Innovation and the Test of Time

Innovations are important; they generate growth, increase productivity, and improve our lives. Many emergent technologies give us incredible new abilities. Because of this, we apportion much attention (and money!) to innovative products. However, this focus on innovation can lead us to discount things that work well and have done so for a long time. New things often come with tradeoffs — especially when a technology is very new. If we focus exclusively on the new abilities they give us, we’ll be more willing to overlook their downsides and discount the value of older things that do less — but often do it better.

For example, an Apple Watch does things a mechanical watch can’t: It can show you notifications, receive and make phone calls, keep track of workouts, unlock your computer, and alert emergency services if you fall. Those are all superpowers that can make your life better. However, they come with tradeoffs. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear some of them do make your life better. An always-on device that shows you notifications may keep you from focusing. For another, an Apple Watch isn’t really “always on;” the battery on mine barely makes it past 9 pm on most days. It’s another device to keep charged, another cable to track.

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Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

Yesterday on a cross-country flight I had the opportunity to watch STEVE JOBS: THE LOST INTERVIEW, a documentary recorded in 1995 and released to theaters shortly after Jobs’s death in 2011. As its name implies, the film consists of an interview Robert X. Cringely conducted with Jobs for THE TRIUMPH OF THE NERDS, a PBS documentary about the development of the personal computer. Footage from the interview was lost for a while, but resurfaced after Jobs’s death.

The film shows Jobs at an interesting time in his life. This was before his triumphant return to Apple, which was then at its nadir. At this point, the company Jobs founded after leaving Apple (NeXT) had already transitioned from making computers to making software. It’s fascinating to see him frame this development; when talking about NeXT, he doesn’t mention the company’s computers at all. Instead, he talks about object-oriented programming as one of three major advances he witnessed in a visit to Xerox PARC in the late 1970s; the other two being ethernet networking and the graphical user interface. The latter of these, of course, is what led to the development of the Mac. In this way, Jobs ties his past success with his (then) current endeavor. Jobs is very clear on the lineage of these technologies; he doesn’t claim to have invented any of them. (At one point he even cites Picasso’s famous quote, “good artists copy; great artists steal.”)

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A Human Queue

We’ve all experienced systems that manage our place in a queue. Perhaps you’re exchanging a defective product and are asked to “take a number,” or call your bank and are told to “hold for our next representative,” or ask for help with an app and receive an email that says “your support request number is #1067239.”

Whatever the case, it’s evident you’re not the only one there. In order to apportion the attention of the small group of people providing support to the (invariably larger) group of people needing it, the folks in charge of the experience establish systems to allow for an orderly progression. Usually, it’s on a first come, first served basis — but not always. Some requests may require specialized knowledge and may be held longer or be routed to a different department.

As the person waiting in “line,” these backend machinations aren’t visible to you. All you know is you’ve got a number, so your request should eventually be attended to. How long do you have to wait? Some systems attempt to let you know, but many don’t. Knowing that yours is request number 1,067,239 doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you. Are they currently serving request number 1,067,238? Do requests progress in sequence, or are they parallel? How long does the average request take? You don’t know. You’re not told the number so you’ll know how long you’ve got to wait, but in case you need to interact with another agent of the system in the future.

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Unfriending the Baby With the Bathwater

Cutting Facebook

A friend of mine recently left Facebook and Twitter. He’s not alone: I’ve seen a smattering of “farewell” posts in both social networks over the past few weeks. It’s part of an emerging trend: busy professionals start to question the usefulness of spending time in social networks, eventually opting to quit altogether. Blogging pioneer Derek Powazek recently published a post titled Why I Quit Twitter, a List. (The first — and last — items on his list? “It made me unhappy.”) And books like Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Cal Newport’s Deep Work argue that you must quit social networks altogether if you’re to reclaim your ability to focus.

I can relate. I, too, have gotten caught up in the typical social media-instigated behaviors that cause unhappiness: arguing about trivial stuff with strangers, oversharing, compulsively checking whether someone has “liked” my latest post, lingering way too long over some clever retort, etc. I’m also vexed by the perverse incentives that result when networks base their business models on behavior modification. (I even wrote a book about it.)

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Where Are the People?

Consider a beautiful website. It’s got it all: deep (yet accessible) content, well-structured navigation systems, clear visual hierarchies, timeless typography, balanced page layouts, practical (yet engaging) visuals, and more. Your first impression is of professionalism: much thought and energy went into creating it. It’s gorgeous.

And yet, something’s missing. People. Where are they? Perhaps there’s a byline here and there, but there’s no space for me or you or anybody else. How do you make the place better? How do you reach out to potential collaborators around this information? You can’t. Can’t comment, rate, suggest, ask… So the place feels empty. Beautiful and empty.

There are probably other people here with you, but you wouldn’t know it. Each of you is experiencing the place on your own. It’s only you and the content. Same as it ever was — at least since people started writing things down. Even though it’s an interactive experience, this website is no more alive than a mail order catalog. It could be so much more! Rather than a mere publication, it could be a place that engages people to help it grow and evolve and become better and more useful over time.

It’s become fashionable to criticize social media — justifiably so. Social media have had a pernicious effect on our politics, our ability to focus, our demeanor. So a backlash is building. But social media don’t feel empty in the same way your beautiful website does. There are people in social media! You can see them, interact with them. They share their humanity — at least those parts they deem fit for sharing. As a result, social media feel alive in a way that other information environments don’t.

As we move to use social media more responsibly, what can we learn from them to make other digital interactions more human? What lessons do they offer to help us center our information environments on people, unshackled​ from business models that monetize their attention?


I get knocked down, but I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down
— Chumbawamba, Tubthumping

In my hierarchy of values, resilience looms large. Societies, systems, and individuals that aspire to longevity must be able to roll with the punches. Not just to get up over and over again like a dummy, as the Chumbawamba lyric implies, but to learn and evolve; to exploit challenges as opportunities to become better.

“Old school” systems thinking — cybernetics (from the Greek word kubernetes, or helmsman) — is the study of how to correct course towards a goal. This requires that the goal be understood; you can’t really steer towards a destination if you don’t know what the destination is. It also requires that you accurately read your present position and direction relative to that destination.

Your body aspires to maintain a core temperature of around 98° F (37° C.) If the environment around you is too hot, you sweat; too cold, and you shiver. At one level, this happens automatically, without your intervention. But you can also consciously intervene to change the situation; you throw on a parka or have a cup of hot cocoa. Over time you learn which actions improve your condition towards your goal relative to particular environmental conditions.

Of course, there’s an implicit pre-requisite: Your senses must be in proper working order for you to accurately “read” the environment. If the outside air is sweltering, and your body somehow perceives it as being very cold, you won’t last long — regardless of how much you “know.”

The ultimate goal is to keep your system from breaking down; to stay alive. If you’re wise, you don’t take sides in this struggle. You’re not aiming for either “hot” or “cold” to win; there’s no “win” at all if the body dies. Longevity is the only game in town as far as your body is concerned.

You know this about your body, but what about the body politic? When it comes to society at large, are you clear on what the goal is? Do you have a good read on the environment? (How do you know?) What actions can you take to correct course when things threaten to go the wrong way? Do you have the agency to enact those changes? What can you do to ensure society functions well in the long term? (And what does “function well” mean to you?)

What is a Healthy Society?

What is a healthy society? I was recently asked this question in an interview; I’m unsatisfied with the answer I gave, and the question has stuck with me. Here’s another try.

By society I mean the system created by the agreements we abide by when we decide to live in community; particular ways of being and organizing our activities that inform our behaviors as they affect other people. These agreements may be explicit or implicit. A trivial example: different societies manifest different attitudes towards how people wait to be served; a society with strict attitudes will frown upon the practice of cutting in line, whereas a more permissive society won’t. People’s shared attitude towards waiting is part of their social compact; they agree on what is acceptable behavior and how they will enforce it. Societies have many such agreements; they define a sort of operating system for community.

What about healthy? My starting point is Bucky Fuller’s aspiration to make the world work for 100% of humanity. It’s an acknowledgment that current ways of organizing our activities are not working equally well for everybody. Although we’ve made much progress, there’s still much injustice and unnecessary suffering. (Suffering is inevitable, but we should strive to reduce it as much as possible.) In short, we can and must do better. Now, making the world work for 100% of humanity doesn’t mean trying to make everybody the same; that’s impossible and undesirable. Instead, it means ensuring everyone has the same opportunities to live a full, rich life.

But that’s not all there’s to it. Health implies longevity. (A healthy body is one that can last a long time; it’s the opposite of a sick, dying body.) We want societies that can maintain desirable conditions in the long term; for generations, with no end in sight. In other words, we want societies that are sustainable. A society that achieves equitable conditions on one or more levels but then destroys itself is (by definition) not healthy. (See tragedy of the commons.) Working towards sustainability calls for systemic thinking.

When contemplating the idea of a healthy society, I often think of James Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games, which opens with this duality:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The members of a healthy society understand they’re engaged in an infinite game with each other, with people from other societies, and the environments that host them. Having evolved beyond zero-sum approaches, they strive to continue the play ad infinitum.

The Purpose of Computers

“The purpose of a computer is to help you do something else.”
— Mark Weiser

What do you use computers for? Catching up with your friends via email or chat? Finding the nearest ice cream shop? Taking photos of your daughter blowing out her birthday candles? (Smartphones are computers too, of course.)

The point of using a computer is not to use a computer; it’s to augment our abilities. (Steve Jobs use the analogy of “a bicycle for the mind.”) Email and chat augment the range of our social interactions. Digital maps augment our ability to interact with the physical environment. Photos augment our memory.

My work consists of concretizing possible connections — and establishing distinctions — between things. When I look beyond the basics (communicating with others, keeping track of my schedule and commitments) I judge the usefulness of software on the degree to which it augments my ability to see patterns and making them tangible.

Social media — systems such as Facebook and Twitter — have a role in my personal information environment: they provide fodder for pattern matching, an ambient understanding of what’s going on. But they can also be enormously distracting. I sometimes find myself scrolling through my various feeds looking for… what, exactly? This is the opposite of augmentation.

Many of these systems have been designed to keep us engaged; to hijack our attention for commercial purposes. Some people today argue that quitting social media entirely is the only solution. But there are potentially good uses of social media. Rather than quitting cold turkey, I aspire to a more disciplined, conscious approach to the use of these systems.

Enabling Transactions

You place a pack of chewing gum on the counter at a convenience store. The store attendant looks at the gum and says, “one ninety nine.” You place two dollar bills on the counter. The attendant takes the bills and hands you back a shiny one cent coin. You thank her and walk out, peeling the cellophane from the gum package as you head back to your car.

This minor episode reenacts a ritual members of our species have conducted for tens of thousands of years. We call it a transaction: two parties meet to exchange something of value. You want something; another person who has that thing establishes the conditions under which s/he would be willing to part with it; you reach consensus; you hand over something of value that satisfies those conditions; the other person gives you the thing you wanted; you both go on your ways. Ideally, both parties are better off after the transaction has concluded.

In some ways, history is the story of how we’ve perfected our ability to transact with each other. At an earlier stage, you and the store clerk would’ve had to negotiate over the relative value of the goods you were exchanging. (“A pack of gum? That’ll be a chicken thigh, thank you.”) Eventually we abstracted value into currencies we could all agree on, and then abstracted it even more. Eventually, it became pure information; today you can pay for the gum by waving your wristwatch over the counter — a magic trick that would’ve baffled our forebears.

The valuables we exchange musn’t be pecuniary. The penitent man confessing to a priest is transacting; he’s sharing intimate information about his life in exchange for peace of mind. Few such interactions stand on their own; more often they’re part of a sequence of interactions that follow one another, building trust one step at a time. The act of confession likely isn’t the penitent man’s first transaction with a priest; more likely he’s been in many prior interactions with other church functionaries that led up to this point in his life. Some of them served as gating factors that mark a significant transition in the person’s life. For example, the man had to become baptized at one point; i.e. he gained membership in a community in exchange for part of his identity and independence. That, too, was a transaction.

Architecture exists to support such transactions. The convenience store makes it possible for you to purchase gum much in the same way that the confessional makes it possible for the man to relieve his conscience. Buildings set aside parts of our physical environment for particular uses; the convenience store has all the necessary components to ease the exchange of gum for currency.

Information environments are also created to support transactions. I have a bag of rock salt sitting in my shopping cart at the moment. (My kids’ birthdays are coming up and I’m going to make ice cream for them.) I can’t buy it yet because this particular product is what Amazon calls an “add-on” item, which means I must buy other goods amounting to more than US$25 before I can purchase the rock salt. So now I’m wandering looking for other things I can buy. When I do find something, I will add it to my cart. Eventually, I will check out: I will click on a button that marks my consent, setting in motion a process wherein my credit card will be charged and a series of machines (and some humans) will gather the things I’ve requested and convey them to me.

I will undertake this transaction without overthinking it, much as you do when you pay for a pack of gum at the store. But this transaction is much more complicated than the exchange of money for a pack of gum. So much has had to happen beforehand for me to be able to do this. First finding out about, opening an account in the system (over a decade ago!), making my first purchase, eventually trying to purchase an “add-on​” item and figuring out that it’s a different type of good… All transactions, all critical moments that led up to this most recent purchase. (And those are only the transactions that involved Amazon — I also had to transact with my bank in order to secure the necessary credit to pay for the rock salt.) Information environments supported all of these interactions successfully, to the point where I now take them for granted.

In the past, at least one other human would’ve been required for me to be able to buy rock salt, but all we need now is a place designed to enable the required sequence of transactions. In buying the rock salt, I’m not transacting with another person in the way the penitent man transacts with a priest or you transact with a store clerk when you buy gum. When I shop on, I transact with the environment itself. People are still involved, but indirectly; some who work in logistics will fulfill my request (although one suspects their involvement, too, will whittle away in time) and those who designed, built, and manage the place where the transaction is happening. Increasingly the responsibility for enabling the exchange of value in our societies falls on the designers, developers, and the managers of the environments where we transact.