Be careful little eyes what you see

The past few years have taught the human race a few surprising things about itself, and they’re not very flattering.

First, we are not the rational creatures we think we are; our decisions are largely driven by emotions, biases, and even unrelated activities. For instance, simply using hand sanitizer can temporarily change your political beliefs.

Second, the new way to exert power in the world is not physical but digital. Online social networks have immense mindshare and impact on our lives.

And third, dangerous, powerful professionals are using these digital tools to manipulate us.

Renee DiResta has written an in-depth article looking at how state-sponsored professional attackers use misinformation to divide and influence society. Increasingly, their strategy is to directly target individual citizens, through the media and social networks, feeding them misinformation to steer their minds in specific directions.

In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics…
Combatants are now focusing on infiltration rather than automation: leveraging real, ideologically-aligned people to inadvertently spread real, ideologically-aligned content instead.

What’s especially dangerous about this kind of polarization is that it’s often good business. Digital influence is cheap, as online advertising platforms love to remind us, and angry or scared viewers are especially profitable.

Combatants evolve with remarkable speed, because digital munitions are very close to free. In fact, because of the digital advertising ecosystem, information warfare may even turn a profit.

If you’ve ever felt that a news show, reshared Facebook post, or blog post was designed to rile you up and make you angry…well, it probably was. And this misinformation will only get more extreme and convincing over time, as technologies like deepfaked videos move into politics.

So what can we do against such attacks? DiResta’s analogy of the Maginot Line suggests that our current understanding of how to fight this war is outdated, and she lists several alternative defenses that will require the world to work together against the attackers. Much responsibility lies with the tech platforms to develop and enforce stronger policies and filters, but DiResta also argues:

The government has the ability to create meaningful deterrence, to make it an unquestionably bad idea to interfere in American democracy and manipulate American citizens.

As individuals, meanwhile, we can be far more critical in what we read and believe. Understanding that malevolent forces are constantly trying to manipulate us is a good first step.

We can also be more careful in what we repeat and share with others, checking multiple trusted sources and fact-checkers (like PolitiFact and Snopes) before resharing an article with friends or online. The best way to influence Americans, after all, is to get another American they trust to do it for you.

World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. – [Marshall McLuhan, 1970](

And there’s never been a better time to support a professional, free, and independent press. One good way to tell if a news outlet is worth trusting and supporting is, of course, how they cover the news about digital manipulation and misinformation. People and sources that deny manipulation is happening are likely not worth trusting about other things either.

Be careful, little eyes, what you see.

The Automation Charade

The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate. – The Automation Charade

Design by inquiry: Can this be a question?

I recently started a new job with new brilliant, experienced colleagues, and it’s been difficult to make helpful contributions while I’m still learning about the problems we’re working on. Often when I propose a solution it turns out to be already considered and rejected, hopelessly naïve, or entirely misguided. And when asked for my opinion on the ideas of others, I sometimes freeze up and stammer out something noncommittal.

I’ve found that the most useful technique is to constantly ask myself, “Can this be a question?” Specifically, I take whatever proposal I was about to make, and turn it into a question for others.

For instance, if I think we should change a design element from blue to green, I might ask “How did we decide on blue for this?” or “How well is blue working here?” If that doesn’t lead anywhere, I could continue by asking “What are the goals of the color choices?” followed by “Would any other colors do that even better?”. Even if we don’t end up making it green, we’re likely to end up with some improvement, and I’m certain to learn something along the way.

Asking questions like this–something I call “design by inquiry”–has several benefits:

  1. It encourages others to share their thoughts and ideas, and puts them in a creative mode rather than a critical one. Often when people hear a strongly-presented idea they feel responsible for pointing out its flaws rather than building constructively on it. And design always benefits from more diverse perspectives.

  2. It gives the people with the most context–they’re asking the question, after all–the opportunity to answer it themselves. If an engineer comes to me with a problem, they’ve already started thinking about it. I’d like to hear what they’ve considered already, and what they feel might be best now.

  3. It can open up an overly-constrained problem to new opportunities. More often than not, the difficulty in design comes from solving the wrong problem, and restating the question gives everyone a chance to reframe the problem and make sure you’re still looking in the right direction.

In several ways, this is similar to the Socratic method, which is often employed in order to discredit a hypothesis or proposal, and sometimes characterized as “acting dumb”. However, design by inquiry comes from a place of open creativity and “actually being dumb”–as designers always are when starting a new project.

One of my mantras is “be the dumbest person in the room”–to make sure I’m always learning–and that means asking a lot of questions!

No more rock stars

This is a wonderful takedown of “rock stars” and stopping abuse–in the tech industry, but applicable to any field–by Leigh Honeywell. Some of my favorite points:

  • Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone (of course, you say! But you still have to do it)
  • Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
  • Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
  • Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives (when the job is all they have, people get crazy)

“Rockstar” in tech has become synonymous with narcissist. I avoid any contact with companies or teams who are looking for them.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” – Laozi, Tao Te Ching

The new economy and disability

Millions of people are unable to work because of a disability, but that has as much to do with the changing nature of work as with the disabilities themselves:

When I said things like, what about a job where you don’t have to lift people, or a job where you don’t have to use your shoulder or where you don’t have to stand all night long, or just simply, have you thought about other jobs that you could do, people gave me such bewildered looks. It was as if I was asking well, how come you didn’t consider becoming an astronaut…

Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability. This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy.

It’s sadly ironic that while tech workers are proud about the health benefits of their new standing desks, people with real health issues can’t get jobs that allow them to sit.

Why you feel so busy

A good argument for why our culture can feel so rushed, unifying individual perception, widening economic classes, new technologies, changes in parenting, politics, and more. Alas, no magic cure is mentioned.

Why the rich often feel busier than the poor:

Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems…

While the wages of most workers, and particularly uneducated workers, have either remained stagnant or grown slowly, the incomes at the top—and those at the very top most of all—have been rising at a swift rate. This makes leisure time terribly expensive.

How the glut of “leisure” activities makes all of them less relaxing:

The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the opportunity cost of leisure (ie, choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feelings of stress. The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.

Parenting has become even more time-intensive as well, especially for those with the other time crunches:

American mothers with a college degree, for example, spend roughly 4.5 hours more per week on child care than mothers with no education beyond high school…As for fathers, those with a job and a college degree spend far more time with their children than fathers ever used to, and 105% more time than their less-educated male peers.

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.

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.

Just get started

“The muse visits during the act of creation, not before” – Roger Ebert

Too busy to rest

Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes the new book Overwhelmed with a comparison to what John Maynard Keynes expected our society to become.

By 2028, he predicted, the “standard of life” in Europe and the United States would be so improved that no one would need to worry about making money. “Our grandchildren,” Keynes reckoned, would work about three hours a day, and even this reduced schedule would represent more labor than was actually necessary…

In the future, Keynes imagined, the fruits of capitalism would redeem capitalism…

It is, to say the least, disappointing that things haven’t turned out that way—that inequality has grown, that leisure is scarce, that even the rich complain of being overwhelmed. And yet so much of what we do, collectively and individually, suggests that we still believe more wealth is the answer. Reexamining this belief would probably be a good idea—that is, if anyone had the time for it.