Passage

What have I learned reading millennia of eloquent bellyachers?

Every generation is convinced it is the last because life without self is inconceivable. What we can’t conceive, seems to us, nonexistent: thus, the eternally receding nigh of endtimes.

Every generation longs for the simplicity of earlier days, because all we want to bequeath the future from our hassled present is the relatively simple center, and the simple center of former times is all that is bequeathed to us. The present for everyone at all times is mostly hassling periphery around a tiny, vulnerable, simple center.

We are always stunned by the rapid change of present times, because that is what present times do: they change rapidly. “Ha, you call that rapid change?” says each generation to its stunned ancestors.

Now is always lonely, isolating, alienating. Human life is like this, or at least it is for the kind of person who needs to write.

We are always in a unique predicament. Every epoch, every people, every person: in the uniqueness of our predicament, we are all alike.

In our conviction that I, alone, at the center of my own universe, am in a unique predicament that nobody else can understand, we are all alike.

In our belief that all others must displace themselves and recenter around the absolute center of the universe — we might try to make this happen. Maybe we even should try.

And if life is especially malevolent, it might allow us to succeed for a time.

Interspecting interverts

A friend asked me what I meant by interspection.

By interspection, I mean our attention is neither turned inward toward ourselves, nor outward toward the world, but rather otherward into each other’s inwardness.

Everyone else’s inner life is now everyone’s problem — both their phony public passions they pass off as their subjectivity, and their more authentic personal perspectives they mistake for objectivity.

We’re all interspecting interverts, and we are still pretty horrible at it. We celebrate it as “empathy” but very little of it penetrates beyond our collectively-believed, individually-imagined amateur sociologist fantasies.

Crisis of interspection

Yesterday, I came upon this passage in William Barrett’s Irrational Man:

Yet a great formal style in painting has never been created that did not draw upon the depths of the human spirit, and that did not, in its newness, express a fresh mutation of the human spirit. Cubism achieved a radical ?attening of space by insisting on the two-dimensional fact of the canvas. This ?attening out of space would seem not to be a negligible fact historically if we re?ect that when, once before in history, such a development occurred but in the opposite direction—when the ?atness of the Gothic or primitive painters passed over into the solidity, perspective, and three- dimensional style of early Renaissance painting—it was a mark that man was turning outward, into space, after the long period of introspection of the Middle Ages. Western man moved out into space in his painting, in the fourteenth century, before he set forth into actual physical space in the age of exploration that was to follow. Thus painting was prophetic of the new turn of the human spirit which was eventually to ?nd expression in the conquest of the whole globe. Have we the right, then, to suggest that the ?attening of painting in our own century portends a turning inward of the human spirit, or at any rate a turning away from that outer world of space which has hitherto been the ultimate arena of Western man’s extroversion?

…The subjectivity that is generally present in modern art is a psychological compensation for, sometimes a violent revolt against, the gigantic externalization of life within modern society. The world pictured by the modern artist is, like the world meditated upon by the existential philosopher, a world where man is a stranger.

When mankind no longer lives spontaneously turned toward God or the supersensible world… the artist too must stand face to face with a ?at and inexplicable world.

Do we still feel like strangers to ourselves? Do we still recoil from a “gigantic externalization of life within modern society”? I don’t think so, but mostly because most of us were born into a nearly complete state of alienation, have never known anything else and consequently we have no contrasting state of being with which we can compare our own.

I would argue that the analogue to extraverted exploration or introverted introspection most conspicuously and painfully present in our time is interspection — a crisis of intimacy.

In our time, largely due to social media (sorry for this boring, but true analysis), a person’s inner self is subjected to an unprecedented level of external exposure and scrutiny, both in voluntary expression and involuntary behavioral monitoring and increasingly sophisticated means of linking, tracking and analysis. At the same time, a self is assailed and buffeted by other people’s personal expressions, spoken with sincerity cranked to the maximum — heartfelt responses to tragedy, anguished pain cries from assorted microagressions, agitated responses to these social phenomena from rando bloggers amped-up on ungodly doses of yerba mate.

Even the news is infused with a standard opining and emoting. All journalism is gonzo journalism now, even when the journo subjectivity admixed into the story, far from spicing it and tilting the perspective dilutes it and locks it into a standardized, redundantly radical viewpoint.

And at work, matters are even worse. Rather than leaving our controversial opinions at home, as etiquette once required, we are now encouraged to bring our opinions “authentic selves” to work — at least selves selected from the list of recognized identities. Unique selves require far too much effort to understand, and tend to strain busy peoples’ patience. From time to time these select authentic selves are invited/required to ritualistically confront one another in encounters that are intentionally “uncomfortable” and to affirm the necessity and goodness of the ritual and the social theory that prescribes it.

And, at least in the rapidly-expanding design world, teams are plunged into resolving problems of human understanding, unknown 20 years ago. These problems are pushed to the edges of comprehensibility, because these are the extremes that yield innovation. This kind of deep working produces a completely different kind of intimacy crisis than those of social media, editorialized news, workplace authenticity and the like, all of which are counterfeit intimacy performed by social actors whose whose selfhood is eclipsed by role and buried beneath layers of personae — or what was known in existentialist circles as “bad faith”.

It is no coincidence that design’s intersubjective intimacy occurs precisely where people are trying their best to be objective by directing their mind away from who they think they are toward what the think they are not. Ironically, here is where we encounter the raw realness of fellow-souls, in the schematic interference of divergent conceptualizations and those intuitions we resort to when our conceptual schema fail us.

We seek our selfhood in the object at the center of our own experience, which is exactly the wrong place to look for self. Self is more vividly present everywhere but there, especially in times when that egoic object is such a matter of concern that it is smothered in image.

This is why Pinterest is the only social medium where selves can be found. Everywhere else is just persona propaganda.

Philosophy as design

[This is an older post that was saved as a draft, that I published for my index of Philosophy of Design of Philosophy posts. Unfortunately I lost the date when it was written. It was probably mid-2019.]

The idea that philosophies are systems of conceptual tools used for making sense of the world is not new. This idea was central to John Dewey’s brand of Pragmatism which he called “Instrumentalism”. Here the primary measure of a philosophy is not fidelity in representing some sort of pre-existent truth, but rather usefulness for living a particular kind of life.

And the idea that philosophies are not impersonal theories of truth but are made by and for a variety of specific types of people with specific value priorities and ideals which can differ quite drastically from type to type was one of Nietzsche’s core themes. Nietzsche’s measure of philosophy a emphasized its ability to invest life with desirability.

By now, anyone who works as a designer or with designers will have recognized Liz Sanders’s famous triad of good experience, Useful, Usable and Desirable.

This suggests the question of usability? Have any philosophers emphasized usability, or even given it much thought at all? I have found quite a few, actually, but their works  tend to be scholarly explanations of the work of other philosophers. It seems as if most philosophers are driven by a need to conceptualize something very difficult to explain, usually a perplexity that arose from reading other philosophers’ attempts to do the same. Maybe problems of that magnitude, ones that require a thinker’s entire effort to resolve, are so all-consuming they leave the thinker too exhausted to clearly communicate the resolution of the problem with those not already obsessed with it.

From Irrational Man

William Barrett, Irrational Man:

If philosophers are really to deal with the problem of human existence—and no other professional group in society is likely to take over the job for them—they might very well begin by asking: How does philosophy itself exist at the present time? Or, more concretely: How do philosophers exist in the modern world? … Philosophers today exist in the Academy, as members of departments of philosophy in universities, as professional teachers of a more or less theoretical subject known as philosophy. This simple observation, baldly factual and almost statistical, does not seem to take us very deeply into the abstruse problem of existence; but every effort at understanding must take off from our actual situation, the point at which we stand. “Know thyself!” is the command Socrates issued to philosophers at the beginning (or very close to it) of all Western philosophy; and contemporary philosophers might start on the journey of self- knowledge by coming to terms with the somewhat grubby and uninspiring fact of the social status of philosophy as a profession. …

“Not enough has been made of this academic existence of the philosopher, though some contemporary Existentialists have directed searching comment upon it. The price one pays for having a profession is a déformation professionelle, as the French put it—a professional deformation. Doctors and engineers tend to see things from the viewpoint of their own specialty, and usually show a very marked blind spot to whatever falls outside this particular province. The more specialized a vision the sharper its focus; but also the more nearly total the blind spot toward all things that lie on the periphery of this focus. As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modern society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function. And it is just here that a troublesome and profound ambiguity resides for the philosopher today. The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has. In ancient Greece it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline philosophy there was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual’s whole life was to be lived.”

So, what would be a better position in life for informing a total vision suitable for a broad range of human existences? I would say that being a human centered designer would rank near the top.

I’m reading Irrational  Man, because I’ve been working on redescribing my philosophy in more existentialist language. My project does draw heavily on pragmatist thought, but its ethical core is an existentialist one — but one tempered and matured by insights from distributed cognition, postphenomenology, the material turn in the social sciences as well as human-centered and emerging polycentric design practices.

Daybreak 165

“The chief moral commandments which a people is willing to be taught and have preached at it again and again are related to its chief failings, and thus it is never bored by them. The Greeks, who all too frequently failed to evidence moderation, cold courage, fair-mindedness or rationality in general, were glad to give ear to the four Socratic virtues — for they had such need of them and yet so little talent for them!”

This is definitely true of me and my designerly virtues. I’ve struggled my whole adult life to acquire these bits of discipline — while simultaneously taking care to not smother out the vicious intensity beneath these virtues that is the true power source of my productivity. Right now, I’m reading Nietzsche to counterbalance my virtues, and it is making me much harder to get along with.

Fructivism

My friend Nick Gall hates being called a fructivist, but not only is he one, he was the first one, because he invented it.

Here’s my own sloppy definition of fructivism:

Fructivism is an ethic that prioritizes fruitfulness — the proliferation of creative possibilities — over more traditional virtues.

I needed to define fructivism because I need to use it to restate an old thought that can be said way more elegantly in fructivist language.

The best, most mutually satisfying act of listening is not an altruistic “I’m listening to you because I want you to feel listened to,” or “I’m listening to you because I want to understand who you are,” but rather a fructivist “I’m listening to you because I think there is creative potential in us putting our heads together.” That creative potential might be a new idea, or a new plan — or it might be the creation of a new, better relationship: a shared We.

The shared We, in which each person plays a constrained part within a transcendent whole, created through participation, especially through dialogue, is the fructivist analogue to altruistic care for an Other. According to this view, care for Other outside of actual personal relationship is more an affair of an isolated self with its own imagination (including an abstract sense of justice) than it is concern for any real, existing person. There is nothing wrong with imagined Others and abstract principles of justice, but they should not be confused with caring for people or with love.

Any man (or woman) who tells a woman (or man) that if she will be happier without him than with him, that she should leave, because he only wants her to be happy demonstrates that 1) he hasn’t figured out what love is, 2) probably doesn’t understand what a relationship is enough to cultivate one, and 3) does not value her enough to try even harder to create a more compelling We with her, and consequently, that she should leave and stop wasting her time living an affectionate coexistence with him. He might “love” her the same way he politically cares about Others while enjoying her or even being addicted to her physicality.

This same opposition explains why charity is humiliating to recipients, and often inspires antipathy instead of gratitude. Giving should be an investment in We, not a mere transfer of resources from a wealthy powerful person to a person so needy and weak the charitable giver doesn’t even want reciprocity or relationship. From a fructivist perspective, charity contains an overtone of rejection and an undertone of contempt.

Conflict of Visions

The shift

From Daybreak: “On the natural history of rights and duties. — Our duties — are the rights of others over us. How have they acquired such rights? By taking us to be capable of contracting and of requiting, by positing us as similar and equal to them, and as a consequence entrusting us with something, educating, reproving, supporting us. … If power-relationships undergo any material alteration, rights disappear and new ones are created — as is demonstrated in the continual disappearance and reformation of rights between nations. If our power is materially diminished, the feeling of those who have hitherto guaranteed our rights changes: they consider whether they can restore us to the full possession we formerly enjoyed — if they feel unable to do so, they henceforth deny our ‘rights’. Likewise, if our power is materially increased, the feeling of those who have hitherto recognised it but whose recognition is no longer needed changes: they no doubt attempt to suppress it to its former level, they will try to intervene and in doing so will allude to their ‘duty’ — but this is only a useless playing with words. Where rights prevail, a certain condition and degree of power is being maintained, a diminution and increment warded off. The rights of others constitute a concession on the part of our sense of power to the sense of power of those others. If our power appears to be deeply shaken and broken, our rights cease to exist: conversely, if we have grown very much more powerful, the rights of others, as we have previously conceded them, cease to exist for us. — The ‘man who wants to be fair’ is in constant need of the subtle tact of a balance: he must be able to assess degrees of power and rights, which, given the transitory nature of human things, will never stay in equilibrium for very long but will usually be rising or sinking: — being fair is consequently difficult and demands much practice and good will, and very much very good sense.”

This has been one of the central understandings that informs my politics — the one argument for equity that I find compelling. When any single political group becomes so powerful it no longer needs the other’s consent, or where it is do able to dominate it that it need not fear retaliation, it can dismiss that group’s protests and either dominate it or exclude it. All with the clearest conscience.

And the impotent fury of the powerless at the smug and ignorant moral self-satisfaction of the powerful is a truly dangerous force — especially if the powerful group (thinking inside its own logical bubble) overestimates its power and overplays its hand before the powerless group is truly helpless and unable to retaliate.

Anyone who sets aside the filters and logic of popular philosophy, and closely observes the relationship between power and truth will see something strange: first-person perspectives bend and warp around power without deciding to, or even noticing it is happening. The power-induced change in feelings and thoughts — even memories — are experienced as an epiphany or moment of clarity. “Now that I think about it, I see the truth, a truth that was there all along, I just never noticed…!”

I know a couple where one spouse took on a new energizing project, while the other was sinking into a debilitating depression. The energized spouse, looking through the lens of a new power balance, suddenly had insights about the depressed spouse and their years of marriage, and reassessed its value.

From the perspective of the old power balance, both would have recognized this shift as a betrayal of the worst kind, at exactly the moment when loyalty matters most.

But this is no longer the active perspective. The very standard of what is true, just and good changes with the change in power-relation. An epiphany occurs. The situation transfigures into a liberation story. …Or it transfigures for one side, the side with the power, the side who sees the truth. The other spouse is in no position to protest. The weak perspective can be disparaged and dismissed in the terms of the stronger one. And the weak perspective might even have to adopt the strong perspective if the relationship is to continue. This creates an illusion that there was really only one valid side to this conflict. The winners write history.

It is all unnervingly innocent, it happens constantly, and it is all concealed under language that artificially preserves an appearance of integrity and continuity.

And this story, writ large, is the story of our times.

Phronesis revision

I added a phronesis entry to Designerly virtues.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Synesse revision

I largely rewrote the synesse entry in my Designerly virtues article. “Designerly virtues” is one of the most important things I’ve written this year, and it will be the kernel of Second Natural.

One other note: I think Design Instrumentalism is an updated form of existentialism — a pragmatic existentialism that uses design methods.

The new synesse entry: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

 

The earlier version was: Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

Forgettings

If I didn’t already own a copy of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines, I’d have to buy it, if only to house this quote in my library:

As phenomena to be studied, discoveries are interesting, but forgettings are profound. Through the one, we explore and celebrate our insights, but through the other we discover our blindness. It is only through the encounter with a reality that we could not perceive that we see the limitations of our perception—and so begin the slow process of transcending them.

Esoterism practice

This morning, for no particular reason I’ve been poking around in Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing by Arthur M. Melzer

In addition to the various particular errors we may make regarding particular thinkers, there is also a common mistake that we commit again and again in our interpretation of all thinkers. We mistake the philosopher’s surface, exoteric teaching for his true one. And again, these surface teachings, however much they may vary from thinker to thinker, all have one essential thing in common: they are carefully designed to create the false appearance of conformity to the most powerful dogmas of the time, which it is too dangerous to question openly.

Therefore, the established custom of reading esoteric writers non-esoterically has a very precise and predictable efect on the practice of scholarship. It gives rise to a systematically recurring misimpression: everywhere we look, we see the dispiriting spectacle of the human mind vanquished by the hegemonic ideas of its times.

It appears that even our most celebrated geniuses—our Aristotles and Shakespeares—with all their extraordinary gifts and agonized eforts, always end up just confirming the myths of their particular “cave.” It is difficult to overstate the profound inluence of this recurring experience. It forms a crucial but unseen part of the intellectual background of our times, motivating the late modern or postmodern predisposition to the radical critique and disempowerment of reason. In the age of the forgetfulness of esotericism, it comes to seem obvious to everyone that the human mind is not free but wholly contextualized, culture-bound, socially determined. And if that is so, then all our truths are ultimately local, accidental, and temporary; our highest wisdom, only the hometown ethnocentrism polished up.

The awareness of esotericism, by contrast, reveals the falseness, the calculated insincerity of this ubiquitous facade of philosophical conformity—which now comes to sight as an ironic and artful act of resistance. Behind this defensive wall, sheltered and encouraged by it, thrives a secret underground of daring and dissent, a freewheeling speak-easy of the mind. But we, who should celebrate this, are somehow reluctant to believe it. Yet, as an old Ethiopian proverb observes, “When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply—and silently farts.” Every subject class has its silent arts of resistance—the philosophers too. For where force is lacking, fraud and secrecy are the primary agents of freedom. If modern scholars thought more like wily peasants, they would be less resistant to the essential truth that there is always more freedom in the world than the compliant surface of things would lead one to suppose. Thus, the true history of human reason is of necessity a secret history: when the practice of philosophic secrecy is once seen, then the faculty of human reason no longer appears quite as servile and culture-bound as it inevitably does to us.

In short, the ignorance of esotericism, by blinding us to the hidden world of freedom, keeps us in ignorance of ourselves—of the surprising power and independence of the human mind, of its unsuspected capacity to resist time and place.

I am wondering if I might, through the art of esoteric writing, be better able to speak the truth about the systematic oppression, alienation and marginalization of the most vulnerable members of our society — while avoiding persecution by those who enjoy grossly unfair privilege and power so ubiquitous it seems normal and natural?

Designerly virtues

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities and workstyles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues.  I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This post will be a first draft of a list of designerly virtues.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility, or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

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This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head.

 

The Gay Science 320

“A: Do I quite understand you? You are in search of something? Where, in the midst of the present, actual world, is your niche and star? Where you can lay yourself in the sun, so that you also may have a surplus of well-being, that your existence may justify itself? Let everyone do that for himself — you seem to say — and let him put talk about generalities, concern for others and society, out of his mind!

B: I want more; I am no seeker. I want to create my own sun for myself.”

Experience mesh

I recently cooriginated a new kind of design artifact that seems to be taking off in the service design world. I call it “experience mesh”.

The purpose of experience mesh is to represent a multi-actor design without taking any of the actors to be more primary or central than any others. This is crucial, because the main advancement of service design over older user-centric or customer-centric or any other actor-centric approaches to design is that service design is polycentric.

Polycentric design does not focus only on one actor, but looks at the experiences and especially the interactions between multiple actors to ensure that all actors are having a good experience and are interaction with one another in mutually beneficial ways.

What has been bothering me about the main design deliverable of service design, the service blueprint — and what inspired the framing of the problem that led to experience mesh — was that a blueprint is only partially polycentric.

The very format of the service blueprint has been impeding service design’s evolution beyond the single actor perspective. Though service blueprints do represent multiple actors, the whole thing is organized around one protagonist’s storyline (usually the customer). The other actors delivering or supporting the service are viewed only in reference to the protagonist, appearing and disappearing on the frontstage and entering and exiting the backstage, called into existence by the needs of the protagonist.

But much of what is most decisive in the service experience of these other actors happens completely outside of a blueprint oriented around a customer. For instance, a call center agent who materializes in a middle of a blueprint, when a frustrated customer calls to ask about her bill, also arrives on the scene with a backstory of his own. That morning he attended a team meeting, where he was exhorted to reduce call times and to increase up-sells and cross-sells. The scorecard he keeps on his desk by his keyboard, shows that his numbers are down: no commissions this month. Also, he is sitting in a cavernous room with agent stats (including his) projected up on the wall the size of a movie screen, and he is surrounded on all sides by teamwork posters, performance award trophies and other motivation aids. These missing moments and touchpoints will affect how he feels about his life throughout the day and the quality of his interaction with the customer when their storylines eventually intersect. Longer term, they will help determine whether this call agent is inspired to stay at his job and jazzed about helping customers, or whether he ends up ground down to robotic apathy, looking for opportunities to quit as soon as he can. These omissions from the customer-centric blueprint might very well represent the problems most needing service design interventions.

An experience mesh keeps the customer’s, agent’s and all other actors’ storylines complete and unbroken, loosely weaving them together to show how the overall design of the service impacts the lives of everyone involved. Where the storyline threads converge and loop together, both actors are frontstage to one another in an interaction. When their storyline threads diverge (and perhaps loop with storylines of other actors within the service) they are backstage to one another.

But every actor’s experience with the service is shown in its full continuity and placed within the scope of the service design. Everyone has a continuous, unbrokenstory. Nobody is disappearing and reappearing in service of one primary actor who is placed at the center of the service design. Everyone is viewed as the center of an experience, which can merge and harmonize with each interaction, all of which can and ought to be designed as a single multi-actor system: this is polycentric design.

Experience mesh is still imperfect in execution. I think it might be one of those artifacts that benefits from the flexibility of digital tools, and might find its ideal form when it sheds the constraints of its physical paper and tapeorigins. But the problem experience mesh is meant to solve is now framed, and as John Dewey said, “a problem well put is a problem half-solved.”

Foundations and landmarks

We seek common ground to serve as a foundation for establishing new agreements.

However, common ground has another equally important, but often neglected, function: providing landmarks needed for precise triangulation of subtle but consequential disagreements.

Without shared points of reference, it is impossible to trace perspectives back to their originating standpoints — which, for each of us, is the precise center of the universe.

Transcending the axial religious worldview

Susan and I have been having very fruitful arguments over the universality of ethical principles. We’ve been spiraling in on what it is exactly that makes me actively pro-religion, but hostile — almost panicked — toward so much of conventional religious thought.

Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of a series of texts I sent her this morning.

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My concern is this: the worldview common to religions of the Axial/Ecumenic Age (which includes rabbinic Judaism) is a really well-crafted philosophy. It gives its adherents a well-balanced sense of clarity, ethical guidance and an intense influx of meaning.

The only real tradeoff (not experienced as a tradeoff at all by most religious people) is that this worldview is not acceptable or accessible for everyone. I’ve always been one of those people. So are the friends I most enjoy talking with.

Most of them are atheists because the conception of God and religiosity in general given in this worldview fails to resonate with any needs they feel, and the preliminary steps into the worldview offend their intellectual consciences. They haven’t found a conception of God that they can believe in, and they’ve seen many conceptions that repel them, so they do the only decent thing: they refrain from belief, or reject it and remain pessimistic that there’s any value to be found in it.

But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to fully reject religion. I’ve kept digging into it, even when I’ve been disturbed by much of what I found. Through this process, I’ve discovered-learned-developed/instaurated an alternative religious worldview that is compatible with existing religious traditions (especially Judaism), but which has accomplished this by re-conceiving who God is, what religion is and does, what relationship is possible with a being who is essentially incomprehensible, and what it means to share a common faith (even when factual beliefs differ drastically).

I believe this new perspective on religion could address inarticulate needs many atheists have, and presents religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with their commitment to scientific rigor, avoids offending their sensitive and rigorous intellectual consciences, and can be authentically believed as true.

There is a conflict, however, when I try to share this newer worldview to people who have adopted the axial religious worldview, they hear it and say stuff like: “Sure, whatever, but that’s just philosophy.” Or “That’s just abstract thought, and I don’t feel God in it.” Even if they want to (which they rarely do), they cannot conceal their condescension.

My worldview is compatible with theirs, however — but to understand how, it is necessary to understand alterity (radical otherness) and grasp why the recognition they expect isn’t happening. Further, it is crucial to understand how this alterity is essential to a relationship with a God who is real, and not largely imaginary or conceptual. Any relationship with God must include awareness of God’s alterity and insights into what it is like to encounter it.

Religion is not only — even primarily — about being united in a common understanding and experience — it is about participating in an infinite being who is also largely alien to us and whose alterity arouses intense apprehension in our hearts, or to put it in more traditional religious language — who inspires dread as well as love.

Why do I think I have the right to make claims like this? When you are in a tiny minority, you don’t find commonality in the mainstream, and this is doubly so if the minority you belong to is not even acknowledged to exist at all. To overcome the isolation and loneliness of this condition, you have no choice but to learn to relate to otherness.

But if you are in a majority, the commonality you enjoy becomes so normal to you that you forget that it is not just a universal fabric of reality. And you are satisfied with that universality, even if you must exclude others to enjoy it fully. This complacence is impervious to argument. The only thing that overcomes it is courageous love.

(This is the line of thought that originally caused me to recognize and feel intense solidarity with other people with marginal experiences and perspectives,  and motivated me to understand the dynamics of power, knowledge and hegemony. This is why I have insight into the principles of critical theory that the progressivist upper class has appropriated in order to legitimize their hegemonic dominance. It is very devilishly clever. It connects with a very deep and important truth, but subverts it, perverts it, and transforms it into a tool for the most powerful to dominate, intimidate and humiliate the powerless in the name of justice.)