Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

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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.

ANT, Postphenomenology and their mutant child, OOO

It seems obvious to me that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Postphenomenology are complementary lenses for understanding social situations.

ANT gives us the network viewed “objectively” outside-in, and Postphenomenology helps us understand inside-out how the nodes interpret inputs from the network and translate them into outputs.

An ANT practitioner will be the first to tell you that ANT is just one way an actor (a theorist) can interpret and translate the network into a coherent explanatory account — but one that mostly blackboxes how that network is experienced at any one point. The ANT account is one of many multistable descriptions that can be given.

A Postphenomenologist brackets the network in order to understand how certain nodes in the network interpret other nodes before acting within the network, on the network, thereby changing it.

ANT and Postphenomenology are each the everted perspective of the other. Each methodically excludes what the other describes, through blackboxing or bracketing, respectively. A cultural anthropologist might say ANT attempts a rigorously etic view of the actor-network, and Postphenomenology is the emic view of the actor-nodes within it.

To make a chaos theory analogy, ANT gives us a Mandelbrot Set view of a region of the complex plane, and Postphenomenology gives us Julia Sets of selected points within the region.

OOO is a peculiar cross-breeding of the two that focuses precisely on the actor-nodes in the network that resist emic understanding, and then marvels at the fact that they must have some sort of emicity that neither we (nor any other object) can get at. They seem to me to be a mystical branch of Process philosophy, given to authoring fanciful philosophical midrash where both physical and social sciences  fail.

To extend the chaos theory analogy, OOO enjoys boggling at how densely the points belonging to the Mandelbrot Set saturate the band of points along its psychedelically-enflamed perimeter, and at the impenetrable blankness of each and every one of them.

Right?

No?

Faith and belief-production

On Facebook Leafy said “My friend and I have been asking ourselves WHY people have so much contempt now for experts. … Stephen’s contribution is: Americans still fundamentally live in a culture informed by a team spirit that pits Science against Christianity, as if these things were part of the same sport. Even though many claim not to believe in God, we still tend to thus address all knowledge through the lens of authoritarianism, dogma, and faith. Since the development of the scientific method, modern science has always recognized that knowledge is a work in process, and that part of the Great Work is to prove ourselves wrong. But most Americans nevertheless now apprehend Science as substitute for Christianity, and blame it as if it were a bad religion with evil priests when it doesn’t immediately have all the right answers.”

I felt a need to clarify:

My point was that America still lives with unconscious habits of thought that form its beliefs, and that this is true not only for the right, but also for the left.
 
If your faith-habits lead you to reject explicit belief in, say, original sin, in invisible demonic forces, in metaphysical moralism, in the future coming of a kingdom of god, in a conversion that makes the scales fall from your eyes (so you can experience the true Truth), that the beliefs you claim are true change your moral status, etc., etc. etc., if your faith-habits remain the same as before, you’ll just trade out one believed-in entity for another, and they’ll perform very similar functions. The more ideologically-driven a person is the more conspicuous this becomes.
 
To root out not only the beliefs but the belief-producing faiths, you have have to examine the what, how and why of your thinking, iteratively design and try on new concepts and methods of thinking until something starts making new sense of our experience — and then the hard work starts of gradually rebuilding our habits around this new kind of conceiving, perceiving, thinking and responding. This is a much more arduous process than having a brilliant flash of insight into the true Truth that either wokes you or red-pills you, and knocks you right off your horse.
 
But our faith leads us to anticipate some great eureka that delivers us to righteousness. So if we happen to hear something that gives us a minute of conceptual coherence, we interpret it as finally seeing the light. Nope, it’s just the effect of ideological coherence when you’re not accustomed to it. Many other worldviews/lifeworlds are possible. And I promise, most of those many others will actually work better than the kind that bowls folks over who don’t think much about their thinking.
And then I added the following, because I just cannot resist beating two of my deadest horses 1) fundamentalism-is-a counterfeit-religion, and 2) scientistic-belief-is-a-form-of-fundamentalism:

…And further, [when someone rejects beliefs without rejecting the faith that produces and sustains them] because only the what of the belief has changed but the how of the believing is left untouched, most folks who “believe in science” do so in the same manner as those who “believe in Jesus”. In other words, they are scientistic, not scientific.

But to clarify, I do not consider scientistic thinking to be an infection of science with religious thinking. Believing in this manner ruins religious practice at least as much. “Believing in Jesus” with a faith that thinks that certain facts we can hold in our heads are like golden tickets that get you into the heavenly chocolate factory — that’s ideology, not religion. And the only thing it has to do with religion is that it body-snatches and reanimate religious symbols. It is a horrible shame that people equate fundamentalism with religion. Fundamentalism and religion couldn’t be more different.

Balking at the threshold

An idea I have repeated too much: We resist deep change, not because we love the old or hate the new, but because of the intolerable span of dread that separates the old from the new.

At the threshold of deep change, in the face of something so new that it requires a preliminary forgetting of the old before true understanding is possible, a soul will sometimes balk. What can this balking look like?

  • Allowing the message to be interrupted before it is complete
  • Avoidance or distraction, switching focus away from the message
  • Interpretation of the threshold anxiety as evidence of a real threat
  • Questioning motives of the messenger, or otherwise nullifying the validity of the message ad hominem
  • Investigating the causes of the message, rather than receiving its content
  • Subjecting the message to formal analysis before listening to its content
  • Creating conflict, and destroying the conditions for understanding
  • Attempting to silence the messenger
  • Ridiculing the message or the messenger
  • Postponement of hearing the message to a more suitable time
  • Repeating the old truth in place of hearing the new message
  • Asserting personal incapacity to understand the message
  • Accusing the new message of having no coherent meaning to understand
  • Shoehorning the new message into old frameworks, rendering the message incomprehensible
  • Reducing the new message to existing old ones and blurring and denying essential distinctions
  • Assuming a superior spiritual status, rendering this and all messages pointless
  • Dominating the conversation; interrogating instead of listening
  • Shifting focus from content of message to the form of the message (for instance critiquing it as rhetoric)
  • Deflection; treating the message as something to be heard by someone else
  • Assessing the effort required to understand as a bad investment of time and effort
  • Performing active listening, while not listening
  • Letting the messenger talk, but not allowing message to penetrate; moving to the next topic before understanding has occurred
  • Jumping to associated ideas before understanding happens
  • Exalting the form of the message itself as a counterfeit for understanding
  • Adoring the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Hating the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Flattering the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Interpreting the message as non-comprehensible magical incantation
  • Experiencing the message aesthetically instead of understanding
  • Listening to the message but deferring understanding until later

In many myths (including the Easter myth, which is on my mind because today happens to be Easter) an uncanny zone (of time or space or state) separating the old and the new. Traversing that zone is requires considerable skill and (as Joseph Campbell pointed out) often spiritual assistance.

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Incidentally, speaking of Easter — which for Christians marks the passing of an old dead faith and the rising of a new living one — this morning I am reading an interesting paper by Bruno Latour, where he relates an amusing Babel-like story:

Jesuits who had settled in China in the XVIIth century, write to Rome complaining about the fact that, under pressure from the Dominican friars, they are obliged to utter the formula of the consecration in Latin. In effect, when the priest says: ’’Hoc est enim corpus meus,” it presents to the ear of a Chinese : “Hocu ye-su-tu ye-nim co-lo-pu-su- me-um,” which, if the Jesuits did not provide a French translation of what the unfortunate Chinese hear at the moment of the transsubstantiation, could pass for a fairly good approximation, give or take a few consonants, of : “emanation, ancient, lord, office, rule, handsome, rest, each, road, flee, thing, meditate, greening, meadows”.

I am imagining a short story where the Chinese receive this string of words as a magical incantation — a Latour liturgy — a rite around which a new religious faith revolves. The rite and its commentary is recorded in a Chinese Newer Testament which relates the miraculous story of a series of wild historical accidents that generated the string of Holy Words, despite the conceits of silly Hebrews and Europeans who thought they understood the meanings, but which were only preparations for something far greater:

Emanation, Ancient Lord!
Office rule handsome!
Rest each road.
Flee thing — meditate!
Greening meadows.

Amen

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.

Ideological automatons

“On the one hand, design is determined by ideas and material conditions over which designers have no control, yet, on the other hand, designs are the result of designers exercising their creative autonomy and originality. To put the paradox in the most extreme terms, how can designers be said to be in command of what they do, but at the same time merely be the agents of ideology, with no more power to determine the outcome of their work than the ant or worker bee? There is no answer to this question: it is a fact that both conditions invariably co-exist, however uncomfortably, in the work of design. The same apparent paradox occurs in all manifestations of culture: any painting, film, book or building contains ideas about the nature of the world…” — Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire

More and more, when I read Marxists writing about ideologies and the material conditions that produce them, apparently automatically, with no trace of intellectual agency, especially not of a philosophical nature, I find myself reflecting on the ideologies and material conditions of academic life, especially in those fields where Marxism tends to flourish. What are the forces of academic production, and what is it about them that channels so much thinking into this odd Marxist materialist conclusion? As much as academics like to think of academia as a shelter from brutal commercial forces from which non-academic life can be studied, analyzed and reinterpreted, I’ve seen it up close, and the forces which shape the lives of academics are at least as brutal, and far more intellectually intrusive than any I have seen in out in the private world. If fact, if my only exposure to business were that of a social sciences professor reading newspapers and history books with the rigorously-trained eye of a Marxist, looking through the lens of my own first-hand experience of university committee politics and peer-juried journal submission, I can see myself becoming unable to see anything but materially-determined ideological mind-control behind individual efforts at autonomy.

I need to reread We Have Never Been Modern.

Ghost-hearted

Some people in our lives won’t exist toward us from the other side.

They suppress response. They withhold respect. They plate themselves with loveless indifference. They cut things short, deflect, postpone, neglect. Vulnerable words are left unanswered, hanging, abandoned in a vacuum.

When they become angry and attack to wound, the humanity of the violence is relief from the nothingness they maintain the rest of the time.

As Susan says, their ghostliness haunts us.

When we are wounded by a ghost heart and try to reconcile with them — when we ask for collaboration to coauthor the ending of the story — this is when the ghost heart exists least of all. It turns out that you were written out from the start. This is (and was always) your problem, your story — and their story, and your part in it, is (and was always) theirs alone. And no human forgiveness will be exchanged. None will be given; none will be accepted. It doesn’t matter, because you are not real.

There is no choice, now. You must amputate this being — this real person whoever they were — from your biography. They will remain there for a long time as nothing, though — a question with too many answers, an aching phantom limb.

Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights

Recently I’ve been asking my teammates to exercise certain rights I believe all design collaborators on projects should have. So far, the rights have been listed as occasions arise, but I’m starting to want to keep a list, because I don’t want to forget them, but also because they feel sacred and I would like to see them worded precisely and laid out systematically as a Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights. I will be updating this list, and once it stabilizes I might letterpress it as a physical piece.

  • The right to a brief: every team member has the right to request a clearly framed problem to solve autonomously (as opposed a specification to execute).
  • The right to clarity: every team member can request a detailed explanation for any aspect of the project, until it is completely understood.
  • The right to justification: every team member can raise explicit concerns with decisions, and to have the concerns addressed.
  • The right to propose alternatives: every team member is free to conceive and communicate different approaches to solving problems.
  • The right to have pre-articulate intuitions: every team member can expect to have pure (pre-articulate) intuitions respected as valid, and to be assisted in giving the intuition explicit, articulate form.
  • The right to speak: every team member’s voice will be actively welcomed in discussions, meaning that opportunities to enter the conversation will be offered and space to communicate without interruption will be protected. 
  • The right to be fully understood: every team member can expect active listening from teammates, which means they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.

First sixteen copies of Geomentric Meditations

Yesterday, despite UPS’s best efforts I managed to get both boxes of the printed spreads of Geometric Meditations. I unpacked and organized the components, and assembled the first sixteen copies. I gave the first three copies to Susan, Zoë and Helen. I put the fourth in my library, in the religion section with the Kabbalah books. This is a book I’ve wanted in my library for a long time.

The process of making these books is labor intensive. Here’s the process:

  1. Collate the signature from six separate stacks of spreads.
  2. Fold each sheet.
  3. Use template to punch three holes (for sewing) through the signature fold.
  4. Measure 14″ of red waxed linen thread and thread it through the bookbinding needle.
  5. Starting from the top hole in the spine sew the signature, using a figure-eight pattern.
  6. Tie off the top and trim the threads evenly.
  7. With a craft knife (#11 Olfa) trim top and bottom edges in .75″.
  8. Trim outer edge in .75″.

I’m working on methods to streamline production, but it is still time-consuming.

If you receive a copy of this book, please take care of it. In each book is fifteen years of intense thinking, hands-on use and iterative design, five years of obsessive writing, rewriting and editing, one year of final editing and design tweaking, two months of production work and about half an hour of handcraft.

I made everything as beautiful as I could, and I am uneasily pleased with how it turned out.

Whitehead and Peirce

Currently I’m reading David Ray Griffin’s Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy after more or less giving up on Stengers’s more playful and imaginative, but tragically francofuzzled, Whitehead introduction. Griffin’s is far more straightforward and clarifying, and that is what I am after.

One of the central ideas in this book is prohibition of philosophical performative contradictions., or as Griffin summarizes it: “…it is antirational to deny in theory ideas that one necessarily presupposes in practice is that one thereby violates the first rule of reason, the law of noncontradiction. It is irrational simultaneously to affirm and deny one and the same proposition. And this is what happens when one denies a hard-core commonsense idea. That is, one is denying the idea explicitly while affirming it implicitly. This point has been made by Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas in their critique of “performative contradiction,” in which the very act of performing a speech act contradicts its semantic content, its meaning.”

This reminds me of a passage from Charles Sanders Peirce’s seminal Pragmatist essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities Claimed For Man”: “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

But there are interesting differences between Whitehead’s and Peirce’s objections to skepticism to commonsense beliefs. Whitehead saw self-contradictions, where Peirce saw counterfeit beliefs in the form of theoretical assertions. Both saw a peeling apart of the theoretical snd practical.

My view on this emphasizes the morality of denial: In most of these denials of commonsense I see an attempt at solipsism. Some claim of reality transcending mind is dismantled and reduced to a mental phenomenon that can be accepted or rejected at the discretion of the thinker. This desire to solipsize what is mind-transcendently real is the active ingredient of evil. Life requires small doses of such solipsism to shelter us from the overwhelming dread of infinity, but when philosophies move from emphasis and deemphasis to ontological negation, this should be taken as a possible symptom of autoapotheosis, the desire to mistake ourselves for God, the ultimate failure of philosophy, theology, which manifests itself as ideology.

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.

A faith of sacred questions

It seems to be a perverse law of reality that the more ultimate and urgent a question is to human existence, the less we can hope to have an answer. Stuck without answers, we are forced into different forms of faith, which include:

  • Tradition — accepting answers provided by trusted others from the past or present and actively cultivating belief.
  • Speculation — experimenting with possible answers and adhering to the ones that seem best to believe.
  • Practicality — rejecting such questions and living strictly within the limits of mundane truths which can be answered.
  • Distraction — suppressing the urgency of ultimate questions by redirecting, distorting or dulling attention.
  • Quietism — declaring ultimate unknowns to be unknowable, and therefore less a matter of questions to ask and answer than mysteries to contemplate.
  • Mysticism — abandoning metaphysical speculation and instead meditating on symbols  that relate us to realities beyond form and knowledge. 
  • Nihilism — taking the painful unknowability of our most urgent questions as a test of the integrity and courage of our intellectual conscience to refuse to resolve what cannot be resolved.

Another response takes the unanswerability of ultimate questions as a moral clue, a suggestion that here answers are not the answer.

The crucial shift required for this alternative response is rethinking the relationship between questions and answers. Normally, answers alone are seen as having positive value, and the value of questions are entirely bound up with their role in production of answers. Questions are just perceptible holes or defects in our knowledge, and the posing of questions is just requesting more or better answers.

But this view is not the only possible one, and it may just be a stale habit that has gone too long without being challenged. In fact, questions are the furthest thing from mere absence of answer. A question is an active kind of receptivity, guided by a strong intuition of relevance, and it might even be questions that invest truths with intellectual life.

It has been argued that understanding any truth consists in grasping the question implied in its assertion. Misunderstandings occur when truth are taken as answers to the wrong questions. And confusion is failing to find any question the truth might answer.

It is also true that when a person plunged into a disorienting problematic situation, an inability to form clear questions far more painful than simply lacking answers, and that gaining clarity into one’s questions alleviates this pain more than acquiring new factual information, unless the facts reveal the real question at hand.

Dignifying questions with value and positive existence makes possible new forms of faith, oriented less toward having factual answers than toward asking good questions in a good way for good reasons.

If questions are capable of infusing truths with living meaning, can questions do the same for other kinds of relationships? How about relationships between people (who, after all, are irreducible to knowledge)? How about relationships between people and this inexhaustibly surprising reality we inhabit together?

Is it possible that unanswerable questions might help us understand that knower-known is not the right relationship in every kind of situations? Here questions seem to urge us to know-toward, understand-toward instead of comprehending — to touch with the fingertips of our understanding instead of reflexively gripping everything in the fists of our cognition. This way of approaching reality places faith in questions as sacred.

Generosity of spirit

When a person tells you something that is new to them — something they experience as new, whether because it is new to the world or just new to themselves — the generous thing is to find as much newness in it as possible, and to share that newness with them.

The temptation, of course, is to view the other person’s new idea or new insight or new knowledge as something we already had, as if this poor fool just caught up with us.

When people do this to me, it feels like a kind of stinginess. Somehow, this other person lacks the generosity to accept something new from someone like me. Maybe they can’t share excitement over another person’s achievement. Or maybe they cannot be bothered to exert effort to see subtle differences beyond the simple matching of resemblances. Or maybe they don’t like the feeling of anxiety that always attends even the smallest transcendence of one’s own conceptual system. Or maybe they see a loss in prestige being taught by someone else, and their envy demands minimizing other people’s achievements.

Whatever the motive, it feels terrible — deflated, alienated, humiliated — to be on the other end of this treatment.

My own moral method requires me now to turn it around and find where I have done and habitually do this myself. As always, I am finding numerous examples, and in the most painful places — in places where I’ve wounded people and damaged relationships.

Here is a new discipline of generosity I am going to experiment with. I will not pretend an entire idea is new if much of it is familiar and well-known. (I have tried that, and it is disingenuous and self-abasing.) What I will do instead is treat the familiar and known aspects of the idea as a launching point for an exploration of what is truly novel and valuable in the idea. I will look for exciting, consequential content and look for ways to collaboratively incorporate it into my own understandings. This is another way of saying that I will allow this other person to influence me and play a part in creating me.

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.

 

Shelved: “post-post”

Today I shelved a draft of a post about a shift I have detected in our culture. In the first post of my “Shelved” series, I will attempt to summarize that post:

I believe the period we called “postmodern” ended about ten years ago. The primary reason this event has not been publically noted is because the kind of reflection that detects and confidently notes shifts in zeitgeist itself belongs to postmodernism. I would call the period we are in postpostmodern, except that the adding of the “post-“ prefix also belongs to postmodernism, and it feels stale.

The shift can be characterized as a shift from first-person perspective to third-person perspective. With this shift comes new style preferences, and this one seems to like acronyms. So I’ll try to name this new worldview something that fits its own sensibilities by calling it 3PP, short for 3rd person perspective.

It is no accident that among the material-turn philosophies, the one that assumes a first-person view is called postphenomenology, and the ones that emphasize a third-person perspective are called ANT and OOO.

Part of this shift to 3PP is a very strong sense that all personal reflection is just an emergent phenomenon of objective processes, and unreliable until it is backed up with solid objective research. There is nothing wrong with this, and much right about it, unless it grows aggressive and attempts to discredit and devalue personal experience, even in the first-person’s own natural habitats, especially art.

Establishing objectivity is very expensive. Not all people can afford it! Politically speaking, a requirement to objectively prove every kind of reflection and objectively justify every moral intuition, even those of personal experience, excludes quite a few less advantaged voices from public discourse. Here I will quote my own shelved post:

If one aspires to be heard and taken seriously, much less believed, one has to have the right kind of hard-nosed factual disposition and soft-hearted moral disposition, the right kind of extensive training in evidence-gathering, the right kind of expertise in how to detect and neutralize one’s own biases and unconscious motivations, and the right kind of work ethic (and the time and resources to live up to its demands). In short, one has to belong to a certain qualified class of professional to have a valid opinion on what is really real and really good, and therefore to have the right to determine what voices ought to be permitted to speak, which voices should be amplified and “always believed”,  and which voices must be suppressed or “de-platformed”. The reason for this  is self-evident: anyone outside of this fastidiously self-aware class is almost certain to be unconsciously driven by a desire for collective power, and will almost automatically fail to notice the insidious ways power and privilege produce worldviews that justify one’s own right to oppress others who seem to deserve or even require it.

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Just as I suspected: my summary is better than the original!

Introducing “Shelved”

Lately, I have been writing lengthy posts and abandoning them when they sprawl out of control and I run out of time. There are good thoughts in them, though, and I hate to waste them.

To avoid losing them I am going to steal a move from Borges (who wrote fictional critical reviews of imaginary novels he lacked the patience to write) and start publishing summaries of shelved posts.

I will now write the first post in the Shelved series.

 

 

Liberalism’s dependence on democracy

In a stable liberal democracy, the majority of citizens must consent to a shared vision of liberty.

As soon as some powerful minority imposes a vision of liberty that the majority experiences as unjust, the fragile alliance between democracy and liberalism begins to break down.

This will happen even if that minority is entirely correct about absolutely everything — that it really does have special access to the absolute moral truth, thanks to better education, purer motives, or more reliable techniques for counterbalancing its biases and neutralizing its own motivated reasoning — or any other similar claims that justify privileging one’s own judgment and enforcing one’s own convictions over the unconvinced.

If the unconvinced also think they have privileged access to the truth (and they do think that!), and however wrong they may be (and they are wrong about having special access to the truth!), the righteousness of the minority will not matter: the majority is going to assert its will. Angry majorities tend to have the advantage over righteous minorities in such conflicts.

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One of the consolation prizes of vulnerability is you can never forget how dependent you are on persuasion for your very survival. This, and this alone, is what gives the marginal person some kind of intellectual privilege.

Publication of Geometric Meditations

I am sending Geometric Meditations to the printer this weekend. I have continued to tweak the layout in vanishingly minuscule ways. Just about every word, every punctuation mark and every line break has been inspected, varied, experimented with, obsessed over.

I am posting what I think will be the final version which will be printed. If anyone happens to look at it and finds a mistake or flaw, please alert me. I know it cannot be perfect, but I’m pushing it as far in that direction as I can.

Once Susan gives it the last pass on Saturday and approves it, I am bundling it up and sending it off. I’m told the printing takes about fifteen days. After that, I will be hand-sewing each copy, and giving them to the people who participated in the development of the concepts and the design of the book.

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