Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

A note on word choice: I am experimenting with using the word “conception” in place of “concept”. A conception is a conceiving move that produces a concept. A concept can be one of any number of artifacts, all of which can be viewed as alike in that they are produced and reproduced (comprehended) by the same conception.

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If you think about it — and few of us do — thinking is an extremely mysterious activity.

Thinking is never more mysterious than at the edges of intelligibility, where, in order to think with any coherence, clarity or conviction, a thinker must first find new ways to make clear unified sense of material that is fragmentary, murky and perplexing. These new ways of making coherent sense are conceptions.

When one lacks conceptions needed for thinking, conceptions stand starkly absent. It is similar to how we suddenly become hyper-aware of our reliance on a humble body part, like a little toe, once it is injured or stops functioning, or how much we use a utility when service is interrupted, and we keep mindlessly flipping on light-switches even though the electricity is out.

It is when conceptions and thinking breaks down that we think about the activity thinking and experience how mysterious it is.

For normal people, the experience of grappling with inconceivability is relatively rare. Most things make sense most of the time — or at least most relevant things make sense. Of course, many things remain incomprehensible, inexplicable, irrational, confusing, frustrating, chaotic, crazy or mysterious — but these things tend to be pushed out to the margins. They are labeled “irrelevant” and ignored. Or they are labeled as “evil” or “delusional” and condemned or despised. Or they may be labeled “mysteries” and placed beyond human comprehension, for wonder, contemplation or worship. Generally, nothing short of catastrophe or crisis is sufficient to motivate a person to reconceive and understand something that defies comprehension.

Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think, and to form whatever beliefs they hold. Infinitesimally few beliefs are produced by thinking. Nearly all beliefs are conceived automatically, in perception. Most conception occurs prior to thought, habitually and invisibly, in the continuous act of perception, where conceptions intercept and conceptually format sensations prior to any conscious thinking. When perceptions cohere autonomously in a form that lends itself to effortless intelligibility — self-evident truth — truth and reality are indistinguishable. This state of mind is called “naive realism.”

Is naive realism bad? Many will insist “yes” but this judgment is itself the product of conception — perhaps, ironically, a habitual and unconsidered conception of precisely the kind it disparages.

Naive realism can also be conceived as an ideal. This is what I intend to argue, and I intend to argue it from a highly abnormal angle: that of a design strategist.

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I mentioned that normal people normally do not think about thinking nor the conceptions they have at their disposal for perceiving and conceiving truth, and I referred to design strategists as abnormal in this respect.

Design strategists are forced to think about thinking, conceptions, perceptions all the time. A total breakdown of thought and attempts to resolve the breakdown and resume thought is just part of the work.

This is because design strategists are crisis agents. We are primarily hired to resolve crises, or to create crises in order to help organizations innovate, differentiate or disrupt their industries and throw their competitors into crisis, all for the sake of gaining competitive advantage.

Design strategists are professional crisis mongers. The most important component of such crisis mongering is design research, and the ideal outcome of design research is what I call “precision inspiration”.

Explaining strategic design research and precision inspiration provides context for understanding why strategic design demands thinking about thinking.

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The best way to explain design research is pragmatically, presenting it in terms of what it does. And since design research was formed in the crucible of business, let’s discuss what it does in terms of benefits, using the preferred genre of the business world, the sales pitch.

What are the benefits of design research?

First, and most obviously, design research informs decisions. It helps organizations identify opportunities for improvement. It helps them understand precisely what can and should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that efforts to improve things have their intended effect. And these improvements are not only for customers, but for all people involved in the organization — customers, employees, partners, leaders, investors and any other kind of stakeholder. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right”. Research improves the product of an organization.

Second, design research looks at opportunities through the lens of an organization’s capabilities, and especially those capabilities unique to the organization and therefore potentially differentiating. The improvements found are improvements only this organization is able to provide. Research differentiates the product of an organization. The product is not just better — it is uniquely better, and this organization is the only one able to provide it.

These first two benefits supply the “precision” part of precision inspiration. They focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated.

Third, design research provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. Morale-sapping doubts are answered, freeing participants to invest energy into the project, optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit. Design research helps organizations align and improves efficiency and effectiveness of production.

Fourth, design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which lays the political groundwork for the climax of this pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and the limits our capacity to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of conceptions learned and to link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so in effect each team is forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new conceptions cause novel possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo — possibilities were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas — even new goals, purposes, values — resulting from the acquisition of new conceptions is, in fact, precisely what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through precise understanding of specific people and and specific organizations) than ideas produced by the general truisms of industry conventional wisdom. Because industry conventional wisdom processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same old, same-old: safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

This new, previously inconceivable way of conceiving precisely what this organization can do for precisely these people the organization exists to serve, conceived in a way that makes this problem thinkable in a shared way for all people involved in the effort and aligns them in solving it is precision inspiration.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

Doing research in this way, day in, day out, year in, year out changes one’s conceptions of conceptions and forces us to rethink how thinking works. A life of producing myriad small, specialized philosophies for specific problems eventually produces a comprehensive general philosophy that expands far beyond the limits of business, or any compartmented life activity and changes one’s view of everything.

In other words, it becomes a fundamental philosophy: a philosophy of design of philosophy.

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To be continued… Design should be invisible, and so should be our conceptions!

John Dewey on class supremacy

From Human Nature and Conduct:

We are forced therefore to consider the nature and origin of that control of human nature with which morals has been occupied. And the fact which is forced upon us when we raise this question is the existence of classes. Control has been vested in an oligarchy. Indifference to regulation has grown in the gap which separates the ruled from the rulers. Parents, priests, chiefs, social censors have supplied aims, aims which were foreign to those upon whom they were imposed, to the young, laymen, ordinary folk; a few have given and administered rule, and the mass have in a passable fashion and with reluctance obeyed. Everybody knows that good children are those who make as little trouble as possible for their elders, and since most of them cause a good deal of annoyance they must be naughty by nature. Generally speaking, good people have been those who did what they were told to do, and lack of eager compliance is a sign of something wrong in their nature.

But no matter how much men in authority have turned moral rules into an agency of class supremacy, any theory which attributes the origin of rule to deliberate design is false. To take advantage of conditions after they have come into existence is one thing; to create them for the sake of an advantage to accrue is quite another thing. We must go back to the bare fact of social division into superior and inferior.

Four characteristics of a “religious” philosophical conversion

Not all philosophical shifts have the character of a religious conversion. However, I do think religious conversions are essentially philosophical shifts with several distinctive features:

  1. The new philosophy replaces one’s most fundamental unifying concepts and consequently effects a near-total transfiguration of experience.
  2. The shift creates a life experience that is not only useful (that is, helps people function more effectively) and usable (that is, helps people think and communicate more clearly and coherently), but intensely desirable. A feeling of value floods into the world.
  3. The new philosophy is oriented toward a mind-transcendent reality. In other words it points beyond what is experienced and known to what can potentially be experienced and known.

A fourth characteristic is highly desirable, but not necessary: Ideally, it fosters solidarity with other people and supports a community of faith.

And yes: I am arguing all the other features commonly associated with religion are nonessential — just accidents of the history of concepts.

 

Ipseic/alteric moralities

I have been re-re-re-re-re-reading Daybreak. Having taken such a long break from reading Nietzsche, but meanwhile having carried his concepts — thoroughly and permanently internalized, but largely inarticulate — out into my reading of other thinkers and into my professional design practice and personal life — coming back and reading him again is revelatory.

One thing that is standing out sharply is a theme of ipseity and alterity: what is of myself, and what is of other?

(Metaphysical digression: I believe this is where I originally picked up my habitual (re)mapping of immanence and transcendence. If I am not mistaken, most religious people, when speaking of immanence and transcendence, map the terms objectively: the world of mundane objects in space is immanent, and this mundane reality is a manifestation of a divine realm which is transcendent. My view of transcendence is subjective — and more precisely phenomenological. Immanence is relative to self: it is the world as I know it, both tacitly and explicitly. An elegant way to express this idea is that, for any self, immanence is one’s own pragmatic meaning of the word “everything” — all that follows from one’s belief in the existence of “everything”, as one means it. Transcendence is what is real beyond one’s own conception of everything, and it generally makes itself known through novel immanence, aka surprise, leaving one apprehensively aware that reality is far more than what one experiences and knows of it. It is this subjective conception of transcendence that opens religion to me. If objective transcendence were the only option, I’d be an atheist, and until I found this alternative metaphysical mapping, I was an atheist. Fortunately, even traditional religions are entirely receptive to this understanding, and so I can participate in religious life and worship as a member of a community.)

The rest of this post sort of fell apart, but I want to post it anyway…

Continue reading Ipseic/alteric moralities

Three hard truths about forgiveness

It is a hard truth that we can never really heal from the trauma of conflict without forgiveness.

It is an even harder truth that real forgiveness, the kind that actually heals, is something actual that happens between real people, who must willingly exchange forgiveness in order to actualize it.

Of course, some people will dispute this, and insist that you can, in fact, forgive someone else inwardly, in your own mind or soul. But this is not forgiveness. A better term for it would be “reconciliation”. Such reconciliation is not with the other real person, but rather with an image of them that belongs to you, alone, and occurs entirely within your own mind. You reconcile yourself to that person being dead to you, and you overwrite your memory of them with a eulogy. That is the furthest thing from forgiveness. It is almost vengeful.

The third hard truth of forgiveness is the hardest truth: Those with whom we most need to exchange forgiveness are often the very ones who never recognized our reality in the first place. We were always semi-fictional characters in their autobiographies, playing the role they assigned us. When our character creates conflict in the story (perhaps for insisting to much on being a real person), the author kills it off and then unilaterally reconciles with it. The trauma is written into their story, and belongs to them alone. This is life as they live and write it.

These are the ones who need forgiveness for an unwillingness or incapacity to exchange forgiveness.

Love and self-respect

At the cusp of adulthood, in the summer of 1990, I became aware that I had two modes of esteem and identification, which I labeled “what I love” and “what I approve of”.

I decided at that point in my life to embrace and identify with what I approved of and to distance myself from what I loved.

This choice might seems strange by today’s standards, but I will argue that this was a necessary and wise decision.

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In the autumn of 1990, my friend Rob handed me a slip of paper upon which he’d typed a Rilke quote “A merging of two people is an impossibility; and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see each other whole against the sky.” I feel sure that this passage completed and sealed my choice.

I believe that taking this path allowed me 1) to cultivate a self-respectful (approved of) selfhood, and 2)to gain the distance needed to love someone else precisely for her otherness. “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?”

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A capacity to love that which one finds compelling, admirable, but profoundly alien is a key virtue supporting living toward transcendence.

A capacity to form self-respectful collaborations with likeminded souls is also a key virtue in transcendent becoming — growing beyond one’s limits.

And, the wisdom of discerning selfhood and otherhood, and forming appropriate relations with each is necessary to avoid hating what you love and loving what you hate.

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Today I am speculating on what might have happened, had I had made the opposite choice.

What if I had chosen to identify with “what I love”, and distanced myself from “what I approve of”.

Earlier, I mentioned that my decision probably looks pretty odd from the standpoint of 2021. Isn’t approval a cold, rationalistic standard? Shouldn’t we love ourselves, rather than just approve of ourselves?

But consider the consequences: If one identifies with what one loves (and what one loves most is one’s transcendent complement, what one is not) one tries to become precisely what is least possible to be. Failure is inevitable, and when it happens, there is a real risk that one will envy and resent those who succeeded  —  again, precisely those who are most transcendently complementary, those whom one could best love across distance as other.

And when one invests all of one’s time and energy pursuing an impossible ideal, this diverts time and energy away from the development of one’s own real potential. One’s real possibilities are neglected, and the self is left in an undeveloped state incapable of inspiring self-respect. As a substitute one authors a persona or adopts an identity and uses that as a substitute for selfhood. But this is a thin deception. The assertion of one’s persona or identity is a head-splitting whistling in the dark that barely masks the even louder shame and self-loathing looping beneath. Everything that threatens the illusion is viscerally painful and excites hostility.

Unfortunately, this speculation is not purely speculative — but, in fact, informed by observations of people I know and have known, and many others I’ve listened to from a distance.

And I am worried, because I suspect that this peculiarly selfless, but also otherless, state of mind might in fact be psychologically common, or even predominant in the last two generations. The strange, hyper-intense, symbolic politics of our age might be the projection of this inner hell onto the outer world.

Reconceiving concept

Concept. Con- + -cept. Together-take.

A concept takes together a multiplicity as a unit.

Concepts do not have form; concepts give form.

It is not possible to give an example of a concept. Concepts can only be demonstrated.

Most of what we say about concepts, and the way we use the term “concept” is pure category mistake, ontological confusion. We misunderstand the kind of thing a concept is, and the practical consequences proceeding from this misunderstanding generates profuse unintelligibility.

How do we acquire a concept? We follow what it does. We follow an argument, an analogy, a story, a pattern, a system, until we pick it up, and reproduce it in ourselves. We follow along, and then we get it. We are initiated into the concept and start using it.

Really well-conceived concepts become habits, and are no longer guided by language or by intention. They guide language and participate in our intentions. They become imperceptible extensions of our personal being, reflected in our experience of reality.

Concepts are intellectual concavities, and this is one reason why we so often resort to spatial metaphors when speaking of concepts. We enter concepts, inhabit them, and look out from them, perceive from them, understand from them, experience from them, respond from them. Concepts are not convex objects that we can grasp. Concepts are that by which we grasp.

Concepts comprehend. Concepts are not comprehended, though truths are comprehended when a concept is received or conceived.

Do we conceive an idea? I would prefer a more finely-articulated account, that includes invisible, silent, but crucially important moral deeds: We face an incomprehensible situation. We try to comprehend it, despite the fact that we have no plan, principles or precedents to help us comprehend it. We enter the void of inconceivability; we undergo perplexity. “We do not know how to move around” in perplexity. We cannot even state the problem we are trying to solve or the question we need to ask, much less answer it. So we grope. We follow faint hunches. We try, fail, try, fail. We follow our noses and our guts. We cannot say what or who guides us, but we are guided, very subtly. If we keep our heads — if we refuse to turn around and flee back to old, familiar, inadequate concepts — if we stay alert to inaudibly quiet voices speaking in native languages of our most private personhood, we somehow conceive a way to think the inconceivable, and a concept is born. The concept then comprehends the situation and generates an idea. But our coarse, public words leap to “I had an idea.”

Concepts are conceived, not comprehended. But often when we acquire a concept we re-conceive it and become able to comprehend that by which the concept was demonstrated, we bolt right on past the demonstration and enjoy having an effusion of ideas of our own, that, suddenly, miraculously, erupt — having been made possible through this new concept.

When we are taught a concept, often we only credit the teacher teaching us the content of the demonstration. We credit ourselves for the outpouring of new ideas, inspired by this little nugget of truth. We are inspired, become creative, and revel in our new powers of insights and invention.

The modest nugget of truth that conveys a concept through demonstration, initiates a learner into new possibilities of thought inconceivable prior to the insight, and inspires myriad acts of creativity — could this be the philosopher’s stone?

Until we acquire a concept, all ideas comprehended by the concept are incomprehensible, or even more often they are misunderstood — that is, they are grasped using concepts that comprehend its content in a different and conflicting way. Even meaningful artifacts, whose meaning is known, felt or otherwise accessed by way of an alien concept, are opaque until the concept is acquired.

Well-conceived concepts form systems of cooperating concepts. They function together, harmonize together, corroborate and reinforce one another, combine to make coherent sense of things. Such concept systems make “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Concept systems, which use concepts to select and connect other concepts, are philosophies.

As with simpler concepts, philosophies cannot be given directly. They are always demonstrated. When a philosophy is demonstrated, it is necessarily demonstrated using content, but what animates the demonstration — the movements of concept — is the real substance of the philosophy. When the concepts are received the content of the philosophy is comprehended, and, more often than not, confused for the philosophy.

I learned to conceive concepts this way from Nietzsche. I would read his arguments and aphorisms, puzzle over them, turn them this way and that, entertain them, fight them, connect them in various ways, and generally struggle to make coherent sense of what he was saying. He would reduce me to despair, which would cling to my entire lived experience for days and weeks. The unresolved perplexities would pile up and intensify. Then he would resolve one of the perplexities with a tiny crystalline insight. This little seed of a clue would instantly resolve the problem perfectly, then explode beyond the problem, resolving myriad known and unknown perplexities, so rapidly and comprehensively it was nearly impossible to keep track of the knowledge that suddenly was just existent, appearing ex nihilo. Even well-understood knowledge would be blasted apart, evaporated and reconstituted in new significance. And the change went beyond knowledge, too, into capacities for understanding. Truths that had been incomprehensible just seconds before were now perfectly obvious.. I found myself inventing completely new ideas, brilliant ideas, inspired by earlier aphorisms or images. …But then I would read on, and there it would be, typed out, verbatim: one of my original thoughts. Nietzsche was somehow inducing these original thoughts, then proving that it was intentional, in some inconceivable way.

Two problems arose from this experience. The first was the hardest. I found my reconstituted philosophy disturbingly resistant to language. I was unable to convey what I knew, and even the things I knew in this new way were misunderstood entirely by the people around me. And worse, when I would try to convey what I understood, it inflicted terrible anxiety,. People wanted to not know what I so badly needed to say, and it was excruciating. I was intellectually imprisoned. I called it “solitary confinement in plain sight” The loneliness was crushing. But the second problem became the kernel of a more mature philosophy that wanted to understand and articulate how Nietzsche was able to write this way, and what it meant about the human condition and reality itself.

Eventually, after many reconceptions, a few very deep transformative ones, and many smaller localized ones, I began to think of concepts and philosophies as inexhaustible levers for changing our fundamental experience of life, and for opening new possibilities for materially changing the world in ways that might be wiser than if we immediately leap to fixing what seems obviously broken in obvious ways. And then I realized: this is what we always do when we design.

There is a crucially important step that occurs in human centered design after user research and before detailed design where we attempt to make sense of what we learn and put it into a form conducive to shaping and motivating design work. Traditionally, it has been called concept, but the word “concept” normally denotes an artifact, an object, a prototype, a model. The process of getting to that concept is often hellish, and often in proportion to the depth of the research. Teams are gripped in anxiety. I realized design concepts have exactly the characteristics I listed above. The “concept” demonstrates a concept so team members can pick it up and use it to guide their design work.

To be continued…

Existential nullity

Blindness is not darkness — it burns our eyes with a dazzling glare of churning nothingness.

Losing our sense of smell doesn’t make smell go away. The world is pervaded with a maddening stench of burning rubber.

If we lose a limb, a phantom limb remains, and it aches and aches.

Same with souls: those who neglect their unique personhood and instead adopt an identity will have a glaring, stinking, aching, resentful nullity where a soul should be.

“Precision inspiration”

When people ask me what design research is, my favorite answer is “precision inspiration”.

I know this might seem slightly business romantic, but my meaning is exact, clear, concrete — even a bit technical.

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I’ll start by explaining what research is pragmatically, in terms of what it does. And because I’m a business guy, I’ll explain what it does in terms of its benefits. In other words, I’ll start with a sales pitch.

First, design research helps inform decisions. It helps teams identify opportunities for improvements. It helps us understand what should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that the work has its intended effect. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right.” Research improves the product.

Second, design research also provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. And morale-sapping doubts about the project can be quelled, so participants can invest real energy into the project, in the expectation that their efforts will produce a positive outcome. Design research done well is organizational alignment magic. Research improves the efficiency of production.

Design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which gets us closer to the climax of my pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of concepts enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and our ability to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new concepts are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more concepts must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of concepts learned and link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing concepts, so in effect each team are forced to create a new concept system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through understanding users or customers) than ideas produced by industry conventional wisdom that, because it processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same-old, safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

 

Meditation on “Microsoft Re-Designs the iPod Packaging”

Apparently I am waxing careericidal once again, because I just posted this on my company’s slack:

 

A meditation on the classic “Microsoft Re-designs the iPod Packaging” video.

This video pretty uncannily represents how most design used to be, back in the days before design research, when everybody in the room wanted to be the one who “knows The User” and “knows what The User wants”.

And that smarted, most insightful person, by total coincidence, always turned out to be the most powerful person in the room. Huh.

Then design research came along, and it changed team politics and collaborative dynamics completely. Design practice liberalizes business.

This same thing, by the way, is exactly what happened at the inception of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution. This is how liberalism always happens. (and no, of course not — it did not happen perfectly, out of the gate, but nothing happens perfectly right away, except in the minds of naive fantasists, or the rhetoric of cynics.)

Here’s how I explain my job to myself so my work feels important enough to take seriously: We designers are in effect bringing a social scientific revolution to the notoriously illiberal, authoritarian world of business. This is why design research is the greatest thing ever.

Sometimes it is useful to have the opportunity to remember what it was like back in the bad old days of intuition wars and might-makes-right design.

Entertaining ontology designing

Follow up email to Nick on ontological designing:

Ok, I’m starting to like this paper, and I’m re-considering my initial resistance to situating myself within this school of thought. Her third sphere of ontological designing, “ontological designing of systems of thought, of habits of mind,” is exactly what I am proposing, and I do accept all her emphasis on coevolution (“While we as humans design buildings, they also design us.”) as true and relevant. 

I think the difference between my view and Willis’s is I believe that it is our personal responsibility to assert our own enworlding intuitions and thoughts against simply being passively enthinged by what surrounds us. Just as existentialism grew out of Heideggerian ontology, I am “existentializing” ontological designing by looking at personal self-responsibility within a context that accepts all the same truths Willis presents here. 

The core measure of self-responsibility is the quality of one’s own “enworldment experience”. Is the world clear, maneuverable and valuable to you, or is it murky, paralyzing, and worthless/doomed? In other words, did you design your enworldment for usability, usefulness, and desirability, or did you passively or prematurely accept an enworldment that falls short (or worse, a social enthingment)?

My passionate belief is that we absolutely must start with what is experience-near (our own lives, our own active philosophies), physically-proximate (our own tools and places) and socially-connected (our actual relationships, especially our most dialogical ones) and gradually spiral outward to enclose widening peripheries. To believe we must fix what’s way out there, everywhere — the environment, society, politics, other people’s beliefs — is ontological designing’s version of existential bad faith, an attempt to evade self-determination with attempts at other-determination.

Please notice my language improvements. Heidegger’s hideous language has got to go. Everyone seems to want to preserve his terms, but this is the awkward language of discovery. It’s been nearly a century and its time to refine. There will be no “worlding” or “thinking” on my watch. Enworldment, and enthingment is vastly better, aesthetically and descriptively.

Room 101

If someone were designing my ideal Hell (or if you prefer atheistic imagery, Room 101) put me on a team that designs by committee for a committee. You don’t even have to sentence me for eternity. A month is plenty to get my teeth gnashing, and more than a month will reduce me to the blackest despair.

The thing that makes a design approach render clear social sense for me is that it makes sense of some region of the world in personal terms. We investigate how a specific person does specific things with specific things and experiences specific things, and our job is to make these interactions, artifacts and experiences good by the standard of that person. When learning from users, design researchers redirect all deflection of personal response (and users always try it) into speculation on how other people might respond with “we are interested only in what you think and feel, and what you would do.” By looking at responses one at a time, and only at the end finding any generalities, we rid ourselves of the noisy refractions of what people think other people think other people will think other people will think, which gives us more information on their social psychological folk-theories and and insights into how they would try to design the thing we are designing, than on their own personal responses to novel possibilities.

Speculating on how heterogeneous groups of people might react to a design, and designing for an audience instead of persons is a different art, and an important one. It changes the activity from a interpersonal one to a social one, to use Buber’s distinction. The skillset becomes that of constructing systems that conform to the social rules of that social setting. These rules help people participate as members of a group, performing standard roles, which entails selectively suppressing personal idiosyncrasies, for the sake of smooth social functioning. This means the construction, too, must use standard language, in standard ways, denoting familiar concepts, used in familiar ways. Change at this sphere of design is exponentially difficult and often requires power and some degree of coercion.

But if you are trying to do this kind of design in a group which is itself so large that it can no longer function by an interpersonal dynamic, but must adopt social rules to function, now we have something requiring a degree of talent for functioning within social rules to design things that function within set social rules. The smartest option in situations like this is to design activities with new, temporary social rules that “program” the group to interact differently to accomplish different outcomes. (Which is another way of saying: design and facilitate workshops, because a workshop is a temporary social setting with new roles and rules that afford new kinds of works and new work products.) Workshops can produce group outputs that differ from the usual, but they are still stiff lumbering things that never result in the kinds of surprising snd brilliant novelty interpersonal dialogue can produce. And that is probably fine. The stars for which very large organizations reach in their grandest moments are suspended like gravel in the upper reaches of clouds, somewhere above incompetent mediocrity but well-below that of the average novelist. Workshop outputs are plenty good enough, 95% of the time.

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It just occurred to me: people who always operate by social rules (even their own invented rules), who play a role of their own self-identity (even their own original identity), and confine themselves to the categegories of their personal ontology (even an ontology of their own invention) — and consequently find it impossible to improvise in response to another in a dialogical setting feel, interact with others like workshop participants in little workshops of their own design.

Maybe this is what I despise about political types who see roles and rules governing all things. When the “personal is political” dialogue, deep invention, all the inexhaustibly surprising, creative potential of persons encountering the unique personal kernel in the heart of each person’s soul — the mutual conflagration of divine sparks —  is lost. Instead corporate stability is imposed and preserved.

Totalitarianism is eternal design by committee.

*

Room 101.

Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

Differentiating enworldment design

Over the weekend Susan pressed me for details on how an enworldment can be intentionally changed. How does enworldment design differ from Stoicism’s mental toughening-up exercises, or new age self-helpers who advise us to tell ourselves a new story? It was helpful to be forced to get concrete, and to make some contrasts with transformational methods with which enworldment design might be compared or confused.

Difference 1. Enworldment design is morally unopinionated. It does not pursue any single ideal. It could be applied to help a person become more serene, openhearted, generous, evangelical, etc., or their opposites, or none of the above. The goal is a matter of the unique person and that person’s context.

Difference 2. Enworldment design is epistemologically open, but rigorous. There is no single truth to learn or discover, but a plurality of truth possibilities. These possible truths are multiple, overlapping and exacting, based on what concepts are adopted for developing truth. But this is not an arbitrary relativism, because, while there is no single truth, the possibility of untruth is pervasive and incessant — errors, mistakes, lies, etc. harm truths and make them fail in practice in various ways.

Difference 3. Enworldment design is not willfully imposed on the world, but is instaurated within the world, with the active participation with whatever worldly entities enworlded in the project. The world is taken as a collaborative partner, with its own complex and largely mysterious tendencies and constraints which are discovered in the course of design, which might even change the very goals of the design. When worldly entities cooperate with the enworldment, truth happens. When worldly entities balk, disappear or sabotage the enworldment, untruth happens. (This, by the way, is my ANTsy flavor of pragmatism.)

Difference 4. Enworldment depends on the destructive and reconstructive power of inquiry. Truth is not some objectlike, noumenal thing preexisting out there which we try to unearth by digging through the phenomenal bracket, until we can pull it out, clean it off, inspect it and have it as what it is and always was. That crude description is closer to (though still very far off the mark) reality, which can never be contained by truth. Truth is only the relationship a person has with reality, and those possibilities are myriad. And those possibilities are fragile. All it takes is looking harder, and truth will always break apart, clearing ground for something new. But if that clearing is investigated, harder and harder, something new is always there. Sometimes the new thing is worse than the old thing, but that, too, can be cleared and replaced. So, evaluation, rejection, restarting, discovering, experimentally developing, testing — this is how the work proceeds.

A corollary to difference 4: Because no truth can withstand scrutiny, the fact that a truth has not withstood it does not obligate us to abandon it. Instead, we should ask questions about tradeoffs. Does the critique render this truth useless, now?  Does it expose a flaw that would make it malfunction under certain circumstances? Was the truth durable enough for our purposes, and we just broke it for no good reason, like a kid taking apart a toy? Is there a tougher or more interoperable concept readily available we can swap out? A concept is an instrument that does some things well, and other things less well, not a mystical status of a belief. And just because you can break an instrument, doesn’t mean you should break it, so critique judiciously.

Difference 5. Truth possibilities are myriad, but so are truth impossibilities, which is why honesty and good craft are indispensable. As with all design, truth to materials is paramount. Self-delusion, wishful thinking, subjective fudging (overstraining and abusing the mind’s famous flexibility) are all vices that will compromise an enworldment’s integrity, and make it produce untruth instead of truths.

Oh no. Out of time. I’m just going to list the other points in raw form so I don’t forget them.

Difference 6. Enworldment design uses design methods. One of these methods is to take the experience of the design, rather than its artifact as the ultimate goal of the work. And good thing, too, because an enworldment’s artifact is arrangements of tacit processes to which direct access is impossible. The processes can be learned (and are learned in successful reading of philosophy or religious scripture), but what was learned appears only in how one behaves or speaks, never given explicitly.

Difference 7. Enworldments should be useful, usable and desirable.

Difference 8. Enworldments are separated by massive, intensely unpleasant vacuums of incapacity — perplexity, faltering and indifference. Crossing these gulfs of nothingness is what separates the men from the boys.

There’s so much more. I really have to stop now, though.

Kant’s questions

In Critique of Pure Reason Kant famously listed his primary questions:

All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions:

  1. What can I know?
  2. What ought I do?
  3. What may I hope?

I find it odd that Kant took such a moralistic angle on his actions and hopes. Why are they framed in terms of ought and may, when they could have been more neutral questions of pure capability? Why not ask what can I do? What can I hope?

I’m sensitive to these kinds of relationships, especially in the ways they can get confused when combined — most of all when that sneaky and garrulous character, the what, starts insinuating himself in questions where he might not be as helpful as he claims to be. The what is pretty glib — a lot of talk, and little action.

In my little 9-page chapbook (which outlines the basic forms of my own enworldment) I permute intuition and object and identified nine combinations. But each of these combinations can themselves be the objects of other intuitions, and those complex combination can also be objects, and so on.

  • Intuiting-what knows the what of is, as fact.
  • Intuiting-what knows the what of can, as method.
  • Intuiting-what knows the what of ought, as ideal.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of can, as ability.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of ought, as grace.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of is, as technique.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of ought, as value.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of is, as taste.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of can, as purpose.

Random reflections on intuitive UI design

Some people are intuitive users of tools. They are able to make the tools wordless extensions of their intensions, similar to how most of us use a pencil. We don’t instruct ourselves to move our hands in order to move the pencil, we just somehow make a mark on a page. Intuitive users are able to do this with more complex tools like user interfaces.

Other people seem to be verbal self-instructors. They have a monologue in their head — sort a script that tells themselves what to do. These people never really form an intuitive relationship with complex tools. They just memorize steps to execute tasks.

The former users are very sensitive to design. They want the design to follow Beatrice Warde’s ideal of invisibility. After the tool is learned, it should merge with their will, and disappear.

The latter users are less sensitive. As long as they can memorize the script needed to do certain actions, they are more or less indifferent to the nuances of how a thing is designed.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way (and I think it has to do with successive generations of designers brought up on web design), we’ve lost sight of intuitive invisibility as a goal of design. Further, a great many UI designers are themselves verbal self-instructor types who lack even basic awareness of what intuitive means, much less how to design for intuition. These types say “this is intuitive because it is well-organized and easy to figure out.”

Another point. It used to be that Apple’s primary customer base was a minority of intuitive users who could not tolerate the imposition of a thick, glove-like linguistic layer between their intentions and their actions, and who valued design that removed it and would pay for that quality. The people who have never seen a real difference between Apple and Microsoft, except one of slickness or prestige, tended to be the verbal-self instructing majority, and they were Microsoft customers.

But now that Apple is a consumer goods and media company chasing the mass market, this small and choosy segment is no longer worth the effort. It’s a smart marketing decision to bugger this segment, but I’m still mad as hell about it.

This is me throwing a tantrum about PowerPoint’s unbelievably horrible “design”. I’ve passed the point of burning fiery rage, and entered realm of icy hatred where the only thing that helps me feel better is analytic vivisection. Thank you for listening.

Justifying my frustrating ways

I’ve been a serious pain in the ass lately, even relative to my usual unspectacular behavior. I’m in a situation that has been extracting too many of the wrong things from me, too relentlessly, for too long, and it is undermining my mental health.

It’s all got me questioning myself, and my ability to get along with my fellow humans.

If only my philosophy were one that allowed me to dismiss these concerns. But I reject philosophies of contempt. And I’ve tried them all. They are too lonely, and I found the Sublime Solitude of the Profound Thinker to be a super-lame booby prize.

I’m feeling feel obligated to justify myself in multiple ways, even if I haven’t yet matured to a stage where I care if anyone actually buys my justifications. That would choke out out my remaining, already overburdened creativity, and I’m not doing it.

Anyway, below is one of my struggles. It’s pretty good.

*

I read philosophies in the way an industrial designer reads engineering literature.

Our industrial designer reads engineering books and papers to understand new materials he might use, or fabrication techniques that might open new possibilities of form or function. He might even dip into physics now and then to press past apparent limits. His fascination with shaping products invests materials and matter in general with significance, and this inspires his curiosity. But his urgency is a practical one: what can I do with this?

I am trying to justify my oddly arbitrary but intensely picky taste in reading, and, unfortunately in the kinds of work I can tolerate doing. For me, everything is driven by the design of enworldments, and most of all my personal enworldment, which is an enworldment within which enworldments are designable. I’m building a shop that makes parts for shops — shops that might even put my shop out of business.

So, no, I am not particularly interested in discovering unknown truths (not even fresh existential insights, which are my favorite ones). Nor am I motivated to acquire every formal technique for fabricating forceful, durable syllogisms (or even building a respectable baseline logical toolset, because logical welds seem brittler than rhetorical, poetic and especially heuristic joints, which have superior flex and tensility in many conditions.) And my deficiencies in adducing evidence to support my beliefs are worse than you suspect, however suspicious you are. You should not care what I think. I have not, and will never earn your respect, because I won’t do the boring legwork that requires.

You should respect only how I think and why I believe thinking that way is important, good and beautiful, and the ultimate way to show that respect is to try it out by climbing into it, and using it to generating some knowledge or judgments, and to experience how reality changes tone, significance and value while you do it.

I’m just rummaging for whatever is useful for my purposes.

Philosophical bug? Or feature?

I keep catching myself myself making an odd move when I read philosophical critiques of other philosophies, especially ones involving criticisms in the family of oversimplification, omission, or apparent blindspots.

I find myself protesting that what is being presented as a flaw seems to me a design device that helpfully bundles unmanageably complex phenomena as a simple data object or affordance.

These critics are doing that thing every design amateur does that drives professional designers insane, namely, treating every tradeoff as a disqualification of the design. When you realize that skillful designing is largely a matter of intentionally choosing optimal tradeoffs, perfectionists literally do not know what they are doing, and make design impossible.

To make these optimal tradeoffs, it is necessary to know what the design problem is: who will use it, for what purpose, under what conditions, where, when, and so on.

So, when critiquing a philosophy and calling it oversimplified, what I want to see is a tradeoff analysis. What does this simplification do in use? What class of problems are made harder by this simplification, and why is this an unwise tradeoff? Or better: when is it an unwise tradeoff?

Because, to say it once again: reality is infinitely complex. No concept, no concept system, not even the ideal set of every possible concept, is adequate to comprehend reality. The standard of truth implicit in omission critiques is an impossible standard. I prefer a humbler pragmatic standard of truth based on an absence of untruth, relative to the intended purpose of the truth claim. In other words, does this truth function as intended, or does it malfunction? Truth exists for the simple reason that falsehoods, errors and lies exist.