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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Time for Captital "D" Design

Design. The word suggests a promise. Someone has considered the needs and desires of real people and built a product to fit. Though we struggle (as I do here) to define it, we know when a something has been so lavished. Well designed things exude a "this is what I am... this is how you use me" obviousness that poorly designed things don't. At times, and maybe this defines when design is most successful, this certain something infused into a product through the design process, is so subtle, we only know things that have it by comparison to things that don't. Humans are such complex mixes of feeling and experience both personal and collective; finding the perfect mix of functional affordance and emotional elixir in both use and audience demands a black art. Ideally, the designer walks freely between the two worlds of cold numerical analysis and gut instinct, maybe living in both, simultaneously. As in acting, the process is one of channeling the target audience or market, climbing into the skin, muscle, heart and mind of the user, imagining a better future from the perspective of a specific past.

Honing these skills, getting better at channeling, at acting, as a matter of professional improvement comes with its own obvious risks. Getting (professionally) good at being someone, anyone, else results in skills that can easily be abused. Criminal profilers make great criminals and vs. versa. The skills of seduction turn out to be just as self-seductive. And when designers become aware of this, they can and do at times apply them to trickery in stead of solution.

And this application of trickery to the shape and behavior of products can lead to an obnoxiousness and dishonesty in things designed. On the good side, the designer is motivated by benevolence, a desire to help others... honesty made carnate in a product, process, environment, or service. Improvement. On the bad side, is manipulation; the designer's considerable knowledge of human cognition and behavior used to trick or seduce. Designing towards seduction (and this is different than seductive design) is self-centered, affected, surface, and pretentious... it preys on unconscious instinctive reactions all of us carry from adaptations laid down in response to environmental pressures assumed inimitable, and stable. These are places in our brains that deal with conditions that don't (or aren't supposed to) change. Up is up, down is down. Red and round means apple, apple is good. Mothers don't lie. Fathers protect. Mothers are pretty... pretty is good. Etc.

Malevolent design messes and manipulates at levels just below the threshold where we have learned not to accept things at face value. It forces us to question our very sense of being, to doubt the very bedrock of emotional and existential reality. But we don't, cause mostly we can't, and that is why malevolent design, why trickery works, why it hurts, why designers are so good at it, and why it is so attractive to companies and enterprises who would rather sidestep the more costly and involved process of true design.

Malevolent design erodes our collective sense of trust in our environment and people by obfuscating our natural process towards understanding and trust. When products and services are designed to trick, they dissuade us from acting as fair judges... we end up choosing things that are faked, that present themselves to our ancient emotions as too-good-to-turn-down (ego, extravagance, indulgence, thrill, control, competition, zero sum games, exclusion, priesthood, profit, lotteries, gambling, "Vegas Baby!") instead of things that promote real progress (infrastructure, knowledge, health, stability, compassion, productivity, planning, logic, patience, equality, empowerment, inclusion, tools, value, "A Rising Tide Floats All!").

Obviously, there are many reasons why malevolent design ends up happening, why we do it, why people are willing to pay for it. For one, it is faster, easier and cheaper. Faking and tricking are far less costly than birthing a true solution. Then there is the fact that we are too tired to care. Our rapidly changing environment stresses us out. When we "design" under stress we tend to decorate more than design. We take short cuts. And the audience is often happy with our transgressions. Seduction feels good. Extravagance feels powerful and naughty. To top it all off, there is constant pressure from above. Capital and management want results now(!) without the investment of a true design cycle... trickery is faster, easier and less costly than empowerment. But depressingly, and most salient to this discussion, sometimes we designers are simply lost, we don't know where we are going, we can't see our way to the future, so we resort to things easy, familiar and old.

In the special and unique case that is the short history of computation and specifically, the marketplace that is computers, computer enabled devices, and computer based communications and services, we (all of us, designers, and the consuming public) have been dumb, dumb, and dumber, since day one. Which only makes sense, the things around us didn't used to think... now they do. What ever that means about our future, we have nothing in our past that will inform our desisions. More than that, computation is complex. Computation is dynamics, dynamics is life. And, although we are life, we have no prior experience designing life... nothing that can think ever has. So, in the absence of knowledge or purpose we have substituted reaction and desire. I have made up an awkward saying: "When you are having trouble evolving wings, you end up obsessed with the color of your feathers." In this case, we, most of us, even most of us in the computer science profession, and this goes double for designers, don't even know what computational wings should, could, or will be. Those of us that think we are beginning to know, are struggling to put together a robust and elegant (enough) theoretical base upon which to begin designing and building in earnest. It means no more fumbling in the dark. It means being bold and proactive. It requires the kind of confidence you can't fake. It demands an understanding of process with a capital "P". The Process. It means playing God. It means their isn't one.

Of course we haven't been. Of course we weren't ready. Of course we didn't have the confidence or the knowledge. We might not even now, (the confidence I mean). So, for thirty years we have (largely) found it easier or more practical to make computers different only by making them faster and cheaper. So, we have done just that, made them faster and cheaper. Our rather timid attempts at making them qualitatively better, at making them more, in a word, "profound", have resulted mostly in proof-of-concept surface-deep prototypes that we use as though they were the real thing. The best we can claim is that we have figured out how to do everything we used to do out side of a computer, inside a computer. I guess that is a big thing. It has brought with it a certain amount of integration, my phone numbers are within cut and paste distance from my email, my photos and video can (theoretically) be posted directly to the web, when I want to do some research, I can type a query into a search engine window.

I have watched the "great designers" of this industry "invent" better buttons, dragable windows, paper analogues, virtual calculators, self calculating ledger sheets, digital media, etc. But to my money none of these ideas represent the kind of deep or benevolent design process I expect in this profession. We have spent thirty-plus years mimicking the old analog, paper and pencil, brick and mortar world and only rarely taken advantage of this digital transformation. Rarely have we expected more from our digital mimics of paper, music, TV, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and mail than what the originals already did (just fine thank you very much). Are we designers that lacking in the imagination we so pride in ourselves? The problem is much deeper of course. We do have deep imaginations. We do care. We are smart. The problem is systemic. The current computational architecture is self limiting... it is, dare I say so, not computing at all. We haven't even scratched the surface.

I go to meetings with industry leaders and say "You know the problem with computing... " and I look around to see dumbfounded expressions... "What do you mean, 'the problem with computing'... have you seen my Bentley?, my five houses?, the revenue statement from last quarter?" There has been so much success associated with computing's blind half century that it has been rare for people to be motivated to imagine a deeper (even more successful) future. But isn't that exactly what we designers should do?

So... now that I have established a baseline of sorts, a history of the period that saw computing transition from a science to a commodity marketplace, we can begin to ask some big questions of the scientists that left, the scientists that stayed, the consumer facing industry that has supplanted the science, and, specific to the context of this essay, to designers and the design industry. The primary question has to be: Why have we been unable, unwilling, unmotivated, or simply too lazy to make qualitatively evolutionary jumps in computing for thirty or more years? What are the systemic barriers to qualitative change in computing? What are the potential costs and benefits involved in moving qualitatively forward (and in not doing so)? Why should we care either way? What is the role of design in this process?

In evolutionary theory, energy topologies (undulating surfaces that map various environmental effects) are used to illustrate and measure the ways in which environmental conditions influence fitness or the survivability of an inherited traits or learned behaviors. If for instance, a sea snail makes its living scouring shallow sandy sea floors for dead things that fall through the water column, then it benefits those animals who have learned or inherited a trait directing them to the bottoms of ditches where more debris is bound to accumulate. The simple rule; if you are hungry, always crawl down a slope, will help the snail find more food and add to the success of that genotype. However, the same rule can lead to situations where large amounts of foods in neighboring ditches go unexploited... how could the snail find them if its food finding rule wouldn't let it climb up to the ridge of the ditch to find another right next door? Of course actual sea snails have developed complex autonomous and competitive behavioral sub-routines that protect them from not being able to climb out of a ditch. One of these has to do with smell an taste sensors that remotely make them aware of food (and danger) in remote ditches.

What this tells evolutionary scientists and topologists and thermodynamicists is that any good local rule can be disastrous on larger scales (and vise versa). This little hungry snail example works almost too well as an illustration of the more universal principles I am trying to illuminate... but, I allow that the reader can see how the sea floor's undulating surface in concert with other factors like gravity and currents dictate an uneven distribution of potential snail food, and how the same undulations in surface both provide the snail with clues to the distribution probability and also present energy expenditure barriers. But in a far more general sense, every thing can be thought to be situated simultaneously within a myriad of such influence topologies, and each of these energy landscapes has its own degree of undulation when compared with the other topologies, and so when summing these wave topologies some will have a greater influence on the grand topology than others. For instance, once the snail has developed a sense of smell, it behooves the snail to only employ the only-crawl-downhill rule when it isn't smelling any remote food, and when it hasn't eaten all of the food at the bottom of the current ditch. Of course, none of these snail rules would have any worth if lots and lots of highly nutritious worms lived just below the surface of the sand. To exploit food sources that exist outside of the snails limited behavioral and sensory acumen, the snail would have to develop a more sophisticated learning or adaptation loop that was better and generalizing the category of food and the behavior building routines that result in new rules.

It could be said that evolution is the process of developing the capacity to sense and then internalize an abstraction of actual environmental topologies. The better the abstraction map, the more closely it mirrors the real external causal landscape being mapped, the more likely that species or system will be at exploiting available resources, and thus out-compete and have more influence on the topology of the future. Computing has the potential to tame or exploit this process of at base of all processes. It has the potential to out-evolution other evolutionary schemes because it is by definition simply and exactly an abstraction engine. But more than that, computing is meta to abstraction engines as it has the potential to be reshaped into an abstraction engine, abstraction engine. To get there, to even head in this direction, much has to be built. For one, the computer must become semantically aware. It must understand the causal relationships that exist between the symbols it sequences and processes.

Today's computers are simple sequencing devises... blind to the meaning behind the symbols they are sequencing and how the order in which they are being sequenced modifies the meaning into super-meanings. Along the way, a semantic machine will learn the dance between goal and resource availability. In essence, the computer must process abstractions that are as causally complex and linked as the system's they abstract. To subsume causality into the abstraction that is symbolic processing, semantic mappings will naturally fall into influence hierarchies (network topologies). As within all influence hierarchies, a causal semantics will be structured from general and cause to specific and effect. The meta-pattern engine will spend much of its energy seeking the most efficient placement of each logic or content element in this grand causal topology. Accomplishing this, or at least setting the evolution of such a system into motion needs to be the most important and crucial goal of our generation... should and could have been the goal of the last generation.

So what are designers doing? Aren't designers supposed to be the group that prides itself in finding a path towards the best and deepest solution, and doing so by finding a path towards the most profound, deep and accurate definition of the problem? Well I haven't seen it. I am not proud of our generation of designers. We have talked the big talk, but our product has been sexier computer mice, all-white Bauhaus inspired laptop cases? We constantly advocate for our own skills. We admonish other industries for not using us to elegantly solve all of their problems and avoid still more. I have gone to symposia about the future of computing and had to agonize through yet another academically inspired argument between the advocates of circular on screen menus vs. the more prevalent rectangular ones. I have seen multi-million dollar prototypes of animated desktops environments and 3D finders and Virtual Reality web browsers and Avatar assisted word processors and none of them have come close to addressing the real problems and potentials of the future of computing, because none of them addressed the problem at the depth where the problem could in fact be solved. Which is to say our computational architecture is broken, dressing up the top layers will never fix it, even worse, dressing up the top layers only hides the problem, delays any public outcry for change.

In my estimation, by inaction, through distraction and misdirection, by turning out products that are attractive beyond their actual use or worth, by concentrating on surface, local, and temporary solutions, and mostly by promoting the cult of "stuff" within our own ranks, and by ignoring the larger responsibility to find tomorrow's solution and present it today, we designers have done more damage to computing than any other group. By using our considerable skills of persuasion, we have tricked the public into believing the industry was evolving when it in fact hasn't. A continuous cycle of product releases, each bringing shinier surface level eye-candy to a public without the requisite understanding to know they were being messed with, has made the industry rich, the public drunk and dumber, and an industry that has stopped looking to the future.

Maybe there needs to be a cleaving of the design field into two groups. The first will go on doing what design has been doing, persuading the buying public, through sexy surfaces, colors and shapes, that a product of service is more than it really is. The second will actually do design. The second will ask the deep questions and use the answers to design deep solutions. If ever there was a time for design true to its promise... it is now. Who will be brave enough to take the deep and long view... to really posit changes where changes are needed? Scale no longer suffices as the dominant design criteria. The complexity of this biggest of design challenges demands a new metric. We must understand the greater hierarchy of influence and situate our solutions in their most natural and effective place within this semantic hierarchy. That means designing for those solutions that have the greatest influence on the future of influence. That is computing. That is computing's future. We either do it now or we wait until someone else does it later. The payback will be unfathomable by today's standards. Productivity will rise by folds. We have the tools. We have the knowledge. We understand the reasons. We can go there now.

Randall Reetz

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