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.


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.

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