summing up 90

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it – and much more – straight in your inbox.

Memento Product Mori: Of ethics in digital product design, by Sebastian Deterding

Why especially for us in the digital industry – although we are automating away more and more and more of our work and we're becoming wealthier and wealthier by every measure – do we feel like we're more and more short of time, overwhelmed and overworked. Or to put the question differently: Do you remember when email was fun?

The weird hard truth is: this is us. We, the digital industry, the people that are working in it are the ones who make everything, everything in our environment and work life ever more connected, fast, smooth, compelling, addicting even. The fundamental ethical contradiction for us is that we, the very people who suffer the most and organize the most against digital acceleration, are the very ones who further it.

a great talk challenging us to reflect on the moral dimensions of our work, especially in the digital product world.

Driverless Ed-Tech: The History of the Future of Automation in Education, by Audrey Watters

“Put me out of a job.” “Put you out of a job.” “Put us all out of work.” We hear that a lot, with varying levels of glee and callousness and concern. “Robots are coming for your job.”

We hear it all the time. To be fair, of course, we have heard it, with varying frequency and urgency, for about 100 years now. “Robots are coming for your job.” And this time – this time – it’s for real.

I want to suggest that this is not entirely a technological proclamation. Robots don’t do anything they’re not programmed to do. They don’t have autonomy or agency or aspirations. Robots don’t just roll into the human resources department on their own accord, ready to outperform others. Robots don’t apply for jobs. Robots don’t “come for jobs.” Rather, business owners opt to automate rather than employ people. In other words, this refrain that “robots are coming for your job” is not so much a reflection of some tremendous breakthrough (or potential breakthrough) in automation, let alone artificial intelligence. Rather, it’s a proclamation about profits and politics. It’s a proclamation about labor and capital.

a brilliant essay on automation, algorithms and robots, and why the ai revolution isn't coming. not because the machines have taken over, but because the people who built them have.

Personal Dynamic Media, by Alan Kay & Adele Goldberg

“Devices” which variously store, retrieve, or manipulate information in the form of messages embedded in a medium have been in existence for thousands of years. People use them to communicate ideas and feelings both to others and back to themselves. Although thinking goes on in one’s head, external media serve to materialize thoughts and, through feedback, to augment the actual paths the thinking follows. Methods discovered in one medium provide metaphors which contribute new ways to think about notions in other media. For most of recorded history, the interactions of humans with their media have been primarily nonconversational and passive in the sense that marks on paper, paint on walls, even “motion” pictures and television, do not change in response to the viewer’s wishes.

Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea. It may be representational or abstract. The essence of a medium is very much dependent on the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed. Although digital computers were originally designed to do arithmetic computation, the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active—it can respond to queries and experiments—so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation. This property has never been available before except through the medium of an individual teacher. We think the implications are vast and compelling.

this great essay from 1977 reads so much like a description of what we do these days that it seems unexceptional – which makes it so exceptional. moreover however it thinks so much further – which also makes it quite sad to read.

summing up 89

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox.

Information Underload, by Mike Caulfield

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

we certainly have issues creating the right filters for valuable content, but it also seems to me that it was never easier to create valuable content – and never harder to find it. one reason i publish this ongoing series.

The Shock of Inclusion, by Clay Shirky

To the question "How is Internet is changing the way we think?", the right answer is "Too soon to tell." This isn't because we can't see some of the obvious effects already, but because the deep changes will be manifested only when new cultural norms shape what the technology makes possible.

The Internet's primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users. We will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global. We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won't matter much, but the norms we set will.

there is a vast differences between a tool and a medium. we make use of tools to improve a single capability but a medium changes a whole culture. for example a website as a tool might enable you to present your business on the web, however to prepare a business for the next decade a digital transformation is needed which includes tools like a website, automation and digital communication channels.

Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

although this speech goes much further than the topics i discuss here, it's a very profound idea. unknowingly we often make up stories about why our products and websites work or fail. regardless of whether we accept these stories as true or not, we can always find some practical reasons in them we should adapt while looking for the truth.

summing up 88

summing up is a recurring series on how we can make sense of computers. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox or find previous editions here.

The Myth of a Superhuman AI, by Kevin Kelly

We don’t call Google a superhuman AI even though its memory is beyond us, because there are many things we can do better than it. These complexes of artificial intelligences will for sure be able to exceed us in many dimensions, but no one entity will do all we do better. It’s similar to the physical powers of humans. The industrial revolution is 200 years old, and while all machines as a class can beat the physical achievements of an individual human, there is no one machine that can beat an average human in everything he or she does.

I understand the beautiful attraction of a superhuman AI god. It’s like a new Superman. But like Superman, it is a mythical figure. However myths can be useful, and once invented they won’t go away. The idea of a Superman will never die. The idea of a superhuman AI Singularity, now that it has been birthed, will never go away either. But we should recognize that it is a religious idea at this moment and not a scientific one. If we inspect the evidence we have so far about intelligence, artificial and natural, we can only conclude that our speculations about a mythical superhuman AI god are just that: myths.

my probably most shared article this month and some very wise words indeed. what bugs me most however is that artificial intelligence (ai) seems to displace intelligence augmentation (ia). we try to make computers smarter, but we completely forget about making humans smarter–with the help of computers.

How to Invent the Future, by Alan Kay

As computing gets less and less interesting, its way of accepting and rejecting things gets more and more mundane. This is why you look at some of these early systems and think why aren't they doing it today? Well, because nobody even thinks about that that's important. Come on, this is bullshit, but nobody is protesting except old fogeys like me, because I know it can be better. You need to find out that it can be better. That is your job. Your job is not to agree with me. Your job is to wake up, find ways of criticizing the stuff that seems normal. That is the only way out of the soup.

it seems the more advanced our hardware and technology becomes the less we seem to innovate. i think one part of why we had so much innovation in the early days of computing was because there were people working on it who were musicians, poets, biologists, physicists or historians who were trying to make sense of this new medium to solve their problems. an argument i have proposed in my talk the lost medium last year.

The Pattern-Seeking Fallacy, by Jason Cohen

When an experiment produces a result that is highly unlikely to be due to chance alone, you conclude that something systematic is at work. But when you’re “seeking interesting results” instead of performing an experiment, highly unlikely events will necessarily happen, yet still you conclude something systematic is at work.

The fallacy is that you’re searching for a theory in a pile of data, rather than forming a theory and running an experiment to support or disprove it.

in the noise of randomness in our world we often find patterns. look at enough clouds, trees or rocks and you're predestined to find a shape like a face, animal or familiar object. the problem is this: when we look at enough random data we'll find a pattern to our liking and at the same time discarding plenty of valid results that just don't fit this pattern.

summing up 87

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights on how we can make sense of computers that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox or find previous editions here.

How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds, by Tristan Harris

The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology to be on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.

We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.

the way we use, create and foster technology today will be looked back the same way as we look back at the use of asbestos in walls & floors or naive cigarette smoking. creating useful technology is not about creating a need in the user, but to create things that are good for the user.

Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance, by Maciej Cegłowski

We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we're good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it?

We need a code of ethics for our industry, to guide our use of machine learning, and its acceptable use on human beings. Other professions all have a code of ethics. Librarians are taught to hold patron privacy, doctors pledge to “first, do no harm”. Lawyers, for all the bad jokes about them, are officers of the court and hold themselves to high ethical standards.

Meanwhile, the closest we’ve come to a code of ethics is “move fast and break things”. And look how well that worked.

the tools we shape, shape us and create a new world. but technology and ethics aren't easy to separate – that new world doesn't necessarily have to be a better world for all of us. maybe just for some.

Is it really "Complex"? Or did we just make it "Complicated"? by Alan Kay

Even a relatively small clipper ship had about a hundred crew, all superbly trained whether it was light or dark. And that whole idea of doing things has been carried forward for instance in the navy. If you take a look at a nuclear submarine or any other navy vessel, it's very similar: a highly trained crew, about the same size of a clipper. But do we really need about a hundred crew, is that really efficient?

The Airbus 380 and the biggest 747 can be flown by two people. How can that be? Well, the answer is you just can’t have a crew of about a hundred if you’re gonna be in the airplane business. But you can have a crew of about a hundred in the submarine business, whether it’s a good idea or not. So maybe these large programming crews that we have actually go back to the days of machine code, but might not have any place today.

Because today – let's face it – we should be just programming in terms of specifications or requirements. So how many people do you actually need? What we need is the number of people that takes to actually put together a picture of what the actual goals and requirements of this system are, from the vision that lead to the desire to do that system in the first place.

much of our technology, our projects and our ideas comes down to focusing on everything but the actual requirements and original problem. nevertheless it doesn't matter how exceptional of a map you can draw if someone asks for directions to the wrong destination.

summing up 86

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights on how we can make sense of computers that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox or find previous editions here.

Twenty-Five Zeros, by Robert C. Martin

The interesting thing about where we are now, after 25 orders of magnitude in improvement in hardware, is that our software has improved by nothing like that. Maybe not even by one order of magnitude, possibly not even at all.

We go through lots of heat and lots of energy to invent new technologies that are not new technologies. They're just new reflections, new projections of old technologies. Our industry is in some sense caught in a maelstrom, in a whirlpool, from where it cannot escape. All the new stuff we do isn't new at all. It's just recycled, old stuff and we claim it's better because we've been riding a wave of 25 orders of magnitude. The real progress has not been in software, it has been in hardware. In fact there's been virtually no real, solid innovation in the fundamental technology of software. So as much as software technology changes in form, it changes very little in essence.

a very interesting talk built on the argument that hardware has advanced by extraordinary amounts, while software didn't keep pace at all. programming, our technologies and architectures are basically still the same as in early days of computing, only ever returning as recycled reflections, powered by improved hardware. my talk the lost medium last year followed a similar line of thought.

Step Off This Hurtling Machine, by Alex Feyerke

Today, we're similarly entwined with our networks and the web as we are with nature. Clearly, they're not as crucial as the plants that produce our oxygen, but the networks are becoming increasingly prevalent. They've become our nervous system, our externalised memory, and they will only ever grow denser, connecting more people and more things.

The network is the ultimate human tool and in time it will become utterly inseparable from us. We will take it with us when we eventually leave for other planets, and it will outlast many of the companies, countries, religions, and philosophies we know today. The network is never going away again.

I wish for a cultural artefact that will easily convey this notion today, that will capture the beauty and staggering opportunity of this human creation, that will make abundantly clear just how intertwined our fates are. To make clear that it is worth preserving, improving and cherishing. It's one of the few truly global, species-encompassing accomplishments that has the power to do so much for so many, even if they never have the power to contribute to it directly.

But to get there, we must not only build great tools, we must build a great culture. We will have achieved nothing if our tools are free, open, secure, private and decentralised if there is no culture to embrace and support these values.

the more technology gets entwined with humanity, the more important it is to not only see the technological benefits, but also the impacts it has on our society and culture. a sobering view on the developer community.

razzle dazzle websites, by yours truly

we're not really helping our users to find what they were looking for. in my opinion, all websites should have one and only one call to action and the whole website should support and build up to that.

your website is not about you, it is about how you can help your clients. optimize for that.

my take on what world war 1 camouflage has to do with ad-filled, chaotic websites and how we can improve.

razzle dazzle websites

in world war 1, the british and american navy faced a dire problem. their ships were sunk at an alarming rate by devastatingly effective german u-boats. most ships were heavily armed and fortified, but had no means to detect a submarine underwater and no means to attack if they could. all attempts to camouflage the ships had failed as well, due to the vastly different appearances of sea and sky in different conditions.

the obvious solution to this was: paint them in bright, loud colors with highly contrasting shapes and stripes. i know, just what you were thinking. but i'm not kidding, look at this:

painting by burnell poole depicting two american ships in dazzle camouflage, 1918

or this:

the uss west mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918

the british navy called this dazzle camouflage, the americans called it razzle dazzle. the idea was if we can't hide an object, we might as well disrupt and confuse the enemy.

what sounds like an obvious joke, was indeed quite successful. torpedoes could only be fired line-of-sight and to hit a moving ship you would not only have to know the target's position, speed and direction, but also chart out where the ship would be by the time the torpedo got there. the margin of error for hitting a ship was quite low, and razzle dazzle could throw off even the most experienced torpedo gunners. a cheap, effective and widely-adopted solution during the great war.

towards the end of the war razzle dazzle camouflage was slowly discontinued due to advances in radar and sonar technology, as well as the increased visibility to aircrafts which became popular then.

but we still can find razzle dazzle in today's day and age. for me it was yesterday, while visiting this website (i highlighted the actual content on the right):

or this:

i call these websites razzle dazzle websites.

now you might argue, the main problem here are ads. and i certainly agree, but this also applies to perfectly normal websites without any ads.

here is an example of a previous client of mine, the munich chapter of ixda, an organization dedicated to promoting & coordinating interaction design events as well as serving the local design community.

at first glance it might not look that bad, but just count the shear number of possible choices a user could take. do i want to attend the next event (my client's preferred action), or do i want to take part at the survey, oh, design jobs! or i might want to join the discussion group, wait there is a facebook page as well, uhh, how about this great article, shush.. and the photos! look, a three headed monkey behind you!

the primary call to action (attend our next event) is hidden in plain sight. razzle dazzle!

we're not really helping our users to find what they were looking for. in my opinion, all websites should have one and only one call to action and the whole website should support and build up to that. for example:

  • attend our next event to learn more about...
  • download this cheat sheet to help you solve...
  • buy our product/service to get rid of...
  • contact us here to...

your website is not about you, it is about how you can help your clients. optimize for that.

oh, by the way, here is how we redesigned the landing page. i guess it's a bit clearer now.

summing up 85

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights on how we can make sense of computers that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox or find previous editions here.

Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll (transcript), by James Burke

In order to rectify the future I want to spend most of my time looking at the past because there’s nowhere else to look: (a) because the future hasn’t happened yet and never will, and (b) because almost all the time in any case the future is not really much more than the past with extra bits attached.

To predict you extrapolate on what’s there already. We predict the future from the past, working within the local context from within the well-known box, which may be why the future has so often in the past been a surprise. I mean, James Watt’s steam engine was just supposed to drain mines. The printing press was just supposed to print a couple of Bibles. The telephone was invested by Alexander Graham Bell just to teach deaf people to talk. The computer was made specifically to calculate artillery shell trajectories. Viagra was just supposed to be for angina. I mean; what else?

current technology is on a path to fundamentally change how our society operates. nevertheless we fail to predict the impact of technology in our society and culture. an excellent argument for the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to innovation in technology.

Thought as a Technology, by Michael Nielsen

It requires extraordinary imagination to conceive new forms of visual meaning. Many of our best-known artists and visual explorers are famous in part because they discovered such forms. When exposed to that work, other people can internalize those new cognitive technologies, and so expand the range of their own visual thinking.

Images such as these are not natural or obvious. No-one would ever have these visual thoughts without the cognitive technologies developed by Picasso, Edgerton, Beck, and many other pioneers. Of course, only a small fraction of people really internalize these ways of visual thinking. But in principle, once the technologies have been invented, most of us can learn to think in these new ways.

a marvellous article on how user interfaces impact new ways of thinking of the world. technological progress always happens in a fixed context and is almost always a form of optimization. a technological innovation however, would have to happen outside of this given, fixed context and existing rules.

The Long Web, by Jeremy Keith

Next time somebody says to you, “The internet never forgets”, just call bullshit on that. It’s absolute bollocks! Look at the data. The internet forgets all the time. The average lifespan of a web page is months, and yet people are like, “Oh, you’ve got to be careful what you put online, it’ll be there forever: Facebook never forgets, Google never forgets.” No, I would not entrust our collective culture, our society’s memory to some third party servers we don’t even know.

What we need is thinking about our culture, about our society, about our preserving what we’re putting online, and that’s kind of all I ask of you, is to think about The Long Web, to think about the long term consequences of what we’re doing because I don’t think we do it enough.

It isn’t just about what we’re doing today. We are building something greater than the Library of Alexandria could ever have been and that is an awesome—in the true sense of the word—responsibility.

with the web we're building something greater than the library of alexandria. to do this well we have to build our sites for the long haul. it’s something we don’t think about enough in the rush to create the next thing on the web.


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