Intentional Computing

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Alex Baumgardt—who gifted me a functioning logic board—yesterday I brought my old Mac SE/30 back to life. My kids spent an hour or so exploring old games on its 9-inch monochrome screen while I reminisced about the days when that Mac was my primary computing experience. (My daughter Julia is smitten with Zork; I’m giddy.)

The kids had lots of questions.

“Does it have color?” No, it only has black and white.

“Does it have sound?” It used to. Gotta look into that.

“Does it play [current game]?” No, alas.

“Was it expensive?” In its day, it was very expensive.

“Does it ‘do’ the internet?” No, this one doesn’t.

An artifact from a different world.

I put my iPhone 8 Plus next to the SE/30. The phone’s screen lit up instantly, as it always does. It’s always on, and always on me. I’ve stopped thinking about using the iPhone as something I do. Instead, it’s become a natural extension of my day-to-day being. I simply take it out of my pocket, sometimes mindlessly.

Using the old Mac, on the other hand, is an intentional act. It’s off most of the time. To turn it on, you must flip a large mechanical switch on its back. It makes a loud, satisfying “thunk!” Various noises follow: a fan spinning up, the faint chirping of the disk drive. Then the “happy Mac” icon on the screen. A little world coming to life. Eventually, a folder appears showing the software available on the system. There’s not much there; a few games, a paint program, perhaps a text editor. No web browser, of course. (Although this particular Mac once had Netscape installed on it; I’d use it to browse the early web through a dial-up modem.)

“What do I want to do now?” isn’t a question I ever asked of this system. If I’d gone through the trouble of turning it on, it was because there was something I needed to do: work on a history paper, sequence some music, create an architectural model. (Yes, on the 9-inch screen! Good times.) A more intentional—a more mindful—way of computing. Closer to using a fine tool than a television.

I’m writing this in Ulysses’s “distraction-free” mode. Many text editors today have a similar feature: a way of forcing our always-on, always-connected, always-beckoning devices into something that works more like an SE/30. But what I’m talking about here is more than cutting out distractions; it’s about a different conception of the work and the tools used to do the work. It’s about computing as a discreet activity: something with a beginning, an end, a goal, with no possibility of meandering onto random destinations. As wonderful as the iPhone is (and it is a technological wonder), revisiting this 30-year-old computer made me think George R.R. Martin may be onto something.

Folder-centric to App-centric Workflows

Yesterday I had a busy day, that had me shuttling between Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. In days like these, I prefer to work from my iPad (as opposed to a traditional laptop computer.) The iPad takes up less space, which makes it easier to use in cramped public transport. It also has an LTE modem, so I can remain connected to the internet when I’m out and about. Its smaller screen also encourages focus, which helps in distracting environments. I love it, and on days like these, I wonder when the day will come when I can do most of my work from an iPad.

That said, working from the iPad requires that I shift how I think about the structure of my work. I’ve written before about how I keep all my project materials organized using folders in the file system of my Mac. While iOS includes a Files app that allows interacting with such file structures, the system encourages app-centric (rather than project-centric) way of working. Rather than thinking “I’m now working on project x, and all the stuff for project x is in this folder,” context switching calls for remembering what app I was working in: “I was editing the document for project x in Google Docs; hence I must open Google Docs.”

Many of the productivity apps in iOS allow for arbitrary document groupings. Hence, I find myself replicating my file structure in the various apps. I end up with a project x folder in Google Drive, another in Pages, another in Keynotes, another in OneNote, etc. This adds to my workload and requires that I keep track of which app I used for what. I find it a less natural way of working than keeping everything grouped in a single folder. It’s one of the challenges of working in iOS that I’m continually looking to overcome.

New Keynote: “Designing Distinctions”

I’ve been invited to deliver the closing keynote at World Information Architecture Day Switzerland 2019, which will happen in Zurich in February. (You can sign up here.) The conference’s theme of “Design for Difference” prompted me to work on a new presentation, which I’m calling “Designing Distinctions.” This is the description:

Information architects design distinctions. We categorize things for a living—that is, we set off concepts against each other to make it easier for people to “find their personal paths to knowledge.”

As software “eats the world,” the distinctions we create in information environments grow ever more powerful. They come to frame how people understand themselves, their contexts, and the relationship between the two. As a result, information architects have greater responsibility today than ever before. We must vie to create systems that establish useful distinctions.

This presentation explores the tensions inherent in making distinctions. What are the responsibilities for professional distinction-makers in a world in which the effects of their work have greater impact than ever before? How might information architecture lead to healthier societies in the long-term?

I’ll be working on this talk over the next few weeks, and am curious about​ what you think about the subject. What thoughts does it spark? Any concerns/areas you think I should cover? Books or blogs I should be reading on the subject? Please send me a note to let me know.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2018

I’ve previously posted lists of books I’ve liked during the year. I usually do this close to the New Year, since I’ll often get through a couple of additional books during the holidays. However, a recent “books I loved this year” post by Bill Gates made me realize that it may be better to share these lists before the holiday season—that way they can serve as gift ideas. (Either for yourself or others.)

In any case, here are five books I enjoyed this year, and that you and/or your friends may like. (They didn’t necessarily come out in 2018—that’s just when I got to them.)

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Like many people, I first heard about Hans Rosling via his popular TED talk, where he showed evidence the world is getting better by using animated bubble charts. Factfulness 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. Read my book notes or buy it on Amazon.com.

Architectural Intelligence, by Molly Wright Steenson. A masterful examination of how architectural thinking and doing have shaped our current information environments. The book focuses on the work of four influential architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte. Read my book notes or buy it on Amazon.com.

Playing to Win, by A.G. Lafley and Roger R. Martin. Excellent book on corporate strategy, and one of the clearest and most compelling business books I’ve read. The authors are both experienced and respected business leaders with a proven track record. (Mr. Martin is dean of the Roman School of Management, and Mr. Lafley a former CEO of Procter & Gamble.) Read my book notes or buy it on Amazon.com.

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. Even though I haven’t been anybody’s boss in a long time, I found this book very valuable. It’s about how to be more effective in team environments by being sincere and firm yet kind. Ms. Scott was a former manager at several high-profile Silicon Valley companies (e.g., Apple and Google), and the book is packed with real-world examples. Buy it on Amazon.com.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. I don’t read much fiction (not as much as I’d like, anyway), and when I do it’s usually as an audiobook. George Saunders’s debut novel is one you wouldn’t expect to work well in the medium (it features 166 narrators!), and is somewhat disorienting at first. But after a bit,​ I couldn’t stop listening. It still haunts me. Buy it on Amazon.com.

Making Changes at the End of the Year?

As we head towards the end of the year, you may be considering making a list of New Year’s resolutions. They may include changes to your information ecosystem. For example, you may be contemplating leaving Facebook, starting a blog, setting up a new folder structure for your email. I want to encourage you to reconsider this approach.

For my part, I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago. (My last resolution was to never again make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve kept that one.) Why did I stop? Because they didn’t work. I was mostly setting myself up to feel guilty for not keeping my commitments.

Most New Years resolutions are habits we aspire to either take on or give up: Eating healthier, starting a yoga practice, tweeting more (or less), etc. I’m all for these changes. Being intentional about your habits can have significant positive impacts on your life. But there are several problems with attempting to do them all in one go during the holidays.

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Seeing Clearly

The ultimate use of information is to help you make better decisions. You gather information through your senses; the better your reading of the situation corresponds to what is really there, the better positioned you’ll be to make good decisions.

Some decisions are more consequential than others. I chose to eat fried eggs with Brussel sprouts and chorizo for breakfast today. I could’ve picked something else, and it wouldn’t have mattered much. That’s a low stakes decision; I’ll get another shot at breakfast tomorrow morning. Others have much higher stakes. Choosing to marry and start a family, for example, forever changes the course of your life.

Ultimately what you choose comes down to how well you understand the feasible options. When I opened the refrigerator this morning, I could see what ingredients were available to me. I also knew how much time I’d have to make breakfast, what utensils were available in the kitchen, and so on. This is information. I could’ve chosen to have a soufflé for breakfast instead, but I’ve never made one before. I would’ve had to go look up a recipe online, go to the supermarket to buy ingredients, block out most of my morning, etc. Fried eggs with Brussels sprouts and chorizo was an easier choice; my senses told me so.

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A Stowable TV

Managing kids’ screen time is a challenge. My wife and I cut the cable close to 7 years ago, so my children haven’t grown up in a traditional (read: advertising-supported) TV household. While we still owned a television, our screen time has been much more intentional.The last time we moved, we took an even bolder step: We got rid of the television altogether. In its stead, we bought an LCD projector and a soundbar. During the school year, we keep the projector stowed during most of the week. We bring it out Friday evenings for family movie nights, which happen every weekend evening unless we have other plans. The projector goes back into storage on Monday mornings. (The soundbar remains in the living room; it doubles as our sound system using Airplay.)

This approach has turned what would’ve previously been an individual attention suck into a family event we can all enjoy together. It satisfies the need for the kids to be into media without becoming beholden to the tube. (At least until they’re old enough to demand their own smartphones. Alas, the rumblings have already started in my household.)

So Many Books

As an independent consultant, I spend a lot of time working in coffee shops and other venues near my house. One of these is my local public library. The library is a great place to work: it’s quiet, has comfortable furniture, good light, and (relatively) fast internet access. It’s my favorite place to work from—when I don’t have to be in meetings, of course. But there’s a downside to working in the library: it’s full of books.

I have a book problem. I love reading and find it difficult to visit the library without being drawn to the shelves. Last time I was there I checked out Ken Kocienda’s Creative Selection, an insider’s story about what it was like to be behind the scene’s at Apple during the heyday of the Steve Jobs era. In particular, it focuses on how the company makes software design decisions. Right up my alley! I’m enjoying it, but starting to read it means I’m spending less time with another book I’d started recently. (Robert Greene’s newest, The Laws of Human Nature.) Greene’s book, in turn, intruded into another book I was reading.

You can see how this would be a problem. If I keep going this way, I won’t finish any of them. So I’m starting to develop more stringent criteria about what I let through my reading queue:

  • It must be relevant to my work
  • It must be authoritative
  • It must be something I’ve not read before (i.e., a subject I’m unfamiliar with)
  • It must be engaging (I won’t waste with poor writing, no matter how fascinating the subject)
  • Bonus points: it’s over twenty years old and still considered the go-to for its subject

Many books don’t pass this test; those go into a “for later” tab in OneNote. But will later ever come? At this pace, it won’t. (Several lifetimes aren’t enough for all the interesting books out there!) But that’s OK as long as the books that I do give my attention to are highly relevant and informative, and my filter list helps with that.

Maintaining Focus

Before smartphones, people took photos using cameras. I bought my first “nice” camera — an entry-level Canon SLR — before my first daughter was born; I got it because I knew my point-and-shoot camera didn’t have a fast enough focusing system to keep track of a fast-moving toddler. Even today — with excellent cameras in our phones — higher-end cameras provide better focusing features.

You can analyze a camera’s focusing capabilities by breaking them down into two stages:

  1. how fast the camera can recognize the subject and how quickly it can focus on it, and
  2. how well it maintains that focus as the subject moves around.

So: acquiring and maintaining focus. Most higher-end cameras today can figure out what you’re trying to capture, focus on it, and adjust the lens’s focus automatically to keep that subject sharp — even if it’s zooming toward you in a soccer field or making pirouettes through the air. The nice ones do it so quickly that it feels instantaneous and effortless. But this isn’t easy to do! These autofocus systems are technological miracles.

I often think about camera focusing systems when thinking about my own life and work. So many things are competing for my attention! What comes first? What’s most important? What should I work on next? In other words, where do I place my focus?

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