Proudshamed

Paul Ford, writing for WIRED:

NERDS, WE DID it. We have graduated, along with oil, real estate, insurance, and finance, to the big T. Trillions of dollars. Trillions! Get to that number any way you like: Sum up the market cap of the major tech companies, or just take Apple’s valuation on a good day. Measure the number of dollars pumped into the economy by digital productivity, whatever that is. Imagine the possible future earnings of Amazon.

THE THINGS WE loved — the Commodore Amigas and AOL chat rooms, the Pac-Man machines and Tamagotchis, the Lisp machines and RFCs, the Ace paperback copies of Neuromancer in the pockets of our dusty jeans—these very specific things have come together into a postindustrial Voltron that keeps eating the world. We accelerated progress itself, at least the capitalist and dystopian parts. Sometimes I’m proud, although just as often I’m ashamed. I am proudshamed.

This piece captures a mood I’ve perceived among my cohort of techie designers: A radical swing from the unbridled optimism many of us felt in the 1990s — the sense that the internet was a transformational force comparable only to Gutenberg — to moroseness and guilt at the effects of these changes on society.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era was anything but smooth. Gutenberg’s innovation wrought tremendous upheaval: Long-standing mental models collapsed; social and political systems were replaced. The technological changes of the last five decades — the wiring up of the planet into a real-time nervous system that democratizes access to the world’s information — are in some ways more radical than those of the 15th-16th Centuries. We’ve not just changed the ways we interact with each other and the world, we’ve changed change itself — scaling and speeding it up in ways that lead to unpredictable outcomes.

The article frames (digital) technology as an industry alongside others such as energy and finance. That’s a common underestimation spurred by the pervasive mental model of our time: that of the market economy. Yes, tech is an industry in that sense. But tech is also a meta-industry: it changes the character of the other industries thoroughly. The call to more responsible design is urgent not because tech requires it, but because we are re-building society atop tech.

Why should we expect such radical changes to be easy or comfortable? People of my vintage (I’m squarely Gen X) and younger in the developed world have thus far led lives of relative peace and stability. Cold War notwithstanding, we came of age inside a certainty bubble. When dealing with (deep) disruption, we fail to account both for the fragility of social institutions and the resilience of individuals under such conditions.

Mr. Ford concludes:

I was exceptionally lucky to be born into this moment. I got to see what happened, to live as a child of acceleration. The mysteries of software caught my eye when I was a boy, and I still see it with the same wonder, even though I’m now an adult. Proudshamed, yes, but I still love it, the mess of it, the code and toolkits, down to the pixels and the processors, and up to the buses and bridges. I love the whole made world. But I can’t deny that the miracle is over, and that there is an unbelievable amount of work left for us to do.

I, too, feel lucky. Yes, there is lots of work to do. But the miracle is far from over; it’s ongoing. Responding skillfully to the changes it bring requires being present; that we see clearly so we can use our (real!) abilities towards increasing agency and compassion.

WHY I (STILL) LOVE TECH: IN DEFENSE OF A DIFFICULT INDUSTRY

Informing and Persuading

As more things become digital, those of us who design digital things — apps, websites, software — increasingly define how people understand and interact with the world. It’s not uncommon for digital designers to make difficult choices on behalf of others. This requires an ethical commitment to doing the right thing.

For information architects, the critical decisions involve structuring information in particular ways. Choices include:

  • What information should be present
  • How information should be presented (i.e., in what format or sequence)
  • How information should be categorized

The objective is to make information easier to find and understand.

At least in theory. Often, the objective is to make some information easier to find than others. For example, it recently came to light that tax filing software makers such as Intuit and H&R Block set out to steer customers away from their free offerings. Intuit even tweaked its site, apparently to keep public search engines from indexing the product. The goal in this case seems to be not to make information more findable, but less so — while still technically complying with a commitment to “inform.”

The same is true for understandability. A few years ago, when the Affordable Care Act was being debated in the U.S., a diagram was put forth that purported to explain the implications of the new law:

Understanding Obamacare chart

This is not a neutral artifact. Its primary design objective isn’t to make the ACA more understandable, but to highlight its complexity. (It succeeds.) This diagram intentionally confuses the viewer. As such, it’s ethically compromised.

IA challenges fall on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you’re aiming to inform the people who interact with your artifact about a particular domain. On the other end, you’re trying to persuade them.

Inform - Persuade

By “inform,” I mean giving people the information they need so they can make reasonable decisions within a conceptual domain, and presenting this information to them in ways they can understand given their level of expertise. By “persuade,” I mean giving people the information they need so they can behave how we want them to, and presenting it to them in ways that nudge them in that direction.

Informing and persuading are different objectives. In one, you’re setting out to increase the person’s knowledge so they can make their own decisions. In the other, you’re setting out move them towards specific, predetermined outcomes. In both cases, you’re trying to alter behavior — but the motives are different. By informing, you make people smarter. By persuading, you make them acquiescent.

I’m not judging by observing this distinction. If someone is engaged in self-defeating or otherwise destructive courses of action (e.g., smoking, gambling, driving while intoxicated), setting out to change their behavior could be the compassionate, ethical thing to do. So persuasion isn’t bad per se. Also, few projects fall on either extreme in the continuum; most lie somewhere in the middle. (Is it ever possible to not persuade when structuring information? I.e., all taxonomies are political. Even this post is an exercise in persuasion.)

That said, if your goal is to make information more findable and understandable, you will sometimes be tested by the need to persuade. If the offering truly adds value to clients and to the world, and aligns with your own values, you’re unlikely to face a tough ethical call. Such offerings “sell themselves” — i.e., the more you know about them and their competitors, the more desirable they become. The problem comes when you’re asked to sell a lemon or to nudge people towards goals that are misaligned with their goals, your goals, or society’s goals. There’s no ethical way to bring balance to such situations; often the appropriate response is to take a “hard pass.” (I.e., not engage in the work at all.)

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.

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?

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

From the Digital Town Square to the Living Room

Mark Zuckerberg, in a blog post on Facebook:

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

The post lays out a vision for the future of a privacy-focused Facebook platform built around the following principles:

  • Private interactions
  • Encryption
  • Reducing permanence
  • Interoperability
  • Secure data storage

Ultimately, these principles will enable “the digital equivalent of the living room,” in contrast to today’s “digital equivalent of a town square.”

Interesting and laudable. Alas, there’s no mention in the post of changes to Facebook’s business model. As long as the company’s revenues are tied to selling our attention, the goal of serving as our digital equivalents to physical meeting places — be they town squares or living rooms — remains suspect.

A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

The Cognition Crisis

Adam Gazzaley, co-author of The Distracted Mind (which I cited in Living in Information), argues that we are facing a cognition crisis:

A cognition crisis is not defined by a lack of information, knowledge or skills. We have done a fine job in accumulating those and passing them along across millennia. Rather, this a crisis at the core of what makes us human: the dynamic interplay between our brain and our environment — the ever-present cycle between how we perceive our surroundings, integrate this information, and act upon it.

What’s causing this crisis?

While the sources fracturing our cognition are many, we are faced with the realization that our brains simply have not kept pace with the rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology.

A lucid explanation of the dynamic between cognition and technology, and how evolving conditions are making things more challenging for us.

The Cognition Crisis