summing up is a recurring series on digital strategy topics & insights that compose a large
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If you want to get something done, the way you do it is not so much trying to
convince somebody but to create a tribe that is a conspiracy. Because
anthropologically that is what we are more than any other thing. We are tribal
beings and we tend to automatically oppose things outside of our tribe, even if
they're good ideas, because that isn't the way we think – in fact we don't
think we're not primarily thinking animals.
The theatrical part of this is lots bigger than we think, the limitations are
much smaller than we think and the relationship we have with our heritage is
that we are much more different than we think we are. I hate to see computing
and computer science watered down to some terrible kind of engineering that the
Babylonians might have failed at.
That is pathetic! And I'm saying it in this strong way because you need to
realize that we're in the middle of a complete form of bullshit that has grown
up out of the pop culture.
We're stuck in conversations around hypes and trending technological topics. At
the same time our world gets ever more complex and throws ever more complex
problems at us. I really hope that we can grow up soon and use the power the
computer grants us to actually augment ourselves.
A recurring theme in software development is the more you dig into the research
the greater the distance is between what actual research seems to say versus
what the industry practices.
Develop a familiarity with, for example, Alan Kay’s or Douglas Engelbart’s
visions for the future of computing and you are guaranteed to become thoroughly
dissatisfied with the limitations of every modern OS. Reading up hypertext
theory and research, especially on hypertext as a medium, is a recipe for
becoming annoyed at The Web. Catching up on usability research throughout the
years makes you want to smash your laptop agains the wall in anger. And trying
to fill out forms online makes you scream ‘it doesn’t have to be this way!’ at
the top of your lungs.
That software development doesn’t deal with research or attempts to get at hard
facts is endemic to the industry.
It seems crazy to me that most other subjects look at their history, while
computing mostly ignores the past, thinking that new is always better. The
problem these days isn't how to innovate, but how to get society to adopt the
good ideas that already exist.
So far, it’s mostly shit. Most of our society simply isn’t benefiting from this
trend of software eating the world. In fact, most of them live in the very
world that software ate.
The world is not just software. The world is physics, it’s crying babies and
shit on the sidewalk, it’s opioids and ecstasy, it’s car crashes and Senate
hearings, lovers and philosophers, lost opportunities and spinning planets
around untold stars. The world is still real.
Software – data, code, algorithms, processing – software has dressed the world
in new infrastructure. But this is a conversation, not a process of digestion.
It is a conversation between the physical and the digital, a synthesis we must
master if we are to avoid terrible fates, and continue to embrace fantastic
Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a
technology is entirely neutral. It always has implications, positive and
negative. And all too often we seem to ignore the downsides of this in our
physical world. The world we live in, and the technology as well.
When was the last time you visited a business website without having a clue
what they were offering? Unfortunately these beasts are far too common – and
hurting business as well.
To lay it on the line: most businesses' positioning is terrible.
Websites are unforgiving in that regard. You can't control who's visiting your
website. You can't control what they read. You can't control how much they
read. You can't control how long they stay. And so on.
While you can get around this at an event or conference by talking a few
minutes more about what you and your business actually do, you don't have that
chance on the web.
The solution: A compelling positioning that helps your ideal clients understand
how you can help them and what expensive problem you solve for them.
I know it's hard work and hard choices, but in the end it's worth it – if you
want to succeed in the long run.
I don't remember the last time I've been so creeped out by a technology as I
was by Google duplex, an artificial intelligence that can make phone calls on
your behalf, booking salon appointments or restaurant reservations and
pretending to be human.
One could probably criticise that it's unethical not to disclose that a machine
is on the other end of the line, that we exploit employees of small businesses
as involuntary robot nannies at no charge, that this technology will be
deployed and used regardless of any consequences, or our blind faith in
technology. But it's none of that.
The reason why I am creeped out is this:
The fathers of personal computing, most importantly Doug Engelbart, dreamed
about making humans better with the help of computers, to assist rather than
replace humans, to augment humans with computers. What we increasingly see
however is a trend of using humans to augment computers.
In an industry that extols innovation over customer satisfaction, and prefers
algorithm to human judgement (forgetting that every algorithm has human bias in
its DNA), perhaps it should not surprise us that toolchains have replaced
Likewise, in a field where young straight white dudes take an overwhelming
majority of the jobs (including most of the management jobs) it’s perhaps to be
expected that web making has lately become something of a dick measuring
It was not always this way, and it needn’t stay this way. If we wish to get
back to the business of quietly improving people’s lives, one thoughtful
interaction at a time, we must rid ourselves of the cult of the complex.
Admitting the problem is the first step in solving it.
Solutions to many problems seem most brilliant when they appear most obvious.
Simple even. But in many cases we throw everything we have against the wall
and see what sticks. It's on us to recognize when we forget that our job is to
solve business, client and most importantly human problems.
In every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and
in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we
can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong.
The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are
absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally
and equally wrong. However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right
and wrong are fuzzy concepts.
A very interesting thought which reminds me very much of a short poem by Piet
Hein: The road to wisdom? — Well, it's plain and simple to express: Err and
err and err again but less and less and less.
Technology does not emerge from a vacuum; it is the reification of the beliefs
and desires of its creators. It is assembled from ideas and fantasies developed
through evolution and culture, pedagogy and debate, endlessly entangled and
enfolded. The belief in an objective schism between technology and the world is
nonsense, and one that has very real outcomes.
Cooperation between human and machine turns out to be a more potent strategy
than trusting to the computer alone.
This strategy of cooperation, drawing on the respective skills of human and
machine rather than pitting one against the other, may be our only hope for
surviving life among machines whose thought processes are unknowable to us.
Nonhuman intelligence is a reality—it is rapidly outstripping human performance
in many disciplines, and the results stand to be catastrophically destructive
to our working lives. These technologies are becoming ubiquitous in everyday
devices, and we do not have the option of retreating from or renouncing them.
We cannot opt out of contemporary technology any more than we can reject our
neighbors in society; we are all entangled.
As we envision, plan and build technology, a human bias will always be part of
it. We can't just pass our responsibility to technology and bury our head in
the sand. The question we should and have to pose ourselves is be a different
one. How can we use and leverage technology as a tool, as ways to augment
ourselves to do things that were previously impossible? I think collaboration
and cooperation might be an answer.
Today, we have been building and investing so much of our time into the digital
world and we have forgotten to take a step back and take a look at the larger
picture. Not only do we waste other people's time by making them addicted to
this device world, we have also created a lot of waste in the real world. At
the same time we're drowning in piles and piles of information because we never
took the time to architect a system that enable us in navigating through them.
We're trapped in these rectangular screens and we have often forgotten how to
interact with the real world, with real humans. We have been building and
hustling - but hey, we can also slow down and rethink how we want to dwell in
both the physical world and the digital world.
At some point in the future we will leave this world and what we'll leave
behind are spaces and lifestyles that we've shaped for our grandchildren. So I
would like to invite you to think about what do we want to leave behind, as we
continue to build both digitally and physically. Can we be more intentional so
that we shape and leave behind a more humane environment?
What we use a computer for on a daily basis, is only a small part of what a
computer could offer us. Instead, most of our conversation evolves around hypes
and trending technological topics. What we desperately need is to take a step
back, and figure out ways of thinking to tackle complex problems in a ever more
Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is
discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by
accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small
and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has
all the power.
All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure. It is what makes them
adaptable and robust.
The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide a many-leveled
corrective, stabilizing feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the
apparent contradictions between the pace layers that civilization finds its
We're too often thinking about the superficial, the fast, the shallow. And that
is not necessarily a bad thing - but it will easily become if it's the only
thing we do. This concept is one of those that, once your brain has been
exposed, you start seeing everywhere.
I find it hard to communicate with a lot of technologists anymore. It’s like
trying to explain literature to someone who has never read a book. You’re asked
“So basically a book is just words someone said written down?” And you say no,
it’s more than that. But how is it more than that?
I am going to make the argument that the predominant form of the social web —
that amalgam of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Reddit, Instagram — is an
impoverished model for learning and research and that our survival as a species
depends on us getting past the sweet, salty fat of “the web as conversation”
and on to something more timeless, integrative, iterative, something less
personal and less self-assertive, something more solitary yet more connected. I
don’t expect to convince many of you, but I’ll take what I can get.
We can imagine a world that is so much better than this one. And more
importantly we can build it. But in order to do that we have to think bigger
than the next hype, the next buzzword and the next press release. We have to
seriously interrogate the assumptions that are hidden in plain sight.
Wow. After sharing and discussing close to a thousand (964 to be
precise) articles, talks, essays, videos and links, my summing up column
I originally started this series a little over five years ago to keep track on
what I was reading. Little did I know then how much this effort helped me build
up a large part of my expertise, methods, strategies and way of thinking. I'm
also quite relieved that in all that time, nobody asked me about the
To celebrate this somewhat special occasion, I want to deviate a bit from the
usual format and highlight some key figures and favourite articles which
impress me to this day.
Doug Engelbart, one of the fathers of personal computing, is definitely one
of my personal heroes. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of developing
technology to augment human intellect. He didn't see this as a
technological problem though, but as a human problem, with technology falling out
as part of a solution. His methods and
are brilliant and I rely heavily on them when working with clients.
When thinking about the future, you can't do it better than Alan Kay. Perhaps
he is one of the best known computing visionaries still around today and his
reasoning is spot on when it comes to invention, innovation and strategies how
to succeed in a digital world.
Neil Postman is one of my favourite media critics and funnily enough was
never categorically against technology. But he warned us vigorously to not be
suspicious of technology. His predictions, cautions and propositions on how we
become used by technology rather than make use of technology have been
spot on so far – unfortunately.
There's often a thin line between madness and genius and Ted Nelson walks
that line confidently. The original inventor of hypertext, internet pioneer and
visionary saw the need for interconnected documents decades before the World
Wide Web was born. And even now his vision is far from being complete – luckily
the size of his ambition hasn't changed.
Bret Victor is one of the thinkers I respect most in our industry. His talks
and essay have been highly influential to me. In the spirit of Doug Engelbart,
Bret thinks deeply about how to create a new dynamic medium that shapes
computing for the 21st century and allows us to see, understand and solve
It's rare that I don't fall in love with talks by Maciej Cegłowski, talking
mostly on the excesses and impacts of technology on society. His style of
storytelling along with ingenious insights is just amazing.
Audrey Watters is mostly known for her prolific work on education
technology issues and tech in general. The witty way she interrogates the
stories about technology we tell ourselves – or have been told to us – is
full of deep insight.
Thanks a lot for your continued support and feedback over the last years, it is
heavily appreciated. You're very welcome to subscribe to this series and
get it directly in your inbox along with some cool stuff that you won't find
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Lastly, if you have any feedback, critique, tips, ideas, comments or free bags
of money, I'd be very glad to hear from you. Thank you.
We have the opportunity to change our thinking and basic assumptions about the
development of computing technologies. The emphasis on enhancing security and
protecting turf often impedes our ability to solve problems collectively. If we
can re-examine those assumptions and chart a different course, we can harness
all the wonderful capability of the systems that we have today.
People often ask me how I would improve the current systems, but my response is
that we first need to look at our underlying paradigms—because we need to
co-evolve the new systems, and that requires new ways of thinking. It’s not
just a matter of “doing things differently,” but thinking differently about how
to approach the complexity of problem-solving today.
in a world where we've grown multiple orders of magnitude in our computing
capacity, where we spend millions of dollars on newer, faster tools and
technology, we put little emphasis on how we can augment human thinking and
problem solving. and as doug says, it is not about thinking differently about
these problems, it is thinking differently about our ability to to solve these
Suppose a person tells us that a particular photo is of people playing
Frisbee in the park, then we naturally assume that they can answer questions
like “what is the shape of a Frisbee?”, “roughly how far can a person throw a
Frisbee?”, “can a person eat a Frisbee?”, “roughly how many people play
Frisbee at once?”, “can a 3 month old person play Frisbee?”, “is today’s
weather suitable for playing Frisbee?”. Today’s image labelling systems that
routinely give correct labels, like “people playing Frisbee in a park” to
online photos, have no chance of answering those questions. Besides the fact
that all they can do is label more images and can not answer questions at
all, they have no idea what a person is, that parks are usually outside, that
people have ages, that weather is anything more than how it makes a photo
look, etc., etc.
Here is what goes wrong. People hear that some robot or some AI system has
performed some task. They then take the generalization from that performance to
a general competence that a person performing that same task could be expected
to have. And they apply that generalization to the robot or AI system.
Today’s robots and AI systems are incredibly narrow in what they can do. Human
style generalizations just do not apply. People who do make these
generalizations get things very, very wrong.
we are surrounded my hysteria about artificial intelligence, mistaken
extrapolations, limited imagination any many more mistakes that distract us
from thinking productively about the future. whether or not ai succeeds in the
long term, it will nevertheless be developed and used with uncompromising
efforts – regardless of any consequences.
Unfortunately, many in the AI community greatly underestimate the depth of
interface design, often regarding it as a simple problem, mostly about making
things pretty or easy-to-use. In this view, interface design is a problem to be
handed off to others, while the hard work is to train some machine learning
This view is incorrect. At its deepest, interface design means developing the
fundamental primitives human beings think and create with. This is a problem
whose intellectual genesis goes back to the inventors of the alphabet, of
cartography, and of musical notation, as well as modern giants such as
Descartes, Playfair, Feynman, Engelbart, and Kay. It is one of the hardest,
most important and most fundamental problems humanity grapples with.
the speed, performance or productivity of computers are mostly red herrings.
the main problem is how we can leverage the computer as a tool. in different
words, how can we use the computer to augment ourselves to do things that were
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