Remaking how we make

Orthogonal, intersectional, and communal futures

This week’s newsletter is a compilation of some of the most thoughtful folks we know, all of whom are touching on a recurrent theme we’ve been exploring at EFL: the increasingly urgent need to think, create, and innovate in the broader context of systems and communities. We have reached the current state of our techno-social reality by looking through narrow lenses — a focus on profit, a focus on groups with power, an individualistic focus on the user, a focus on direct effects while ignoring indirect ones. Increasingly, we see technologists, designers, academics, and others calling for fundamental change in how we approach making. Here are some of our favorite people on the subject.

—Alexis & Matt

1: “A different kind of story about the future”

Genevieve Bell is always incredibly skilled at synthesizing stories and signals from a variety of contexts in compelling ways, and this essay is no exception. She begins with a wander through key touchpoints from early computing history, from the famous AI summer at Dartmouth to the Cybernetic Seredipity exhibit in London to Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. She examines the road we’ve traveled in the 50-odd years since these early, heady, utopian imaginings, and the dissonance between those visions and where we are now:

“I am haunted by those earlier possible futures, and the worlds people imagined they could build. And now as we think anew about building into the future, I wonder what could be our touchstones and reference points.”

The essay discusses how we might reframe the way we think about technology, what we make, and the impact those creations have. Bell suggests—as many have in the past year—that the current, profound brokenness of the world can be seen as an opportunity to reset, to move forward in a new way. Her proposed path echoes a number of themes we discuss often: systems thinking, interdisciplinary and intersectional collaboration, and an approach that considers longer time scales. She says, “Now, we need to make a different kind of story about the future. One that focuses not just on the technologies, but on the systems in which these technologies will reside. The opportunity to focus on a future that holds those systems feels both immense and acute.”

Touching the future: Stories of systems, serendipity, and grace | Griffith Review

2: Innovation by divergent means

This piece by Matt Webb closely aligns with the ideas that Bell outlined above, with one small change to the initial conditions. As he explains here, minor changes at the start of a process can lead to surprising, even magical, results.

There are two key ideas interwoven in this proposal for an “orthogonal technology lab”. First, the concept of orthogonality in innovation: essentially, if you imagine two designers, teams, etc. with the same initial conditions but one or two small adjustments in their focus or emphasis, they will end up in very different places after some time in isolation. (He links to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem as both inspiration and explanation, which is now waiting for me on my Kindle.) This is a small wrinkle on Bell’s inclusive innovation process, but an important one. 

Second, Webb advocates for innovation in areas other than the product itself: “[W]e don’t need just design fictions. We need business model fictions, engineering feasibility study fictions, interop protocol specification fictions, investment return fictions.” Here he advocates for more focus on the systems and structures that surround innovation, as changes in those constraints or enablers will have dramatic effects on the outcome. For example:

  • Connected products and zero data: e.g. how could you have voice controlled home lighting with no user sign-in and no cloud connection?

This line of thinking, projected forward, enables us to imagine wildly divergent futures from a common starting point today: “where could we go if only X were true?” Perhaps even more fascinating is the implied counterfactual present: “where would be today if only X had been true?” We often talk of plural futures — i.e. that there are many possible options for how we evolve, and we can make choices that affect that path — and this essay lays out potential tools and structures we need to fully imagine those possibilities.

Towards the orthogonal technology lab, v0.1 | Interconnected

Product management and ethical harm

Several friends shared this talk by Cennydd Bowles with Alexis, as it resonates with the Camera Obscura essay she recently co-wrote with Devin Mancuso and others. And boy, does it resonate! It’s lovely to see how so many of us are circling around the same ideas, and yet approaching it from slightly different perspectives. Bowles speaks to so many of the same issues around user-centricity and the problems it unintentionally creates. He very succinctly frames the issue: “The problem with focusing on users is our work doesn’t just affect users.“ Bingo.

But while our essay focused on product design as a practice in need of reform, this talk levels its critique at product management. Bowles boldly asserts that "product managers are the primary cause of ethical harm in the tech industry.” That harm, in his analysis, is caused by a number of factors. Those include: 

  • Overquantification, or the idea that the only things that matter are those that can be measured

  • Business drift — the way that product management has shifted to focus on business goals over all else

  • User-centricity, or the lack of attention paid to how products affect broader communities and non-users

Similar to Camera Obscura, the remedies suggested involve expanding the scope of the practice by explicitly considering ethical impacts as a core part of product development. He also introduces the idea of ethical infrastructure, or the structures you might need to create inside of an organization in order to incentivize and commit to responsible product development.

All These Worlds Are Yours | Cennydd Bowles

Search engines don’t work and they’re not good

In a recent issue of his newsletter, our friend Christopher Butler dove deep into an analysis of how search engines—Google in particular—rank information, using Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety as a framing device. He turns a critical eye on PageRank and the problems with seeing our information through a measure of importance that we cannot interrogate. He also investigates some foundational assumptions about the best ways to organize information, namely whether Google’s approach to ranking would have become the de facto standard if it wasn’t also the first system to monetize clicks through advertising. 

While it’s almost an aside in this piece, Butler also touches on the difference between organizing the world’s information and organizing your own personal information. The idea of a personal web, where you can find and organize the information you collect, is one we’ve been especially fascinated with lately, and it’s reflected in a range of products, from Roam Research to  DevonThink to Pinterest.

“When a collection is established around volume - these are all the things - it quickly becomes unmanageable and uninteresting. That is what the web is now, and that is why the tools we have to find things within it don’t work and are not good. They don’t help me to find what is important to me, and by delegating the question of importance to the so-called “wisdom of crowds,” they guarantee a volatile, fickle, and manipulated answer as often as one that can be trusted.”

Search Engines Don’t Work and They Are Not Good | Christopher Butler

Can’t someone else do it? 

Forgive the brief return to the fractured present, but Twitter’s announcement of its new “community-based approach to misinformation” simply couldn’t go by without us commenting. 

As Twitter describes it, “Birdwatch allows people to identify information in Tweets they believe is misleading and write notes that provide informative context. […] Eventually we aim to make notes visible directly on Tweets for the global Twitter audience, when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors.” Said another way, Twitter will rely on the collective wisdom of its users to determine when a Tweet may contain incorrect or misleading information, and only if this initial experiment (that is completely invisible to most users, as it lives in a separate location) is successful. Abdicating responsibility for moderation is certainly cost-effective, though we’re betting Twitter could have found a way to staff this without bankrupting the company.

It isn’t hard to see how this is could go wrong. First, enlisting your users in free labor requires some kind of reward, even if it’s simply reputational. Second, relying on consensus could easily backfire depending on the composition of the crowd; imagine a pack of anti-vaccine advocates objecting en masse to a paper in Nature or NEJM. Third, this moderation function comes with no agreed-upon rules of engagement or foundational policies. 

Community-based moderation can work well if these considerations are included from the beginning. Wikipedia editors are badged as such and are given extra rights of access and control, providing an incentive to participate. Wikipedia editors can act unilaterally when they see incorrect or misleading information, and if editors begin to act against each other, a page can be frozen while the dispute is adjudicated. Wikipedia editors also have a clear set of rules that govern citations and entry structure, so that posts that traffic in unsubstantiated claims can consistently and reliably be moderated. With these initial conditions in place, Wikipedia can contain millions of factual entries, all created and moderated by volunteers. Twitter has provided none of these guardrails, and as a result, risks turning moderation into nothing more than mob rule. 

Introducing Birdwatch, a community-based approach to misinformation | Twitter

The party is meant to end

This blog post by an old friend of EFL, Tobias Revell, echoes some of Webb’s thoughts on divergent innovation while also touching on something Matt has been obsessed with since seeing a talk at PopTech 2012: how do you know when to stop? 

The growth-oriented, always-up-and-to-the-right expectation of modern capitalism is taken as given: companies are meant to get bigger, do more, sell more, in an ever-increasing market. Few other constructs in human history work this way. Typically, experiences are ephemeral: if you missed that concert or that theater production, it’s gone forever, and if you saw it, all you get to carry is your imperfect memory of the event. Some ephemerality in technology is forced by the market: we used to have supersonic air travel, space shuttles, and ubiquitous shopping malls, but each died unintentionally while struggling to exist. 

Revell challenges us to imagine what might emerge if a product, service, or experiment was built with its own end in mind. This may be simply temporal (let’s run this for three years and see what happens) or more metric driven (let’s do this until X measurement is reached). Revell asks whether such a thing might be funded at all in the current VC-driven model of innovation. VCs bet on a product succeeding, but success is defined by growth, and often untenable scale, in order for investors to see a significant return. What kinds of ideas might be possible if we expanded our definitions of success? What would products that were intended to be finite, or intended to be small-scale, look like, and how might we fund them? What different choices and outcomes might emerge if the goals were something other than “grow and live forever”? 

Sometimes the party was meant to stop | Tobias Revell

One pleasant internet thing

On a lighter note, the folks at Postlight have put together a delightful assemblage of what they call “pleasant internet things”. The links range from a site that lets you swap the view out your window to an archive of BBC radio shows to a sealed ecosystem simulator. Enjoy!

Pleasant internet things | Postlight