A Change of Mindset

An eye-opening story in Bloomberg offers a glimpse into the workings of YouTube and how its business model incentivizes the spread of misinformation:

The conundrum isn’t just that videos questioning the moon landing or the efficacy of vaccines are on YouTube. The massive “library,” generated by users with little editorial oversight, is bound to have untrue nonsense. Instead, YouTube’s problem is that it allows the nonsense to flourish. And, in some cases, through its powerful artificial intelligence system, it even provides the fuel that lets it spread.

Why does this happen?

The company spent years chasing one business goal above others: “Engagement,” a measure of the views, time spent and interactions with online videos. Conversations with over twenty people who work at, or recently left, YouTube reveal a corporate leadership unable or unwilling to act on these internal alarms for fear of throttling engagement.

In 2012, YouTube set out a new objective to reach one billion hours of viewing per day; this led to a new recommendation algorithm designed to increase engagement. The company achieved its billion-hour per day goal in 2016—not coincidentally the year when it became apparent the degree to which such engagement-driven systems were influencing politics (and society as a whole.)

Yesterday I was teaching my students about Donella Meadow’s fantastic essay, Places to Intervene in a System. In this work, Ms. Meadows offers a hierarchy of “leverage points” — things you can tweak to make systems work differently. They are, in order of least to most impactful:

  1. Numbers (e.g., taxes, standards)
  2. Material stocks and flows
  3. Regulating negative feedback loops
  4. Driving positive feedback loops
  5. Information flows
  6. The rules of the system (e.g., incentives, punishment, constraints)
  7. The power of self-organization
  8. The goals of the system
  9. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises

Note the prominent position of goals in this list. Few things are as influential in shaping a system as setting clear goals and incentivizing people to reach them. By setting engagement as a goal, YouTube’s leadership created the conditions that led to fostering misinformation in their system. We’re all paying the price for the damage caused by outrage-mongers on systems like YouTube. The erosion in our ability to hold civic discourse, political polarization, the spread of maladaptive memes, etc. are externalities unaccounted for in these companies’ bottom lines.

As Ms. Meadows points out, the only thing more powerful than goals is the paradigm out of which the goals emerge. YouTube emerged from a worldview that precedes the internet, big data, and “smart” algorithms. These things add up to something that isn’t a bigger/faster version of earlier communication systems — it’s a paradigm shift. We’re undergoing a transformation at least as significant as that wrought by the movable type printing press, which precipitated significant social and economic changes (especially in the West, but ultimately around the world.)

We’re still too close to the beginning of our current transformation to know what socioeconomic structures will ultimately emerge. But one thing is sure: a shift in mindset is required. The scale of the potential social impact of systems like YouTube calls for re-visiting things we’ve long taken for granted, such the role of for-profit companies in society and the meaning of key concepts such as freedom of speech and the rights of the individual. The question isn’t whether we’ll have to change our mindset — rather, it’s how much turbulence and suffering we’ll experience as a result. We should do all we can to minimize both.

The Informed Life With Beck Tench

Episode 6 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Beck Tench, a Ph.D student at the University of Washington. This role requires that she deal with a lot of information, and in this show,​ we discuss how she makes sense of it all. This includes an overview of one of my favorite information management tools, Tinderbox.

Our conversation kicks off with the subject of Beck’s Ph.D. itself, which is both fascinating and highly relevant to leading an informed life:

I’m interested in how we can design spaces and technologies that facilitate contemplative practices or just contemplative experiences. And by contemplative, I mean essentially being present to life in that moment. Spaces that will help us be present, slow down and notice the world. But there’s also this flavor of being lovingly present as part of it. It’s not just hyper-focus and attention-driven. It is also considering compassion, basically.

I was thrilled to hear about Beck’s area of focus. We need more of this in the world.

The Informed Life Episode 6: Beck Tench

Which Watch to Wear to the Apocalypse

Imagine a catastrophic social breakdown, Mad Max-style. An asteroid hits; pervasive coastal flooding causes sudden mass migrations; a genetically modified virus goes rogue; a crazed ideologue with an itchy trigger finger starts World War III. Whatever the case, the systems you’ve relied on for your survival are no longer functioning; you must fend for yourself and your loved ones. As you prepare to head out into the wrecked world in search of food, which watch will you wear?

Humor me with this. There are good reasons to want a timepiece in such a scenario. For example, you may wish to orchestrate maneuvers with fellow marauders as you embark on a raid. Or maybe you’re trying to calculate the speed of a raging river before you jump into it. The fact that all else has gone to hell doesn’t mean time has stopped. Sure, time is an abstraction — but a useful one, even under these dire conditions.

So, which watch will you wear? More specifically, consider these two options: An old Omega Speedmaster and a series four Apple Watch. The Speedmaster — a mechanical watch — only allows you to do a few things: you can tell what time it is, you can precisely measure how long something takes, you can measure how fast something is moving (including yourself, if you’re moving at high speed.) The Apple Watch allows you to do much more. Besides offering the same basic functionality of the Speedmaster, it also allows you to communicate with other people, see what the weather will be like, listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (to remind you why persevering is worthwhile), etc.

In short, the Apple Watch allows you to do many more things that would be very useful in a post-apocalyptic world. The catch, of course, is that many of these features wouldn’t work in this case. When you strap an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’re not just wearing a device; you’re wearing an ecosystem. For example, the usefulness of the weather app depends on myriad things that exist well beyond the object on your person: sensors distributed around the planet, communication networks, data centers, the electrical grid, and so on.

The Speedmaster, on the other hand, depends on none of these things. As long as you remember to wind it every day, it’ll continue performing its functions for a long time. Of course, the day will eventually come when it’ll need repair. At that point, you’re out of luck. (I’m assuming Omega service centers will no longer be open for business.) But mechanical breakdown will likely be years away, even in this scenario. In the apocalypse, the smartwatch’s advantages would vanish within a few hours or days at most, and its essential functions would cease altogether when electricity reserves ran out.

The point of this mental exercise isn’t to get you into prepper mode. Instead, I’d like you to consider the nature of the things you interact with day-to-day — especially if you’re a designer.

We’re used to thinking of things as independent, self-contained objects. A cup is a cup. You can grab it, lift it, turn it around, dip it into liquid, bring that liquid to your mouth. Not much to it! A chair is just a chair. A watch is a watch. Except when it’s digitally enabled. Then it’s something more. Yes, it’s still an object you can pick up and manipulate. But that’s not the point. What’s essential about a smartwatch is that it gives you access to a range of useful features that are only available as long as the systems that enable them are in good working order.

For much of the time that people have been designing things, we’ve created things that are more like cups and chairs — and even Speedmasters — than Apple Watches. As a result, we tend to think of the things we design as individual artifacts with clearly defined boundaries; the kinds of things you can photograph and present in a beautiful coffee table book. Digital things aren’t like that. An app isn’t an individual artifact; it’s a part of (and a host to) very complex systems. Sure, you can show a comprehensive series of screen comps to illustrate what the app will “look and feel” like, but that’s not where its boundaries lie. The screens you interact with when you open the weather app on your smartwatch are a tiny shard of ice on the tip of an enormous iceberg.

Before digital, designers needed some degree of systems thinking. You can’t design something like a Speedmaster from scratch; there are hundreds of years of know-how that precede it, a specialized industrial ecosystem that will produce it, established business models that will get it onto people’s hands, and so on. A designer must understand these things to make the right tradeoffs. Many take these systems for granted as the context within which they’re working, but they must be aware of them nevertheless. Still, I’d venture most folks who design these things don’t think of themselves primarily as intervening in systems.

One possible exception is architects. More than other artifacts, buildings and towns depend on (and enable) rich interactions with their contexts; they depend on complex systems (e.g., transportation, energy, etc.) not just for their design but also to continue serving their functions. As Stewart Brand has pointed out, buildings also change over time as the needs of their occupants and stewards evolve. Smart designers create the means to accommodate change without making too much of a mess. This requires that they understand how the things they design function as systems.

Digital designers must think more like architects than like the designers of cups, chairs, or even mechanical watches. More than any other artifacts we’ve designed in the past, digital things participate in and enable systems. They’re also dynamic and interactive in ways that even complex mechanical devices like a Speedmaster aren’t. Bottom line: You can’t do a good job of designing a digital thing if you don’t understand systems. (This is one of the reasons why I think “product” is the wrong framing for digital things.)

I get tremendous value from my Apple Watch. However, I understand that that value is entirely dependent on complex systems that go well beyond the object on my wrist. When I design a digital thing, I frame it as a systemic design challenge: I look to understand the components and interdependencies that make the thing possible, and how they might change over time. I keep reminding myself that the boundaries for the thing I’m designing don’t lie with the organization that’s commissioned the work or even the operating system within which users will experience it, even if — especially if — stakeholders can’t easily see this. I must think of the thing I’m designing an intervention in one or more systems, and consider the second- and even third-order effects it implies.

And as much as I love my Apple Watch, if all goes to hell, I want a Speedmaster on my wrist.

Daniel Kahneman on Framing and Incentives

Here’s a great podcast conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Sam Harris.

Mr. Kahneman on framing:

This is a question we should be asking ourselves when we think about a problem, a societal problem: How can it be framed? And somebody has​ the responsibility in those cases of choosing a framing — because it’s going to be framed one way or the other. So given that idea that there is no avoiding framing, that you can choose the better frame… that’s the central idea of behavioral economics and nudging. It’s really that: you should choose the frame that leads to the better decision and to the better outcome.

And on incentives:

The basic psychological rule, if you want people to behave in a particular way, is to make it easy for them. That, by the way, is very different from incentives… The social psychologist Kurt Lewin had, around the end of World War II, developed ideas of how you change behavior. And he distinguished two essential ways of changing behavior. That is, you can apply pressure in the direction where you want people to go or you can ask a very different question, which is: Why aren’t they going there by themselves? That is, what is preventing them from doing what you think they should do? And then remove obstacles; make it easier for people to do. I think that’s the best psychological idea I know, this distinction between applying pressure and making things easier, removing obstacles. And pressure… that’s important. Pressure is incentives, pressure is threats, and pressure is arguments.

(Both quotes lightly edited for clarity.)

These points had me thinking about my post from yesterday about how important it is for designers to understand incentives in organizations. Perhaps the role of designers shouldn’t be so much to proselytize user-centeredness and fret about incentives as it should be to reframe problems and create​ means for system actors to do the right thing.

Making Sense #150: The Map of Misunderstanding

Designers as Advocates of Respect

In a thought-provoking post on Medium, Cyd Harrell advocates for respect as the one value designers should adopt (if they had to adopt only one.) She concludes:

it doesn’t matter if our field holds values like respect dear, if we’re not able to get businesses and institutions to adopt those values and apply them to their work. That’s virtually impossible without being explicit about them, however simple they may seem, and following that explicitness with exploration, persuasion, backup from studies, and appropriate pressure.

I’ll add one more: developing a deep understanding of the incentives that drive the organization.

Values aren’t really values until they’re put to the test. Until then, they’re only aspirations. In commercial organizations (at least), that test often manifests as a choice between respecting the individual and some tactical (short-term) gain. What the organization chooses to do determines what its actual (as opposed to stated) values are. (A hypothesis: organizations with longer-term mindsets will have greater incentives to err on the side of the individual since they’ll be more willing to build lasting relationships.)

It’s important for designers to proselytize respect of users within their organizations, but it’s also important that designers understand the conditions under which organizations lapse in this regard. Often it’s not because anyone sets out to be intentionally disrespectful; it’s because their organization places a higher value on other things. How might designers influence that?

Respect is the one value – UX Collective

EPCOT

It wasn’t supposed to be a theme park. What Walt Disney had in mind when he bought 27,400 acres of land in central Florida in the mid-1960s was a city. He wanted to build an “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” A real-world lab for experimenting with city forms and processes. You can see him pitch the idea to potential partners and Florida legislators in this film:

Pretty crazy, right? Walt Disney was a visionary. He achieved many things during his life that seemed nuts to the people around him. I don’t know if EPCOT would’ve succeeded as a city, but I’m sure that something like what we see in that film would’ve been built if he’d only lived a little longer. Alas, he died a few weeks after it was shot.

Walt’s team was left with the challenge of building an EPCOT without him. No one had never made one of these before, and now the man with the vision was gone. The state of Florida had granted Disney regulatory and fiscal exceptions on the premise that it’d build something more than a theme park and some hotels on the property. The state expected an EPCOT, so after a few false starts (and the energy crisis of the 1970s) something called “EPCOT Center” opened in Disney’s Florida property in 1982.

I didn’t know this backstory when I first visited EPCOT Center. I thought EPCOT was an interesting — if mildly boring — theme park that looked like a World’s Fair. When I learned about Walt’s original plan for EPCOT, it made me sad. A permanent World’s Fair was OK, but Walt’s original idea was fascinating: A city run by a major U.S. corporation could be a laboratory for all sorts of useful explorations. We wouldn’t want to mess around with certain systems or processes in a “real” city; some would be deemed too controversial or politically impractical. But in a “toy” city controlled by a single entity,​ you could do all sorts of interesting things.

For a long time, the missed opportunity of EPCOT was on my mind every time I’d visit Walt Disney World. However, I was there a couple of weeks ago, and another thought came to mind: perhaps Walt’s dream is coming true after all. While I didn’t visit the theme parks this time around, I did go to Disney Springs, a highly themed shopping district. There were a lot of people there. While many shopping malls are closing around the country, victims of the rise of e-commerce, this place was thriving. Why?

For many in our society, shopping is a form of entertainment. In Disney Springs we experience an environment that is explicitly designed to foster both (much as the theme parks are.) Visitors to Walt Disney World aren’t operating within their everyday mindset; most are there on vacation. They come prepared to be catered to and entertained; to suspend their disbelief; to open their wallets – hundreds of thousands of them every day. (Walt Disney World is the most popular vacation spot on the planet.)

So even though the Disney company didn’t build Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it did end up managing an environment that faces many of the same challenges as a small city. Transportation, safety, logistics, sustainability, energy efficiency, and climate change are all issues that WDW must deal with. As a private entity accountable only to the market (and the law), Disney can move faster​ than democratically elected city governments in responding to these issues. (Especially so in our time of political polarization and gridlock.) This combination of factors — control of an urban-sized environment, large volumes of people willing to suspend their disbelief (and their usual spending constraints), plus the deep pockets of the world’s largest entertainment company — make Walt Disney World the perfect laboratory to experiment with complex new systems at scale.

The original elements of the WDW plan were very forward-thinking: It featured (among others) new construction techniques for the resort hotels, innovative water recycling and waste management systems, and a monorail transportation​ system. The experimentation is ongoing. A few years ago, Disney deployed a new system for guest identification called MagicBands: RFID-enabled wristbands that identify individual visitors as they move around the WDW property. The ability to track individual users throughout the environment allows Disney to customize their experience and to predict population needs better, affecting staffing, logistics, transportation, etc. (Can you imagine a city doing such a thing?)

Another example is currently being built: the Skyliner, a new transportation system consisting of gondolas that stretch over various resorts in the WDW property. The Skyliner is the company’s most recent transportation experiment: along with those photogenic monorails, the WDW property also features ferries, buses, and — more recently — a fleet of ride-hailing vehicles known as Minnie Vans. (I expect that WDW will feature among the first functional self-driving car fleets in the world, since conditions in the property are so closely controlled.)

Transit patterns in WDW must be similar to those found in cities, with folks moving from resort hotels to theme parks at peak hours in much the same way they move from home to work and back. I can’t imagine it’d be easy for a city to build an entirely new transportation system “from scratch.” In many cases, political and economic pressures would make such a project a decade-long undertaking (at least.) Disney filed construction plans for the SkyLiner in early 2017 and has already started testing passenger gondolas. The system is expected to open later this year. That is astonishingly fast.

Sure, Walt Disney World is much simpler than a real city. For one thing, Disney doesn’t have to deal with property rights when deploying a transportation system like the SkyLiner. But that’s in part what makes this place so perfect for testing complex systems: it leaves out of the equation many of the non-technical factors that make deploying them so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.

That’s just transportation. But this combination of factors is also in play for safety (e.g., especially against terrorism and violence), environmental sustainability, responding to the effects of climate change, and so much more. These are all challenges that require that cities and towns try new approaches fast. Current political structures aren’t set up for fast experimentation at scale — but Walt Disney World is. So in that sense, Walt’s vision for Florida is coming true after all.

The question is: Will Disney share what it learns from the operation of its Florida property? As a private entity, I understand the company not wanting to share this information with other commercial entities. But I wonder if there’d be a way for city officials and planners to study WDW as a model. Disney has run educational programs in the past aimed at teaching its customer service skills more broadly. Would it be possible for the company to do something similar with its Florida urban experiments?

Back to the Browser Monoculture?

Folks who’ve been around the web for a long time recall the “bad old days” when Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser. Back then, it was common to visit websites that were obviously broken on non-IE browsers. Rather than fixing these problems, developers would include banners nudging users to download the latest version of IE (or sometimes, if their organization was particularly enlightened, Firefox.) This would be a problem for folks like myself who didn’t use Windows computers.

In the best cases, rendering was the only thing that was broken in these sites. In many cases, functionality would be broken. In my small business back in Panama, we used to keep a Windows computer in the office for government transactions (e.g. filing certain taxes) that mandated the use of Internet Explorer. Yes, the browser monoculture was so ingrained​ that even governments expected (and reinforced) it.

Then the web standards movement came along. Little by little, sites started to work in different types of browsers. The explosion in mobile web access that followed the introduction of the iPhone drove the adoption of web standards even more strongly. Now there was an incentive for designers and developers to think about the structure of web pages beyond the presentation of particular form factors or browser rendering engines. It took a while, but eventually,​ things got much better.

Sadly, we seem to be backsliding to the bad old days. Lately, I’ve noticed many web applications not working well with my browser of choice, Safari. Keep in mind: this isn’t some random, obscure browser; it’s the default on the Mac, iPhone, and iPads. Still, I’m running into more and more web applications that simply don’t work well on Safari. I increasingly have​ to keep Google Chrome permanently open as my “web application” browser alongside Safari, just because I know Chrome always works.

This is understandable ​since Chrome has a bigger market share than Safari. But it’s not good. I don’t like how Chrome behaves on the Mac; Safari is a much better citizen of the ecosystem. But at least on the Mac you have the choice of setting Chrome as your default web browser. Not so on the iPhone and the iPad; there you must stick with Safari as the default. I want my browsers to always be in sync between platforms, so Safari is my baseline. You could blame Apple for this situation​ since they could choose to make it possible to set Chrome as the default browser on iOS. But even if they did, the situation isn’t ideal. I like Safari and how it integrates with the operating systems I use it with. I just want things to work well with it.

(One of my rules for computing sanity is to stick with the default web browser for whatever ecosystem you’re; working with. I suspect that part of Chrome’s popularity is due to the fact that so many people use Windows on their desktop combined with either iPhones or Android devices on mobile; this necessitates defaulting to Chrome as the browser of choice since it’s one that is available in all three ecosystems.)

Now that Microsoft has curtailed further development of the Edge rendering engine in favor of Chromium, I expect that more and more developers are going to opt to test on Chrome exclusively. This makes me sad; it harkens a return to a time when I had to constantly find workarounds for broken web experiences. Monocultures are seldom good.​

(Editorial note: I checked this post for grammar and spelling using the Grammarly extension on Safari. It has bugs. 😦 )

Introductions in the Age of Social Networks

Brad Feld, writing about how to best be introduced to people online:

[Double opt-in email intros are] the best and simplest way when you know the person asking for the intro and think the intro would be a good one.

What follows is a short and simple set of rules for the etiquette of introducing people online. The whole post resonated with me, but the following lines stand out:

how about the situations where you don’t really know the person. In that case, someone is asking you to do work and use some social credibility in a situation where you don’t really know how much to provide.

I’ve been in this situation before, and it’s something I’m not comfortable with.

One of the challenges of life online is that we often have the illusion of familiarity with people who are, in fact, strangers to us. We read a lot from the person and so come to think we know him or her when we actually don’t. More to the point, they don’t know us. A brief interaction in Twitter, Facebook, or over email isn’t enough to establish a solid relationship.

Whether it’s acknowledged or not, being asked to make an introduction to someone is a way of transferring credibility. If I know you and you know me, and I ask you to introduce me to a third party that you know, you are implicitly vouching for that person. I’m happy to do this when I know and trust the two people being introduced, but not at all comfortable with doing it for people I barely know.

My reticence manifests most obviously in my approach to managing connections on LinkedIn. I’m more open than others with the connections I accept on that social network, but I do have a bar. I often get requests to connect with people I’ve only ever met through a single interaction via email, Twitter, or some other channel. This is a problem because LinkedIn provides formal mechanisms for people to reach other people through their connections. This chain of credibility is only as strong as its weakest links, and if all we’ve got is a single interaction online, then the connection isn’t strong at all.

Bottom line: please don’t be offended if you’ve asked to connect with me on LinkedIn and haven’t heard back. I have a higher bar than most for these connections — and you should too. In this age of cheap, quick connections, credibility and trust are more important and valuable than ever.

So how do you connect with people you don’t know? I like Mr. Feld’s common-sense approach. When his acquaintances are asked by people they don’t know well to introduce them to him, he recommends:

simply say “I think Brad is pretty easy to reach – his email is public – just send him a note.”

Yes, this means you’ll be starting from scratch. That’s fair. What’s not fair is asking an acquaintance to vouch for your credibility. And by the way, my email is public too; here it is.

How To Deal With People Asking For Intros To Me