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.


“Build More Roads” is Often the Wrong Answer

The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Robert Moses, tells the story of how modern New York City came to be. Moses and his team were responsible for some of the most important public infrastructure interventions in and around New York City during a span of four decades starting in the mid-1920s. Under Moses’s leadership, the city gained new parks, playgrounds, bridges, and especially roads — sometimes at the expense of beloved neighborhoods and the disruption of countless lives. An unelected official, Moses became incredibly powerful; you can see his influence in New York even today.

The core of Moses’s power lay in the Triborough Bridge Commission, which controlled the flow of traffic between Manhattan, The Bronx, and Queens. Tolls from vehicles driving across the Commission’s bridges generated immense revenues that paid for other projects, which in turn generated more revenues. For Moses, vehicular flow in New York City’s streets translated directly to more power. Thus, when considering means for transporting the city’s inhabitants, Moses’s team would gravitate towards more roads — even when it’d become clear that building more roads only increased congestion. The result was the defacement of major parts of the city with highways and roads that were constantly jammed with traffic.

You gotta watch incentives.

This comes to mind because of something that Jessica Ivins said on her interview for The Informed Life podcast:

So not everybody has the detail-oriented mind that I do, or not everybody works the same way I do. And because we’re small and I’ve been working here for almost 5 years, I have a sense of what works well for my co-workers. So for example, my coworker Thomas, I will assign him a to-do in Basecamp and he’ll get an email notification, but I’ll also send him a notice on Slack. And I’ll say, “Hey Thomas, I signed you this to-do on Basecamp, please review it by this date and see the to-do for details.” And that Slack message really helps him because he… I guess some people are really good at wrangling their inbox, other people really struggle with it. And I think that’s really typical.

It is typical. I’ve faced similar situations in other projects: Someone new joins the team, and you don’t yet know their communications preferences. Are they an email person? Do they prefer Slack? Or maybe iMessage? It’s not unusual to get a message in Slack followed by an email asking, “Did you see the message I put in Slack?” And of course, people’s preferences vary depending on other factors. For example, perhaps they only use Slack on their computers and find it easier to respond via SMS when they’re on the road.

Proprietary communications systems like Slack and Basecamp set out to solve the problems with older systems like email (and there are many!), but like Moses’s roads they can end up creating other problems. Now instead of one or two places to check your communications, you have five. You get reminders on one system (e.g., email) to check messages sent to you on another (e.g., Basecamp.) I’ve gotten messages on Slack to check something that was posted in Basecamp; later that evening I’ll also get an email reminder from Basecamp of all the things that were posted there during the day. The signal-to-noise ratio goes through the floor. And of course, now you have to keep track of where you saw the message or file if you ever need to get back to it. (“Did you send that document over email, or was it in Slack?”) As far as I know, it isn’t possible to search across all of these systems; it’s up to you to keep track of where things are. This is difficult, given the challenge I mentioned above. (I.e., different people have different communications preferences.)

The added complexity would be worthwhile if these systems enabled amazing new ways of working, but these proprietary communications systems bring little new to the table; most of the functionality they enable has been around for a while. Check out Jon Udell’s book Practical Internet Groupware for the state of the art twenty years ago; you’ll find lots that is familiar. It’s worth noting that that book advocated for building these communications systems atop existing open standard technologies. In this sense at least, the current state represents a regression from where things were in the late 90s.

I’m cranky about this stuff because in the past month I’ve joined three new Slacks and one Basecamp project. This is part of the job when you’re an independent consultant who works on several projects with different teams throughout the year. But I don’t enter these spaces casually. As someone who thinks about the longevity and resilience of information ecosystems, I’m concerned about my ability to find and keep track of stuff — especially in the long term. I dislike the proliferation of disconnected, single-purpose silos of information. While the discussions that happen in these places can be rich, vibrant, and productive (that is, when they’re not generating more noise in other channels), they’re locked away, inaccessible for future (even near-future) reference.

In the long term, building more roads isn’t the solution to the challenge of moving lots of people from one point to another. Past a certain volume, individual vehicles are inherently inefficient; one needs to re-think the structure of the transportation system from the ground up. This is more challenging if the people charged with the stewardship of these systems are incentivized to get more cars on the road. I sense similar problems with the communications challenges we face in organizations. When what you’re selling is access to Slack, your incentive​ is to get more people using Slack. That’s a different goal than getting people to communicate effectively. Yes, there is some overlap there — up to a point. How does the system scale?​

Design as an Antidote to VUCA

A short presentation I shared as a videoconference with Rosenfeld Media’s Enterprise Experience Community.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army War College created an acronym to describe the geopolitical situation following the Cold War: VUCA. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, four characteristics they saw as defining the multilateral post-Cold War world. The rise of information technologies — and the internet in particular — has radically transformed our political, economic, and social reality. We are all now living in a generalized state of VUCA. We see signs of it everywhere — including the enterprise.

Design can be a powerful organ for organizations dealing with VUCA. In this presentation, I give some reasons why. I also cover some reading materials that have led me to this line of thinking. I was gratified to see participants in the videoconference suggest other resources worth investigating if you’d like to delve into design’s more strategic value; I’ve added those recommendations into my reading list.

Books I referenced in my presentation:

I also called out these recent Medium posts:

Other folks in the call suggested the following additional resources. (I’ve listed them here in the order in which they were suggested.)

I have a lot of reading to do! I was familiar with some of these resources, but not all of them. That’s one of the upsides of sharing incipient ideas with a smart group of folks like the Enterprise Experience community: you get to hear from other folks who know more about other parts of the domain. I’ll be digging into these books, posts, and videos for sure!

The Cynefin Framework

I’m keen on frameworks that help us deal with change in complex systems. The Cynefin framework is particularly illuminating. Here’s an excellent, succinct introduction by its originator, Dave Snowden:

The framework posits that causal differences in systems categorize them into four domains or “spaces”:

  • Simple: Cause and effect relationships between elements in the system can be determined in advance.
  • Complicated: Cause and effect relationships exist, but aren’t self-evident.
  • Complex: No causality; agents are able to modify the system.
  • Chaotic: Cause and effect relationships can’t be determined.

“Dependent on which space you’re in,” Mr. Snowden says, “you should think differently, you should analyze differently.” In other words, each of the domains calls for a different response. Therefore, knowing which domain you’re acting within is key to making effective decisions. That said, in some cases, you may not know which domain you’re acting within. The framework defines this fifth domain as “disorder,” a situation that lends itself to idiosyncratic responses that can be ineffective or worse.

You can learn more about the Cynefin framework in the Harvard Business Review or in Cognitive Edge, Mr. Snowden’s consulting company.

Cynefin Framework Introduction

A Brush With Resilience

The iPhone in my pocket is a miracle: an encyclopedia, a communicator, a calculator, a notebook, a library, a compass, a tape measure, a camera, a flashlight, a watch, etc. Yet for all of its capabilities, it’s also not very durable. In another year, my iPhone will start to feel sluggish, and its battery won’t last a full day. In another ten years, it’ll practically be useless. This is partly by design and partly because its technologies evolve so rapidly.

Not all things are designed to be ephemeral like the iPhone. Yesterday my family and I visited the SS Red Oak Victory, a World War II ship that is part of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front national park in Richmond, CA. The Red Oak was built in 1944 and is a marvel of 1940s-era engineering. What amazed me most is how many of the ship’s communication technologies are still operational.

For example, the ship’s internal telephone system, which is powered by small hand-cranked electrical generators, still works, as does its late-1940s radio. When compared to my iPhone, these things are incredibly crude, of course. But the fact that they’re still in good working order after 70 years was illuminating.

This is by design. The conditions under which the Red Oak operated demanded resilience. Its operators could find themselves in remote ports of call, with little or no access to expertise. They would need to fend for themselves, and the ship was designed to make this possible, if not easy. It was built to be easily repaired and maintained by the people who operated it; people who wouldn’t necessarily have advanced engineering knowledge.

Also, the Red Oak wasn’t mean to be consumed. That is, it’s not an artifact designed to generate ongoing want, to be discarded and replaced. There are redundancies — inefficiencies — everywhere. The ship’s components are large and sturdy. They weren’t designed for portability, efficiency, or economy — they were built to last.

I don’t expect the same degree of resiliency in my iPhone. But touring the Red Oak made me think about how we can make the things we experience on the iPhone — our information environments — more like that ship; better able to stand the test of time.

Two Approaches to Preserving Cultural Monuments

Yesterday I followed along in horror as the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral burned down. The building — one of the great monuments of Western Civilization — was terribly damaged in the conflagration. Fortunately,​ no lives were lost. However, I still felt very sad. Buildings such as Notre Dame are more than mere shelter; they’re also vessels of culture. This fire was a great loss not just for the city of Paris, but for the world.

Seeing the disaster play out on​ Twitter, I couldn’t help but think about the way that we (in the West) go about preserving our cultural heritage. We incur great expenses to maintain structures like Notre Dame “as they were” — kept “authentic,” with as little alteration as possible. Buildings such as Notre Dame are symbols of our past; reminders of where we come from. We strive to keep them the way they were.

In this view, the emphasis is on the artifact itself; what matters is that the structure be preserved unscathed. Occasionally, something terrible may happen, such as yesterday’s fire in Paris. In that case, we put great effort in reconstructing the artifact as accurately as possible. (Architectural historian Andrew Tallon laser-scanned every inch of Notre Dame in 2010.) Fires, wars, and natural disasters have destroyed great monuments in the past. They’re often rebuilt exactly as before. (An example that comes to mind is the campanile in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, which collapsed in 1902.)

This is one way of going about preserving our cultural identity. Another way is best illustrated by another historically important religious structure, the Ise Jingu Shrine in Japan. This building is much older than Notre Dame; it’s been around in its current form since the late 7th Century CE. One of the interesting things about the Ise Shrine is how the people go about preserving it: Instead of waiting for time to take its toll, inhabitants of Mie Prefecture tear it down every twenty years and rebuild it as before.

When you visit the Shrine, you’re experiencing a building that is simultaneously over a thousand years old and also not older than twenty years. What matters isn’t the artifact per se – that exact building — it’s the process that brings it about. The ritual of rebuilding the Shrine preserves not just the structure, but also the methods that brought it about. Its continuous re-creation keeps it more immediately relevant than an artifact that is preserved “as is” for all time. Every generation gets to make it its own. (Literally.)

This is a completely different way of preserving the past. The focus is on systems, processes, and craft over the finished product. It’s a way of bringing cultural identity to life in a way that is more engaging than the more common approach to preservation. It’s also more resilient: a devastating incident like yesterday’s fire wouldn’t be such a major disruption if the structure was meant to be rebuilt anew every generation or so.

I don’t expect we’d actually do this with our great monuments; the expense of re-building an artifact as big and elaborate as Notre Dame ever twenty years would be too great. I want to see the great cathedral reemerge from the ashes, and would love to see it rebuilt as it was. I expect the people of France will bring it back to life. That said, I can’t help but wonder what it would mean for us to adopt a more systems-minded approach — not just to the preservation of our buildings, but to culture more broadly.

Systemic Design Beyond the Screen

Last evening I introduced students in my systems studio class to their final project for the semester. The project has them designing an intervention to help individuals with their financial health. I must call it an “intervention” because I’ve been trying to steer the students away from thinking about the things they’re making as manifesting exclusively through screens.

It’s a challenge. Designing at a systemic level calls for thinking abstractly, and looking at the entire ecosystem one is designing for. However, systemic change happens as a result of concrete interventions: Something must serve as the catalyst for change, and that something must be made tangible somehow. Given how much time we spend interacting with and through screens, it’s natural to immediately gravitate towards solutions that involve software experienced through (especially) mobile app screens.

While software can be incredibly powerful, to think exclusively about the objects of interaction design as screen-based experiences is to limit ourselves unnecessarily. Our bodies and the world they inhabit are incredibly rich; screen-based experiences collapse that richness into relatively small windows that concentrate everything into what you can experience through a small glass rectangle.

We have so many more possibilities to choose from! What if the object of design were a new ritual? Or how about language? (“Create a new way of talking about the domain that opens up new possibilities.”) And of course, service design offers a broad range of possible interventions well beyond what can happen through screens.

Of course, I’m not opposed to screen-based interventions. The problem is that we’re so used to them that students run the risk of 1) immediately gravitating towards cliched solutions, and/or 2) not thinking about the problem as a systemic design challenge, thinking instead that they’re working on an “app” (something they’re more familiar — and therefore, more comfortable with.) I’m hoping that nudging them to think beyond the screens can help them think more systemically and propose more interesting (and fresh) solutions.

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.

Which Watch to Wear to the Apocalypse

Imagine a catastrophic social breakdown, Mad Max-style. An asteroid hits; pervasive coastal flooding causes sudden mass migrations; a genetically modified virus goes rogue; a crazed ideologue with an itchy trigger finger starts World War III. Whatever the case, the systems you’ve relied on for your survival are no longer functioning; you must fend for yourself and your loved ones. As you prepare to head out into the wrecked world in search of food, which watch will you wear?

Humor me with this. There are good reasons to want a timepiece in such a scenario. For example, you may wish to orchestrate maneuvers with fellow marauders as you embark on a raid. Or maybe you’re trying to calculate the speed of a raging river before you jump into it. The fact that all else has gone to hell doesn’t mean time has stopped. Sure, time is an abstraction — but a useful one, even under these dire conditions.

So, which watch will you wear? More specifically, consider these two options: An old Omega Speedmaster and a series four Apple Watch. The Speedmaster — a mechanical watch — only allows you to do a few things: you can tell what time it is, you can precisely measure how long something takes, you can measure how fast something is moving (including yourself, if you’re moving at high speed.) The Apple Watch allows you to do much more. Besides offering the same basic functionality of the Speedmaster, it also allows you to communicate with other people, see what the weather will be like, listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (to remind you why persevering is worthwhile), etc.

In short, the Apple Watch allows you to do many more things that would be very useful in a post-apocalyptic world. The catch, of course, is that many of these features wouldn’t work in this case. When you strap an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’re not just wearing a device; you’re wearing an ecosystem. For example, the usefulness of the weather app depends on myriad things that exist well beyond the object on your person: sensors distributed around the planet, communication networks, data centers, the electrical grid, and so on.

The Speedmaster, on the other hand, depends on none of these things. As long as you remember to wind it every day, it’ll continue performing its functions for a long time. Of course, the day will eventually come when it’ll need repair. At that point, you’re out of luck. (I’m assuming Omega service centers will no longer be open for business.) But mechanical breakdown will likely be years away, even in this scenario. In the apocalypse, the smartwatch’s advantages would vanish within a few hours or days at most, and its essential functions would cease altogether when electricity reserves ran out.

The point of this mental exercise isn’t to get you into prepper mode. Instead, I’d like you to consider the nature of the things you interact with day-to-day — especially if you’re a designer.

We’re used to thinking of things as independent, self-contained objects. A cup is a cup. You can grab it, lift it, turn it around, dip it into liquid, bring that liquid to your mouth. Not much to it! A chair is just a chair. A watch is a watch. Except when it’s digitally enabled. Then it’s something more. Yes, it’s still an object you can pick up and manipulate. But that’s not the point. What’s essential about a smartwatch is that it gives you access to a range of useful features that are only available as long as the systems that enable them are in good working order.

For much of the time that people have been designing things, we’ve created things that are more like cups and chairs — and even Speedmasters — than Apple Watches. As a result, we tend to think of the things we design as individual artifacts with clearly defined boundaries; the kinds of things you can photograph and present in a beautiful coffee table book. Digital things aren’t like that. An app isn’t an individual artifact; it’s a part of (and a host to) very complex systems. Sure, you can show a comprehensive series of screen comps to illustrate what the app will “look and feel” like, but that’s not where its boundaries lie. The screens you interact with when you open the weather app on your smartwatch are a tiny shard of ice on the tip of an enormous iceberg.

Before digital, designers needed some degree of systems thinking. You can’t design something like a Speedmaster from scratch; there are hundreds of years of know-how that precede it, a specialized industrial ecosystem that will produce it, established business models that will get it onto people’s hands, and so on. A designer must understand these things to make the right tradeoffs. Many take these systems for granted as the context within which they’re working, but they must be aware of them nevertheless. Still, I’d venture most folks who design these things don’t think of themselves primarily as intervening in systems.

One possible exception is architects. More than other artifacts, buildings and towns depend on (and enable) rich interactions with their contexts; they depend on complex systems (e.g., transportation, energy, etc.) not just for their design but also to continue serving their functions. As Stewart Brand has pointed out, buildings also change over time as the needs of their occupants and stewards evolve. Smart designers create the means to accommodate change without making too much of a mess. This requires that they understand how the things they design function as systems.

Digital designers must think more like architects than like the designers of cups, chairs, or even mechanical watches. More than any other artifacts we’ve designed in the past, digital things participate in and enable systems. They’re also dynamic and interactive in ways that even complex mechanical devices like a Speedmaster aren’t. Bottom line: You can’t do a good job of designing a digital thing if you don’t understand systems. (This is one of the reasons why I think “product” is the wrong framing for digital things.)

I get tremendous value from my Apple Watch. However, I understand that that value is entirely dependent on complex systems that go well beyond the object on my wrist. When I design a digital thing, I frame it as a systemic design challenge: I look to understand the components and interdependencies that make the thing possible, and how they might change over time. I keep reminding myself that the boundaries for the thing I’m designing don’t lie with the organization that’s commissioned the work or even the operating system within which users will experience it, even if — especially if — stakeholders can’t easily see this. I must think of the thing I’m designing an intervention in one or more systems, and consider the second- and even third-order effects it implies.

And as much as I love my Apple Watch, if all goes to hell, I want a Speedmaster on my wrist.