Book Notes: “Factfulness”

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Flatiron Books, 2018

Like many people, I first heard about Hans Rosling via his popular TED talk, where he showed using animated bubble charts multiple ways in which data point to an improving world. Factfulness — which Bill Gates called one of the most important books he’s ever read — is like a paper-based version of that presentation: It does, indeed, use data to explain how things are getting better. But it does more than that: It also explains why we find that so hard to believe.

The book divided into ten chapters corresponding to biases or “instincts” that delude us:

  1. The Gap Instinct: Our tendency towards polarizing what we see.
  2. The Negativity Instinct: Our tendency to spread bad news over good news. (I.e., “Good news is not news.”)
  3. The Straight Line Instinct: Our tendency to project future trends based on current trends.
  4. The Fear Instinct: Our (deeply hard-wired) tendency to pay more attention to frightening things.
  5. The Size Instinct: Out tendency to gravitate towards impressively large or small numbers, losing our sense of proportion.
  6. The Generalization Instinct: Our tendency to generalize and categorize data.
  7. The Destiny Instinct: Our tendency to not perceive change when it happens slowly and gradually.
  8. The Single Perspective Instinct: Our tendency to see things only from our angle.
  9. The Blame Instinct: Our tendency to find scapegoats to blame for the way things are.
  10. The Urgency Instinct: Our tendency to react to changing conditions by intervening immediately.

Looking at data objectively, it’s hard not to see how humanity has made enormous progress. But you wouldn’t know this if you look at the news or interact with others in social media. This is in part because most people argue from a perspective that is distorted by these “instincts.” This book shows you how to overcome these biases so you can understand things more objectively. It’s not a dose of optimism, but a dose of possibilism, a word Rosling coined (and which I’ve written about before.)

Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer before finishing the Factfulness. His collaborators — his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna — conclude the book with a note regarding the impact he hoped it would have: to help us work towards a fact-based worldview. Given the power and outreach of our technologies, we need it more than ever. This book is an important contribution in that direction.

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Book Notes: “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt and Company, 2018

Jaron Lanier is not just a VR pioneer. He’s also one of the earliest critics of the technological and economic conditions that have led to our current social media-instigated malaise. His book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010) was more than prescient: it diagnosed the broken fundamentals of the advertising business model years before most of us understood the pernicious effects of moving important social interactions to environments that are financed by attention-mongering.

Lanier’s latest book doesn’t pull punches. True to its title, it consists of ten short arguments for quitting social media cold turkey. Quoting the back cover, these arguments are:

  1. You are losing your free will.
  2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
  3. Social media is making you into an asshole.
  4. Social media is undermining truth.
  5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.
  6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
  7. Social media is making you unhappy.
  8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.
  9. Social media is making politics impossible.
  10. Social media hates your soul.

Some of these are more effective than others. (For me, at least — Lanier offers several YMMV disclaimers.) While the overall impression is that we do have a problem with social media, I’m put off by the book’s overly confrontational approach. For example, early on, Lanier proposes an acronym to describe advertising-supported internet companies: BUMMER. From then on, he refers to companies such as Facebook and Google as BUMMER companies.

This is a short book and something of a rant, so I didn’t expect nuance. That said, the argument could’ve been stronger if it acknowledged more of the genuine value people get from some of these information environments. One of the book’s underlying premises is that we become addicted to these environments by design. That’s truer of some than others. For example, WhatsApp is where my family and I catch up with each other. I’m not compulsively drawn to that environment in the same way that I am to Twitter and Facebook. Yes, there are other reasons why WhatsApp may not be good for me, but I do find some value there. The book doesn’t delve enough into these types of distinctions.

The combined effect of the confrontational stance and ranty nature of the work detract from the seriousness of its subject. That said, it’s a short read, and well worth your while: It will make you think about the way you approach your online interactions, and where.

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Book Notes: “Orchestrating Experiences”

Orchestrating Experiences: Collaborative Design for Complexity
By Chris Risdon and Patrick Quattlebaum
Rosenfeld Media, 2018

Before I tell you about Orchestrating Experiences, a disclaimer: the authors and publisher are my friends. I won’t lie and tell you that doesn’t affect my perspective. Still, that shouldn’t keep you from knowing about this important book.

Yep, important. Why? Because it tackles one of the most challenging and impactful aspects of contemporary design practice: how to design coherent systems that span multiple touchpoints and interactions. Such systems typically have multiple stakeholders, many of whom work towards objectives that may not align neatly with other stakeholders’. These systems also require moving around lots of information and making it findable and understandable to people with varying degrees of competency.

Many design books focus on the tactical aspects of this work. For example, you need not search too long for good titles about producing usable interfaces or creating compelling content. There are also good books that deal with more strategic concerns. Where Orchestrating Experiences shines is in bridging the two: it’s a how-to guide for clarifying a strategic project vision and articulating it in terms that will inform tactical design artifacts. The result is a complex system that is nevertheless coherent and directed.

So how does one pull off this tricky challenge? The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is by collaborating with the people responsible for the system. Because of this, designers operating at this level will often be called to facilitate workshops. Orchestrating Experiences addresses this reality in its structure: most of the book’s chapters deal with a particular area of focus (e.g., how to define experience principles) from a conceptual perspective, which is then immediately followed by instructions on how to structure and facilitate a workshop to help the team produce the work that satisfies that particular area of focus.

When I say “conceptual point of view,” you may get the impression that these are abstract subjects. And that is indeed a risk when writing about design at this level. However, Orchestrating Experiences features plenty of real-world examples, including (clear and beautiful) deliverables and photos of in-process workshops. This makes the material very accessible. I left Orchestrating Experiences with a clearer understanding of the importance of working at this level and concrete tools to help me do it. I highly recommend it.

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Book Notes: “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses”

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary
By Dan Hill
Strelka Press, 2012

Podcaster Tim Ferriss asks the people he interviews a useful (and revealing) question: What book have you gifted most often? My answer to this question is Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, an essay about strategic design. I’ve probably cited, recommended, and gifted this short book more than any other, mostly to other designers.

The main point of the essay is that design is useful for more than just creating great products and services. (Essentially, solutions to pre-defined — and often ill-defined — problems.) Instead, design can help us tackle a wide range of wicked problems at the social and organizational levels:

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Book Notes: “Conceptual Models”

Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design
By Jeff Johnson and Austin Henderson
Morgan & Claypool, 2012

I don’t like defacing my books by writing in them. Instead, I annotate them with sticky notes. One side-effect of this approach is that you can tell which books I’ve gotten the most value from by just looking at how many sticky notes protrude from them. This slender volume on conceptual modeling is bulging with sticky notes.

The authors are Xerox alumni from “the rough and tumble days of inventing the future.” There, they discovered the importance of modeling systems before you start designing their user interfaces. This book argues that designers of digital systems must “begin by designing what to design” — figuring out what the system does and what concepts it will expose to its users before they start drawing wireframes.

Sounds obvious, right? In practice, it isn’t. As with other models, conceptual models are abstractions, and abstractions make stakeholders nervous. I’ve experienced it first-hand: resistance to “tooling around” with boxes-and-arrows diagrams when wireframes and comps are “obviously” the way to make progress on a project. Except, of course, that they aren’t: screen-level design that isn’t underpinned by a coherent conceptual structure is mediocre at best and often disastrously ill-suited to addressing user expectations and goals.

As I said, it’s a slender book: only 96 pages. It’s also written as an easy-to-follow outline that explains the principles of successful conceptual modeling, with no fluff. In 2018, there is no excuse for digital designers to start work by designing at the screen level. (For complex challenges, it’s a form of malpractice.) This book offers the most accessible introduction to a key step in the digital design process — one that unfortunately is still often overlooked.

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Book Notes: “Enlightenment Now”

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, 2018

This book will piss you off. It’ll piss you off if you’re a person of faith. It’ll piss you off if you are on the right of the political spectrum and it’ll piss you off if you’re on the left. It’ll piss you off if you think nuclear power and genetically modified crops are abominations. It’ll piss you off if you consider yourself a Marxist, and it’ll piss you off if you have Nietzschean proclivities. You should still read it.

Enlightenment Now makes the case that the Enlightenment has been a good thing. “But!,” you may protest, “What about all the pollution? What about global warming? What about all the racism and misogyny? What about the excesses of capitalism and science? What about the violence? What about terrorism? The world is shit!” Yes, that. The book makes the case that our understanding of these and other important issues is affected by cognitive biases that make things appear worse than they really are. Of course, you can’t make this argument if you don’t have data to back it up, and the book delivers data in abundance.

This is not to say the tone is celebratory. The ideals of the Enlightenment – the same ideals that led to a world in which I can type these words into a pocket-sized Internet-connected supercomputer, for you to read them, and for both of us to enjoy the health and prosperity that give us the wherewithal to have this interaction – are under attack. Various forces threaten to undermine progress: tribalism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, and more. The book serves as an urgent call to resist and counteract these forces that threaten to pull us back to the bad old days.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement, or mildly curious, you should read the book. But if merely reading these notes upsets you, then you need to read it. It’ll piss you off, but ultimately that may be a good thing.

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Book Notes: “Planning for Everything”

Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals
By Peter Morville
Semantic Studios, 2018

Planning is essential, and many of us don’t do it very well. Fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness hold us back. Our lives are messy, and the challenges we face are multi-faceted and complex. Who better than one of the world’s most prominent information architects to help make sense of the mess?

On the surface, Peter Morville’s new book, Planning for Everything, seems like a hands-on guide to making better plans. And it is; it includes practical frameworks that can help with your planning. But there’s much below the surface that makes this book special. It goes deep into the subject, examining how we envision future possibilities, set goals, decide among various compelling options, strategize, act, and reflect. Throughout it weaves examples and stories both from the author’s personal experience — running marathons, leading a consultancy, parenting — and from literary sources that range from the Bhagavad Gita to Yuval Noah Harari. The result is not only practical, but also entertaining and inspiring.

This short book is long on wisdom; I left it feeling as though I’d just spent a calm afternoon with an insightful mentor. If you’re facing a major life decision (or even a minor one), it behooves you to read it.

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Book Notes: “Textos Cautivos”

Textos cautivos (2da edición)
By Jorge Luis Borges
Alizanza Editorial, 1998

Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers. His short stories The Garden of Forking Paths and The Library of Babel are required reading for information architects, and are as effective in their (excellent) English translations as in the original Spanish. (These and other key short works have been collected in a volume titled Labyrinths, which I highly recommend.) While I’ve long been familiar with Borges’s stories, I’ve had less exposure to his less famous works. Looking to correct this oversight, I recently read a book titled Textos cautivos (English: Captive Texts), a collection of writings published in the Argentinian magazine El Hogar between 1936 and 1939.

During this time, Borges was responsible for a page in the magazine that highlighted contemporary (and especially foreign) works of literature and their authors. Recurring sections included essays, book reviews, and short biographies. Textos cautivos presents this material with an interesting structure: Instead of preserving the original context, the book breaks out the essays, reviews, biographies, and short takes on “the literary life” into separate sections. Individual entries within each category are presented in chronological order.

The selection of material — authors, books, etc. — reflects Borges’s interests (crime novels, fantasy, poetry, etc.) and contemporary events (the struggle between fascism and communism, the rise of anti-semitism, etc.) This, coupled with the format/chronological structure of the book, gives the reader the impression of reading a blog written in the years leading up to World War II. As with a good blog, one comes away with a new perspective of the times, as filtered through the lens of an individual’s obsessions. (In this case, the times were a prelude to global catastrophe, and the individual a man who lived life through books.)

I detected curiosity and dread towards the currents of history swirling around Borges, something I believe many of us can relate to. (But perhaps this reveals more about me than it does about the author?) Of course, Borges’s writing is witty and erudite as always. If you like Borges and can read Spanish (sorry, I don’t know of an English translation), this collection brings him to life in a way that feels strangely contemporary.

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Book Notes: “Dawn of the New Everything”

Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt and Co., 2017

Lanier is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality. He founded and led VPL Research, one of the first VR companies, in the 1980s. This book is in parts a history of VR, a (very) personal memoir, and a philosophy manual for thinking about the application of digital technology towards human goals. “This book conveys my personal perspective,” Lanier states early on. “It doesn’t attempt a comprehensive history or survey of ideas.” But the history-survey it does attempt is both enticing and profound.

The story’s arc goes through four stages:

  1. Lanier’s childhood experiences in New Mexico (which had a very important influence on his outlook on technology and life in general),
  2. his unorthodox education (“trying to be normal is a fool’s game”),
  3. the founding and running of VPL, and finally,
  4. the post-VPL years.

A thread of VR philosophy is weaved into the autobiographical sections. Often founders of schools of thought, fields, technologies, etc. will offer a handful of definitions of the thing they’re famous for. Lanier emphasizes VR’s multi-faceted nature by offering multiple definitions throughout the book. Many of these don’t deal at all with the technology, but with their effect on people — especially VR’s ability to augment our humanity:

19th VR definition: instrumentation to explore motor-cortex intelligence.

And that is the core of this book: technology in service to human ends. Lanier contrasts VR with artificial intelligence: where AI seeks to replace human capacities, VR seeks to allow us to explore our consciousness, to become more human. I don’t buy this idea completely (there are other ways to do this that don’t require technological intermediation), but it’s refreshing to have a strongly (and deeply) argued case for a more conscious and ethical approach to tech:

I love recalling the first passes of computer science because then you can see how the whole of computation is an act of invention. Nothing about computers is inevitable. But we’ve put such a massive number of bits into place that it’s often too much work to remember how each brick of the edifice we live in is but a peculiar obsession somebody else put into place once upon a time.

This massive edifice of bits has inertia, but it’s ultimately within our power to determine what technology is in service to. Tracing the history of significant parts of the edifice can help us understand that they aren’t inevitable. We can and should explore other ways of being with technology, and this book makes a compelling case for doing so.

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