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
These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.
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.
“The innovator, or designer, or planner acts politically in all cases where he is producing essential innovation — even though he may not know it — though he should!”
— Horst Rittel
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.)
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
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.
In early February, Azeem Azhar asked a provocative question in his blog, Exponential View:
How might the new coronavirus change our world?
The post lists six significant changes the outbreak might usher. Among these, one stood out to me:
Remote everything – we’ll travel less.
This point has aged well. Just in the last week, several major conferences and industry gatherings have been either cancelled or postponed. Large organizations like Amazon and Facebook have banned nonessential travel for employees. Some companies, like Twitter, are encouraging employees to work from home.
Near-term, these measures will negatively impact the travel and hospitality industries and local economies that rely on event-based tourism. That said, other industries might see a surge in demand. Businesses that provide remote collaboration systems and services are sure to experience higher usage. (In a subsequent post, Mr. Azhar noted that Zoom “has added 2.22 million monthly active users in 2020, compared to 1.99 million in all of 2019.”)
It’s still too soon to tell what will happen with the coronavirus. That said, one undeniable immediate effect is an increase in remote collaboration over digital systems. While some conferences have been cancelled outright, others, like Google’s Cloud Next conference have already been refashioned into digital-first events. In Living in Information, I highlighted several ways in which we’re moving towards working in information environments. A significant outbreak of a contagious disease would accelerate this trend, by unfortunate necessity.
I hope for quick and effective containment of the coronavirus and relief to people who are suffering. I also can’t help but wonder: will these new work modalities stick as we discover better ways of collaborating remotely? Will the relaxation of remote-work policies outlast the crisis? What will be the effects of the virus on how we work in the mid- and long-term?
Six ways coronavirus will change our world – Exponential View
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with my friend Christian Crumlish. Christian is a writer, product, and UX leadership consultant. I met him through the information architecture community, but his focus these days is on product management. So I thought our conversation would be an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about product management.
I was particularly keen to discuss bottom-up vs. top-down product development processes. My expectation is that the former result in products that are more responsive to market needs, that is, which better serve the needs of their customers. The tradeoff? Organizations that manage complex ecosystems of products may have a harder time achieving coherence between them, leading to a diminished customer experience.
The conversation with Christian made me realize that part of the answer lies with strong leadership. As he put it,
If you have a healthy team and you’re reporting up and down the line, and there’s somebody with authority who is watching the biggest goals, I think there already are methods that can work.
As with so many of my recent interviews, I wish we could’ve talked longer. For example, I’d love to learn more about methods that can lead to greater product ecosystem coherence, or the characteristics that set aside some leaders as great product managers. Perhaps these would be good subjects for a second interview with Christian?
In any case, I greatly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.
The Informed Life Episode 30: Christian Crumlish on Product Management