November 13, 2004

Talking, walking and chewing gum

I'm at Andrew Otwell's Design Engaged conference right now in Amsterdam with a bunch of really great folks. Yesterday I presented with my latest polemic, Talking, walking and chewing gum: the complexity of life and what it means for design. Here's what I said, roughly.

Intro (5 minutes)

Hi. I'm Mike Kuniavsky. I'm wrote a book on user experience research techniques and I co-founded Adaptive Path, a pretty well-known San Francisco consulting company.

Earlier this year I left Adaptive Path and decided to devote some time to thinking about ubiquitous computing and the social effects of technology. And to write polemics, of which this is one.

My thinking about ubicomp, society, technology, and design in general are not unrelated. The material culture around us does not exist in a vacuum. Products are a reflection of social values, and they affect our values, in turn. Objects endowed with information and communication capabilities are a reflection of a set of specific values. They also change our understanding of what an object is, how we relate to it and, in turn, how we relate to all other objects. How many of you have not wanted to do a "Find File" for your keys across your house? I once dreamt of making a symlink in the LA freeway so that I could get from Pasadena to Santa Monica much faster than traversing all of those freeways.

Parallel to all of this line of thought, I've been consulting with large corporations on user-centered design. I started noticing similarities between the problems that they were having, my analysis of the social effects of technology, and what I saw happening elsewhere. So I started making a list of phenomena that seem somehow related. It's a list of things that represent trends I've seen firsthand, and which have been identified as characteristic of our time.

The list

Tired: moving away from

Wired: moving toward

Roles Skills
Fast food Slow food
Linear Emergent
Alexander Koolhaas
Dominant Trends Multiple simultaneous scenarios
Supply-driven Demand-driven
Centralized Distributed
Mass production Mass customization
Marketing User research
Policy Guidelines
Waterfall planning Agile development
Picasso Duchamp
Efficiency Innovation
Long future Short future
Sprockets and pulleys Black boxes and wires
Product lines Customer lines
Price Value
Bureaucracy Federalism
Talyor Peters
Utopian futures Survivable futures
Specs Personas
Hierarchical Flat and social

Talking and walking (5 minutes)

I look at this collection and try to identify what binds it together. The pattern that appears is a recognition of the complexity of the world, of the unpredictability of the world, of the incomprehensibility of the world, of the contingency of the world, of the time-based, sporadic, overwhelmingly confusing nature of the world.
What I realized while looking at this list is that we are awakening to the fact that the more we know of the world, the more we know how little it follows simple rules. It's all grey area.

To me, this means that the framework of thought of the last 600 years is coming to an end. Renaissance Humanism was the branding of the West's growing dissatisfaction with Catholicism as the main explanation of the workings of the world. The dominant thought that followed is that by dividing the world into small pieces simple laws can be found to explain it. That idea, that way of understanding, is waning. It's been fading for at least 50 years.
Two things have driven this decline: Communication technology and transportation technology. Cheap telephones, televisions, Internet connections, cars and air travel have made information cheap and plentiful. Talking and walking. And all the cheap and plentiful information has done many things, but what it has really done is to show people how complex their world is.

Chewing gum (5 minutes)

Life is incredibly complex, and now it's not just the scientists at the Santa Fe Institute and Wall Street mathematicians who know it. Many people see it and feel it. But most don't know what to do about it. We can see patterns of compensation mechanisms appear. Nihilism, irony, fundamentalism and nostalgia are all ways to simplify the world. We are at the end of the prescriptive rationalist vision of the world and we're waiting for the next framework to explain the world to appear. It has, but it's going to take a while before it's in full bloom. After all, it was 300 years between Giotto and Isaac Newton.

Which brings me to my main point: It is our job as designers to recognize this set of ideas, to understand it, to create for it, and to name it.

Design is a projection of people's values onto the products of technology. Victorian decoration was a celebration of consumer affluence and machinery over the material world. Bauhaus minimalism was a utopian interpretation of products, buildings and people as engineered components. Designers are interpreters, translators, popularizers, and conduits for ideas. We embrace the leading edge and communicate it to the mass market.
We are past the confusion of Postmodernism, which grasped at relativism and then wore out its welcome. We do not live in a relative age, we live in a complex age, but it hasn't been branded yet. It's time for that to change.

However, there's a tendency to think about designing the little problems, but the big context IS important. We are doing ourselves a disservice in the long run by not designing for these ideas. Now is the time for us to embrace complexity through designing for systems, designing metaphors (as Ben and Adam have talked about) flexible tools (that allow for the kind of gardening like what Ben talks about) and, most importantly, designing incentives for people to consciously think about complexity management.

The complexity of the world is an uncomfortably bright light. Most people have found ways to turn away from it. You should not. You are the people who will make the complexity of the world tolerable. Go to the light of complexity. Run to the light!

[I'd like to thank Ben Cerveny for his insight into this over many meals and car drives; the good ideas here are his]

Posted by mikek at November 13, 2004 01:06 AM | TrackBack

great thoughts, mike! we're working on the subject of "time perception" at the moment ... can see some interesting links to your theme of the "world's complexity"..
how is the smart furniture story developing?
plse contact us..

Posted by: matthias richter at February 15, 2005 01:30 PM
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