Perspective on “Digital”

Twenty-five years ago, I left my career in architecture. I’d been working in the building-design trade for about a year. Then something happened that led me to abandon the profession I’d trained for and which I’d pined for only a few years earlier: I saw Mosaic, the first widely available web browser.

I’d been aware of the Internet while I was a university student. I thought of it as a command-line system, one that was mostly useful for email. But the web was different. It was visual. It easy to use, both for end-users and content authors. Anyone could publish at global scale, cheaply. It was clear to me that making the world’s information available through the web would change our reality in significant ways. I cast my lot with “digital” and haven’t looked back.

A quarter of a century later, I still love the web. I love what it’s become – even with its (many) flaws. But more importantly, I love what it can be — its latent potential to improve the human condition. There’s so much work to be done.

But there’s a lot of negativity centered on digital technology these days. Here’s a sample of headlines from major publications from the last few months:

These stories are representative of a melancholic tone that’s become all too common these days. Our pervasive digital technologies have wrought significant changes in old ways of being in the world. Some people miss the old ways; others are perplexed or alarmed. It’s understandable, but it couldn’t be otherwise. The internet and the constellation of services it enables are profoundly disruptive.

Social structures don’t remain unchanged after encountering such forces. The introduction of the printing press led to social, political, and scientific revolutions — including the Reformation. These weren’t small, incremental changes to the social fabric; they shattered then-current reality and re-configured it in new and surprising ways. The process wasn’t smooth or easy.

Digital is more radically transformative than the printing press. It’s folly to expect long-established social structures will stand as before. The question isn’t whether our societies will change, but whether the change will be for better or worse. That’s still an open question. I’m driven by the idea that those of us working in digital have the opportunity to help steer the outcome towards humane ends.

The Informed Life With Chris Chandler

Episode 20 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with my friend Chris Chandler. Chris is a partner at strategic software design and development studio Philosophie, and a self-described agilista. Our conversation centered on how designers — especially those working in agile environments — can embrace an ethical approach to their work:

Sometimes I say that theory without practice is useless, but sometimes I’ll say that practice without theory is expensive.

So, if we don’t know why we’re doing something then it’s awfully hard to make improvements and understand why something didn’t go the way that it wanted to go. And you know, that’s from a practical point. But I think when we talk about “expensive,” the expense of breaking things is more — and this is why it’s become such a such a watchword, right? The Facebook motto — it’s not just breaking software, right? Like we’re talking now about maybe breaking democracy. So that can have really big consequences.

Chris makes the point that it’s difficult to have conversations about ethics when we don’t share the same underlying ethical frameworks. How do we deal with this? Chris has found an answer in the philosophy of existentialism, especially the work of Simone de Beauvoir:

what she says is that as an existentialist in the existentialism philosophy, your highest value should be to work towards your own personal freedom — what you might say, to self-actualization, to own the fact that you are making these choices and to own the consequences of those choices and to be deliberate about those choices — and to work towards freedom.

This conversation is worth your while — especially if you design software.

The Informed Life Episode 20: Chris Chandler on Design Ethics

TAOI: Facebook Hiding Likes

The Architecture of Information:

Likes are one of the most important concepts of the Facebook experience. Giving users the ability to cast their approval (or disapproval) on a post or comment — and to see how others have “voted” — is one of the most engaging aspects of the system, both for users and content authors. Facebook even uses the Like icon as a symbol of the company as a whole:

fbwm_cw_07
The sign outside the main entrance to Facebook headquarters. (Photo: Facebook.)

However, according to a report in the NY Times, Facebook is experimenting with hiding post measurements:

On [September 26], the social network said it was starting a test in Australia, where people’s Likes, video view counts and other measurements of posts would become private to other users. It is the first time the company has announced plans to hide the numbers on its platform.

Why would they do this? Because seeing these metrics may have an impact on users’ self-esteem. According to a Facebook spokesperson quoted in the article, the company will be testing the change to see if it helps improve people’s experiences. A noble pursuit. But, I wonder: How would this impact user engagement? If it benefits users but hurts advertising revenue, will Facebook discontinue the experiment?

Facebook Tests Hiding ‘Likes’ on Social Media Posts

On Google Reader

Yesterday, I tweeted about missing Google Reader:

The tweet touched a nerve; lots of folks have chimed in, mostly agreeing with the sentiment or recommending substitutes.

To be clear, I still read RSS feeds every day. (I use Reeder on the Mac and iOS and synch my feeds using Feedly.) Although I’m open to exploring alternatives, I’m not unsatisfied with my current arrangement. (Ringing endorsement!) So I’m mostly not lamenting the loss of Google Reader’s functionality. Instead, I miss what Google Reader represented: a major technology company supporting a truly decentralized publishing platform.

Google’s brand imparted some degree of credibility to an emergent ecosystem. I suspect a nontrivial number of people must’ve tried RSS feeds because Google provided a tool to read them. It’s great that tools like Feedly, Reeder, Feedbin, NetNewsWire, etc. exist, but none of them have the broad appeal or brand power that Google does.

I said I’m “mostly” not lamenting the loss of Google Reader’s functionality. This is because while current RSS readers offer the basics, Reader was a natural, cohesive component of my personal information ecosystem. Unsurprisingly, it looked and felt like (and integrated with) other Google tools like Gmail and Google Calendar, which I was using extensively at the time. As befit a Google product, Reader also offered excellent search capabilities. None of the RSS readers I’ve tried since offer the same level of coherence and integration that I experienced with Google Reader.

I sense Google Reader was a casualty of Google’s primary business model: selling its users’ attention to the highest bidder. I doubt RSS provided the scale or control required to run a mass advertising business. IMO it’s no coincidence that Google pulled the plug on Reader at a time when centralized social networks (Facebook, Twitter) were gaining traction in the mainstream. (Google+, which the company had launched a couple of years earlier, failed to take off. I wonder if they saw Reader as competition for G+?)

Six years after Google Reader’s disappearance, we’re wiser to the limits of centralized control over news aggregation. Subjectively, I sense many people are rediscovering the joys of blogging. (And, like me, using the social networks mostly as a way to publicize our blog posts.) Podcasts — which are based on syndicated feeds — seem to be more popular every year. While I miss Google Reader, I believe decentralized syndication is an essential part of the web’s future — not just its past. Is the time right for Google (or any of the other major tech platform companies) to embrace the platform again?

Collaborating by Default

Writing in his blog, Benedict Evans highlights the new wave of startups focused on personal productivity, “dozens of companies that remix some combination of lists, tables, charts, tasks, notes, light-weight databases, forms, and some kind of collaboration, chat or information-sharing.”

The cycle of bundling and unbundling functionality isn’t new:

There’s an old joke that every Unix function became an internet company – now every Craigslist section, or LinkedIn category, or Excel template, becomes a company as well. Depending on the problem, that might be a new collaboration canvas, or a new networked app, or a new network or marketplace, and you might switch from one form to the other. Github is a developer tool that also became a network – it became LinkedIn for developers.

What is new is the social nature of the experience. Old-school computing was lonely: the user interacted with his/her computer alone. Even if the system included communications software, such as email, interactions with other people were limited to that software alone. Today, we expect web-based applications to be collaborative by default.

We experience software differently when we assume other people will be sharing the place with us. As I’ve written before, we may ultimately discover that the purpose of social media was to teach us how to collaborate with people in information environments.

New Productivity

The Informed Life With Eduardo Ortiz

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with designer and engineer Eduardo Ortiz. Eduardo is a Marine Corps veteran and Director of the U.S. Digital Service. He’s also co-founder of &Partners, a social impact studio that works with organizations to help improve their communities. In this episode, we discuss how they manage their information to drive change.

Eduardo spoke of their first project, which was set up to address the difficulties faced by immigrants in the Southwest U.S. border:

My partners and I, we started doing research to try to figure out what exactly what’s going on, which really meant making a lot of calls and starting to read the news to truly understand what was happening at the Southwest border. And when we kind of came up to an idea of what we could do or what the challenges were, I started talking to my wife who was a public defender, and she helped me kind of create this understanding, this framework for how children and families could be helped from a position of a legal expert, if you will. And once I had that I made a call out to pretty much anyone and everyone who had cycles to spare to join me. And about 40 people ended up volunteering to to join us and we ended up creating pretty much a relationship management system that we then partnered with New America and the Vera Justice Network, to provide a system that the legal providers at the Southwest border could use to reunify families.

We live in amazing times in which small groups of committed people can spin up systems to help solve complex social needs. Eduardo and his team could go from seeing something playing out in the news which they didn’t like, to asking themselves the question “what can I do about it?,” to actually doing something about it, relatively quickly.

One reason why we can spin up such solutions so quickly and inexpensively is that many digital systems are designed for collaboration and integration with other systems. During the interview, Eduardo also discussed how &Partners created a relationship management system using such a mash-up of tools.

Check out our conversation. And if you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s podcast directory — this helps other folks find it.

Book Notes: The Ride of a Lifetime

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company
By Robert Iger
Random House, 2019

In the early 1980s, Disney was in trouble. Its movies weren’t resonating with the public. It had invested a lot of money into a theme park – EPCOT Center – that wasn’t meeting expectations. Having lost touch with public tastes, Disney had become a target for corporate raiders, who were looking to buy the company to dismantle it. It was a sad time for Disney fans and shareholders.

It seems hard to believe, given that Disney is now the largest and most powerful entertainment company in the world. The change in the company’s fortunes can be attributed mostly to the leadership of two men: Michael Eisner, who was Disney’s CEO from 1984-2005, and Bob Iger, who succeeded him. Now the latter has written a leadership guide in the guise of a memoir that explains how he did it.

I’m wary of most corporate leader memoirs – especially if they’re in the entertainment industry. These folks are often masters of public relations, and their memoirs tend to be carefully crafted to burnish their public images. These books often come across as being in service to their authors’ egos. Mr. Iger’s book is the opposite. He often discusses how keeping his ego in check has been essential to his leadership style. He’s frank about his mistakes and gracious in sharing the praise for his successes.

The successes have been many. The Disney company has grown considerably during his tenure, mostly through the acquisition of four companies: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. The book covers each of these transactions in-depth, devoting a chapter to each. It also covers the company’s transition from Mr. Eisner’s leadership, which was a fraught and contentious time. As the second-in-command during a difficult stretch at the company, Mr. Iger wasn’t seen as the obvious successor. That he was hired for the job came down to his formulating a clear three-part strategy for the company:

  • Devoting most of its time and capital to creating high-quality branded content (i.e., intellectual property),
  • embracing technology, even at the cost of disrupting existing businesses, and
  • becoming truly global.

In hindsight, these may seem like obvious directions for the company, but the book does an excellent job of conveying how challenging it can be for organizations to accept large-scale change. Disney is a company that values its past, which can make it difficult for it to transform itself. It’s to Mr. Iger’s credit that he recognized early on how technological changes were posed to disrupt Disney’s business and put the company ahead of the curve.

All of this sounds like standard business leader memoir territory. What pushes this book above the norm is the fact that Mr. Iger has extracted concrete lessons from his career and articulated them succinctly throughout the book. An appendix at the end compiles these lessons. This makes The Ride of a Lifetime more than a memoir; it’s an engaging guide to good leadership produced by a good leader with real-world credentials.

Buy it now in Amazon.com

John Cale on Victimhood

The Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale is one of the most influential musicians of the last fifty years. In an interview from 2016, he tells stories from his life and career:

Towards the end of the interview, Mr. Cale recounts a childhood marked by a difficult relationship with his father and sexual abuse from a teacher:

My grandmother made some rules that there was no English to be spoken in the house. So it was very quiet, and any communication with my father was limited because I didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak any Welsh. But there’s this overwhelming feeling that you are inadequate. Between that and the incident with the organ teacher and the abuse there, it made me a victim. And really, one way or another I figured out that being a victim really has repercussions all through your life. And you really do not want to be in your own mind, or in anybody’s mind, as a victim.

His mother helped him change how he thought about himself:

She said, look, always find someone good in somebody. Because everybody does have a good side. You’re a complete person, and you’re not a victim. That’s very important.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with anything as traumatic in my life. Still, I’ve occasionally lapsed into a victim mindset. It’s disempowering. Like Mr. Cale, I’ve found it possible to transcend this mindset, with indispensable help from my wife, by reframing how I think about myself.