Quantum Supremacy

Earlier this week, Google researchers announced a major computing breakthrough in the journal Nature:

Our Sycamore processor takes about 200 seconds to sample one instance of a quantum circuit a million times—our benchmarks currently indicate that the equivalent task for a state-of-the-art classical supercomputer would take approximately 10,000 years. This dramatic increase in speed compared to all known classical algorithms is an experimental realization of quantum supremacy for this specific computational task, heralding a much-anticipated computing paradigm.

Quantum supremacy heralds an era of not merely faster computing, but one in which computers can solve new types of problems. There was a time when I’d expect such breakthroughs from “information technology” companies such as IBM. But Google’s tech is ultimately in service to another business: advertising.

TAOI: Facebook’s Electoral Interference Changes

The architecture of information:

The Verge reports on a set of changes to Facebook aimed at counteracting misinformation on its platform. The changes come ahead of next years’ elections in the U.S., and include tools to protect candidates’ accounts, more transparency about the entities that manage Facebook pages, and new advertiser guidelines.

Reading through this list reminds me of the role television has played in influencing electoral outcomes. Compared to an information environment like Facebook, television — even in its current state, with hundreds of channels to choose from — has limited bandwidth. As a result, both actors and gatekeepers must be selective about what they publish on TV.

Compared to television, publishing on digital social platforms is cheap and easy. Anyone can publish anything, including variations on ads so they can be optimized for effectiveness. Additionally, on a social platform like Facebook, the people who are being influenced can also be publishers — that is, they can help spread messages “virally.” As a result, digital is a more effective platform for persuasion than TV.

I’m glad to see Facebook making structural changes to increase transparency and trustworthiness of their platform. Given its scale and reach, these changes could have an impact on the fairness of elections.

Facebook will label false posts more clearly as part of an effort to prevent 2020 election interference

Shanghai Disneyland

Folks who know me well know I’m a fan of the Disney theme parks. I consider Disneyland among the most successful places designed in the Twentieth Century. I’ve written about some of the reasons why (and about what UX designers can learn from the park) in a post titled 3 Placemaking Lessons From the Magic Kingdom; I recommend you read that before proceeding so you can get a sense of the lens through which I see these experiences.

I visited Shanghai last month for work. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the newest Disney theme park, which is in Pudong. In this post, I’ll share some of my impressions of Shanghai Disneyland and contrast it with the other Disney “castle” parks. (I’ve visited the parks in Anaheim, Orlando, and Paris.) There are many similarities between these Disneylands, but also significant differences.

Let’s start with the similarities. The most obvious is the structural layout of Shanghai Disneyland. There’s a castle in the center of the park that serves as a focal point. (A “wienie,” to use Walt Disney’s term.) The castle — Shanghai’s is the largest of all of Disney’s parks — helps guests orient themselves and navigate the environment.

Enchanted Storybook Castle in the center of Shanghai Disneyland.
Enchanted Storybook Castle in the center of Shanghai Disneyland.

Continue reading

Paola Antonelli on the Role of Designers

MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli in an interview with Core77:

In 2008, I did an exhibition that was called Design and the Elastic Mind where I came up with this idea that I use a lot: that designers are enzymes, they are the ones that make innovation, whether it’s scientific or technological into life. So that’s how I always think about it, whether they’re working on a product or on an interface or on an exhibition design, designers are the ones who make sure that there’s a synthesis happening and the synthesis that can be communicated to other human beings.

So if they are exhibition designers they make sure that the idea of a curator is tangible and is understandable by other people. If they are product designers, they in the simplest of cases become an interface between the engineering department and the public.

So it really depends, but I believe the designers are naturally extroverted professionals. Not that they are individually extroverted, maybe not, they might be shy or mostly introverts. But their role is to become catalysts, enzymes and to put the pieces together, they’re very good at that. Their role in the future continues to be that and I hope that this exquisite characteristic they have will be used and exploited in areas that are not necessarily the usual one. I hope that they will be included in political discussions, I hope that they will be almost like philosophers who are society-wise people that are consulted whenever there’s a big decision to make.

Design isn’t just a way of making better products and services, it’s also a way of knowing the world. (I love that Ms. Antonelli extends the scope of design to include politics, which has more to do with tweaking social and economic relations than with making stuff.)

Paola Antonelli on the Urgent Role Designers Will Play in the Future

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