expire after a set period by default or renew automatically by default? How easy is to undo a choice?  Should the process of control be an opt in or opt out process? Recombining four or five different default parameters will spawn systems with hundreds of different characteristics.

Identical technological arrangements — say two computer networks constructed of the same hardware and software — can yield very different cultural consequences simply by altering the defaults embedded in the system. The influence of a default is so powerful that one single default can act as a very tiny nudge that can sway extremely large and complex networks. As an example, most pension investment programs, such as corporate 401k plans, have very low participation rates in part because the plans have an overwhelming number of sub-options to choose from. The behavioral economist Richard Thaler relates experiments whereby making enrollment automatic with a default choice (“mandated choice”) dramatically increased savings rates for employees. Anyone could opt out the program at any time, with full freedom to change the specifics of their plan, but simply shifting the default  from “having to sign up” to “automatic enrollment” changed the entire tenor of the system. A similar shift happens if you make the donation of organs upon death automatically an “opt out” choice (it happens unless you refuse beforehand) versus “opt in” (it does not happen unless you sign up). A opt out donor system greatly increases the number of organs donated.

The tiny default is one of the ways that we can bend the inevitable unrolling of a technological innovation. For instance, an elaborate continent-wide technical system, such as 110-volt AC electricity, may gather its it own momentum as it acquires self-reinforcing support from other technical systems (like diesel generators, or factory assembly lines), and that accelerating momentum may steamroll over prior systems, but at every node in the electrical body, a default resides, and with the proper alignment and deft choices, those slim defaults can be used to nudge the gigantic system toward certain states. The system can be bent towards making it easy to add new but less secure innovations , or making it difficult to change, but more secure. The tiny nudges of defaults can shape how easy the network expands, or not. Or how well it incorporates unusual sources of power. Or whether it tends to centralize or decentralize.  The shape of a technological system is set by the technology itself, but the character of the system can be set by us.

Systems are not neutral. They have natural biases.  We tame the cascading choices we gain from accelerating technology by introducing small nudges — by deliberating embedding our own biases (also called a default) into the system here and there. We wield biases within inevitable technologies to aim them towards our common goals — increasing diversity, complexity, specialization, sentience, and beauty.

Defaults also remind us of another truth. 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 is 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.

  • Brian Dill

    Nice article. This reminds me of “Free Will” by Rush. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”.

    As a database developer, I deal with defaults all the time. Some are no-brainers – ex: CreateDate defaults to current date/time, but others require some thought – often from the business as to what their assumptions are – which can be like pulling teeth sometimes.

  • Jay Fienberg

    I really like your ultimate point about biases and how people are effected when they use the systems and devices that have biases built into them–and, to one degree or another, they all do.

    But, I think your case, with regards to history, is off. However, it really comes down to a semantic distinction in terms of what you mean when you say “defaults.” I appreciate that you really try to define what you mean (unlike many pundits who don’t even bother), but I still think you are in error in your definition.

    Specifically, I think you are lumping together too many concepts into the word “default.”

    For example, “default settings,” which pretty much anything in history with any kind of switch has at least one of, are very different things than “default configurations” or “system defaults.”

    With software, when we change defaults, we sometimes change settings and sometimes change configurations, and sometimes change the whole system.

    Similarly, those different types of defaults map into a range of different types of choices. You are making a big point about the overwhelming choices we now have, but the baseline those choices are against is not simply one class of thing called a “default.”

    The choices are against a baseline of “design” altogether. Design maybe can be said to define society’s de facto defaults–for example, one might choose between Windows, Mac and Linux as the “de facto default” computer operating systems. But, that’s a very different kind of default than the position of the legs up on your computer keyboard (that can be flipped out to make the keyboard sit taller than its “default” height).

    Finally, these choices vs design are happening for a range of reasons from customization and personalization (e.g., for personal reasons), to standardization (e.g., for communal or societal reasons), to technical and technological constraints, to laws of physics and physiology, etc.

    So, as a counter example to your historical case, I think you could make the same case about “defaults” and automobiles. The timeframe for making changes to car “defaults” is slower, there are more significant mechanical constraints and there are more often needs for specialist intermediaries (mechanics, body shops, etc.) to realize changes. But, altogether, I think one could say that a car from 1956 has a bunch of defaults that a number of users choose to change, etc., for a range of purposes (personal, communal, societal, due to other advances in technology, etc.)

    • @Jay Flenberg: Yes, I should emphasize the timeframe. The longer and earlier defaults occure the more embedded they become and the harder they are to change.

  • Simon

    The concept of “default” becomes even more fundamental if you relate it to the “focal point” of Schelling. Some places and moments in time are “default” points that we can use for coordination without active collaboration. The example Schelling uses is when you decide to meet a friend in New York on a given date. Where would you meet him, and at what time of day?

  • ChrisPZA

    There have been defaults for millennia–one travelled on the left side of the road, for instance, so that the dominant arm was towards an approaching traveller. It was only the French mania for a complete revolution that led Europe to drive on the right! BTW, we switch down to light up….

  • thorn

    an it guy @ work once had to change a network setting on my computer. when he’d finished, he said, “oh, and i fixed your mouse-click. it was set to right-button dominant.” it never crossed his mind that i might have intentionally changed the default. even though the dominant mouse-click never accidentally ‘gets’ left-handed. so he was defaulting culturally to ‘no one ever changes their defaults’?

    re. ‘cultural defaults’ — i.e. those we run around with in our individual world-views: this is a most useful construct. thank you for that. i always used to think of the importance of changing certain of them as being ‘a need to change our imaginations’. i think the idea of not taking our own ‘cultural default settings’ for granted is far clearer.

  • Matt Doar

    “There were no defaults in the industrial age.”

    This is a bit broad. In the pre-industrial age, the default was what you got if you didn’t remember to ask the craftsman to do it differently. In the industrial age, there were still plenty of defaults, though not as many that the purchaser could change, and not as many as we have now with software and electronic hardware. The term “Special”, as in “it’s a special” is what was used.

  • Alan

    Another big default from history: the gauge of railroad tracks – 4 ft. 8.5 in. – originates from the width of the wheels of Roman chariots, at least in popular historical accounts. Those default ruts just kept getting interated forward to today.

  • elzr

    Thanks for the great article. It immediately crystallized in my mind as this phrase: defaults are the scaffolding of choice.

    (Perhaps the word scaffolding is fresh in my mind from Ruby programming. One of webapp-framework Ruby on Rail’s early innovations was scaffolding, an automatically generated skeleton app for database driven web apps, possible of course through a whole edifice of defaults.)

    Also, consider the similar-meaning word “preset”. It might suggest different paths for your thoughts. It’s similar to how some languages, notably German (voreinstellung) and Spanish (opcion predeterminada), word the thought.

    The American Heritage Dictionary’s defines default almost philosophically: A situation or condition that obtains in the absence of active intervention.

  • Dennis

    I am now wondering about my own default settings…

  • thomas

    the old fashioned reason why i don’t believe in entirely personalized (thus non-default) web services as the magic bullet is the fact that you lose the pleasance that x other users are enjoying the very same experience at the very same time, just like your favorite tune playing on the radio vs. clicking indecisively through your itunes library.
    the default gives me peace of mind whereas each further option accounts for soul- and statelessness.

  • Lloyd Mintern

    This is a most entertaining, philosophical piece. I especially like this absolute irony:
    “The shape of a technological system is set by the technology itself, but the character of the system can be set by us.”

    Hooray for us! There is your “participation.” (By the way, have you read SAVING THE APPEARANCES, by the prophetic Owen Barfield.)

  • Laurence H

    This is a interesting piece concerning defaults… in the past the masses were less technically proficient until the last 30 years or so when computers and the like became available in the mainstream. As technology advanced and reduced in price people’s understanding of the tools they use developed as well. Defaults do set the standard to how technology (computers or otherwise) are used today but I feel in a sense that we are being drowned by choice, customization, and personalization. As we becoming more dependent on our technological adaptations these defaults will become embedded in the foundations of our culture, the human default.

  • Akshay Kapur

    Is our default setting as humans that of hunter-gatherer? Or rioter? Have civilization’s memes taught us think outside of civilization’s box?

    In a world filled with apocalyptic movies and themes, it’s hard not to think about these questions and your post highlights well our human biases as we program them into technology. And why is our default state so bland? Because of security, standardization, a baseline to work with and grow upon?

    Your posts invariably make me think deeply, but this post just concerns me. If defaulting represents what we’re willing to settle for, why don’t we make it complex instead of banal? If our aim is to keep it simple (as opposed to banal) in the default state, then why not keep life simple always? You touched on this though with “increasing diversity, complexity, specialization, sentience, and beauty.”

    We know how to be simple and we know how to be complex, and we’re learning how to be simplistically beautiful. I hope.

  • Alex Tolley

    You might consider the “default” as a feature, not just of artificial systems, but of biology too.

    Cells have gene networks “default settings” that are altered in response to development or the environment. Metabolic pathways often have default settings based on the expected food availability, but can be switch in response of changes in availability.

  • Nathan Myers

    The huge number of choices implied, and indeed made (apparently) practical by the use of defaults, is in large degree at fault for the unreliability of much of modern technology.

    Each yes/no choice doubles the number of modes in which any piece of apparatus operates. The explosion in number of modes where even only a few choices might interact overwhelms any possibility of exhaustive testing. Possibly the first time you choose a non-default setting on a gadget or program, and almost certainly the third, you step into unknown, little- or untested territory.

    Even when a gadget is thoroughly tested (and some are, at great expense), when it interacts with some other system the combination of settings you are using has likely not been tried. That things often work anyway is a matter of extremest luck, and when they don’t, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

    Choices look attractive, but they have a cost that the human brain is not well-equipped by our evolutionary heritage to measure sensibly. The only route to reliable technology is to eliminate not strictly necessary choices. Defaults don’t help.

  • jessamyn

    I teach a lot of basic technology classes in rural Vermont and one of the most surprising things to me was that people with no technology experience don’t really get the concept of default settings, at all.

    So I’d explain that yeah maybe Word’s grammar checker was on by default but you could turn it off, but people wouldn’t even know what default really meant. So then I’d need to step back another level just to explain the concept of default, to explain how to overcome it. Thanks for putting it into words so well.

  • Aaron Davies

    “and if you choose not to decide/you still have made a choice”
    – rush

  • wtf slashdot is smarter than you

    We might not have called it that, but default solutions and default products have been around since the invention of mass production. From then on, there was a “default” product, a standard product that works as the default if you didn’t order something specifically different.

    Default was first used in computer science in the 1960s because that is when computer science, as we knew it, began. It was picked up from common usage outside of computer science, and was general use well before then. Unfortunately I am old enough to remember it as a common term in the 1950s. For example the default land area for a house (at least in my part of the world) was a quarter of an acre and it used to be referred to as the default area.

    Hell, even the spanish inquisition had a default verdict.

    Defaults have been around for a long time. For example. When an electrician installs your light switch, the default is for up to mean ON, and down to mean OFF. To flush most toilets, push Down on the lever. etc

  • Danny O’Brien

    We mustn’t forget the other coinage allied with this word: “The Tyranny of the Default”

  • Hendrik Boshoff

    Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational,” addresses the effect of the default in this video of his fascinating TED talk (freely downloadable and CC licenced):

  • Hendrik Boshoff

    The defaults of the Comments software destroyed the link above, because it doesn’t allow underscores. Go to and search on Dan Ariely.

  • marianasoffer

    I do not think there is anything special about the default value, it is just a setting that activates when no other setting is invoked. Mostly it was used to save time to the program users, so they do not input the defaults tons of times, when they can avoid doing that.

  • Jack

    Fine article. Some prior comments notwithstanding, default settings have a critical impact on our lives – the organ donors permission being one of the more prominent examples. It is interesting to note that technological advance promotes the availability of choice – and therefore the necessity for default options which are benign in the sense that future choice is unrestricted. Corporate advance is however, at odds with this evolutionary process. You have only to look at a cross section of Sony, Apple, Microsoft (and many other international) products to see that a highly restricted set of defaults which DENY many of the available choices (but allow those favouring the corporate body) is in place…

    In other words, a default can be used to restrict choice rather than simply await an enlightened decision.
    By way of illustration:

    Want to forward your Hotmail to a Gmail account? bad luck, you ae stuck with the corporate default. Want to integrate your Yahoo, ICQ, MSN, Jabber etc messenger services – watch the corporate defaults thwart your choice (you will definitely need open source/independent software).

    Likewise with Sony memory, regional DVD’s, iphone and so on – practically ad infinitum. Defaults dictate enforced incompatibility and a kind of perverse customer ‘loyalty’ based on the pragmatic premise that you do as you are told – or this thing stops working.

    DRM is also (fundamentally) about restricting choice which technology would otherwise make freely available. The dark side of the default is just this… technology eating itself by denying access to other technology and restricting end-user choice.

  • Stan James

    One more example for the pile: In continental Europe, the default for Microsoft Word is to use *American* English for spell checking. Traditionally the continent had preferred to use UK English spellings, but this small default from Redmond has most documents by non-Brits now using American spellings.

    And for related reading, Neal Stephenson’s essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line” addresses the issue of defaults from the perspective of GUI interfaces vs. command line, along with many other deeper implications.

    @wtfslashdot – I think Kevin makes a good distinction that the modern concept of “default” includes the idea of it being easily changed when so desired. Your examples of “default land area” or “default toilet flusher use” fall more in line with his examples of right-handed tools; that is, they reflect certain conventions but these are not easily changed by the end user. (Especially in the case of the Inquisition!)

  • sherifffruitfly

    (a) Defaults have always existed, possibly under a different name (“initial state” or some other).

    (b) You don’t care so much about defaults as you do the overridability of defaults. Which really just amount runtime change of state.

    Conclusion: Yes, we’ve become better programmers over the decades.

  • Glyn Normington

    Thanks for this article. I spent a few minutes yesterday evening trying to explain, for the third time, the computing meaning of “default” to a neighbour in his 80’s.

  • Abdullah

    What is the percentage of people you know who never changed their personal computer’s “Default” wallpaper?

  • brian

    Interesting read, but your focus should be on the application of “default” to technology, not espousing the new idea of default once computers were invented.

    “Defaults” have been around… as long as the universe has. The default state of an object is to fall to the ground, unless something else stops it. The default state of water is to flow unless something else stops it.

    This is far from a new concept, and probably has to be explained to people because you are pointing out something that is so obvious it normally would not need explanation. There is no need to say “word uses spell check by default”. You can just as easily say, “word uses spell check, but you can turn it off”. That makes perfect sense and there’s no need to point out that something has a default state.

  • jadukuri

    A typical choice made made by a bank customer relates to the automatic renewal of a term deposit receipt on its maturity. If the default option of automatic renewal were not there the customer would not be able to present himself on the due date and would consequently lose the benefit of interest from the back date when he finally would turn up for the renewal.

  • Clem Weidenbenner

    @Nathan Myers:
    Choices don’t just “look” attractive – in the larger scheme they are essential. Granted on the front end of deploying a new technology there will be compatibility issues and a learning curve for the human element. But in a competitve marketplace where there are winners and losers you find the winners quickly solving the compatability issues and preventing the learning curve from getting too steep. Competing technologies duke it out until a standard emerges (VHS vs Beta, or 8-track vs cassette). But along the way choices make it go, and defaults help.

    And I really take exception to the notion that our human brains are not well equipped to measure such complexity. There are some lazy brains around. But there are also some pretty keen and ambitious ones out there. Solving big problems lights them up.

    @Hendrick Boshoff:
    Ariely rocks. Thanks for the link.

    I only know one person who hasn’t changed his computer’s default wallpaper. But perhaps this is exactly your point.

  • Michael K

    Kevin, the example of desserts at school lunch you use also occurs in the first pages of the book “Nudge” (and the word nudge occurs 5 times in your piece). Is this an accident?

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I have not read Nudge but I think I read a conversation the author had on Edge, John Brockman’s site.

  • This is a brilliant article and anyone working in customer experience o product development of any kind should have it taped up next to their computer monitor for constant consultation. Clay Shirky recommended I read this essay and I’m so glad he did!