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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com, 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.

The End of Engagement

Mobile operating system vendors are starting to give us the ability to become more aware of (and limit) the time we spend using our devices. For example, the Screen Time feature in Apple’s iOS 12 will make it possible for users of iPhones and iPads to define how long they want to spend using specific apps or entire app categories.

If adopted widely, these capabilities will impact the way many information environments are designed. Today, many apps and websites are structured to increase the engagement of their users. This is especially true of environments that are supported by advertising since the more time people spend in them translates directly to more exposure, and hence more money.

The novelty of always-connected supercomputers in our pockets at all times has fostered a cavalier attitude towards how we apportion our attention when in the presence of these things. The time we spend online has more than doubled over the past decade.

As digital designers, we have the responsibility to question the desirability of using engagement as the primary measure of success for our information environments. While it may be appropriate for some cases, engagement is overused today. This is because engagement is easy to measure, easy to design for, and in many cases (such as advertising,) it translates directly to higher revenues.

But the drive towards user engagement is a losing proposition. It’s a zero-sum game; you have a limited amount of time in the day — and ultimately, in your life as a whole. Whatever time you spend in one app will come at the expense of time spent engaging with other apps — or worse, spent engaging with other people in your life. Google and Apple’s “digital wellbeing” and “digital health” initiatives are an admission that this has become an issue for many people. With time, we will become more sophisticated about the tradeoffs we’re making when we enter these environments.

So if not engagement, what should we be designing for? My drive is towards designing for alignment between the goals of the user, the organization, and society. When your goals are aligned with the goals your environment is designed to support, you will be more willing to devote your precious time to it. You will enter the environment consciously, do what you need to do there, and then move on to something else. You’ll aim for “quality time” in the environment, rather than the information benders that are the norm today.

Designing for alignment is both subtler and more difficult than designing for engagement. It’s not as easy to measure progress or ROI on alignment. It also requires a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and having a clear perspective on how our business can contribute to social well-being. It’s a challenge that requires that we take design to another level at a time when design is just beginning to hit its stride within organizations. But we must do it. Only through alignment can we create the conditions that produce sustainable value for everyone in the long term.

Why Doesn’t the New York Times Have a Digital Design Critic?

In 2004 I attended an information architecture retreat at Asilomar. Towards the end of a very constructive and inspiring weekend, I issued a challenge to my colleagues in attendance: “We’ll know our discipline has arrived when the New York Times has a dedicated IA critic.”

Fourteen years later, my thinking has evolved; I no longer expect that the Times will have a critic dedicated solely to IA. But shouldn’t it have one for information environments in general? After all, these digital systems are incredibly important, as evidenced by the fact that they take much space in other parts of the paper these days.


The Times has sections devoted to reviewing fashion, technology, the arts, theater, movies, TV shows, books, food, technology, and cars. With the (possible) exception of food, none of these things are currently as important to our social well-being than information environments. That’s where we’re spending more of our time every day and where we are forming the opinions that shape the course of our societies. That the “paper of record” doesn’t have a critic devoted to the digital design space seems like a major oversight.

I pick on the Times because it’s arguably the world’s most prominent newspaper, but the point stands more generally. Today,​ we need more than mere recommendations to which email clients we should be using. We need people with depth and breadth on the subject to cast these incredibly important systems into broader historical perspectives and to help us understand what “good” means in this space.

You could argue that newspapers like the Times must devote space to things readers are interested in. But isn’t the role of writers to make important subjects interesting? You could also say that unlike cars, fashion, and movies, information environments are not consumer goods, and therefore cannot attract advertisers. But isn’t that also the case with architecture? There have been dedicated architecture critics for a long time.

Like buildings, websites and apps serve important social, economic, and cultural roles. Where are the people contextualizing these information environments for a mass audience? Where are our critics?

Responsibility

Responsibility. How does this word make you feel?

I suspect many of us find it heavy and burdensome. If something goes wrong and somebody says you’re responsible, you don’t feel very good. Suddenly a weight is on you; it’s “on your shoulders.” If you’re responsible, you’re expected to work towards resolving the situation. It may cost you — time, money, cognitive effort, reputation, etc.

On the other hand, responsibility can be liberating. If you’re responsible, that means you have agency over how things turn out. (By definition, you can’t be responsible if you can’t influence outcomes.) Choosing to act responsibly means acknowledging your power over a situation. It also means complying to wield that power within a series of constraints agreed with others. For example, we say people are “responsible citizens” when they choose to fulfill certain civic duties. When given a choice, they act in a way that may inconvenience them but ultimately benefit the community. (E.g. serving jury duty.) Responsibility requires clear choices.

When you design an information environment, you create an architecture of choices. You give the people who use your environment agency; response-ability. Do they understand the degree to which they’re responsible for their experience within the constraints you’ve established? How does this make them feel? Are you working to empower them or burden them?

Growing Your Area of Concern

Imagine you’re a designer in a team tasked with bringing a product to market. What’s your area of concern?

Perhaps you think of design as your area of concern. You may measure success by the quality of the experiences people have using the product; user testing may validate (or disprove) this. You could also take a wider lens and consider the product as a whole as your area of concern. In this scenario, your role as a designer may take a back seat to your role as a member of this particular product team. You may measure the success of the product (or lack thereof) based on business metrics such as customer engagement, net promoter scores, or sales.

There are wider lenses than these. For example, you may think of yourself as a member of a company of which your product team is but a small part. You may take pride in the company’s overall performance. Or you could go even wider, and think of yourself as a member of an industry. (This lens is especially compelling when dealing with emergent industries that are vying to establish themselves.) Measures with these broader lenses tend to be more abstract; you may celebrate if your company has gained market share, but it’ll be harder for you to tie that increase with your contributions as a designer.

Still, there are even wider lenses. Your company exists within a society. You have a vested interest in having that society become ever better and more resilient. If your society is your area of concern, you may be driven to civic engagement. That said, your role as a designer in a product team also has an impact at this level, even though it may be impossible for you to measure the direct effects of your work at this level. The broadest relevant area of concern — the planetary ecosystem — is so large, and so complex, that your direct contributions may seem very removed from the whole. Here, too, your work has consequences. However, the connection between your role and the ecosystem seems so insubstantial that it’s easy to become blasé.

We must resist this urge to become complacent at the higher levels of abstraction. Growing our area of concern may not seem immediately practical, but it helps create a frame of mind that leads to principled work. Strive to think globally while acting locally — even if the effects of doing so aren’t immediately obvious.

The Stream

Starting in the Sixteenth century, European aristocrats built Wunderkammern: collections of exotic objects such as antlers, paintings, weapons, mineral specimens, and mechanical knick-knacks. According to Umberto Eco’s memorable description, in a Wunderkammer “a unicorn’s horn would be found next to the copy of a Greek statue, and, later, among mechanical crèches and wondrous automata, cocks of precious metal that sang, clocks with a procession of little figures that paraded at noon.” These bricolage samplings of the wonders of reality were meant to impress: The more arcane the collection, the greater the power of the collector. The effect can be dizzying, even in our age of one-click ordering and overnight delivery.

The Web doesn’t dictate how we should organize information. As a result, all sorts of structural frameworks have been tried online. One, in particular, has come to dominate our attention over the past decade or so: the stream, an endless sequence of seemingly random curiosities in the form of posts, messages, tweets, memes, events, etc. These morsels are mostly non-sequiturs: One moment it’s a job posting, the next a photograph of a cat, a review of a fountain pen, a visit to an abandoned Soviet monument, a religious chain letter, a supplication to fund somebody’s medical procedure, a poem by Langston Hughes, an optical illusion. The only context they share is the place where you encounter them: Twitter, Facebook, Medium, YouTube, etc. These information environments have become immensely popular; as a result, streams are now central to many people’s experience of the Web. (It’s very likely these words came to your attention via one of them.)

From a formal perspective, streams are not new. (Email inboxes, for example, precede the Web.) However, in time they’ve changed both in character and pervasiveness. For one thing, our streams used to be more intentional; we would proactively curate them. (I still use — and prefer — an RSS reader to get my news.) For another, they used to be (mostly) chronological, the expectation being that whatever was demanding your attention was the latest on the subject. (Not the most important, mind you — only the latest.) This has changed. Streams are now increasingly curated and sequenced by algorithms: engines of titillation and outrage designed to keep us engaged (and buying); wondrous automata that assemble mechanical crèches on the fly — just for us — from fragments of our friends’ lives, the news of the day, the latest TV show, celebrity gossip, ephemera. Trifles accreting haphazardly in a cognitive cabinet of curiosities. Expressions of power — but not our own.

The Call

If you were a young man or woman in Europe in the late 1930s, your times were asking something of you. Idling wasn’t a choice for these people; they had to choose — and act.

What they chose, and how they acted, depended on their mental models of reality; models informed by their experiences within their societies and the information they could access. (It’s easy for us to judge in retrospect. In the midst of turmoil — with an ​imperfect understanding of what’s going on — the right course of action is often unclear.)

These men and women had skills and talents. Their careers — their lives — got derailed as their contexts collapsed. Suddenly their skills were more urgently needed elsewhere. These people also had dreams and ambitions. They had to put their personal goals on hold — indefinitely, in many cases — to answer the call of their times.

Today, many of us live relatively quiet lives. (Certainly compared to what people endured during World War II.) Still, our times call to us in various ways. For example, today it’s obvious some of the core systems that support our way of life are unsustainable in the long term. To mention one: even if you don’t believe carbon-based fuels damage the environment (again, mental models), you must still acknowledge these energy sources will run out at some point. What then?

Perhaps you don’t see this call as urgent as the one asked of people in the late 1930s. Maybe there’s something else calling to you. Much depends on your worldview, your perspectives on time and responsibility, and your understanding of systemic effects. Whatever the case, you’re not a spectator in this game. You’re in it.

What are our times asking of you? How do you know? What skills and talents can you contribute? What are you willing to sacrifice to answer the call?

A Call for a More Holistic Approach to Business

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Last week Larry Fink — the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager — sent a letter to CEOs of the largest publicly traded companies. In it, he asked them to plan with the long-term in mind and to contribute more proactively to the well-being of society:

Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

It’s refreshing to see an influential business leader calling for a change in the way we do business. Business is not separate from society, but a central part of it. For companies to have a sense of purpose — and especially purpose in service to the long-term survival of the context in which they operate — is not socialism; it’s smart business. After all, if society unravels, so will the company.

As designers, we have an essential role to play in helping organizations navigate the transition from short-term thinking to a healthier, more holistic relationship with society. Our remit is broader than many other traditional business functions, making us natural coherence generators. As such, we are well-positioned to help organizations align around a newly-rediscovered sense of purpose and long-term strategies. And as systems thinkers and visualizers, we can help them explore different ways of being in the world that allow them to achieve their financial objectives while also improving conditions for the societies they serve.

Mr. Fink and his company have great clout. I hope his clear statement heralds a transformation in the way we conduct business. As designers, we must be ready to help this transformation by deploying our unique roles, perspectives, and craft towards a more holistic approach to doing business.