Book Notes: “Framers”

Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil
By Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Francis de Véricourt
Dutton, 2021

Isaac Asimov said, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” We’ve created incredible technologies yet seem unable to coordinate their use towards the common good. Typical responses to this conundrum range from naïve tech utopianism to emotional anti-rationalism.

Framers argues for a third way, one that leverages a human capability unmatched by any algorithm: the ability to think differently about situations by reframing them. By changing how we understand ourselves and our situations, we can approach problems from different perspectives. Given the role of design in making new technologies accessible to humans, designers must understand framing.

The key to approaching the subject is a concept familiar to designers: mental models,

representations of reality that make the world comprehensible. They allow us to see patterns, predict how things will unfold, and make sense of the circumstances we encounter.

Models bring order to our experience of reality. We have more than one model, and we can choose which to apply when.

The mental models that we choose and apply are frames: they determine how we understand and act in the world. Frames enable us to generalize and make abstractions that apply to other situations. With them, we can handle new situations, rather than having to relearn everything from scratch.

In other words, frames are “cognitive templates” that change how we understand situations, and therefore ourselves. (The book cites the Talmud: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”) Frames allow us to see new options when dealing with change in unfamiliar circumstances and reduce our cognitive load when operating in familiar circumstances.

The authors propose a process for framing. It begins with understanding the “three dimensions of cognition” that serve as a foundation:

  • causality, the human capacity to derive causes from effects,
  • counterfactuals, which allow us to imagine alternatives to the way things are, and
  • constraints, which keep our counterfactuals from straying into unrealistic territories.

After understanding these characteristics of frames, we can choose how to frame situations, whether by selecting among frames we already possess or inventing new ones. It’s a skill we can develop through practice, and the authors suggest strategies to becoming better framers.

These strategies include expanding our repertory of frames. We must strive to do so since the status quo pulls us towards familiar patterns. Prosperous societies encourage a plurality of frames. As the authors put it, “uniformity of mental models is what crushes human progress.”

Ultimately there’s only one frame that isn’t allowed: disallowing the exploration of other frames. (Cue Popper’s paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.”)

Frame pluralism’s very goal is for frames to compete, complement, contradict, and coexist with one another. But no frame would be acceptable that aims to eliminate or negate altogether the existence of alternative frames.

Unfortunately, we’re experiencing increasing intolerance to alternative frames. Rather than stamp out unorthodoxies, we should foster pluralism by becoming more educated, opening our minds, encouraging migration, and dealing with the friction that ensues.

Framing is essential to design. Much of our work involves bringing counterfactuals to life through artifacts such as prototypes. The best such artifacts allow us to understand problem domains differently.

as humans explain the world using causal frames, they are actually learning more about the world they are explaining, generating deeper and more accurate insights. Explaining the world to others leads to understanding it better oneself.

Ultimately, design shifts mental models — i.e., it is an act of reframing. In the process, we change the world — and ourselves. As such, it behooves designers to understand our role as framers. This book is a good starting point.

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