Category Archives: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

Redemption by design

Rorty, being intensely Rorty:

…the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful nonhuman person. Belief in the articles of a creed may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs that represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

And redemption by design is arranging the elements of life — people, things, ideas, etc. — in systems that allow them to cooperate for mutual benefit, however benefit is conceived by the cooperating agents.

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I would like to count among the number of cooperating agents, “infrapersons” — psychic components of personality whose dynamic relations produce myriad moods, feelings, experiential colorings. Different designs will engage different infrapersons. Writing with a Bic pen or a #2 Ticonderoga is a different experience because it engages different infrapersons than writing with a Pelikan Souveran M800 or a Rotring 600 pencil. Sitting in a cubicle under a cold fluorescent strobe suppresses elements of self that might come out when sitting under sparkling halogen in a studio space. We feel more “like ourselves” when more of our self — more of our own infrapersons — have an opportunity to emerge and participate in our living. An important task of designers is to acknowledge and serve neglected infrapersons. To the degree it accomplishes this, design generates excitement, newness and je ne sais quoi. Cynics might dismiss this as slaking appetites for pointless consumption, but this is an uncharitable view of the profound relationship people can have with things in the world. I view these proud “anti-materialism” sentiments as a leftist strain of “not of this world” puritanism.)

Design Pragmatism

DISCLAIMER: This post is a big mess (which is why it’s been hidden from November 2020 until today March 31, 2021), but it’s got a lot of good, useful stuff in it, so I’m making it public.

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In the winter of 2002, I developed a new life-changing habit. I began waking up early in the morning to drink tea and study philosophy before work. My family was living in Toronto at the time, and we loved exploring the diverse neighborhoods in the downtown area. On one of our excursions, we purchased some oolong tea, and the elaborate gear used to brew tea in the traditional gongfu way. We had a yixing teapot, special paired teacups (one for tasting the tea, and another for experiencing the aroma), a brewing platform for the teapot with a hidden water reservoir for the tea that is spilled and splashed when prepared in the gongfu way, tongs, scoops, canisters, carafes and cloths. My daughter Zoë, who was nine at the time, was enchanted by it all and started waking me up before dawn to make tea and talk about life. After she left for school, I read philosophy, starting with Nietzsche. The experience of reading philosophy first thing in the morning in a caffeinated state was inspiring, and it became the center of a new way of living.

When the habit was new, my work and my reading were compartmentalized. I was working as a user interface designer, and I didn’t like it. Most of the work was stressful and tedious. I did it for the paycheck. My thinking and reading time was an escape from work. If my work benefitted from anything I read, that was purely accidental. My reading choices were driven solely by what problems seemed interesting and important to me, and work was the furthest thing from either.

Gradually, however, my philosophical interests evolved in directions that happened to be useful. I moved from reading Nietzsche to studying phenomenology, hermeneutics and pragmatism. I found that these subjects helped me find better ways to think about and talk about how designers approach discovering, defining, exploring and resolving problems. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was rediscovering the sources of design thought, and haphazardly self-educating myself on the family of philosophies that contributed to the development of design methods. As my design practice became more theoretically lucid, I started enjoying design more, and taking it more seriously as a vocation.

Soon I was surprised to notice the influence flowing back from design to philosophy. I found myself applying concepts and language from the world of design to philosophical problems. I started asking the kinds of questions designers habitually ask about design proposals and applying them to philosophical ideas, and tried to clarify and resolve those questions using designerly approaches. Of course, I had always been sensitive to the physical form of the books I read, the quality of the typesetting and the style of the writing. What was new was asking these same questions about the philosophy itself — systems of ideas used in daily life to make sense of things and to produce thoughts.

It started with Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework, a conceptual tool of such fundamental importance that some designers, including myself, use it to define the very purpose of design. The designer’s job is to ensure that whatever their team is making is useful, usable and desirable for its intended users. I noticed myself casually wondering: “How useful is this philosophy?” What is it meant to do for the one who learns to use it? Where is it helpful? And: “How usable is this philosophy?” With practice will it become intuitive, habitual and as invisible as Beatrice Ward’s crystal goblet? And: “How desirable is this philosophy?” Does it intensify my esteem for life? Or does the world feel bleak and pointless when experienced through this philosophy?

This led to a more conscious exploration of the similarities between design and philosophy, culminating in a question:

What if we approach philosophy as a design discipline?


In An Inquiry into Modes of Existence Bruno Latour raised a question: “To say of a thing that it is constructed is to introduce a value judgment, not only on the origin of the action… but on the quality of the construction … Constructed, yes, of course, but is it well constructed?”

Designers, of course, are concerned with quality of constructions, and specifically with constructions of the kind Latour calls “hybrid”, constructions constituted of beings of diverse kind, including humans and nonhumans. When designers set out to design something, one of the first things we do is study the contexts in which this designed thing will be experienced and used by people. A new design, if adopted, will be woven into this context, and will change it by becoming part of it. A well-constructed designed artifact (whether a physical or virtual object, an environment, a service, a process, a communication, or whatever) helps produce a well-constructed context, experienced as better by those who inhabit it.

By now, the idea that truth is constructed is not only well-known, it is a comic truism. My younger daughter Helen and her friends enjoy ironically dismissing random things by declaring them constructs. I tried out Latour’s concept of well-constructed constructs on her. “If truth is a construct, shouldn’t we pay attention to the craft quality of our truth constructions? Shouldn’t we use the best available design methods to ensure these constructions do what we need them to do, and do it well? This extends my earlier question. What if we approach philosophy as a design problem by using design methods to produce well-constructed philosophies that improve their social contexts?


It is hard to pin down what philosophy is, in order to even know what it is we are designing. It is important

Philosophy is the practice of thinking about thinking. It investigates how we think and how this affects what we think and how we act.

Two quotes encapsulate the purpose and method of philosophy, or at least the kind of philosophy I care about. The first is from Wilfrid Sellars: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” The second is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said something important about philosophy by observing what happens when philosophy stops functioning normally, and becomes problematic: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'”

 

  • Briefs
  • Models
  • Stories
  • Tradeoffs
  • Evaluation frameworks
  • Interviewing
  • Experiments
  • Altitudes
  • Hybrids
  • Interfaces
  • Comparisons
  • Apprehension
  • Invisibility (ready-to-hand / present-at-hand)
  • Alignment — winning cooperation
  • Adoption
  • Instrumentalism
  • Meliorism
  • Pluralism
  • Participation
  • Interaction
  • Cooperation (voluntary participation) avoiding coercion)
  • Participation
  • Eversion
  • Ethnomethodic Rules
  • Instauration
  • Misnorms
  • Extended existence
  • Wicked problems
  • Directional visions (north stars)
  • Triage
  • Adoption (as a substitute for progress)
  • Perceptual (categorial?) affordances
  • Multistability
  • Redescription
  • Fragilism – No truth can bear scrutiny. Looking closer is conceptual dynamite.

Philosophy adoption

Susan asked: how is the philosophy design you envision different from Kuhnian paradigm shifts? The answer she extracted from me gets to the heart of my project, and I will need to emphasize this point in Second Natural: The physical sciences, and the attitude toward truth inspired by the physical sciences places all emphasis on epistemic and practical knowing (“what” and “how”) and trades off moral (valuative) knowing (“why”), which becomes a sort of ethic of scientificality. “The truth hurts” and being scientific means embracing the pain of sacrificing all other values.

But if we accept that we live in a truly pluralistic reality, and embrace the consequence that no single philosophy is capable of accounting for reality without strategically excluding, distorting or underemphasizing some realities in favor of others, we are freed question this tradeoff. A new scientific paradigm may give physicists a new way to conceptualize some stubbornly puzzling corner of their field, but these advantages might not be worth what is given up for ordinary people whose conceptual needs differ from those of physicists.

Once we see concepts as tools for selective perception, categorization and reasoning which permit some kinds of response and suppress others, we are freed (to a degree) to think of philosophies, components of philosophies and philosophical implications as matters of adoption. We can say physics theories what the best atheists say of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” If our concerns do later come in contact with theological or scientific problems, we might have to rework our personal philosophies in order to faithfully contend with their claims. This is especially true if we wish to win the respect of those communities and persuade them to accept our own beliefs. But this is not all that different from the adoption of any other technology that integrates with its design context.

Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.

Fake etymologies

In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty repeatedly busts Heidegger for inventing fake etymologies. The accusation extends beyond the incorrectness of the claims — the very impulse to excavate more primordial and immediate meanings is impugned.

This is fascinating to me because I wholeheartedly share Heidegger’s love of etymologies, and Heidegger is a nasty enough son-of-a-bitch that if I agree with him on anything, I feel a strong need to lab-test, analyze and inspect that agreement very closely.

Of course, as I’ve said many times over the years, it only takes a trace of poison to turn something wholesome lethal, so I am unwilling to reject everything an evil genius says, just because it was said by an evil genius. In fact, that wholesale impulse is one of the more toxic substances I see in the poisoned minds around me. But that doesn’t mean I’m ingesting anything Heidegger says casually.

(If you can’t tell, I understand evil to be a function of one’s philosophy. I see evil as a kind of philosophical disease, not as an essential characteristic of any soul. Evil is curable. The treatment is metanoia. Metanoia, like many treatments, tastes nasty on the tongue. But so do many toxins, so how do we discern?)

For the record, I see the toxicity of Heidegger primarily in his hubristic concept of the They, which obligated him to despise everyone but his own hand-selected authorities. I ate this poison years ago, and it caused me some very serious and pleasurable problems, before I managed to expel it.

I’m also worried about another idea, espoused in both Heidegger and fellow Nazi and mystic, Eugen Herrigel, author of Zen in the Art of Archery, one that is even more important to me than etymologophelia, the ideal of tacit use and ontic fusion (my term) with equipment and environment. Heidegger called it ready-to-hand, and argued that this tacit ready-to-hand being, where a tool, such as a hammer, and a whole working environment, such as a workshop, becomes an organic extension of one’s own activity and one’s own being (as opposed to discrete objects which stand apart from us present-at-hand, which is an exceptional state caused by malfunction or a conscious effort to observe. This idea of ontic fusion is both profoundly important to me as a designer and a prime suspect in my ongoing investigation of totalitarian ideologies. My suspicion is that this desire to fuse with our worlds easily metastasizes into a desire to take ourselves — the bundle of intuitions that constitute our soul — into the soul of the world itself.

Is there a way to wordlessly fuse with our own world, while maintaining a pluralistic attitude toward reality, and especially toward those ornery bits of the world we call our neighbors? That’s one of the core problems in my next book.

Stuff I’m going to write

I think my “Coalition of the Unique” post might be the core of a Liberal Manifesto chapbook.

Susan’s and my strategy has shifted over the last several months. Rather than attacking illiberalism, we’ve chosen instead to find more beautiful reconceptions and redescriptions of Liberalism to help people understand and to feel why Liberalism is precious and worth protecting, conserving and progressing.

I also still need to finish my Liz Sanders Useful Usable Desirable chapbook. Maybe I’ll print them together in one run.

And Second-Natural is also starting to take shape. It argues multiple interlocking points, and I will probably write it as independent mutually reinforcing essays.

  1. Human beings have coevolved with our tools and built environments and our languages for so long, we have become naturally artificial. Whatever vestiges of pure nature we have left in us emerges in rare moments, usually (but not always) when we are at our very worst. We may long to be natural, feel natural, be in nature, or return to nature, but we are hundreds of millennia beyond that possibility. If we wanted to remain natural, we should have thought of that before we developed the capacity to think.
  2. Maybe what we long for is not exactly to be natural. The antitheses natural and artificial exclude the most desirable quality, second-natural, which is artificial naturalness. Second-naturalness is the true goal of design. If an action is second-natural it is done intuitively, with wordless intelligence. And any thing, any tool, we make that is used second-naturally becomes an extension of our selves. Artificial-feeling things never feel like extensions of our selves.
  3. One of our most second-natural tools is language. Second-naturalness in language use is fluency. That fluency can become so second-natural we lose the subtle distinction between our intuitive intentions and the words that give them form. It can begin to seem as though our intellectual intentions are essentially linguistic — that the language itself is thinking through our speech. I want to argue that language use is a special case of tool use. An artist can pick up a pen and start drawing a picture without consciously thinking about moving their hand or directing the pen, ink or paper. Most of the time there are no words.  No imagined final product is necessary. Ideally the artist becomes absorbed in the image. Language works exactly the same way. When we speak naturally, the words flow toward an intended meaning which emerges in the speech. We do not necessarily know how a sentence will end when we start it, but the saying is guided by an intuition which is not itself verbal, an intuition of what the sentence is trying to become.
  4. Activities feel artificial when we must continue to use our language fluency to verbally direct what is not second-natural. This is why a language-learner must begin to think in a language. An internal translation process keeps the second language artificial. But when we think about designing the things we use in our lives, often we are content with assuming an internal translation. Because we think our thought, maybe even our essential self, is linguistic it seems inevitable that we’ll be using language to tell our brains and our hands what to do. Consequently, most of the things we make feel artificial. We fail to design them for second-naturalness, for fluency. Our lives feel artificial because our philosophy of design is logocentric.
  5. A primary goal of design should be to thin the layers of language between intention and outcome. What is meant by a layer? What I do not mean is removing some linguistic veil of of illusion that separates us from some realm of metaphysical truth. All I mean is to minimize or eliminate the need for verbalized instructions to ourselves in our daily activity. And especially instructions for instructing ourselves. If we are using word processing software and we are trying to think about the sequence of actions required to, say, spell check a word in the document that has been marked misspelled, but we are unable to get the word selected in order to see the correct spelling options, we are now unable to stay absorbed in the sentence we were trying to write. We now have the words of the sentence we are typing, words instructing ourselves to try different options to select the word, verbalized questions regarding why the function is not working as expected, not to mention expletives. It is like operating a robot arm to operate multiple other robot arms. I believe these accumulating layers of verbalization are contributing to our increasing sense that something is going wrong with our lives.
  6. Because our logocentric philosophies assume the presence of language is inevitable in every detail of our lives, it doesn’t occur to us to challenge it. We are suffering from a thickening layer of words, insulating us from direct interaction with real entities that surround us. But we do not even know that this philosophy is interfering with seeing the problem. Our popular philosophy is so established in our own thinking — it is so second-natural to us, we cannot conceive of the possibility of changing it. When we think of philosophical thought, we automatically assume that we will be thinking about it, using the popular philosophy we already have.  We assume it will feel artificial. We have no expectation that a new philosophy can ever become second-natural to us. And this is not helped in the least by the fact that philosophers generally do not think of philosophies as something which ought to be designed for use, much less in a designerly way using designerly methods, and even more rarely, with the goal of second-naturalness.
  7. Philosophy should be understood as a design discipline. It should be directed by the things designers are directed by. Where are people encountering problems that might be the result of how they are conceived and thought about, or at least might be alleviated by thinking about them in new ways? Where is our thinking misdirecting or misguiding or misnorming our actions? It should make use of some of the methods of design, many of which are themselves philosophical praxes: interviewing, observing, opportunity definition, problem definition/briefing,  codesigning, modeling, visualizing, prototyping, iterative testing and most of all radical self-transcendent collaboration. Philosophy should adopt some key design concepts, for instance wicked problems, tradeoffs, divergent/convergent thinking, sensitivity to context, primacy of interactions. And perhaps most importantly, philosophy should push pragmatism to its logical next step. William James (I think) said that “truth is what is better to think.”. Philosophy should get more specific about what it means for a thought to be better or worse, by taking cues from one of the fundamental guiding frameworks of design, namely Liz Sanders’s Useful/Usable/Desirable. I’m tentatively calling this Design Instrumentalism.
  8. What does it mean for a philosophy to be useful, usable and desirable? A normal first inclination is to subject the presentation of the philosophy to these standards by asking questions like “Will this book teach me something useful? Is it written clearly and straightforwardly so I don’t have to struggle to understand it? Is it an engaging read, or is it a boring slog? These are all important questions, but I mean more than that. I want to ask these questions about the philosophy itself — about the ability of this philosophy to become second-natural in everyday constant use, after It is adopted as how one thinks, long after the book is put back on the shelf and the words are mostly forgotten. How does this philosophy work as a mind-reality interface? “Does it effectively guide and support my actions (or does it lead me to do things that interfere with my intentions? Does it allow me to think clearly and act intuitively without having to laboriously puzzle things out first? Does it force me to use language that feels abstract or theoretical to get to a conclusion? Does my life feel purposeful and valuable and worth effort?” If the answer to any of these is no, or even a weak yes, the philosophy design process should continue.
  9. Some other practical observations from my life of philosophical designing and designerly philosophizing deserve mention. Understanding anxiety and perplexity is crucial. To conceive something new, it is necessary to suspend or reject older ways of conceiving, or allow new data which defies conceptualization and full or clear comprehension to remain perplexing. All too often we misread anxiety as a signal that we are on the wrong track, and interpret perplexity (a state of intellectual disorder so thorough that the problem cannot be stated despite the fact that it is inflicting intense distress) as an emergency to end by any means possible as quickly as possible. Anxiety is the sign we are in the right path, and the right path is the one that goes directly into perplexity, through it and out on the other side, where we have found new ways to conceive truth. Another observation: wherever we see monolithic beings, we are generally getting lazy with our categories and reifying pluralities into singularities. This applies to our own souls. But I would like to take a few potshots at Richard Rorty‘s logocentrism here. He seems to think that if Nature does not exist as some humanity transcending monolithic authority, it can be sidelined from our humans-only conversation club. That redescription of truth underemphasizes the role real nonhuman beings play in shaping our truth. Nature isn’t one thing with one truth for us to discover, sure, but the myriad entities who we’ve assigned to nature do have natures that we interact with. These entities will cooperate with us if we interact with them one way, and will rebel against us if we treat them other ways. Our philosophies need to be designed to help us win the cooperation of nonhuman entities, and this is a huge factor determining the degree of truth in even our most universally-held beliefs. If we all agree something false is the truth, we’re all going to stop believing it when nonhuman entities register their dissent by scuttling our intentions.
  10. Finally, I want to suggest some ways philosophy and design can learn from one another how to converse across difference. All too often we debate before debate is really possible. In design we ask one another to try on possible ways of approaching problems, and we try thinking out problems using different logics. We draw what we are thinking when words fail us, as they frequently do. We are happy to play with possibilities, even when we are not fully conscious of what is directing our play, because often such play is fruitful. This is what it takes to get an infant concept viable enough to stand up to interrogation, argument or debate. Design teams dread having that guy in the room who only knows how to argue, and who kills all possibility of intellectual creativity with his still, narrow logic. But this is how all too many philosophers are: argumentative logicians. Hopefully, better designed philosophies can help guide better ways to craft, compare and iterate philosophies.

Update 9-15-20: I’m also being asked to write a book on Service Design research, so that’s another item on the list.

The Mercury Mikvah

Sometimes if I drink too much scotch I will announce the “I am never drinking ever again for a week.”

An ironic worldview permits statements like this. Why not admit that eternally-binding resolves, while being experienced in the moment as permanent, are, simultaneously, recognized in history/biography as temporary?

I will argue that this kind of ironizing is not only permissible but necessary and good, and supportive of a liberal, pluralistic society.

A pluralist experiences the self-evident truth and goodness of their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions against a deeper ground of myriad others who also experience their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions as self-evidently true and good.

Pluralism includes pluralism of scale. A historically conscious pluralist is aware that the plurality of worldviews exists not only individually, but collectively. It pertains not only to individuals, but to cultures, and to the deep interrelationships between individuals and cultures. Much of what was obviously and indubitably true and good in the past is now, to us, absurd, abhorrent and naive — and most of all to what seemed most certain and foundational. The same thing is certain to happen to our present shared convictions and foundational beliefs.

Pluralism includes pluralism of self in time. A self-aware, apperceptive pluralist will count among the myriad others their own past selves, and recall the fact, even if they cannot fully recall the experiences themselves (including the convictions and their attendant blindnesses, which, once unblinded cannot be re-blinded).

Pushing pluralism of self in time further, the most radical pluralist will count as crucially important their possible future selves. They will recall themselves prior to a past change, taking care to remember what that past self understood “everything” to include, along with the field of possibilities that followed from it. And they will recall the shock of epiphany, of change in worldview, of change in what seemed evident, relevant, possible and permanent. The experiential resources needed to anticipate future transformation are drawn indirectly (and negatively) from experiences of past transformations.

Pluralism is empathic. An empathic pluralist will strain to do full justice to their memories of the in-between of worldviews and stretch it out into its own story, in a progression of anxiety, to aversion, to panic, and finally to perplexity, where orientation, definition, method, logic and words fail. They will never forget why so few willingly immerse in this mercury mikvah — this expanse of the worldless-blinds, the liminal void, the rings of ego-solvent Hadean waters, the churning chrome of “seen” blindness — and why those facing it deserve understanding, if not compassion.

And finally, pluralism is reflexive, symmetric and demanding. A committed pluralist will know, with the intensest irony, that they, most of all, fear reentering liminal perplexity. Even with their experiences of before, during and blissful after, even with their firsthand evidence and insights — they will balk like everyone else when the time comes for them to follow their own advice. Those others — they are the ones who need to go in. But, the pluralist will also know, with all the irony they can intentionally summon, that they must keep going back in, and that their only claim to their own kind of truth and goodness is going back in, despite their already-knowing of everything worth knowing.

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My moral alchemy has its own weird metallurgy which transmutes silver, gold, mercury and iron(y).

Rorty therapy

To recover from a rough couple of weeks and, also, to clarify my thoughts on liberalism, I am rereading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. I wish I still had the paperback I read the first time through, because I would like to see if I am underlining the same things. It feels very different to me reading this in the midst of a Trump presidency, a pandemic shutdown and an unprecedented intensification and expansion of progressivism.

So far, the one thing that is standing out to me, partly because of conversations I’ve been having with fellow-Rortian, Nick Gall, is a suspicion that I might have a slightly different conception of how language fits into human life than Rorty does. I want to try to nail down the difference as simply as possible so I can 1) confirm this difference actually exists, and 2) track the pragmatic consequences of the difference as I continue the book. This is especially important because my next book (or first book, if you do not consider a 9-page art pamphlet a proper book) is closely connected to this question.

So here is what I am seeing. While Rorty and I appear to share an instrumentalist view of language — that is, language ought to be viewed more like tools we use than as expressions of self or representations of world — Rorty appears to privilege language as uniquely constitutive of our human way of being, where I see language as one instrument of many (albeit, the most important one), and that interaction with all of these instruments together contributes much to our being. However even the sum of all instrumental relations falls well short of constituting the whole. Non-instrumental forms of relationship (for instance, those we have with loved ones) are as important as instrumental ones, and constitute much of what we often consider our moral character. If I were to reduce human being to one essential ingredient, I would prefer interaction to language.

No doubt, I will continue this line of thought as I read further.

God, I love Rorty. I am smarter and happier when I’m reading him.

Useful usable desirable

My next book, Philosophy of Design of Philosophy, is still forming in my head. I know what I want to convey, but the conceptual ingredients are evolving. Some new ingredients I’m entertaining are liminality, conceptual integrity and multistability. These new concepts will help me simplify my system and link my thinking to other bodies of work. But incorporating them requires some demolition and reconstruction work. I am also struggling with some perplexities regarding the precise relationship between engineering and design, a heavily contested, linguistically and conceptually confused strip of turf — a true liminal zone. Consequently, I am finding it hard to write short pieces, and I am abandoning most posts I start, because they immediately diverge and get out of control.

What I plan to write about is already a reality for me, and has been for some time: the subject of the book is my praxis, which I use not only in my professional design work, but also in my private practical and theoretical life. My friend Tim joked that I am a design-centered human, and that is entirely accurate. I have come to see everything in terms of design, including philosophy.

Yesterday I interviewed design research legend Liz Sanders on her useful-usable-desirable framework. I am planning to extract the content of the interview into a second letterpressed chapbook, honoring the core concept of human-centered design. Pending Liz’s approval, I plan to call it just Useful / Usable / Desirable.

This framework is profoundly important to me. It was through this framework that design took over my entire life.

At some point, which I can no longer remember, I caught myself thinking about philosophy in a new way, which I never consciously chose.

I was reading, and I suddenly realized I was evaluating what I was understanding in terms of its usefulness, usability and desirability. And I realized I had detected an unconscious habit I’d acquired long ago.

I want to clarify something. I was not evaluating the form, expression or presentation of the ideas (though these are also subject to the same criteria) — I was evaluating the effect of understanding the philosophy. And when it comes to philosophy, understanding does not primarily mean being able to explain the concepts. In philosophy, understanding means being able to enter the conceptual system and to understand from it. Philosophical understanding is an act of intellectual empathy.

I found myself asking: When I enter this philosophy and understand from it — when I view a philosophical worldview instrumentally and assess it as something that can be adopted, lived from and used I ask: Is it useful? Do I become better equipped to make sense of what is happening around me so I can respond more effectively? Is it usable? Does it make it easier to get clear on what is most relevant, and does this sense of relevance help me avoid becoming confused or overwhelmed or cause me to make mistakes? Is it desirable? What does it do to my overall sense of meaning? Does life seem valuable and worth the effort? Or does it make life seem ominous and dark, or worse, empty, pointless and not worth working to improve?

So, Liz’s framework is very likely to be the backbone of my next book. The useful/usable/desirable framework will not only provide a framework for evaluating and generating philosophical worldviews, but will also serve as an exemplar of a successfully designed philosophical worldview.

Foregrounds and backgrounds

I am looking in my anomawiki for a quote from Nietzsche about foreground and background philosophies. I am digging through one of the themes I’ve catalogued, “depth“, and noticing — somehow for the first time! — how many of these quotes involve water, and specifically cold water. Reading Nietzsche I slowly discovered a symbolic language — or did I invent it? — It is probably best to say that in experimental interaction with his corpus, I instaurated a certain symbolic language that invests Nietzschean passages with multiple layers of powerfully direct intuitive meaning. (These meanings have been so intense that at the peak of my early Nietzschean encounter, I sometimes got butterflies in my stomach in the evening anticipating waking up the next morning and reading him.) I’ve learned to interpret water as a symbol of chaos, not only in Nietzsche, but also in Jewish scripture, which is why my Hebrew name is Nachshon. Coldness is another symbol, signifying betrayal. Nietzsche speaks often of coldness at the depths and heights. When we immerse in chaos, when we undergo the deepest, most trophonian perplexities, we often find that our own value hierarchies get loosened and shaken up. And when we ascend so far that we can survey a more expansive whole, this can also effect an inner political shift. The valley is temperate and more stable, but Nietzsche’s preferred valleys were near cold lakes and icy peaks, to remind us of our tragic situation between beneath and beyond.

I did not mean to write this much about Nietzsche.

*

Here is the quote I was looking for:

The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he [the philosopher] came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

This passage implies that a person can always dig beneath and undermine his own philosophy if he chooses, and raises the question: why don’t we keep digging forever? What are the “stopping conditions”, to put it in wicked problem terms?

My own suspicious stopping point — (and yes, you should ask “why here?”) — is a metaphysics of radical surprise. Due to the relationship between truth and reality, truth is pluralism which “goes all the way down”, that reality is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Truth is the attempt of each center to make sense of the whole — a whole which is constituted entirely of centers. No center can embrace this infinite whole, so we radiate our being outward into the other centers, and they in turn radiate back. The interwoven radiating centers congeal into real situations and overlapping approximate truths, most of which have some validity, and all of which contain significant blindness toward what others know, and which necessarily make tradeoffs, only some of which we are aware. From time to time we are shocked out of our wits by the irruption of some reality for which we are unprepared, and often we have no idea how to make sense of it, unless we actively make that sense. This making of new sense is philosophy.

Some of us even go looking for shocks. We especially seek them when we are dissatisfied. And especially once we learn how easily apparently stable, unquestionable truths can be undermined, and once we learn to handle some of the unpleasant hazards of undermining and gain confidence in our ability to make new sense where we’ve loosened up and broken down old sense, undermining becomes a tool for overcoming some of life’s occasional horrors. In other words we are free to design philosophies that support a life we want. Like all design, philosophy functions in real contexts, must make optimal tradeoffs to meet requirements while respecting constraints, and they will succeed and fail in different ways to different degrees.

My background philosophy tells me that we can and should design our philosophies using all the best practices of human centered design. This is the best we can possibly do. The closest a human being can get to truth is to believe ideas that work well, meaning they help us do what we need to do, they prevent us from feeling perplexed, or getting confused or making mistakes, and they help us feel the value of our lives. (These, by the way are the criteria for good design laid down by Liz Sanders in the most influential paper no designer knows about.) None of these philosophies should be expected to hold up in every possible context and withstand every criticism, and if that becomes our primary goal, it is certain that this all-encompassing generality and well-armed defensibility will demand tradeoffs that will harm a person’s quality of life in innumerable ways. This deeper philosophy is pragmatist through and through, and draws on many strands of pragmatist thought including Actor-Network Theory. I call it design instrumentalism. It is never far from chaos, and dips in and out of perplexity as a matter of method. I can only handle it in small doses. As I was reminded this morning, Nietzsche said “I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out.

My foreground philosophy is what I designed for myself as my everyday conceptual models to shape and guide my understandings. I crystalized them in image and word in Geometric Meditations. The ideas might seem profound, but that is because of their careful design: this philosophy was designed to maintain value-stability ‘warmth” at depths of thought where a soul risks coming apart. That is not to say I do not believe them wholeheartedly, because I do, but I believe them with wholehearted irony, meaning that I see them as some among many ways to make sense. The conceptual models in Geometric meditations function as an interface I intentionally designed to shield me from the instability and complexity of design instrumentalism.

I am sure this has made sense to nobody, but I needed to think it through.

Ready-to-mind

Since the early 20th Century, much has been made of the role language plays in understanding. As a designer, I am tempted to say too much has been made of it.

In human-centered design we are accustomed to seeing people do things apparently unthinkingly, gropingly, experimentally — but then afterwards, when we ask for an account of the actions, we’ll get an explanation that clearly conflicts with what we observed. When I read about split brain experiments in Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis, which showed how the rational part of the brain confabulates explanations of parts of its own organ to which it has no access, it all rang familiar. Usability tests are full of obvious confabulations, and this is why we observe behaviors in addition to doing contextual interviews.

Users mouths are not fully qualified to speak for their own hands.

But now I am not even sure user’s mouths are fully qualified to speak for their own mouths.

The heart of my suspicion comes down to one important characteristic of well-designed things, especially well-designed tools: they extend the being of the person who uses them. A well-designed tool merges into a user’s body and mind and disappears. A poorly designed tool refuses to merge and remains painfully and conspicuously separate from oneself. Tools, even the best-designed ones, must be learned before they merge and vanish. Once the merging and vanishing happens, the tool is known.

This tool relationship was famously described by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. He used the example of a hammer. The normal, everyday attitude the user of the hammer has toward the hammer Heidegger called “ready-to-hand”. The hammer belongs to the equipment in the workshop and is invisibly available and used by its owner in his work activity. This is in contrast to “present-at-hand”: the mode of being where an tool is perceived as an object. Despite the standpoint most of us assume when we sit in a chair thinking about objects, present-at-hand is an exception to the rule. It normally happens only when something goes wrong and the hammer’s availability or functioning is interrupted, rendering the hammer conspicuously broken or absent, or when the tool is new and unfamiliar and is not yet mastered.

As a designer, I must also point out that a tool will frequently revert back to present-at-hand if it is badly designed and constantly demands attention due to usability snags or malfunctions. And now, 90 years after Being and Time, there is an entirely new situation that disrupts the ready-to-hand relationship. Currently our workshops are largely virtual and are equipped with software tools which are frequently updated and improved. With each improvement our tools become unfamiliar and are knocked back to present-at-hand until we can figure out how it works and practice using it, and re-master it so that it can merge back to ready-to-hand.

I find I have precisely this same relationship with concepts and with words. New concepts start out as present-at-hand, and they must be learned and practiced and mastered before they stop being logically connected bundles of words, become ready-to-hand (ready-to-mind) concepts which can be used for making sense of other words, arguments, objects and situations. A well-designed philosophy book guides a reader through this process, so that by the time the book concludes, a new conceptual tool has become familiar and has merged with — and, ideally disappeared into — the repertoire of concepts that makes up one’s worldview. Ideally, these concepts merge so fully into one’s own being that they become second-natural, and seem as if they are part of reality itself when we observe it.

The view that concepts and words are essentially tools (as opposed to representational models of the world) belongs to the pragmatism school of philosophy, and is called “instrumentalism”. It is a radically different way to conceptualize truth, and it changes absolutely everything once the concept is mastered becomes ready-to-mind.

There is something to be gained by refracting the pragmatic implications of instrumentalism through the theoretical insights of Heidegger’s tool phenomenology and then examining the result with the trained sensibility of the human-centered designer. My friend Jokin taught me a Basque saying: “What has a name is real.” To lend some reality to this synthesis, let’s call it “design instrumentalism”.

A design instrumentalist says “Ok. If concepts are tools, let’s design them well, so that they do what we need them to do, without malfunctioning and as life-enhancingly as possible. And let’s get clear enough on the intended purpose, users and use-contexts of each concept so that we are making smart tradeoffs and not overburdening the concept with out-of-scope requirements that undermine its design.” In other words, let’s construct concepts that produce truths that work toward the kinds of lives we want.

*

Design instrumentalism has some surprising and consequential implications.

One of them these implications concerns what it means to know. Normally, if we want to assess someone’s knowledge we request an explanation. If a lucid explanation is given, we conclude that this person “knows what they’re doing.” But is this true?

What if an ability to speak clearly about a concept is one ability, and the ability to use the concept in a practical application is a separate ability? The requirement to explicitly verbalize what one knows — as opposed to simply demonstrate mastery — might create conditions where those with linguistic felicity might appear more generally competent in everything, and those who are most able, because their ability is tacit, might find themselves under-rated and constantly burdened with false tests of their competence.

Another is an expectation that a competent practitioner can always — and should always — be able to provide a clear plan of action and a lucid justification for whatever they are setting out to accomplish. However, this is a separate skill, and not even one that precedes my ability to use the concept. This does not mean that we do not use words to assist our learning, because we certainly do rely on words as tools to help us learn. But these verbal learning tools should not be confused with the object of the learning or the substance of what is learned. They are scaffolding, not the building blocks of the edifice.

And like Heidegger’s famous hammer, which is invisibly ready-to-hand until it malfunctions, at which point it shifts into conspicuous presence-at-hand as the user inspects it to diagnose what’s wrong with it, concepts we are use are rarely verbalized while we use them for thinking. It’s only when concepts fail to invisibly and wordlessly function that we notice them and start using words as workarounds or diagnostic and repair tools for the malfunctioning concepts that are breaking our understandings.

A requirement to verbalize concepts before we use them, or while we are using them amounts to a form of multitasking.

must shift between wordlessly doing and translate the doing into words, and the two tasks interfere with one another, producing a stilted performance. Having to verbalize what we do while doing it is like embroidering while wearing thick gloves.

So, where am I going with this line of thought? The notion that all real understanding is linguistic is not only inaccurate but practically disastrous. My experience designing and experimentally evaluating designs has shown me that real understanding is, in fact, a matter of ontological extension — precisely the overcoming of language in formation of direct non-verbal interaction with some real entity. That is, unless the understanding in question is understanding how to verbalize some idea. Of course, nearly all academic work consists precisely of acquiring abilities to verbalize, so it is hardly surprising a theory that insists that all understanding is essentially linguistic would gain prominence among participants in the academic form of life.

Interposing words

Perplexity craft

Concept craft

Raw experiential resources for my next book

I am making a list of some strange phenomena which are the daily fare of strategic designers, but which are seldom experienced outside the field, at least not in the way designers experience them. By designers, I mean anyone engaged in human-centered design. These phenomena do not occur at the same intensity and frequency in problems that do not explicitly contend with subjectivity. Designers must live with them at full intensity, for long durations, without any easy escape route. Here is the list, so far:

  • Dependency on conceptual models (which I will just call “models”) to guide the forming of a system that is experienced as clear and coherent to those who participate in them
  • Uncanny difficulties in agreeing on models among members of design teams, which render subjective differences stark
  • Difficulties in interpreting phenomena, and especially subjective phenomena, among different team members
  • Difficulties in weighing design tradeoffs among different team members
  • Existential pain associated with relinquishing (or even temporarily suspending) models that one has adopted — even in order to listen and understand another perspective — a phenomenon that can be called “pluralistic angst”
  • Dependence on profound respect, trust and goodwill among team members to navigate through and out of pluralistic angst
  • Tactics employed by well-intentioned people to avoid the pain and effort required to overcome pluralistic angst
  • The ubiquity and invisibility of models — and the best models are the most ubiquitous and the most invisible — not only in design, but all understanding, which only becomes detectable in pluralistic conflict
  • The miraculous way truths and unnoticed realities leap from nowhere (ex nihilo) when a different model is adopted and used
  • The weird way a change in a sufficiently foundational model can sometimes change (transfigure) the meaning of one’s life as a whole, even when the change is meant only to affect a localized problem
  • The fact that there are no determinate techniques, rules, criteria to overcome pluralistic angst (though there are approaches that can assist the process) — that people are thrown back into their bare unequipped souls to find the resources needed to overcome it together
  • The solidarity among team members which can result from overcoming pluralistic angst with respect, trust and goodwill

Anyone who has been through the harrowing experiences described about enough times 1) to recognize what is happening, 2) to find faith that these things can be overcome, 3) to understand the value of overcoming them, 4) to find the attitude of soul most conducive to overcoming them (which includes grace toward one’s own missteps, doubts and moral failings during the process) might start seeing similar phenomena everywhere, at all scales, from international politics to personal relationships to one’s own inner conflicts. Or, at least this is what happened to me.

I was driven deep into existential philosophy, including phenomenology and hermeneutics then into pragmatism and its offshoots in social science to try to understand the weird kinds of pain I experience as a designer. Philosophy has never been speculative or abstract to me. It is concrete, near and a matter of life and death.

As a result of this search for understanding, I have designed myself conceptual models to help me re-understand the human condition as largely one of conflicting conceptual models.

It is here that it becomes fairly obvious how philosophy and design connect and merge into something inseparable. That is what I plan to write about and publish next, now that I have crystallized my core conceptual models in the form I believe they deserve.

Design-Centered Human

Someone asked me, with respect to my work, what I call myself these days. If people understood 1) what design is, and that 2) all design, done competently, is, necessarily human-centered design, I’d want to be called simply a Designer. Because this is nowhere near the case, I call myself a Human-Centered Designer.

At that point my friend Tim called me Design-Centered Human. That’s pretty apt.

The worst product management fad, ever

I’ve been pretty outspoken about the damage Lean Startup has done to design.

Mostly, I have emphasized the way such engineer-centric methods tend to encourage rushed release cycles that expose users to inconsistent user interfaces, often flawed ones. I’ve complained that an engineering mindset conceives products as things, where a design mindset thinks of products as experiences real people have using them, and that when design is controlled by people with engineering mindsets, experience becomes a thing added to the other thing engineers make.

From this engineering mindset, Lean Startup makes obvious sense. The entire process is optimized to the goal of improving the product as rapidly as possible, the product being, once again, a thing. By this logic the users become valuable means for discovering new places where the product might be improved. Instead of wasting valuable days testing prototypes in artificial scenarios that only examine parts of the experience in ways that might not represent the full context of use and doing so with very small samples of users — why not release the product to much larger samples of users using it in the wild for real purposes, and to monitor that usage so that problems that show up in these real situations can be addressed in the next release that is never far away?

To a design mindset, this is exasperatingly wrongheaded. When designers perform usability tests on a product, yes, the product is improved — but the product is improved (with the help of voluntary, paid test participants) before it is released in order to protect any real users from having bad experiences with the product. This is because — and this is key — any unexpected change, even a change for the better, forces the user out of a learned habitual mode of use into a figuring-out mode that refocuses attention on the product instead of on what the user wants to think about and do.

This is why the engineer’s objectification of “the experience” is not a semantic nit-pick, but a true distortion of meaning with big consequences. If “the experience” is a part of the product that can be improved through experimenting on real users, why not do it? But if the experience is understood as being what happens when real people use the product, the incessant improvement of the product will be seen to occur at the cost of a deteriorating experience.

What designers want is to change the experience as little as possible as infrequently as possible. This is why we work so hard to understand the people we are designing for so we can get the product as right as possible before users invest themselves in learning it and incorporating our product into their lives. “Pivots” in product purpose are extremely disruptive to users, and represent at the least a need to invest in relearning, and at worst can alienate users if the product pivots away from their needs. In products users love, pivots feel like betrayal, and in fact pivots are calculated betrayals. They should not be treated lightly. Designers concept test in order to avoid the need to betray users who have trusted a product enough to adopt it. Designers usability test for at least two reasons. The first is obvious, and seems to be the only reason understood by the engineering mindset: to remove as many flaws as possible from the experience before users are harmed by them. But there is a second reason: to avoid the need to change the user interface later, after users have invested effort in learning them. As Beatrice Warde taught us, great design is invisible, and as Martin Heidegger taught us, when a tool stops functioning as expected it goes from invisible “ready-to-hand” to distractingly conspicuous “present-at-hand”. It stops being an extension of one’s body, mind and (I’d argue, heart) and becomes an unwanted rupture in attention.

One topic I plan to cover in my upcoming book, Philosophy of Design of Philosophy, is the ethical issues revealed by all the various flavors of extended cognition, which I plan to bloat into a much larger (Haraway-ish) theory of extended self. When a user adopts a product, that user has invited that product into the user’s own being. Contrary to currently hip “Eastern” attitudes that insist that we are not our possessions, I would argue that in an important sense we are most certainly our possessions, and most of all those possessions we use every day and count on to be there when we need them, just like our hands. The trust that users show when they invest in learning a tool so well that the tool vanishes into their body, mind and will should be counted sacred — and I will argue in my book, formalized into a tool covenant.

I am am definitely rambling now, because I haven’t even gotten to my main point yet — yet another way Lean Startup has harmed our daily lives. But before I shift to this next theme, I want to try to pull together the implications of the points I have made so far.

  • If a human being’s self, to some important degree, is constituted by the things they use;
  • And if this constituted self is only whole when these used things vanish and become extensions of their bodies, minds and souls;
  • And if changes to tools break this invisibility relationship and by extension break the extended self;
  • It stands to reason that great care should be taken to change tools as infrequently as possible, as little as possible, only when necessary and only when the change is known to be more beneficial than harmful!

No, most of us don’t see things this way. Even designers don’t. Users lack the language to describe the anxiety they feel when they cannot count on tools they rely on looking or acting the same way when they pick them up to use them, nor can they justify their feelings of betrayal, indignation and violation when product managers decide to overhaul the design of their product. It is as if strangers can rearrange rooms of our homes randomly whenever they feel the whim. We cannot describe, justify or argue for what our sanity requires because we think using philosophies which do not support the thinking of thoughts that clarify our situation and equip us with language to do something to improve our lot! Our working philosophies need to be redesigned to suit this need — and many others that are causing our worst social problems.

My core idea is: We can’t agree on how to emerge from our myriad crises because the folk philosophies we use to do our thinking and persuading are not up to the task. But we can design better philosophies with tradeoffs more suited to our contemporary situation that will render confusions thinkable and give public voice to feelings that are currently isolated inside individual souls. Since I’m coining terms left and right, I’ll add another: design instrumentalism is the concept that thoughts are things we use for our own human purposes (instrumentalism) and which therefore ought to be thought of less in terms of truth vs falsehood and more in terms of better and worse designs, which means that philosophies ought to be designed, using design methods.

And now, enough digression: the second way Lean Startup is harming our lives is by stuffing design processes inside Agile processes, and in the process making it nearly impossible for designers to consider experiences holistically so that every part of an experience relates to the others in a way that makes clear intuitive sense.

Our sanity requires us to sense relationships (even if we aren’t explicitly thinking them) between all the elements of what we experience — the people, the things, the events of the past, present and future, our own purposes, etc. These relationships are how we make sense of things — or, more accurately, they are the sense we make of things. When these relationships are missing, or inconsistent, or blurry, we are unable to make sense of our experience, and we feel perplexity and anxiety, if for no other reason that something is wrong and we cannot even put our finger on where the wrongness is coming from. We don’t have words to explain, only to express our emotional reaction to the chaos.

It is the job of designers to architect these relationships — to place “inside” experiences those connections people look for in all experiences — so there are relationships there to intuit in order to make sense of things, then to give concrete shape to these relationships so they feel unfailingly real. This gives users a feeling of solid ground under their feet. Lack of solidity, coherence, consistency, reliability, endurance — I will call this condition experience volatility.

But these relationships do not emerge automatically in the process of adding features to a product (or service). They cannot necessarily be overlaid onto products as they are built out bit by bit, feature by feature (that is, by constructing atomistically). They coherence needs to be developed at the level of the whole and the part simultaneously, which means both need to be kept fluid as long as possible, which is precisely what design does as a matter of method. Jumping straight in and building and bolting, and breaking and re-bolting is a cumbersome, frustrating and wasteful way to develop holistic systems, and this is why when systems get engineered atomistically the holistic sense of the experience is normally what is sacrificed.

But there’s yet another problem! I need to research this part more, but the IA (Information Architecture) conference I attended last week heightened my awareness of how pervasive stories have become in our design processes. Agile works on the model of nested stories of increasing scale. This has the effect of imposing models of step-by-step procedures onto interactions. The way I put it, it tends “wizard” things by making them behave more like branching linear processes than like objects, or environments, or conversations which afford users more control. I am also finding that Service Design tends to do something very similar, so that the design almost automatically constructed on a timeline backbone.

Time happens to be my least favorite dimension (not to imply that I like breadth or width much better. ) Sometimes time, timelines, the elements of literature/ theater) are the right organizing structures of design, but we shouldn’t assume or or make automatic choices due to habits of method. The structures that undergird our designs should be carefully considered before being chosen.

Back in the early aughts, before UX was a thing, back when I still called myself an Information Architect, the company I worked for acquired a legendary business anthropology outfit. The department they became post-acquisition was called xMod, short for “experience modeling”. This strikes me as an excellent name for the holistic meaning-structure development activity that helps overcome experience volatility, and which again, is made impossible when building and design start at the same time and design is rushed into producing specs for engineers ASAP, lest those engineers sit idle and waste company resources, instead of doing their jobs, which is building something — anything!

So this is my argument 1) that Lean Startup has exponentially increased experience volatility since its mass adoption, 2) that experience volatility matters to our lives, because in a very real way it injects volatility into our own being by constantly breaking our extended selves, and 3) the only reason we don’t all understand this and protest it is because the folk philosophies we use to think and communicate are badly designed for our current situation, but that 4) we can and should redesign our philosophies to help us live saner, more peaceful, and happier lives.

If anyone has actually read this far: Thank you for your patience!

So many ideas. So many coinages.

 

Next book: Philosophy of Design of Philosophy

Now that I’ve gotten Geometric Meditations into a finished state I am starting to feel a compulsion to write a more accessible book about design, tentatively titled Philosophy of Design of Philosophy. I’m excited to be freed from the excessive formal constraints that made Geometric Meditations take so long to finish.

There are several key points I want to make.

  1. Design needs to be rethought, along with its relationship with engineering. I propose re-defining design as “the intentional development of hybrid systems composed of interacting human and non-human elements.” Most importantly the human elements of the system should include the people for whom the system is intended, treated as an intrinsic part of the designed system, and interior to it — not exterior users of a system designed to be used by them. Follow this link to see a visualization comparing the “conventional” and “hybrid systems” view.
  2. We find it difficult to define design, and distinguish design from other creative activities (like art and engineering) because we think in a way that obscures the question. In particular, the way we think about making tools and using tools has gradually become inadequate for dealing with the world as it has evolved. Our working philosophies have grown obsolete, and their very obsolescence makes us look for solutions every but philosophy.
  3. Philosophies are essentially tools we use for living lives in an infinitely complex radically pluralistic reality. Every philosophy has advantages and trade-offs, meaning they make it easy, even automatic, to have some kinds of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses, and nearly impossible to think, feel, perceive and respond in other ways — and these other ways might be the key to confronting what are perceived, conceived and felt to be insoluble problems. Designers will recognize in this description characteristics common to all design problems, and that is my intention. The design field has developed effective techniques for dealing with problems of this kind. I propose we approach philosophy as design problems, using design methodologies to interrogate problematic situations we face to uncover and frame the most fruitful problems, to develop holistic approaches to thinking them that permit solutions to these problems, to iteratively experiment with and improve our practical thinking. I call this understanding and approach to philosophy “design instrumentalism”. We need to design philosophies that help us design better lives for ourselves, and this book will hopefully contribute to this project.
  4. Part of the reason we need to take design much more seriously is that who we are is changed by what we design. Indirectly, when we design things we use, we design ourselves. And this is because human being is extended being. To be a human being means to have one’s own being stream out into the world in every direction. Despite what spiritual conventional wisdom tells us, in some very important ways we are our possessions, we belong to where we live and we are our egos. But what we are can be released, transformed, improved or degraded based on what we do with ourselves: our environments, our physical tools, our conceptual/mental tools, our life practices, etc. This part of the book draws on extended cognition, cyborg theory, ANT, postphenomenology crossbred with existentialism, but I plan to be atrociously unscholarly, synthetic and magisterial in my approach and keep external references to a minimum. The goal here is to reframe human existence in a way that liberates us from the subject-object and self-other dichotomies that dominate the working philosophies that unconsciously shape our conscious thoughts. (The pre-conscious “how” of our thinking produces the “what” of our thoughts. I may have to also take some potshots at pop-psychologism that views the unconscious as sneaky little mind forces that lurk about behind the scenes motivating us this way or biasing us that way. Where most folks see secularized demons, I see poorly designed conceptual systems, a.k.a. philosophies.)
  5. The process of being human is a nonlinear (iterative feedback) process of co-evolution. As we change the world, the world changes us. This process has brought us to a perilous point where we must choose our next step very carefully.

This is an early sketch, but I think some of the ideas are interesting and consequential, and I think it will be fun to right. And my design approach will ensure that at least some people will find the book useful, usable and desirable.

The odor of burning rubber

When thinking about truth, we expect both clarity and effectiveness. These qualities are so expected, in fact, that they serve as criteria for truth. If they are present we assume what we think is true, and if we are surrounded by people thinking the same way we might even succumb to certainty.

Certainty is comfortable. We tend to try to stay in situations where we feel we know what is true, or at least have a gist of truth. Most of us, who work at living normal, orderly, productive lives, mostly succeed most of the time.

The life of a strategic designer is not like this. Strategic designers are routinely asked to help organizations innovate. This requires framing or reframing problems: re-conceptualizing known truths, or making sense of chaotic situations nobody understands or resolving conflicts where incompatible, incommensurable visions collide.

Working to discover/make (instaurate) a concept that manages to produce all three qualities at once — clarity, effectiveness and consensus — is tricky work. Normally it is necessary to try on and discard multiple framings that only produce only one or two of these qualities before one comes along the fully resolves the problem.

This process is instructive if we are observant and ready to meta-reframe what we think is going on. In other words, this activity of frame instauration can produce philosophical shifts. These experiences and my attempts to account for them have shifted my own understanding of pretty much everything.

What have I taken from all this shifting? First, I know what it is like to shift between frames. I know what it does to my experience of whatever problematic situation I am trying to understand and I know what it can do to my experience of the world, instantly, all at once, as a whole. I also know what it is like to do without a frame, and the harrowing things that does to my experience of the world. I am used to radical surprise, of having (literally) inconceivable possibilities become conceivable, and along with it, all kinds of ideas that were standing in front of my face, invisible, staring me in the eyes while I was rooting around in the shadows for knowable unknowns. I have a very vivid sense of pluralism, and of a transcendent ground from which truth in all its pluralistic glory emerges.

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An urgent question to ask: If an explanation is clear and effective why would anyone refuse to accept it?

A better reframing of this question is: What good reasons might a person have for refusing to accept a clear and effective explanation?

This question becomes even more effective if it is asked from a pluralistic perspective, assuming that multiple true answers are always possible because questions can be framed myriad ways.

What follows below is my answer to this question.

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It is important to us that our truths are clear; that is, they give us the means to think about our situations. This means, first, being able to ask a question that can be answered. Not knowing an answer to a question can be frustrating, but at least we know what the problem is. Perplexity, the incapacity to find the relevant question in the face of a crisis, is unbearable, when this happens we become anxious that we do not have the truth.

It is important to us that our truths are effective; that is, they work properly, orienting us to the situations we find ourselves in and enabling us to anticipate and respond to what is going on. If we lose this ability and we are constantly surprised and our responses falter we begin to suspect that we do not have the truth.

It is tempting to settle with truths that are both clear and effective, and for a long time many of us have, on principle, rejected all truth criteria but these. But there is another criterion that is just as important: it is importance itself.

It is important to us that our truths are significant; that is they make our own situation important to ourselves, and inspire us to care about it, whether caring means loving or hating, embracing or opposing. If we lose the capacity to sense significance in our situation we will become indifferent, and here we ought to learn to suspect that whatever truth we have is not worth keeping.

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I know a lot of people right now who feel irritated, agitated and dissatisfied. If they are not angry or sensorily stimulated or intoxicated, they are just blank in a horrible way.

These same people are certain they know the truth, and everyone they know agrees with them that they know the truth, at least the most relevant aspects of the truth. Part of the truth they know is that philosophy is an inferior precursor to science, a cousin to religion. Both philosophy and religion opine, speculate and invent, where science demonstrates and establishes truth. It never occurs to people who know these things about science and philosophy to think about how they think, because we’ve figured that out, and we can skip to the scientific bottom line and just scoop up all the factual information science has made available to us.

So, they know a lot of true facts, and they know where to go to get more.

But what about all this ennui?

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I heard somewhere that when we lose our sense of smell, we do not simply smell nothing. We smell something resembling burning rubber. It drives people into depression and sometimes to suicide.

Perhaps the moral blankness we don’t feel when we lose the capacity to sense importance is like the burning rubber we don’t smell when we lose our sense of importance.

 

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be “design Instrumentalism”, a variant of John Dewey’s instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design instrumentalism builds on Dewey’s instrumentalism by focusing on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and evaluated as designed products, using frameworks like Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable. These three evaluative considerations could be translated to the design of philosophies:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should be viewed less as collections of true beliefs, than as as fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive practical worldview (a.k.a. praxis).

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it is all solid and persuasive enough, and not in need of tedious rehashing. I’ll just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of pragmatic presuppositions. The list is still incomplete and will be supplemented with ideas drawn from sources, including phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and material turn philosophies.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like every ambitious philosophy, multilayered. Design Instrumentalism is itself (a) a philosophical tool used to explore what it means that (b) philosophy is a philosophical tool for designing philosophical tools, which are (c) applied to practical living. So Design Instrumentalism might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers who enjoy doing philosophy (the tool designers), but it also focuses on the design of philosophies for non-philosophers with little interest in doing philosophy (the tool users) who need concepts for thinking about their lives in general and for focused “single-use” for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of particular design problems.

Doing just this kind of work (strategic designers call it “framing”) in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is what brought me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

One way to see design

Design is materialized philosophy.

When designing something — which always and necessarily means designing something for someone — the central question is always: what is the right philosophy for this context?

The purpose of design research is to get to the heart of this central question out, and then to pose the design problem in such a way that designers think about the design problem in the right way, from the philosophical perspective suited to the problem.

Design briefs are tiny philosophical primers.

A good design brief will effect a perspectival shift in the reader (the designer) that brings new possibilities into view, possibilities that were inconceivable prior to the shift. This phenomenon is what is commonly called inspiration.

It is the job of design researchers to produce precision inspiration.

Designers develop hybrid systems

Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.

In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to La tour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…

Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.

If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:

Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.

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I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.

Version 1

An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.

A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.

The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).

But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.

Version 2

Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.

Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.

From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.