Come Together (in Information Environments)

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

This post beautifully articulates a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

That said, I expect a reaction when this is over; a resurgence of big festivals, fairs, concerts, etc. I sense that after weeks (and hopefully it’s only weeks) of meeting people exclusively through video chats, we’ll be longing to be in the physical presence of others. Digital is too narrow a medium to convey the richness of full interpersonal interaction. For now, we are truly living significant parts of our lives in information environments — not by choice.

(I found out about this op ed through my publisher’s newsletter; you should subscribe.)

How to Be Together Apart In the Time of Coronavirus

Efficiency and Redundancy

Yesterday, officials in the Bay Area issued an order for those of us who live here to “shelter in place.” Meaning, we’re to stay inside our homes and only go out for essential reasons, such as buying groceries. (Most businesses are closed anyway.) This order is in place for three weeks.

I went to Costco to buy some staples (coffee!) before the order took effect. I found shelves stocked with a mix of some goods (there was plenty of coffee) and not much of others (no toilet paper, very little bread.) Hoarding behavior + supply chain disruptions = empty shelves. As I perused the gaps in the store’s inventory, one word kept coming to mind: resiliency. We’re learning the degree to which our systems can keep us fed, clothed, connected, etc.

Markets are great mechanisms for reducing costs. But in times of crisis, cost is only one variable among many. There may come a time when people are willing to pay more for a roll of toilet paper. But if there are no machines turning out more rolls, or trucks to transport them, or fuel to power them, or raw materials to produce them, or stores to sell them, then cost won’t matter much. A month ago, this observation would’ve been hypothetical. Now, it feels very real.

A generative question for the world we create after this crisis: how might markets better balance efficiency and redundancy?

The Informed Life With Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz

Episode 31 of The Informed Life podcast features Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, the director of development of the Long Now Foundation. The Foundation was created to foster long-term thinking, and in this conversation Nick and I talk about how a broader time perspective can help us understand difficult times and lay the groundwork for a better future.

Much of our conversation centered on the coronavirus situation, which had emerged as an important and urgent topic in early March of 2020, when we recorded our conversation. In particular, I wanted to understand the long-term take on urgent issues. Nick’s position — which I agree with — was that even as we’re dealing with the near-term effects of the situation, we should be looking for ways of strengthening our infrastructure and institutions so we can better meet such challenges in the future:

And so, the question is, sure, we can go and clean the local bodega out of hand sanitizer and that might solve the problem today. But that’s addressing a certain symptom of a larger issue, which is, do we have the institutions, the infrastructure, that will allow us to weather these kinds of things as they come along? Which they will, you know. Again, this isn’t going to be the last epidemic that we face. Probably not the last epidemic we face even in my lifetime, right? So, are there ways that we can pick our heads up from this one situation and look at the more general, more open space around, when this is going to happen again, and can we do things to attend to that?

As I mentioned above, we recorded this interview a couple of weeks before the coronavirus had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and a national emergency by the U.S. government. I’m certain our tone would’ve been more somber if we were discuss this subject closer to the date of publication. In particular, medical experts are now recommending that we avoid crowded social spaces. Please don’t heed the invitation to visit The Interval — the Foundation’s cocktail bar — at this time.

Still, even under the current conditions, I thought it worthwhile to share our conversation. I find that adopting a broader perspective helps me make more level-headed decisions, especially in difficult times. I hope you find this interview valuable, and that you stay safe during this extraordinary period of disruption.

The Informed Life Episode 31: Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz on the Long-term View

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

The Dynamics of Remote All-hands Meetings

Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 went from being a news item to being the news. And this past week, those of us in the United States started feeling the impact of the disease firsthand. Fortunately, for most people, the impact isn’t health-related. Currently, many of us are more affected by measures to curb the pandemic than by the disease itself. For a privileged few — including myself — the primary impact in the near-term is a shift to working from home.

For software designers like myself, working primarily from home isn’t as much of a burden as it would be for people in many other industries. The stuff we work on is the same stuff that we communicate with, so moving work online is feasible. However, it still requires adjustments. Team dynamics are different when working remotely. If you’re used to working with others in physical environments, you’ve internalized ways of working and hierarchies that have emerged in (and made possible by) the environments you share. As you shift to new environments, these hierarchies become visible.

This week I participated in a recurring all-hands meeting. I’d been in these meetings many times before, always in all in the same physical space. The atmosphere had always been casual, but the structure of the room, and the way we arranged ourselves in the space, implied and reinforced a hierarchy. There was always a sense that someone was leading the meeting at any given time; the rest of us were more of an audience. Our shared attention was on a vertical surface at the “front” of the room: a whiteboard. The meeting “leader” usually stood near this whiteboard, sometimes holding a marker. Those of us in the “audience” faced this whiteboard so we could see it and the speaker.

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The Quality of Impromptu Online Work

This tweet resonated with me:

Avoiding congregations is a key measure for slowing the spread of coronavirus. As a result, we’re moving online many activities that we would’ve previously done in person. Some activities are easier to move than others.

I had an in-person brainstorming meeting scheduled this morning. We’re now planning to do it over Zoom. We’ll still meet, but it won’t be the same. When I meet with someone to explore new ideas, we use sticky notes and whiteboards to make our thinking visible. The room becomes part of our shared cognitive apparatus. As good as they are, modern teleconferencing apps can’t replicate a physical space with lots of drawing surfaces. We can’t immerse ourselves in the thinking in the same way, so the thinking will be different.

I’m also an educator. I haven’t heard from my institution about canceling in-person classes, but another local university did so last week. So I must at least consider the possibility: what if we need to move classes online? My classes have lecture components and experiential components, such as design critiques and in-class exercises. I can easily do the lectures online, but not the exercises. We don’t have time to restructure the course (literally) in the middle of the semester. So if need be, we can finish the semester online, but it won’t be the same.

Moving activities online on short notice isn’t ideal. Some, such as basic “information transfer” meetings, are relatively easy to do. Others will not be as easy. Moving these activities online will require additional effort, and will likely impact the quality of work in the near-term. But as the cliché says, necessity is the mother of invention. One possible outcome from this time of disruption could be new remote collaboration techniques that outlast the immediate crisis. Ultimately, reducing our dependency on transportation could even be good for the environment. (Looking for a silver lining here.)

Legislating the Structure of Information Environments

Proposed legislation in the U.S. would constrain the structure of online spaces aimed at children:

Platforms either targeting a designated audience or providing covered content would be prohibited from using tactics that promote prolonged engagement such as auto-play, push alerts, or displaying “the quantity of positive engagement or feedback that a covered user has received from other users”—so no “likes” on a teen’s Instagram account. That goes for “badges or other visual award symbols” that show off engagement, such as awards for streaks on Snapchat.

The bill defines children as anyone under 16 and takes a broad lens towards what it considers content aimed at them.

I’m all for information environments that strive to more closely align the interests of their creators and their users. (This is one of the main arguments of my book, Living in Information.) This bill seems to do that for children using attention-driven information environments.

I do wish industry would adopt such measures without the need for regulations. People can be ingenious at following the letter of such laws while skirting their spirit. Also, laws change more slowly than technology and tend to stick around longer; they’re on different layers in the pace layer diagram. (But moving more slowly and deliberately in this area might not be a bad thing.)

That said, it’s good that lawmakers are paying attention. Hopefully, the threat of legislation will nudge organizations towards greater alignment with the interests of their users — especially the most vulnerable.

Proposed bill would end “likes” for young teens’ online content

A Year of Podcasting: What’s Next

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, since January of 2019. To celebrate the show’s anniversary, I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, how I edit episodes, and how I publish the show so you can listen to it. In this final post of the series, I’ll reflect on what has worked well, what hasn’t, and what I expect next for the show.

Let’s start by discussing what has worked well. A few early decisions have paid off. The first is show length. Keeping episodes to around 30 minutes has made for a more focused show; I’ve received positive feedback from listeners on the high ratio of content to chit chat they hear. This focus is in part due to an editorial decision to keep episodes relatively short.

Another decision that’s paid off is having a loose arc for interviews. Episodes have a beginning, middle, and end. This arc isn’t accidental; I discuss it with guests before we record. We aren’t strict about it, but know our aim.

One final good decision I’ll call out is the every-other-week publishing schedule. Producing a podcast takes a lot of work. The two-week span is enough for me to put in the require time without disrupting the other responsibilities in my life. A longer gap between episodes (a month, say) would risk having listeners lose interest. Every other week seems to be the sweet spot.

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