Social change and technology change

When we think about long-term change with the benefit of hindsight, the things we think are unfathomable are usually the technology – planes, cars, computers. But it is at least as likely that the things that time travellers would most struggle with are the shifts in social values, which are almost invisible to us because we swim in them constantly and adapt ourselves to them as they change.

Suckers for irrelevancy

I’ve recognized this in myself and others:

A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. “They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it. Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

Now, what was I just doing again?

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all.

With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

The boring future

One of the defining challenges of writing science fiction is explaining to the audience the amazing new things in this world while respecting the fact that the characters already live in that world… For you, this future is cool, but for them it’s just another day with the same old problems.

See also Jamais Cascio, “Your Posthumanism Is Boring Me” and “Fifteen Minutes Into the Future“, and Stuart Candy, “Amazing=Mundane“.

Work without attachment

If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul…This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it…

Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children–expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.

Predict the future by forgetting yourself

A good summary of Philip Tetlock‘s research:

As you might expect, these elite forecasters tended to score better on measures of intelligence than the other participants. But they all shared one other trait too: open-mindedness…Crucially, open-minded people tend to be able to see problems from all sides, which seems to help forecasters overcome their preconceptions in the light of new evidence. ‘You need to change your mind fast, and often,’ says Tetlock.

Another trait of effective forecasting that Tetlock highlights is self-awareness – understanding your own foibles…he points out that too often forecasters begin by taking an “inside view” of a problem…Yet research suggests that you could come to more accurate predictions if you instead take a step back and simply look at past historical data.

Other strategies were aimed at reducing known cognitive biases. For instance, research has shown people tend to make better decisions if they are reminded of common pitfalls, such as the tendency to exaggerate the risk of particularly frightening events, like a terrorist attack; they could also remember to consider both the best and worst case scenarios of a situation, since that opens the mind to the full range of possibilities and helps to question your basic assumptions about the event.


Product design and your impact

I’ve written before about how I think about and talk about design. While in general I find it important to be specific about the practice you’re doing, there are some broader definitions that are useful.

One that occurred to me this morning: The first act of product design is deciding what effect you want to have in the world.

This definition sidesteps the distinction between solving problems and cultural impact, and focuses not on the product but on the opportunity.

We live in a fascinating time, where with new tools we have the power to build almost anything. Meanwhile, design practice is emerging in many disciplines and fields. The question is then less about “what should we build” and more about “why should we build?” Make sure you know your answer.

Future strangers

Couched in an article about procrastination is this fascinating study result:

Using fMRI, Hershfield and colleagues studied brain activity changes when people imagine their future and consider their present…their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman.

If our future selves are truly strangers to us, that affects how we design behavior change and plan for the future. We need to build empathy with ourselves the same ways we build it with others–through trying new experiences, challenging our beliefs, and cultivating curiosity about the unknown. This points to an experiential futures approach to design, as well as a need for individual, interactive tools for people to explore their own possible futures. And it suggests that successful approaches will address the emotional side of decisions as much or more than rational thoughts.

It’s an important aspect to consider when designing the future. After all, the next stranger you encounter could be…you!

Science Fiction and Social Fiction

We have science fiction, and science follows it. We imagine it, and it comes true. Yet we don’t have social fiction, so nothing changes. – Muhammad Yunus

A nice quote, and a good motivator, though I do think we have a couple types of social fiction.

Types of stories

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. – Leo Tolstoy

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth – Christopher Booker

Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better – Robert Heinlein

And many, MANY more