The Synthesizers In Charge

From an insightful (and terrifying) article in The Atlantic by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher about the potential impact of AI on our civilization:

The challenge of absorbing this new technology into the values and practices of the existing culture has no precedent. The most comparable event was the transition from the medieval to the modern period. In the medieval period, people interpreted the universe as a creation of the divine and all its manifestations as emanations of divine will. When the unity of the Christian Church was broken, the question of what unifying concept could replace it arose. The answer finally emerged in what we now call the Age of Enlightenment; great philosophers replaced divine inspiration with reason, experimentation, and a pragmatic approach. Other interpretations followed: philosophy of history; sociological interpretations of reality. But the phenomenon of a machine that assists—or possibly surpasses—humans in mental labor and helps to both predict and shape outcomes is unique in human history. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant ascribed truth to the impact of the structure of the human mind on observed reality. AI’s truth is more contingent and ambiguous; it modifies itself as it acquires and analyzes data.

The passage above reminded me of this gem by E.O. Wilson:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

True but for the “people” bit?

The Metamorphosis

Are Dating Apps Making Marriages Stronger?

In Living in Information, I wrote about the increase in the number of romantic relationships that start online as a signal that we’re moving key social interactions to information environments. I’ve often spoken of this fact with a tone of surprise. At some deep level, the romantic in me wants to believe that when it comes to love, the key information is best found when being in the same physical space as the other person. But recently the Wall Street Journal highlighted results of a study that suggest otherwise:

According to the study, the rate of marital breakups for respondents who met their spouse online was 25% lower than for those who met offline.

Why would this be?

The researchers suggested that a greater pool of potential spouses might give users more options and allow them to be more selective.

They also found that more anonymous online communications produced greater self-disclosure-and stronger feelings of affection-than face-to face communications, laying the foundation for more enduring relationships. A 2011 paper published in the journal Communication Research reached a similar conclusion. In a study of 85 participants conducted by researchers at Cornell University, opposite-sex participants were assigned to a face-to-face exchange, an online exchange with the addition of a webcam, or a text-only exchange. Researchers found that the text-only couples made more statements of affection than either of the other groups and were more comfortable sharing intimate information.

In the book I defined information as “anything that helps reduce uncertainty so you can make better predictions about outcomes.” It may turn out that when it comes to finding a mate, what we learn in structured information environments helps us make better long-term decisions.

Dating Apps Are Making Marriages Stronger – WSJ

From Monolithic to Distributed Architectures

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels on how the company transitioned from a monolithic application architecture to a distributed one:

We created a blueprint for change with our “Distributed Computing Manifesto.” This was an internal document describing a new architecture. With this manifesto, we began restructuring our application into smaller pieces called “services” that enabled us to scale Amazon dramatically.

But changing our application architecture was only half the story. Back in 1998, every Amazon development team worked on the same application, and every release of that application had to be coordinated across every team.

To support this new approach to architecture, we broke down our functional hierarchies and restructured our organization into small, autonomous teams, small enough that we could feed each team with only two pizzas. We focused each of these “two-pizza teams” on a specific product, service, or feature set, giving them more authority over a specific portion of the app. This turned our developers into product owners who could quickly make decisions that affected their individual products.

Breaking down our organization and application structures was a bold idea, but it worked. We were able to innovate for our customers at a much faster rate, and we’ve gone from deploying dozens of feature deployments each year to millions, as Amazon has grown. Perhaps more dramatically, our success in building highly scalable infrastructure ultimately led to the development of new core competencies and resulted in the founding of AWS in 2006.

Technological change requires new ways of working — especially when the change is happening at the structural level. Decentralizing the implementation at the technical level isn’t enough; decision-making must be decentralized as well. I read Amazon’s transition to two-pizza teams as a push towards bottom-up systemic interventions.

This strikes me as a more appropriate response to today’s complex challenges than the top-down hierarchies of the past. Alas, many designers and product managers are still operating within organizational structures that emerged during the industrial revolution, and which don’t easily accommodate bottom-up decision-making.

Modern applications at AWS – All Things Distributed

Ethics and Patience in Design

In an inspiring interview for Madame Architect, Design Observer co-founder Jessica Helfand opines on the drive for more ethical design in large organizations:

The problem is that ethics is not an institutional concern: it’s a individual concern. And individual issues begin with one person, at one time, doing one thing. That requires faith, understanding, compassion, and the one thing that challenges everyone: patience. Ethics isn’t derived by market research, or determined by an algorithm-and that’s tricky, particularly if you’re one of these large, behemoth companies that puts profit ahead of people.

Spot on. Organizations can only be ethical to the degree that the people who compose them are clear on their own value hierarchies.

I also appreciated the call for patience, which seems in short supply these days. Lasting, meaningful change requires long-term thinking. Many calls for “instant” fixes to intractably complex issues strike me as naïve, short-sighted, and often at odds with the long-term viability of the institutions they aim to “correct.”

The theme of patience (and humility) about our contributions as designers — especially when working in teams — comes up again, in a different guise, towards the end of the interview:

It’s hard in architecture, because how can you feel that you are engaging in the world of the spatially meaningful, when you’re working for a team doing window details for sixteen months and the building will take twenty years, and it’s a bank? I think it’s hard for designers, particularly with how much we do this on teams – how do you reconcile your role, when you’re part of a bigger team, when the collective effort overshadows your own, arguably sporadic contributions? I think that’s true of all designers, but it may be especially true for young architects.

The entire article is worth your time. (I was also inspired by the discussion about the creative studio as a sanctuary, something I’ve neglected in my life. This interview set me thinking about how I can correct that deficit.)

Visual Thinking: Jessica Helfand on Invention, the Studio as Sanctuary, and Being a Collector

Touchscreens and the Loss of Nuanced Control

From a report in The Verge about the aftermath of the collision of the USS John S. McCain, which killed ten sailors and injured many more:

The US Navy will replace the touchscreen throttle and helm controls currently installed in its destroyers with mechanical ones starting in 2020, says USNI News. The move comes after the National Transportation Safety Board released an accident report from a 2017 collision, which cites the design of the ship’s controls as a factor in the accident.

Not the only factor, to be sure; fatigue and lack of training also played a role. Still:

Specifically, the board points to the touchscreens on the bridge, noting that mechanical throttles are generally preferred because “they provide both immediate and tactile feedback to the operator.” The report notes that had mechanical controls been present, the helmsmen would have likely been alerted that there was an issue early on, and recommends that the Navy better adhere to better design standards.

There are systems in which humans are expected to play key control roles. A destroyer is one such system; as far as I know, fully autonomous vessels of this size don’t yet exist. User interfaces aren’t only means for users to send commands to systems; UIs also provide feedback to users. Some of this feedback is visual and auditory. But humans are creatures with more than two senses, and traditional mechanical controls can provide richer interactions than touchscreens, most of which rely primarily on sight.

Continue reading

Progress Studies

Writing in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen call for the creation of a new academic discipline: “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study.

The idea that things can (and do) get better over time has been central to Western culture for a long time. However, perusing social media like Twitter often makes me feel like many people have given up on the idea of progress — despite evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say everything’s rosy. Progress in one area (e.g., cheap energy) can be lead to other areas falling behind (e.g., international conflicts, a polluted environment.) Also, we often ignore second-order effects; what appear to be advances in the near term can lead to serious issues down the line. Things are more complex than they seem on the surface.

Still, it’s worth striving to make things better. Studying what progress is, how we measure it, how we can incentivize it, and what we can do to minimize the downsides, seems like a worthwhile way of going about it.

We Need a New Science of Progress

Chuck Jones and the Power of Discipline

Every Frame a Painting has a fantastic analysis of the work of master animator Chuck Jones:

As the video points out, Jones’s work has stood the test of time. Why? The video teases apart the elements that make Jones’s Looney Tunes cartoons work:

  • A two-part gag structure that 1) leads the viewer to make an assumption, and 2) proves that assumption wrong.
  • An emphasis on building character.
  • The discipline to abide by “the challenges and restrictions you set for yourself.”
  • Being open to inspiration from the real world.

The combination of these simple rules led to some most effective — and funniest — short films ever made. (Including my all-time favorite, One Froggy Evening.)

While all the rules are important for storytelling​, I consider discipline paramount since it transcends the medium. When creating a complex work (be it a book, a website, or an animated cartoon), you’re establishing a little universe with its own logic and rules. One of the central concerns of the creator is ensuring that this logic is internally coherent. While can sometimes be tempting to make exceptions for the sake of expediency, such exceptions often point to structural deficiencies, which left unresolved can ruin the work.

Having the discipline to abide by constraints (self-imposed and otherwise) is key to producing good work. Chuck Jones’s cartoons ultimately stand the test of time because of his insistence on abiding by the rules.

Chuck Jones – The Evolution of an Artist

Neal Stephenson on Social Media

Speaking in an interview with Tyler Cowen, Neal Stephenson offers an excellent analysis of how social media has hurt civic discourse:

COWEN: You saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did in Seveneves. It’s also in your new book, Fall. What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolved? And what’s the institutional failure? Why do many people think they’re screwing things up?

STEPHENSON: I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.

And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

Mr. Stephenson’s observation corresponds to my experience of social media (especially Twitter): It’s not that folks are talking past each other, it’s that they’re not even interacting with people who don’t share their mental models. The mere hint of the possibility of an alternate take can lead to ostracism — or worse. Amplified through continuous validation and a complete lack of pushback, opinions replace facts as the basis for worldviews. To talk of filter bubbles is misleading: these aren’t tenuous membranes; they’re thick, hardened shells.

The interview continues:

COWEN: But what’s the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

STEPHENSON: The problem seems to be the fact that it’s algorithmically driven, and that there are not humans in the loop making decisions, making editorial, sort of curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks.

As such, it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there’s also just a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people’s faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.

In other words, it’s a structural problem. As such, it’s also systemic. Unmentioned in the interview is the driving force behind these algorithmic constructs: business models based on monetizing users’ attention. Incentivizing engagement leads to systems that produce fragmentation and conflict.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71)

Design for Long-Term Relevance

Richard Saul Wurman in an interview for Interior Design magazine:

One of the reasons [my firm] went out of business was the ideal piece of architecture at that time was a Michael Graves building and he ruined architecture. I know he’s dead, but when he was alive he was smart and drew well and was a nice person, but he ruined architecture because all the critics made him the king architect doing these decorative buildings that won’t even be a footnote in 20 years. I’m putting this in context. Architects are as good as their clients and what they’re demanding. So, they are doing bling buildings. Look at what just got put up by thoughtful, bright architects—I’ve met every single one of them—in Hudson Yards. The idea of Hudson Yards is that it looks good from a helicopter and New Jersey. Walking around is the opposite of Piazza San Marco. It just isn’t interesting. It’s a fiction that all the architects during the Renaissance were great. What has held up is buildings that people want to occupy.

The Portland Building in August 1982. Photo by Steve Morgan.
Image by Steve Morgan CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

I was in architecture school at a time when Graves’ architecture was still hot. I remember poring over his beautiful drawings and thinking how much better they looked than photographs of the ensuing buildings. That was then; now, both look stale. Not the effect you want when designing something meant to be as durable as a building.

Relatively few things stand the test of time. Those that do — buildings, books, household objects, technologies, etc. — are worth paying attention to. If they remain relevant after taste and popular opinion have moved on, it’s because at some level they address universal needs.

Aspiration: design for long-term relevance. Hard to do for creatures dazzled by an endless array of new capabilities and embedded in cultures that place a premium on innovation.

10 Questions With… Richard Saul Wurman (h/t Dan Klyn)