Design is human-centered design

The introduction of human-centered methods to design did not just improve design methods. It didn’t simply improve the quality of design work.

The introduction of design research — the essence of human-centeredness — fundamentally transformed design.

It radically differentiated what engineers always meant by design from what designers mean by it — and what we all now implicitly mean when we speak of design.

A similar essential change might be in store for design as we move from design intended for solo use, centered on one person at a time to design meant to mediate interactions between multiple persons, each of whom is part of the other’s experience.


For years now I’ve experienced philosophy as a kind of design. I don’t mean that the theoretical concept occurred to me. I mean I noticed that I had already for some time been evaluating philosophies as designed artifacts. And I don’t only mean that I was assessing the objective content of the philosophies as well-designed or poorly-designed. More importantly, I was noticing how I responded to the world itself mediated by the philosophies I internalized as I read them. The medium of philosophy is its message, not the content of propositions or arguments. I treated the philosophy as an invisible mediation of my experience of life, which got worse or better, based on the deep design of the philosophy.

I call this understanding of philosophy design instrumentalism.


I now believe philosophy should be a kind of polycentric design.

We must design philosophies for interoperability within culture, or we are committing design malpractice.

Cosmopolitan provincialism

Marxism never did manage to establish international working class solidarity.

The working class of the early twentieth century was too widely dispersed and separated by physical distance and culture. Individual workers had no opportunities to form interpersonal relationships with workers from other nations. Interconnecting technologies were lacking. National identities turned out to be a much stronger social bond among workers than common economic interests, and this fact was exploited to extremes by the national socialist fascists of the mid-20th century.

But where the working class failed to form international solidarity, we, the international managerial class, have succeeded. We have formed a very strong international class with shared economic interests, our own globalist ideology, our own shared cosmopolitan culture, our own shared corporation-friendly values — and, most of all, techno-social networks of interpersonal relationships spanning national boundaries.

By strong, I mean two things. 1) We feel much stronger loyalty to fellow managerial class members who share our culture than other of different classes within our own nations. And as a class we are overwhelmingly strong — so strong, in fact, that we no longer feel any need to pretend to respect the beliefs or lifestyles of those of the lower classes. We invent who they are and what they think and why they are, and do and say and think. We despise their religions, their loyalties, their aesthetic values. We despise them as people.

Consequently, the working class hates us. They hate us the way all oppressed people hate their oppressors.


The international managerial class believes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we are leftist.

After all, leftism has always been international.

But what the international managerial class really seeks is international capitalist domination over all human life, micromanaged by the managerial class. It is an international class supremacist movement, the furthest possible thing from leftism — and from liberalism. We are the direct opposite of who we believe themselves to be.

To the managerial class, we ourselves are the We of “we the people” and the Our of “our democracy” We know what is required to survive climate change, domination of the powerless, managing our own runaway inventions (AI, automation, GMOs, etc).

We have the skills, expertise and ethics to take care of the problems of the world (again, problems we ourselves created) and so we should have the power requires to take care of these problems.

These problems, created across national boundaries, are too vast for nations to manage.

Nations stand in the way of this great global project.

Anyone within a nation who attempts to preserve or recover national sovereignty is a nationalist, which to a globalist is a close neighbor to fascism, if not covert fascism.

Any nation with a strong national identity of its own, ruled by people with greater loyalty to their own nation than to the international managerial class is fascist adjacent if not outright fascist.


Most progressivists I know are extremely authoritarian, uncritical, unreflective, conformist and naive realist. They believe otherwise, of course, because authority has told them that conformity to what everyone calls “critical thinking” makes them independent thinkers. When they use the ssme conceptual repertoire snd logic to independently come to exactly the same conclusions as each other, that is because the truth is the truth. Part of that truth is that people who don’t think like they do are naive realists, unaware of how social forces trick unthinking dummies to believe what is in their own interest. Since they are not subject to such things, they deserve to have all the power and benevolently dominate society for its own good.

I’ve come to call this metanaivity. Metanaive managerial classers are naive realists who believe in everyone else’s naive realism, but believe their own belief in naive realism immunizes them against succumbing to it themselves, which, of course, guarantees their hopeless succumbing.


When I try to explain any of the above to people who have internalized their class identity, they become hostile and morally suspicious. They more or less say “I don’t know what you mean, but I know I don’t like it.”

This is cosmopolitan provincialism.

Agonism overview

From Chantal Mouffe’s Agonistics:

Let me briefly recall the argument I elaborated in The Democratic Paradox. I asserted that when we acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’, we begin to realize that one of the main challenges for pluralist liberal democratic politics consists in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations. In my view, the fundamental question is not how to arrive at a consensus reached without exclusion, because this would require the construction of an ‘us’ that would not have a corresponding ‘them’. This is impossible because, as I have just noted, the very condition for the constitution of an ‘us’ is the demarcation of a ‘them’. The crucial issue then is how to establish this us/them distinction, which is constitutive of politics, in a way that is compatible with the recognition of pluralism.

Conflict in liberal democratic societies cannot and should not be eradicated, since the specificity of pluralist democracy is precisely the recognition and the legitimation of conflict. What liberal democratic politics requires is that the others are not seen as enemies to be destroyed, but as adversaries whose ideas might be fought, even fiercely, but whose right to defend those ideas is not to be questioned. To put it in another way, what is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries).

For the agonistic perspective, the central category of democratic politics is the category of the ‘adversary’, the opponent with whom one shares a common allegiance to the democratic principles of ‘liberty and equality for all’, while disagreeing about their interpretation. Adversaries fight against each other because they want their interpretation of the principles to become hegemonic, but they do not put into question the legitimacy of their opponent’s right to fight for the victory of their position. This confrontation between adversaries is what constitutes the ‘agonistic struggle’ that is the very condition of a vibrant democracy.

A well-functioning democracy calls for a confrontation of democratic political positions. If this is missing, there is always the danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identifications. Too much emphasis on consensus, together with aversion towards confrontations, leads to apathy and to a disaffection with political participation. This is why a liberal democratic society requires a debate about possible alternatives. It must provide political forms of identifications around clearly differentiated democratic positions.

While consensus is no doubt necessary, it must be accompanied by dissent. Consensus is needed on the institutions that are constitutive of liberal democracy and on the ethico-political values that should inform political association. But there will always be disagreement concerning the meaning of those values and the way they should be implemented. This consensus will therefore always be a ‘conflictual consensus’.

In a pluralist democracy, disagreements about how to interpret the shared ethico-political principles are not only legitimate but also necessary. They allow for different forms of citizenship identification and are the stuff of democratic politics. When the agonistic dynamics of pluralism are hindered because of a lack of democratic forms of identifications, then passions cannot be given a democratic outlet. The ground is therefore laid for various forms of politics articulated around essentialist identities of a nationalist, religious or ethnic type, and for the multiplication of confrontations over non-negotiable moral values, with all the manifestations of violence that such confrontations entail.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress once again that this notion of ‘the adversary’ needs to be distinguished sharply from the understanding of that term found in liberal discourse. According to the understanding of ‘adversary’ proposed here, and contrary to the liberal view, the presence of antagonism is not eliminated, but ‘sublimated’. In fact, what liberals call an ‘adversary’ is merely a ‘competitor’. Liberal theorists envisage the field of politics as a neutral terrain in which different groups compete to occupy the positions of power, their objective being to dislodge others in order to occupy their place, without putting into question the dominant hegemony and profoundly transforming the relations of power. It is simply a competition among elites.

In an agonistic politics, however, the antagonistic dimension is always present, since what is at stake is the struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which can never be reconciled rationally, one of them needing to be defeated. It is a real confrontation, but one that is played out under conditions regulated by a set of democratic procedures accepted by the adversaries.

I contend that it is only when we acknowledge ‘the political’ in its antagonistic dimension that can we pose the central question for democratic politics. This question, pace liberal theorists, is not how to negotiate a compromise among competing interests, nor is it how to reach a ‘rational’, i.e. fully inclusive, consensus without any exclusion. Despite what many liberals want to believe, the specificity of democratic politics is not the overcoming of the we/they opposition, but the different way in which it is established. The prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions or to relegate them to the private sphere in order to establish a rational consensus in the public sphere. Rather, it is to ‘sublimate’ those passions by mobilizing them towards democratic designs, by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives.

Pragmatic metaphysics, continued

I’m having a fruitful conversation with Digitalap3 in response to yesterday’s post, Pragmatic metaphysics. It inspired one possible answer to the question I posed: What pragmatic difference is there between pantheism and panentheism?

I think the “difference that makes a difference” (to put it in Rortian terms) may be that pantheism sees nature as a stable, intelligible order, and panentheism does not.

Pantheism conceives both nature and God to be available to us through reason. We can expect linear progress in knowing more and more deeply and thoroughly.

Panentheism, on the other hand, expects deep, epiphanic disruptions to our understanding. Reason is always tentative, and its stability is never long assured.

By this understanding, Thomas Kuhn’s innovation was the introduction of a panentheistic conception of science!

I’ve said before that mine is a metaphysics of surprise. Maybe this gets at it:

Pantheism is a metaphysics of radical reason.
Panentheism is a metaphysics of radical surprise.

Pragmatic metaphysics

I have a philosophical problem fermenting in the back of my mind: Is there any pragmatic difference between pantheism and panentheism? In other words, if we trace what follows from believing pantheism (the faith that sees the universe as identical to God) versus what follows from panentheism (the faith that sees the universe as part of God, in other words a subset of God), do the consequences diverge in any significant way?

Pragmatic metaphysics

Obviously, we cannot conceive something inconceivable prior to acquiring the capacity to conceive it.

But so what? Some realities are inconceivable. Some realities are incomprehensible. Why should we care? Is it such a problem that some things elude our understanding?

It would not matter if it were not for this truth: the as-yet-inconceivable attracts our attention and energy, and gives our lives purpose. The problem is not that we should already conceive or comprehend what we do not yet understand, but a living, active relationship with being who is beyond our understanding is a fundamental condition of a meaningful, fulfilling life. Understanding is a valuable by-product of such a participation in transcendent being.

This is where the Pragmatic Maxim is indispensable.

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

When we reach toward the inconceivable or incomprehensible, we cannot grip the “object” of our awareness (the ungrippable reality beyond our reach) but we can, in fact, work out some of the consequences of this incapacity, as well as some of the consequences of the possibility of acquiring a new capacity to comprehend what has been, so far, incomprehensible.


Strange. I wrote the passage above two days ago. Today, I was looking for an old post and stumbled upon exactly this same thought, which I’d forgotten.

I’ve never thought of pragmatism as something opposed to ontology, or as a methodological alternative to ontology, but this morning I am seeing it that way. I think mine is a pragmatist metaphysics, interested less in what transcends us, than in how a finite being (like each of us) interacts with being understood as transcending its finitude, and how such interactions are experienced. It is metaphysical because it concerns itself with transcendent being, but it chooses to not fruitlessly speculate on what is “behind the veil” but instead the properties of interactions that take place across the veil-line, especially the ones that surprise the anticipations, expectations and norms that comprise mundane existence.

A sliver of givens

What gives my thinking its unusual tone, which some might correctly recognize as religious, is a conviction at the root of my meta-understanding of understanding: We are able to experience, intuit and know only a small sliver of reality, because we lack the subjective capacity to receive any but a small sliver of givens.

Wherever we lack capacity for a given, we are oblivious.

I have termed enception any capacity to take as given some particular category of given.

Because I live in a practical world, in which I get things done with others, I have adopted a safe-for-work term for enception: sensibility.

We have five senses that allow us to perceptively intuit realities in our environment, and we have a great many more sensibilities that allow us to conceptively intuit many more realities of inter-connection among our experiences, memories, anticipations, beliefs and inchoate gists.

To put it in Kantian language, an enception is any transcendental faculty for intuiting some specific kind of reality.

It is important to note that the percepts and concepts we intuit are quite different from the connections we make manually in argument or causal explanation. Constructed/contrued truth is not the same as intuited truth. Intuition and construction complement each other. We need perception, conception and construction. Based on which enceptions we activate and cultivate and which we neglect or suppress, different realities will be intuited directly or construed indirectly.


Perceptive designers might recognize this distinction in their design work. Designers make tradeoffs between what elements in an artifact a user will wordlessly recognize and interact with, which elements require some degree of figuring out, and which elements will become focal objects of the experience.

The reason I keep insisting that philosophy can and ought to be regarded as a design discipline is once a thinker recognizes the role enceptions play in everyday understanding — in what stands out as self-evident and relevant — one realizes this is the deepest realm of personal responsibility.

If we do not take this responsibility and simply prescribe to what those around us prescribe to, we risk becoming participants in collective sociopathy.

The reason I read philosophy is to cultivate new enceptions.

Against Post-liberalism

Below is a letter I wrote to a Christian friend of mine who sometimes exhibits signs of Christian nihilism — an attitude toward the world that would prefer Christian dominion, were that real possibility, but it isn’t because the world is Fallen; so nothing will turn out okay in this world, but that is okay, because the God’s Kingdom will come, so consider the lilies and birds, etc.


This whole interview is great, but this part jumped out at me as something I’ve said to you:

The strange thing about contemporary post-liberals is that they come from very small minorities within our society and they are arguing for the elimination of the protection of minorities in our society. They’re saying, the fact that we don’t all have one integrated view of the common good is why we can’t succeed. But the fact is, if we decided to live by a single integrated view of the common good, I guarantee you that it would not be traditionalist Catholicism. There’s no way that that’s what it would be. 

… 

…and the alternative to that is force. The alternative to that is coercion. And I think that’s a lot of what is left unsaid in the post-liberal argument. That ultimately, there are certainly downsides to a society that doesn’t say with one voice what it takes the good to be. But the alternative to that society is oppression. And we have to see that sometimes in life, it is really a matter of balancing out alternatives. And if we want our family and our community to live a better life, we have to work within this society because we really don’t have the alternative of overthrowing this society. 

And one other thing I’d say is a lot of the arguments that you find among post-liberals on the right are framed as we used to be able to live in this way. Here’s the community that I grew up in, and now that’s impossible. And they never stop to think, where did that community come from? How did that happen in the 1960s or ‘70s? How could you have grown up in that world? That community was the product of the liberal society, the product of a lot of dynamism, a lot of choices made by a lot of people in a lot of ways, and to channel our nostalgia for our own childhood through an argument that says the West took a wrong turn in the 17th century is a very strange way to think about what we’re trying to protect for our own children. And so I think the liberal society just has much greater moral potential than they tend to give it credit for. And we have to begin by seeing that and working to realize it.

In case you don’t recognize his name, Yuval Levin wrote the book on Burke vs Paine that dramatically deepened my respect for conservatism, and made me feel some real affinity for some of conservatism’s core principles .

It is important to note that this is a conversation between two Jews. This bit stands out as a key insight into why Jews tend to be among the most committed liberals: “If we want our family and our community to live a better life, we have to work within this society because we really don’t have the alternative of overthrowing this society.”

If we are a permanent minority who wants to live what we believe to be the good life, and we do not believe there is an eternal afterlife — only this life in the here and now — we will work to create and preserve a liberal order that supports our existence — an existence we love and want to pass down, as it was passed down to us. It isn’t a sneaky, manipulative scheme to pull the strings of the world stage, etc. for eventual domination. It is simply wanting the conditions to continue flourishing as a minority — a few among the many. That it is so hard to believe any people could want this, and no more than this, says more about the suspectors than the suspects. 

Pragmatic panentheism

When I trace out the pragmatic consequences of panentheism they weave themselves into something I recognize as resembling the reality in which I participate.

Panentheists seem, on the whole, to be a pretty unaggressive lot. We don’t like to prescribe doctrines. I am starting to believe, however, that unexamined metaphysical assumptions are behind much human misconduct. I have developed a strong metaphysical preference, not only for myself, but for others. In other words, it is no longer a matter of personal taste, but of morality.

I might write a Borgesian book review of the nonexistent title, Panentheist Pragmatic.

Voegelin on students (1973)

From Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections:

I am frequently asked about my experiences regarding the difference between European and American students. There are marked differences but not of such a nature that I should say that one type is preferable to the other. They have their peculiarities. With the Germans, I found a very high degree of background knowledge that facilitated their progress to independent work in science. The people whom I admitted to my seminars, and especially the ones who became assistants and conducted their own seminars, had a knowledge of at least one Classical language and of course were able to read German, French, and English fluently. Some of them had additional knowledge of languages in their particular field. The Islamists, for instance, had under the regulations of the university to have a good knowledge of Arabic and Turkish; the students dealing with Far Eastern affairs had to know Chinese and Japanese in addition to the Western languages. That made for a group of highly educated, intellectually alert young people who certainly helped each other in the sharp contest of competitive debate of problems. One of their favorite games, of course, was to catch me out on some technical mistake, but unfortunately I could offer them the pleasure only rarely.

The American students belonged to widely different types. In Louisiana there was a considerable cultural background provided by the Catholic parochial schools. I had students in my courses who knew Latin and who took courses in Thomist philosophy with the Catholic chaplain at Louisiana State University. That of course helped. The average students, I should say, did not have the background knowledge one would expect of European students, but they had instead something that the European, especially the German, students usually lack—a tradition of common-sense culture. In the South especially, the problem of ideological corruption among young people was negligible. The students were open-minded and had little contact with ideological sectarian movements. My experiences in the East were less favorable. The ideological corruption of the East Coast has affected the student mind profoundly, and occasionally these students betray the behavioral characteristics of totalitarian aggressiveness. A great number of students simply will not tolerate information that is not in agreement with their ideological prejudices. I frequently had difficulties with students of this type. Still, on the whole, even the so-called radical students, short of the hard-core militants, can be handled by swamping them with mountains of information. They still have enough common sense to be aware that their own ideas must bear some relation to the reality surrounding them; and when it is brought home to them that their picture of reality is badly distorted, they do not become easy converts but at least they begin to have second thoughts. I cannot say the same of radical students in Germany, who simply start shouting and rioting if any serious attempt is made to bring into discussion facts that are incompatible with their preconceptions.

Trouble, divergence, alignment, diversity

In my field of human centered design, it is understood that before any group of people can collaborate effectively on anything, they must first align on the problem and then align on the solution.

What does this mean? Aligning on a problem means to share a conception of the problem — to think about it in roughly the same way. It is important to note here that until a problem is conceived, it is not even a problem — it is a troublesome situation.

And troublesome situations have the potential to be problematized in divergent ways implying diverging paths to a solutions. More often than not, groups confronting troublesome situations problematize the trouble in divergent ways, compounding the trouble, because now stubborn, troublesome people appear to block the way to a solution.

This happens for at least three big reasons.

Big Reason Number One is personality. Individual persons with different temperaments, sensibilities and capabilities understand and perceive the world differently in both subtle and dramatic ways, and notice different aspect of situations.

Big Reason Number Two is discipline. When people from different backgrounds confront a troublesome situation, they tend to notice very different features of the problem. Specifically, the notice symptoms of problems they specialize in solving. Different disciplines conceive problems in different and incompatible ways, and this is one factor that causes departmental strife in organizations.

Big Reason Number Three is the lived experience of incomplete information. Divergence of understanding is exacerbated by incomplete data. Given a smattering of facts, our habitual way of understandings (the combo of personality and expertise) fills in data gaps to complete the picture and perceive a gestalt truth. And we all have access to different smatterings and experience the smatterings in different sequences. Our early impressions condition our later ones. Being humans, a species with a need to form understandings, who prefer misunderstanding to an absence of understanding (perplexity), we immediately begin noticing whatever reinforces that sense, and tune out what threatens it. So the specific drib-and-drab sequence of data can play a role in shaping our impressions. The earliest dribs and drabs have “first mover advantage” in gestalt formation.

These three big reasons are not even exhaustive. It’s no wonder organizations are full divergent perspectives and controversy. (Contra– “against” + -versus “turned”). Generally, these circumstantial impressions and expert diagnoses of troublesome situations are not entirely wrong. Some are likely truer than others, but it is hard to determine which is truer than which. And it is somewhere between possible and likely that none are true enough for the purposes of solving the problem. As a matter of method, we designers assume none are right enough. (And if it does turn out that a preexisting truth turns out to be true enough, now we can support that truth with data and align the organization to it.)

Our job as design researchers is to go out and investigate real-life examples of the troublesome situation and expose ourselves to the profusion of data that only real life itself can offer. We see what emerges as important when we allow people to show us their situations and teach i\us how it seems to them.

This gives us a new, relevant conception of the problem rooted in the people we intend to serve with our design solutions.

Once an organization shares a common conception of the problem, they are better able to conceive solutions that they can align around.

And further evaluative research — getting feedback on prototypes of candidate solutions — allows teams to align around solutions that people consistently respond to favorably.

Aligned implementation teams can collaborate effectively on working out the solution in detail.

So, as I hope you can see, the designer’s task is largely a political one of cultivating alignment through collaborative research, modeling, ideation and craft.

I am unable to believe that this is not generally a better way to live.

When I am at my best, I conduct my life in a designerly way in accordance with my designerly faith.

Rapport as data

Did I really never post this thought before? I’ve been saying it for years:

Rapport is the most important data we gather in research.

Rapport is attunement to the participant’s enworldment. We learn to speak with a participant fluently in their own context, understanding not only their vocabulary and the content of their speech, but also how that speech relates to their environment and activities. We get not only the parts but grasp how the parts interact as a system, and become organs within an organism within an organization. Until we understand these complex relations between part and whole all we have is a heap of facts that can be construed rightheadedly or wrongheadedly.

Researchers with strong objective inclinations like to believe that facts can speak for themselves. And they like to believe that the facts are best able to speak for themselves when we remove or neutralize subjectivity, usually by employing mechanistic procedures. In the absence of subjective interference, data can autonomously organize itself into patterns and themes.

I am a researcher with strong subjective inclinations, and I believe facts do not speak for themselves, at least not univocally. Our best bet is not to eliminate subjectivity from our analysis, but rather to bring the right subjectivity to the analysis. And that right subjectivity is the subjectivity that attuned itself to participants when rapport was achieved in the interview. When we analyze our data and then thematize it we build a body of knowledge that embodies this right subjectivity, and makes it more learnable by others.

(Esoteric side notes to take or leave: 1. Here we see how a personal subject is, like an academic subject, a specific form of objectivity. 2. We could say, with Marshall McLuhan that the medium, subjectivity acquired in rapport, is the message, even more than the factual content gathered in the research.)

When we approach design problems from this right subjectivity we find ourselves able to do things we couldn’t do before, back when we approached it naively, from our own everyday subjectivity. We now perceive the situation differently. We feel different emotions, values and weights in the situation, and sense different possibilities, opportunities and hopes. Our minds follow different logical paths through the shifted landscape. We produce different and more attuned ideas than we normally could, in greater intensity, force and volume.

I call this productive, shifted state precision inspiration.


Empathy is much more than simple feeling-with. (That is sympathy.) Empathy engages our entire being. For sure, it engages our hearts, but not just our hearts — not isolated, alienated, mindless hearts, divorced from our thinking and doing selves.

Empathy attunes us to the thoughts and actions of others and helps us see how feeling, thought and action converge as a situated, living person who might feel, think and act very differently from us… as different from us as a kidney is from a stomach or liver.

In an organism, the organs serve each other in different and complementary ways. Empathy is how we serve each other in different and complementary ways within organized groups.

The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World. — Black Elk

 

Differently abled

Another thing I am noticing about the ideas I gravitate to: they are never pure theory. I think I am repelled by pure theory.

The ideas I love are the theoretical components of praxis. They are thoughts informed by thoughtful practice — which are meant to guide further thoughtful practice.

Praxis is the virtuous cycle of thoughtful practice informing practical thought guiding thoughtful practice. This cycle produces thoughts that are part of participation in life instead of theory systems that compete with life and sometime eclipse or displace life.

The theoretical components of praxis are abstractions that emerge from concrete doing.

This links up with another important insight into how I work. I do very poorly with ungrounded abstractions. They are not merely empty or dry — they are not real enough for me to grasp and use. I have to experience the reality from which abstractions are abstracted.

We learn the theoretical components of praxis by participating in that praxis. The theoretical components put words to the truth that emerges in participation.

But the praxis of design research puts us in contact with the realities into which we intend to design. We begin the process in a state of alienation. We know things about the reality, but the knowledge is unrooted abstraction. Or we think we know about it, but we are wrong. Or the things we know are incomplete and exclude relevant insights required to design something consequential and helpful. Or there is lack of alignment in what different people know. Or or or. We “go to the rough ground” and learn from people who inhabit these places we think can be improved, and we see what emerges as important. We put words to these emergent realities and craft more useful truths — truths that help organizations maintain contact with reality.

My design praxis is actually a metapraxis of designing specialized praxes optimized for particular situations.


It is really annoying that I can’t just adopt other people’s groundless abstractions. It is a real intellectual limitation — stupidity, if you prefer — and I find it intensely painful when I crash into it.

But it is not without positive tradeoffs. This limitation bolsters my ideological immune system. I’m not as easily taken by ungrounded abstraction-systems.

I’m both too smart and too dumb to buy into popular ideologies.

When we use the euphemism “differently abled” this is what we mean. I am intellectually differently abled.

I just have to accept this and do something with it. Or rather, continue doing what I do, with less shame.

My praxic taste

Reading Fritz Perls, I’m struck by some common principles between Gestalt Therapy and ethnomethodology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), two of my favorite (closely associated) flavors of sociology. What interests me about the similarities is that it indicates something about my own intellectual taste, or maybe my metaphysical orientation.

These ideas fill my heart with Yes! and inspire my to underline passages and draw big stars out in the margin. I am not even sure these are two distinct principles, but rather a single two-in one principle.

  1. Do not start with a pre-existing interpretive schema, but instead, follow the phenomenon wherever it takes you. Allow the interpretation to follow from the following. The interpretive schema is what is most in question, and it is the destination of the research, not the point of departure.
  2. Do not impose your own interpretation on the subject matter, but allow the subjects involved in it to teach you their way of interpreting what is happening. Assume interpretive competence and respect it. The researcher does not know better.

The highest principle of social learning:

Follow the subject matter and allow its truth to emerge.

And another is like it:

Respect your subjects as interpretive equals.

Beautiful instruments

I love beautiful instruments.

These are useful tools — like pens, bicycles, guitars, blades, bags, digital devices, user interfaces — designed so well that they disappear in use, becoming extensions of our own being. They are, in Heidegger’s words, ready-to-hand.

But when we shift our awareness to present-at-hand, and contemplate them as objects, we find them aesthetically resonant. They reinforce our sense of value and meaning.

I love beautiful instrumental language. The words are transparent in use, spontaneously conveying meaning without obtrusion, distraction, obfuscation or distortion. When we participate in reality, doing and speaking, the words are part of reality and participate in its realness.

But when we attend to the words themselves, hearing them, seeing them on a page, experiencing them objectively, they are beautiful. The form of the language reinforces our sense of value and meaning.

The words extend our subjectivity and become part of us, but they are also objects that help us feel who we are, and what we care about.

Words, like selves, have subjectivity and objectivity, concavity and convexity, are ready-to-hand or present-at-hand depending on how we let them be for us.


When I sit in my library, among my books, I feel profoundly at home.

I love when people visit and talk with me in this beloved space, lined with books filled with the words of people I love, people I have done my best to incarnate and make immortal through my own share of moral life.


Philosophy is useful poetry.