Tag Archives: technology

The Binary Privilege of Technology

Dear Sara,

I’m cooking chicken and keep coming back to your insight about Apple Watch’s design: that it lets you record a message and send it as either voice or text, but not both. I think this is actually a great example of how privilege normalizes cultural choices.

Form influences design. The fact that designers made an exclusionary choice rather than an inclusive one is a reflection of the underlying binary structure of digital technology, and desire for efficiency in business culture. They’re models that prefer on/off choices, and that value is reinforced in everything from the structure of the code itself, to the ways most technologists are encourage to write it.

Design propagates value. Designers’ choices present as the users of technology as the ideal choices. When we follow the directive value system of a product’s design, we propagate that value into the world, and enhance it with our authority.

Volume influences preference. Propagated value gains momentum by more people expressing and receiving it, as technology adoption standardizes, and two things happen. 1) People who prefer the available options (which currently omit a lot of the sensual experience), amplify their use of the technology. And 2) the volume in the feedback loop influences the cultural norm around that value, making people less likely to demand an alternative.

I bet most people, most of the time, choose to send text, since that has already become the standard of non-phone-call communication. I’d be curious to find out if that’s true or not.

I guess this is just a long way of the saying “the medium is the message” but I feel a certain urgency to have more discourse (collectively) about it. The underlying cultural assumptions that drive our behavior often change much more slowly than the adoption of new technologies. The asymmetry of that tension is bound to have some consequences, yes? It feels like we’re turning the crank on the fault line. Glad your big brain is on this.

The Intimacy of Proximity and The Privilege of Distance

Waves crashing on a beach
The Power of Presence
I have watched my relationship with my children evolve from me as a frustrated, ineffective power-broker, to one where I listen more, listen differently, and am less invested in having my way. And much of this shift happened because of an erosion of my illusions from the ceaseless wash of living in near constant contact with my children. There is a change that happens when our edges are perpetually touched by someone else’s – both are reshaped into something new. And what’s on my mind, is how, or even if, we are capable of digital touch.

When we share a physical space, we share the felt experience of our companions. Humans are deeply social creatures; we feel most complete when we feel fully understood by one another. But we have an equally intrinsic need for solitude. A need for the quiet, unmolested space of ourselves. Through the interplay of these desires, we learn what our soul, our True Self needs for its next phase of unfolding, and we calibrate the path of our True North.

When we live too much in isolation we lack precious perspective, and the relief of seeing ourselves in the greatness and baseness of others. It is in the pressure of being together that we discover our limits, by breaching the boundaries of our good intentions. I never intend to yell at my children, but I do. I never intend to be distant from my husband, but I am. These acts are part of the full expression of my humanity – the immediate assertion of my urgent and neglected desires – for the chaos to cease, for my will to be acknowledged, for solitude in a close space. Equally surprising (and more delightful) are the spontaneous confessions of love, the wonder of watching snow fall, the gratitude expressed for favorite clothes washed, and favorite meals made. Receiving and absorbing these acts is equally important for living a complete life; they reinforce what I value, not because I know it, but because I feel it.

These thousands of small interactions are how I teach the people I love, and teach myself, what I need. Words can lead us to an agreement, but only a shared discomfort, or a shared joy creates a shared experience. It is almost impossible for me to live a set of values into the world, if I haven’t integrated them with my desire through personal experience – knowing about them is not enough, I have to touch them, and be touched by them. This is the marrow of intimacy, the merged sensation of a shared life. How I choose to acknowledge my behavior is how I learn to listen to myself and grow into a person more capable of serving others.

What I miss the most about the jobs I was paid to do is the shared work of a common goal. I miss the tacit intimacy in the act of showing up, I care about this. I will come here, day after day, and help you with this thing we both love. I have come to understand, through deliberately withdrawing, how much I require intellectual companionship. And what I love about raising my children is the explicit intimacy of being in constant presence with people I cherish. Through deliberately engaging with them I have learned that relentless contact forces a full expression of my humanity. It is only through confronting our ruptured shadows that we are instructed in our deepest needs, and invited to grow into the space that beckons. I care about you. I will be here, day after day. I will learn to love myself more fully, so that I may love you more fully. The act of sharing our lives with others is a participatory prayer that tests our relationships. It is an act of creation by which we enrich the world through what we give away.

I have come to deeply value the sensuality of close living, despite the fact that I also find it exhausting and stressful. The physical, emotional and auditory cues a person provides are incredibly useful for understanding how to have a relationship with them. It is the continuity of exposure that makes it possible to learn the rich, complex patterns out of which people and relationships evolve. My children are incapable of doing anything less than crashing into my edges with the same regularity and unpredictability as the sea from which all life emerged. Rolling in this brackish space forces me to honestly examine my boundaries, and redefine them.

Like everything, these signals are contextual. They are patterned. They take time to learn, and longer to interpret. Evolution is the slow ghost we grow into, so that we might die complete. When we encounter behavior that doesn’t match a person’s words, we receive an invitation to engage. When we see them again and again, we have the chance to – and thank goodness, because it takes time to work up the courage to show up whole. When our shadow-side throws the yoke of manners, we leave ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Proximity tests our relationships, by drawing us in to the point that we are forced us apart. Our bodies lead us to act out our full identity, they live with a ruthless honesty and belie the narratives we prefer. And that identity, the dark and the bright, the overt and the unknown, is shaped in turn by what we rub against.

This Profile is Not My Body
I find Social Media unsatisfying and one dimensional. There are different platforms, and different tools, but Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Sanpchat, blogging, all of these are essentially asynchronous broadcast platforms, that allow mostly written and visual snapshots of what someone was thinking or doing. The Social Web promises radically uninhibited communication, but our most prominent tools offer us little more than a wide variety of selfies – here’s what I bought, here’s what I like, here’s what I think, here’s what I hate, here’s an adorable cat gif, here’s my foot at the beach. And these bits don’t allow for the richness of shared experience in an embodied way, or in a simultaneous occurrence. The resonance I discover is so fleeting, that I struggle to integrate it in a way that informs how I live in the world. Social media isn’t social, it’s a marketplace of other people’s selfies. It’s a high volume, transactional system, a glossy log of the lives our peers and loved ones mostly live without us. We talk about how the internet “connects us” but really, it connects us to a history of people’s selective, recorded expression. It gives us a tool for finding people who express things we like, but it is not a tool for being together. That, just as always, is a responsibility that resides with us.

The Power of Privilege
Social Media privileges a style of communication that succeeds without a reliance on physical proximity. Like all creative works, this technology reflects the values and insecurities of its builders and proponents. As someone who relies heavily on my sensory experience and wants togetherness to be part of my relationships, my identity, my expressed humanity, I feel unfulfilled by the promise of Social Media. And as is so often the case, when my desire is mis-matched with a prevailing power structure, I feel less-than. I feel isolated. I feel a deep urge to conform myself to an uncomfortable context, because that is the power of power. It’s so attractive it blinds people to the alternative of their own truth.

We increasingly seek, curate, and cultivate our relationships through digital communication. Without the repetitive intimacy of proximity to define (and erode) our edges, it becomes simpler to turn away from discomfort. As our boundaries become more diffuse we mark them with what we prefer, rather than what we encounter; it’s becoming easier to create an identity that’s shaped only by what we’re comfortable with. The reverse of this abstraction is also true. As our relationships become more abstract, less personalized, and less proximate, what we don’t like is easily hidden from us. How will this influence what we value in our interactions with others? How will it define the way we think about relationship, inform what we’re capable of giving, and our ability to empathize with the realities of others?

It is so hard to live a modern lifestyle without exchanging privacy for convenience that most of us have given up trying to do anything otherwise. Our social institutions, from banks, to friends, to schools, have raced to embrace technologies that accelerate the pace of our interactions, make them possible without physical presence, and measure us to provide insight and customization that will enhance our future engagements. The designers and evangelists of these technologies naturally favor the technology-based solutions they’ve created, and that we’ve adopted. We’re creating a feedback loop that reduces the edges we bump into, even as it amplifies our reach. And as we do this, we collectively begin to favor technological solutions to our human problems. We begin to favor what’s available, over what we need.

What is the extent to which we’ll cede our personal power in exchange for a promises of safety, knowledge, and advancement? As corporations grapple with the consequences of technology use – the ability to summon workers on demand, the at once tacit and manifest authority of Big Data, and their inability to protect the data they’ve collected – I see an upsetting pattern that consolidates power into the existing structures rather than fulfilling the promises they claim. The technology itself is becoming elevated as superior to the experience it creates, and pushes risk back onto the most vulnerable participants.

Uber, Handy and other companies laud the flexibility they afford their workers, while remaining inexplicably deaf to the insecurity that accompanies that freedom. In order to better serve customers and maximize profits, Starbucks and other fast food chains algorithmically adjust schedules and wreak havoc in the lives of employees who alternately scramble get daycare, or bridge the gap of lost wages, depending on how their hours change. In the name of better security, credit card companies are developing biometric authorization, which literally embodies the security risk in the cardholder.

“‘Removing card account numbers from the processing and storage of payments represents one of the most innovative and promising technologies we’ve seen in decades,’ said Visa Chief Executive Charlie Scharf in a news release.” And from the same article: “By getting rid of the sensitive card information, banks and merchants can leave hackers with nothing of value to steal if they break into their computer servers.”

To me, this just doesn’t count as innovation. The storage receptacle is changing, but the underlying concern is completely un-addressed: hackers gonna hack, and if there ain’t nothing left in the database, where do you think they’ll look next? Does merging our money with our identity, and our biology, really make us more safe? How does it benefit us to carry the risk of a financial contract in our flesh? It worked out in the Merchant of Venice, but few of us enjoy a great defense to ensure a happy ending.

Privilege emerges from the consensus of a population that prefers to mimic power, rather than question it. Check the “I agree to Terms” box. Swipe right. Like it. We are in the phase between Benefit and Standardization; Bondage is slumbering with one eye open.

The Marketplace is Now Only Business and Technology

02-17-02015 – Front page of the Wall Street Journal’s Business & Tech section, nee Marketplace.
WJS Business and Tech 02-16-2015
Says the Journal:
“Every business is a technology business…Algorithms direct our doctors and instruct our farmers. They will increasingly guide nearly every function in the modern enterprise…[this] section will continue to be the place to go for the most comprehensive and best-informed coverage of the business world…Above all our goal is to serve you…”
(The Marketplace is consolidating into a style of exchange that must not only be monetized, but digital. This is not a free market.)
Section Lead Headlines:

“Apple Seeks Identity for Smartwatch”
(Our devices will suffer until they are humanized.)
“At UPS, the Algorithm Is the Driver”
(Didn’t we tell you?)
“You aren’t a Human, You’re a Data Point”
(I’m a data point and I’m here to help. Trust me, I am the truth.)

Everyone Talks in the New Conversation

“I still treat email to me as though it were considered correspondence. And I feel as though I have a responsibility to answer my correspondence. But I think that as we become more sophisticated, we’ll adopt a more humane set of rules…” – Sherry Turkle

“But the four people my book is about all chose a kind of solitude or separateness for themselves…And when I was putting the book together I’m just marveling at how separate they really were. Today these people would be on panels probably, they would get so many invitations they would never have any time to do anything else.” – Paul Elie

“I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on, is where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together?…what are the circumstances for ‘we’ that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me. And there’s an interesting kind of intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible. And, that that can change our whole day.” – Ann Hamilton

“Hearing is how we touch at a distance.” – Susan Stewart, via Ann Hamilton

——————

This piece began when I heard Ann Hamilton use the phrase “alone together” to describe an experience very different than what Sherry Turkle explores in her book of the same title. I spent the month of March in the practice of listening. What it helped me realize was how much of my adult conversation has become written, rather than spoken, and how abbreviated and asynchronous much of that conversation is. Most adults I know do not make time for just sitting around and talking, and I actually have the sense (accurately or not) that they would find it irritating to be interrupted, and difficult to stop what they’re doing, to have that kind of impromptu conversation. To spend time face to face with my friends takes weeks or months of advanced planning. The word “conversation” is now part of our media vernacular, but I don’t know what this means, because my experience resembles very little of what it’s like to sit next to another person, and talk, and listen, and to feel in my body a confidence that we are together.

The production and consumption of media is becoming a larger part of how we spend our lives. And more and more, this is something we do alone. I listen alone. I read alone. I write, alone, to a silent, anonymous audience, who (presumably) reads my work alone. For me, asynchronous communication often fails to be a satisfying conversation, by which I mean a satisfying experience of communion. I want not just to be consumed, I want to be absorbed. I want to be seen and felt and heard. I want, I have discovered, a sensual experience.

In a traditional conversation, where two or more people speak and listen to each other in real time, there is a constant calibration of understanding. Speakers rephrase what’s been said, or offer examples to gauge their understanding, Do you mean…? Is it like…?. The conversation backs up, jumps forward, ping pongs, and ricochets between participants. It is possible to disambiguate nuance in real-time speech faster than any other method I know, and yet I know very few adults who make time to talk, in any depth, about the things that have their attention.

The sensuality in this style of conversation comes from the tremendous amount of information coming from the other person, who is a visual, auditory, olfactory and energetic panoply of experience, interacting with our own. And it comes, too, from the living animal you make between you that wanders, spirals, erupts and fades in the pulse measured out between your bodies. Harder though, in this method, is attending to my own internal experience and with a high degree of clarity or concentration. For that I cherish the written long form and its incubating qualities, that allow emotion to wake up and come forward, and present whatever it’s bearing. Some of my most rewarding conversations are long email threads (where each response takes hours, over the course of days to write) that play out over weeks or months. It seems I can only concentrate on one person at a time, me, or someone else, and that both of those need a lot of attention and energy to attain the level of intimacy I crave. I find myself continuously wanting to slow down in a world that seems determined to go faster.

Our connective technologies – increasingly social, ambient, and ubiquitous – create reflections of intimacy: faces of friends, sudden memories, and recognition of what we desire. It is easy to assume that we are inside the relationship that has cast them, when more often, we simply inside a silky kaleidoscope. We turn it over and over, fascinated by each click that reveals a beautiful new form of a pattern we recognize. Our conversations now, live outside of our mouths and outside of our hearts. The houses in which they reside, are more and more opulent – with more photos, more feedback, more participants and more visitors. These houses are busy places, and it is hard to sit still and listen, amid the chatter of what everyone is doing right now.

The “now moment” exists in a large and supported context. When we focus just on our personal experience of now it denigrates the interdependence of what gave birth to now – the space and the context that yields it. Now only exists by virtue of everything that it isn’t, but seeing the negative form that holds what “is” requires patience, insight, stillness, respect and humility. When we care too much for the newness and closeness of now, it denigrates the linage of arising.

In our current media landscape those with prominence, who are leading the conversations, and those wishing to speak with them – wanting to join the conversations – are suffering differently from the appearance of availability that pervades our communication tools. I am a seeker. I have no store of social capital to draw on. I read and listen to all sorts of wonderful stuff, and then, because the speakers appear tantalizingly close to me, on Twitter, on their web sites, on Facebook, on Google+, I want to talk to them about their work. I want to tell them what I think. I want to ask them things. I want to give them things. I want to act out my natural urge to respond to, and engage in, the conversation. So I email, I tweet, I comment, and I get very little engagement in a conversation I’ve been “invited” to, because everyone talks in the new conversation.

What I perceive about the people who are followed by people like me, is that they are increasingly overwhelmed by it. There are elements they enjoy, and the notoriety is useful for advancing work they care about, which is often beautiful and important. But they battle an impossible volume of information and contact requests. Much of what they receive is positive and supportive, plenty of it isn’t, and plenty more is simply irrelevant. They don’t know who to trust, they don’t know who might be of legitimate value and interest to them, who is trying to take advantage of them, or how even, to comfortably make the inevitable choice of who to ignore or decline, even when they presume the best about that person.

It’s hard to ask, and it’s hard to say no. And in both cases, it’s harder than ever not to feel some sense of personal distress about it. Our tools encourage us to communicate to a point where rejection is becoming a normalized (and necessary) result of the overture to connect, which is weird. The new capital is social capital. The new market is the attention market. You no longer need a lot of financial and physical capital to play, but scarcity is still a barrier to entry, just as it always has been, albeit in different forms. And in this environment, talking without expectation becomes a way to stay safe, and consuming becomes synonymous with listening. I’m not sure what this model is, but it doesn’t feel like a conversation.

Social media and the trend of digitizing the previously physical has disrupted institutions and exclusionary hierarchies, but it has also destroyed the protection they offered. We are losing the temples that harbor the great work produced by shared, long-term, aspirational goals, and held by a body larger than our own. We have lost the safety of entrenched values that hold the ideals we strive to achieve, and are created by our service, again and again. We live in a time where there is more choice, and access, and mobility than ever before. Technology has shattered calcified markets like music and publishing, it undermines controlling power structures, and allows us all to program, instead of being programmed. This is getting easier to do all the time, with langues like Ruby and services like IFTT. But what I see, is us choosing is to program our technology to program and regulate our behavior, because it’s become too much effort to make those choices for ourselves.

The other day, IFTT invited me to take a look at recipes for Nature Lovers, and what I discovered was a catalog of reminders to go outside if the conditions were correct: If it was over 70, if it was sunny, if it was snowing. This kind of programming lets us offload to our technology the responsibility of paying attention and making choices. And it also inhibits the kind of discovery that comes from unexpected circumstances. It suggests that we are commodifying attention as something that can, and should, be split into different value tranches, and then reassembled back into a complete entity by the program of our choosing. This didn’t work out well as a strategy for managing risk in our financial markets, and it feels equally icky here too. If you have a society that has decided it’s too much bother to think for itself, you have a population that is vulnerable to tyranny. You have a population that has opted out of their sovereign right to consciousness. You don’t even have to take away democracy from a population like that – they will give it to you. I find this idea troubling, but it seems to be a choice we keep making.

In many ways, we’ve each picked up the corporate practice of squeezing more and more from a single person – when everyone is their own brand, when everyone is their own tech team, and marketing department, and biz dev, there is no time and no energy left be a Spacemaker. There is less time to immerse in the work we care most about, to rest in the mess and feel around for the valuable pieces we might bring forward. There is no time anymore to simply see what happens if we wait, or wander. This is the great irony of the New Conversation – we’re all able to chat our way down the long tail until we bump into the folks that we have always been searching for. Except when we find them, everyone is too busy to talk about what we have in common.

I think our sense of urgency is compounded when we confuse or conflate emotional reaction – the strongest, most immediate portion of our felt experience – with sensuality, the deep, lasting, kinetic contribution to our fundamental belief system. Emotional reactions are akin to our thoughts, they’re mostly just pattern noise, distinct from the current of the human spirit that flows through each of us. That pattern noise is chop on the water, and more and more we choose to live in that frantic space, where it’s hard to breathe through the choking wetness, slapping in and out of our mouths.

Sensuality is given to us by virtue of our human form; it is something we can allow, but not something that we can construct. To emerge, it requires a cohesive context that is trusted at a cellular level, and this unfolding happens in partnership with our story telling psyche. Our instinct to build a narrative that explains our relationships is deeply entwined with our ability to trust ourselves and others. And what I see in our current media culture is the valuation of two things above all else: a high volume of participation at a rapid pace.

We live in an “I read it, so I know it. I can recite it, so I know it” kind of culture. Our whole education system primes us for this. We think because we understand something, or agree with it, we a qualified to live that way. We increasingly value the consumption of information over the application of information, and the inherent verification that accompanies practice. Our brains still construct narratives, but hastily and arbitrarily, because the forms and the content we’re using are fractured and decontextualized from the experiences that they present. And when our minds create something our bodies don’t believe, we feel unwell. I can’t figure out why we’re doing this, why we snatch up more and more bits, and stuff them into the gaping maws of our starving narratives. Why are we valuing “now” and “speed” and “more” so much? Why do we have such a strong cultural response that so vehemently rejects and subjugates our biology? Perhaps it is because our identities have become more individualized. Social media allows us to gossip about ourselves, and so we have become communities of one, networked to every other one.

How is it that we gather in a medium, and end up either alone, or together as a result? I think it hinges on the sensuality of the experience, which for me requires time, reflection and vulnerability. It requires accessing my own sensual nature, by making a safe space for it to come forward. Being a Spacemaker is hard, hard, lonely, doubt-filled work. It requires suspending identity, and not insisting on a single, well-understood role, even to yourself. And from that place, comes your offering to the world. From that place, comes the ability to listen to the sensuality of being together.

——————

My deep gratitude to Krista Tippett, Trent Gilliss, Sherry Turkle, Ann Hamilton, Susan Stewart, Paul Elie, Allen Razdow, Dan McClure, Vincent Horn, Linda McGettigan, Daniel Thorson, Chris Dancy, and Brad for their words and silence that influenced my thinking, and this piece. Some of them I have talked to, and some of them I have not, but in all cases I endeavored to listen well.

Refactoring the Identity Machine

The life cycle of cultural experience: novelty > benefit > standardization > bondage > reinvention >

Kevin Kelly has been “trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched”. I have been a big fan of Kelly since I stumbled across his Cool Tools blog years ago. I was working as a product manager, I loved how he thought about products. I love how he thinks about other stuff. This post is a response to Kelly’s article, The Technium (which is quoted throughout). To you sir, I bow deeply.

I’m listening to my humanity, and what my humanity is suggesting is that it wants to be watched.

The Identity Machine
Our inner experiences and outer actions are getting much longer, and more visible half lives through their instantiation as digital artifacts that we copy, push, aggregate and endlessly revise. Digital technology, and social media in particular, are bringing our insides out, capturing our behaviors without context, and creating a fossil record of our impermanence. We are using the world’s largest copy machine, primarily to make copies of ourselves.

Consider this behavior in the context of just a few questions relevant to our time:

  • What does immediate and always-on connection with a population larger and more diverse than anything we’ve ever had access to mean for our human experience?
  • What does the accelerating environmental instability and natural resource reduction – driven by us – mean for our environmental security?
  • Why do we routinely use medical technology to extend our lives, even when the quality of that life is very poor?
  • Why, despite the incredible abundance created by our scientific and financial advancements, and the existence of a high-functioning global distribution system, have we not distributed this abundance to the many, many people who are still struggling with basic needs for their health and safety?

And ask yourself, why has our cultural response to these and similar questions been to create and propagate more versions of ourselves? We actually have a great tool to solve the big questions of our time, but haven’t popularized it to solve questions much bigger than what we like.

Most prosumers still produce and consume in the pattern of the mass market era – we act out the message of the medium, which today mostly involves us copying ourselves on the internet and then staying very busy iterating all those copies. So the copy machine has become a pattern machine, and a pattern machine is an identity machine. We are creating strong patterns, in our private and collective channels, and for me the a really interesting question is, why aren’t we designing technologies to disrupt our patterns instead of continually reinforcing them? Perhaps the best way to prepare for an unpredictable future is with technology that is designed to serve impermanence.

“It’s hard to convince people to take that long-term perspective because the future is so uncertain,” Kelly tells us, and he is right. But one way to frame long-term planning is by designing values instead of objects. You can’t plan for a future based on durable goods and discrete services – their obsolescence begins the moment you name them – but you can plan for the values that serve a caring humanity, serving a sentient planet, and start designing technology that either mutates or eliminates itself in service to those values.

The Trouble with Humans
We can use the technologies of identity proliferation and privacy collapse, not to reinforce our notions of self, and our values around privacy, but to break them. These are two aspects of the same coin. The urge to reach out and share is innately human; it is beautiful. In a networked age, the need for digital identities were a necessary first step to compensate for the lost intimacy of proximity that the web allows us to leave behind. But in doing this, we immediately introduced the uncomfortable experience of profile decay: watching our former selves die, via the asymmetrical change rate of our profile and emerging self. In an effort to alleviate the dissatisfaction of our innately human condition, we quickly learned to amend, revise, and version our profiles to match the myriad contexts and developments of our constantly emerging lives. We’re already experts at doing this with our memories, but our digital memories are more resistant. In service of this Sisyphean task – capturing our complex and ephemeral nature with a tool that makes permanent a fraction of what we are, after it’s already happened – we willingly give more and more information away.

We are using our digital tools in a way that creates an unsatisfying result, but it is so, so close to our human experience, that we mostly haven’t noticed that throwing more information at the problem of impermanence, isn’t working. Creating a better versions of our past selves is not going to make us comfortable with whatever is bothering us right now. Through our digital communication, we are trying to recreate the human experience in a non-physical context, and it’s frustrating the shit out of us, because we exist in a physical context. Digital versions of ourselves offer the tantalizing promise of a cleaner, more sterile, less painful humanity, but this is also a despairing one because such a thing does not exist. Our bodies force the full reality upon us, through our emotions, through our illnesses, and, of course, ultimately through death. In trying so hard to exorcise the the painful, we are also forfeiting joy and beauty, all the fresh and luscious life of a complete and present life. We’re so caught up in using our hyper-consumptive tools to craft a more accurate version of our human experience, that we haven’t noticed they’re failing to serve our humanity. We look around and say, hey, where did all the lovely virgins go? Oh, we sacrificed them.

We reinforce our identity patterns with technology that recommends we consume and act in the same way our past selves did. Sure, we can influence the algorithm, but we don’t, because it’s just too difficult to resist a medium that continuously delivers a recognizable, incomplete (often preferable) version of ourselves back to us, based on who we were.

And it’s not just our identity we’re consuming though the content. The medium is payloaded with the identity of an elite design class that disproportionately values technology and the business models predicated on that technology; people are an afterthought, and we tacitly adopt the same position when we adopt the technology.

Information is compressed experience. Design is a compressed, and directive, value system. When we consume these things we consume the experiences and values of others, but we are not, by and large, asking if the those are the right values and experiences for us, in the lives we want to live. The values of a twenty-something who makes a lot of money designing technology, works with other bright and talented colleagues, and is swaddled in a closed feedback loop and the extended adolescence companies like Google and Facebook provide their employees, might not be a very close match to lives and values of the population that adopts so much of what they make. This is not a judgement of what is “better” – neither one is – but they are different, and this difference is amplifying the identity gap we already experience when use this technology to look at ourselves. So when we consider if technology is helping us achieve what we want in our lives – financial security, a healthy environment, more leisure time, and greater intimacy with our loved ones, come to mind – we should consider if these are also the most immediate and felt concerns of the people who are designing the technology, and setting the cultural standard of use, for the rest of the population.

Orthogonate
We have accelerated the rate at which we replicate ourselves, and it’s become a compounding mechanism to reinforce the same identity patterns we are used to. But it is not so hard to imagine that we might rotate the lens to get a very different view of things. That we might collide the personal Higgs Fields of our identities with enough awareness to shake loose some perspective that is broader than our assumptions about the well-practiced self.

If we run our pattern archive through a technology designed to disrupt, rather than reinforce our behaviors, what will we learn about ourselves? What will we learn about each other? If there were no privacy filters on Facebook, and we had access to the social behavior stream of the third largest, most diverse county in the world, what would we see, and how might this inform our actions in the world? What would happen if we took the amplification power of our pattern machine, and used it to start producing insights about our behaviors, instead of more of the same behavior.

The future doesn’t pull, we spring it. Our patterns pull, in that we fall most easily into the highest volume practice of our past, but the future isn’t a force in its own right. We make it up based on our choices, and our choices are based on awareness. And because technology is increasingly becoming a ubiquitous and near frictionless accomplice to our pattern making, we are loosing our ability to even think about it as a disruptive, awareness-creating force, which is frightening. Because the technology runs all the time, if we follow its lead, we will come to the manifest destiny of singularity – but not because it was a forgone conclusion. It will happen because we forfeited our power, our human perspective as a partner to technology, and blindly followed our own invention into letting the fraction of the life we designed it for, become all of the life we live.

The questions about how we handle digital overload, and how we protect our privacy are valid. It seems strange then, that our primary response has been to design and use more technologies that interrupt us so that we can give away more information. Despite our protests, our actions indicate that we are in a fairly willing collusion with our technology. If we are going to continue on this path, and it’s hard to imagine we won’t, it is time to start asking what do we want to happen as a result? We need to design the human future we want, and then design and use our technology to help us create it. We have ceded so much of our power and perspective, that our primary solution to these problems is how we might make the same tool more efficient at creating a result we don’t fucking like. Instead we might ask: In a future where everything is known about me, how to I want that society to treat me? A perfectly reasonable cultural response to that question, for instance, is to create a society in which we have eliminated shame, and the devastating consequences it brings. Shame is a social disease, it’s only contagious if you spread it, and our poor, our ill, our addicted, and our abused die from it every day.

Scaling Identity to the Collapse Point
“…it’s very common to see these network effects kick in where…the more you have, the more attractive you become…and so you have explosions…We shouldn’t be too envious of that kind of scaling, because it’s a very ephemeral thing, and it’s a very natural thing.” Kelly wrote this about the growth patterns of technology companies, but it’s equally true about our personal identities. The most glaring examples of this are the substance of celebrity media, but as prosumers, we are all engaged in dialing up the wattage of our personal spotlights. When our identities are deeply enmeshed with a system that scales to super nova – as its natural mode of operation – what should we be preparing for in terms of our human experience with our digital selves?

We have made some very useful things, and it is time to take a look at what we’ve done. We have made a magnificent tool to study ourselves, but in order to do so, we must change the technology to encourage reflection, rather than replication. Reflection is not the same as consuming our own performance. What is the design that will allow us to truly turn the technology on ourselves? What is the design that will foster space for the attention to our inner experience, instead of encouraging us to simply document it?

In a world where there will “be more minds and artificial minds everywhere” we are ready to start designing for the collective consciousness, instead of the user experience. Let us design for the human experience, for the sentient experience. It is time to question our complicity in exploiting ourselves back to the market as data-generating commodities, and start designing and demanding technologies that treat us like the gorgeous, interconnected beings we are. It is time to design the cultural reaction we want, in the future we are creating.

An Agile Life

Agile board of post-its
I struggle with feeling satisfied at the end of my domestic days. Slowing down, being mindful, and making a deliberate effort to do fewer things well, I was surprised to discover, left me feeling like I was not doing enough, and bad at everything. Coincidentally, this was also how I felt when I was taking on more than I could ever hope to accomplish. My solution to investigate this? Pay even more attention to what I’m doing, or rather, pay a different kind of attention.

I have stepped off the corporate path, and am still running my tongue around my gums to get the taste out. Yet, when it came to trying to figure out what is actually going on in my BIG TIME OUT, the most sensible thing I could think to do was to run an agile board. I spend a lot of time wondering why our corporate and economic models omit so much of real life, but as it turns out, this has been a really helpful lens to understand my own behavior. Funny that.

I’ve got five epics: my personal endeavors, kids & family, and the logistics of the household, a “today” task list, and, of course, a backlog. I put down all most some of the stuff I anticipate needing or wanting to do, estimate how long each task will take, and then prioritize the “today” column each morning. This has been a very educational experience.

Lessons learned:

I suck at estimating how long stuff will take. I rarely know how long something will take until I’ve done it. Often, I forget to measure in a discrete way, so I retroactively guess. Sometimes I skip estimating because I don’t know, but don’t bother break out a task into something more estimable, or even hazard my best guess. I’ve seen (and by and large believed) all of these things in development teams, but trying it with something so personal let me understand the limitations of estimates in a much deeper, felt sense.

I suck at prioritizing, and a rarely execute my day in the order of priority I’ve set. As a Product Manager, I wasted a lot of energy lamenting that business units have no idea how to prioritize. Turns out I don’t either. I don’t have a clear idea of what is most important. There are a lot of competing, non-binary factors that might make something more important, or not – it depends. As it happens, I can not predict the future, nor I am I all that comfortable with not being able to. I know how is ridiculous this is, still it remains true in my experience – which is frustrating.

Hierarchical models, like prioritization, are inherently binary – you’ve got more or fewer bits of “yes” turned on. But prioritization only remains accurate when layered on top of a perspective that it already matches. When they don’t match, then there’s a conflict to resolve. What I didn’t realize is that these conflicts are constant. Sometimes they’re small and obvious, like wanting to eat something before getting started, and sometimes they’re large and subtle, like reorganizing a business unit, or development team. Prioritization can be a useful framework, certainly, but expecting it to be a unifying, static definition of reality, well, that is not only impossible, but seems like a sure way to end up confused and disappointed. But we all agreed on the priorities… Equally as helpful as identifying what ever priorities are set, would be identifying all the conflicts that might impede them – and not just the obvious ones of time, budget, tools, and human talent. Comparing the length of those lists – priorities and conflicts – might be as accurate a predictor of project success, or percentage of overrun, than any other.

My “stuff” permeates the simplest tasks in way that is fairly alarming. It takes me five minutes to put in a load of laundry if I just grab enough clothes of a similar color, add soap, and start the wash. But if I do it the way I’m patterned to do it – get all the laundry from all over the house, and sort multi-tiered loads of laundry (bleachable whites, light whites, colors, and then by fabric weight within those groups, and/or other logical grouping like linens, kids, and adults) – then it takes me, well, longer, and how much longer varies based on the laundry that day. Subtle, personal preferences and patterns influence my actions in a way I just didn’t (don’t) realize.

My life is much more dynamic and emergent than a model like this allows for, which throws off my estimates and prioritization even more than they were to start. Almost nothing is linear, and I am constantly being interrupted. My tasks take way longer than I think they “should” because I am dealing with semi-rational, semi-functional, and unpredictable team mates. My kids are little and require a lot of help. Stuff takes longer because I need to do it for them, because they undo it, because they are doing something else at the same time, because they are practicing something they’re not yet good at, and almost everything at their age requires practice. I extrapolate my own (already bad) estimates onto the kids, and then end up unhappy that the reality did match a plan that was delusional to begin with. WTF? I can clean up, get dressed eat and be ready to leave in 30 minutes an hour, but doing this with my kids is a two, sometimes three hour job. I’ve spent years being frustrated by this, and feeling like this was somehow a personal failure of mine. And it was, but not in the way I thought – it was not a failure of execution, it was a failure to let reality define my expectations and actions, rather than the other way around.

My environment and the moods of myself and others are the largest influences of what I do. If the weather is nice, or my kids are foul, the day can take a radical departure from what I had planned. I am astounded at how much this alters the flow and choice of my activities; I suspect these likely hold a much larger sway in our business environments than we recognize.

Almost everything I do is cyclical, “done” is a dangerous fallacy. Seeing this (in the very concrete form of moving post-it notes back a forth, and back again) has helped me shift my attitude to valuing the quality of the process over the completion of the task. It’s also helped me see how the natural order of everything is fundamentally rhythmic. Any model that does not account for expansion and contraction is bound to fail at some point, because it’s leaving out half of something. This is what makes temporal models so tricky – time is linear, predictable, and only moves in one direction. When we bind other processes to time, it’s easy to expect them to share the same qualities, and consider the natural reset of the cycle a failure when viewed through the primary lens of time.

These are not particularly profound realizations, but rewiring my automatic response system to value action over outcome, and welcome resets, is a profound change (challenge) for me; it requires a lot of intentional awareness, emotional energy, and patience. A task is only done for a moment, before dust starts to accumulate again, or another dish gets placed in the sink. When understood in this way, valuing an instant of satisfaction, rather than the entire process in between those blips on the graph, seems insane. Why set up pleasure to be so brief, and so antagonistic to the natural course of events? I’m surprised by how strongly I associate the “completion” model with value, and how commonly I use that as my viewpoint.

The value of this process is in analyzing behavior, not outcomes. So frequently data, tracking, and analysis are used to pressure conformity to predefined outcomes – finish a project on schedule, loose three pounds this week, meet a testing standard – rather than understand the underlying reasons for any deviation that occurs. It’s good to have goals, it’s totally legitimate to have a schedule and a plan, but it’s also important to be able willing to question if the goal and the plan were reasonable to begin with, or if they account for all the common variables. Most discussions about “failure” are focused on what prevented the objective from being met (frequently cast as unpredictable, one-time events), or perhaps they skip right to fixing the problem. Typically it’s asked: How do we make up for the deviation that occurred, and prevent it from happening again? instead of Why did we see the deviation we did?

The most valuable part of this exercise has been to help me see that the root causes of my dissatisfaction are different than I thought. I’ve become more aware of my behavior, and make more conscious choices about what I’m doing. I’m more compassionate with myself, and more satisfied with the choices I make, in large part because they’re done intentionally, with fuller knowledge of what’s gained and lost. The data is not telling me what to do, it’s exposing what I already do – indirectly, by making visible the gaps between the model and what actually happened. I’m still not satisfied, but I’m less unsatisfied. I’ve got less doer’s remorse, and this is a good thing.

Interactive Art

globe-18-Inside-earth-by-Marine-PEYRE-370x339

Photo credit to http://www.coolglobes.org/

After dinner with my friend Daphne the other night, I had some time before my train. I love having open time to let something nice happen. It didn’t take long. In front of the Boston Public Library, I sat and listened to Aisling Peartree who was singing, singing, singing – singing for the pleasure of letting one’s soul vibrate, so it can shimmy on over and touch another’s. She was great. She was just so happy singing. I felt happy too.

I wandered across the street to check out the cool globes that are in Copley Square right now. My favorite one was the Inside Earth globe.

People love to be invited into an open space. People stopped to discuss if, in fact, it was okay to sit in it. They climbed in, had their picture taken, swapped places, leaned between the legs of their sitting lover, popped their kids up to have a turn. They smiled and laughed. They had a relationship with the art. Invitation is, perhaps, the oldest technology around.

I climbed in too, and meditated. It was brief sit, but a great perspective-shifting experience. Inside the globe, sound and vibration changed. It was a little bit like what happens when you’re underwater, and it created the distinct feeling of being acted upon. I went from being part of experience in the world, to having the experience of the world happen to me. The rumble of the truck felt like is was running over me. Sound, especially deep sound, like the the bass of loud music, left me feeling a little bombarded. And just by tucking in and closing my eyes, I immediately became an object of an “other” category: oh, she’s in there…, as if there wasn’t right here, together.

I thought, this is what the earth feels like. We rumble all over it, we drown out it’s sound in favor of our own, and see it as distinctly different than ourselves. I felt deep compassion for our planet, and humility at how much perspective I lack 99.999% of the time. That’s a successful piece of art.

Sound is especially important, because it’s so hard to find any true quiet, once you’re listening. We can close our eyes and still our bodies, but sound is very difficult to control. When I got off the train and it pulled away, it drown out every other auditory signal, and I realized how vulnerable I felt, loosing – even just for a moment – and entire sense. Coming up into the Back Bay concourse, it was a blur of noise – announcements, people talking, fans, echos – and I realized that maybe part of why we are so tense, so subtly fearful, is we’ve lost our ability to consume the natural queues in the world around us. Our instincts are injured – literally deafened – and we feel less connected to our environment as a result.

Digital Bleed

phone charger in a box of bandages

The Friday before Fourth of July week, I am in the city, with no particular plans, and no technology to assist me with my own life. I recently gave up my smartphone, and have been seeing what life is like without it.

What’s most interesting about this experiment (almost three weeks now) is how much I’ve learned from the experience of absence. We usually seek improvement on the assumption whatever we have is deficient, not that it’s too much. Our first instinct is towards abundance, rather than reduction. Aside from our cultural obsession with efficiency, we rarely consider elimination as a path to improvement. Why is this?

Living without a smartphone has been like entering another communication class. I’ve dropped outside of the tools, patterns, and expectations now common in my peer group: A friend of mine is several hours late to visit, I finally call her, slightly worried, and she says: I’ve been in terrible traffic, didn’t you get my texts? I miss my train, and now will be home several hours later than I planned. I want to let Brendan know this, but have no phone to call him. I find a payphone (a payphone!), which I think is a delightful novelty. Even more amazing, I have quarters with me. As I dial, I realize I know exactly three phone numbers, four if you count my childhood number for a house now inhabited by people I don’t know. Without technology to store, query, and display on demand, I have to be responsible for details of my life that I had become transparent to me. I have to remember more things, like what time the train leaves, and to check my watch.

All that pocketed availability, kept me slightly separate, slightly suspended from my physical, present, reality. The divide is so subtle, I could only see it once it wasn’t in front of me any more. As our technology gets more luscious – more vivid, more social, more soothing – we soften into it. As it becomes more ubiquitous, we forget what life was like without it – we forget that there even is a “without it”.

So I’m in town, and I decide to stop by the Pearson offices where I used to work and still have some friends, one or more of whom, I am hoping to coax into having some fun with me. I suddenly remember that the building is “secure” – the lobby will have a clerk, watching for the swipe of a digital key card. I do not have a digital key card. I do not have an appointment. I do not have a phone to call, or email, or text my friends, and circumvent the system. It occurs to me for the first time, that all that security isn’t to keep dangerous people out, it’s to keep non-dangerous people in. Digital bleeds both ways. It’s a seeping, creeping, invisible gas that wafts between the bricks and glass, and puts us back in touch with the people we willing lock ourselves away from, nearly every day of the week. It’s a tugging, hugging vacuum that bends us away from the people right in front of us who want and deserve our attention. In a meeting, on walk, out for drinks, in the kitchen, on the road, at the playground.

I meander through Boston common and the public garden. I consider trying to sneak in, verses following the rules. I decide to follow the rules because I think that will actually be a lot more interesting than gliding by. I’m giddy by the time I arrive. There’s a man at the desk in the lobby.

Hi.
Good morning.
I’m here to visit someone at Pearson. I don’t have an appointment, so I’m hoping you can help me get in touch with her.
Who are you here to see?
Beth Porter. Can you call and see if she’s available?
Do you work here?
No, but I used. You could just let me go up, and I can track her down. Whatever is easier.
I can’t let you do that.
He reaches for the phone, then stops and looks at me. The fastest thing would be for you to call her.
I don’t have a phone, smiling broadly.
He stars at me, nonplussed. If I had said: I don’t have a phone at the moment, because I threw it at a brain-eating zombie who was chasing me through the common, I think he would have been less surprised.
Isn’t that amazing? I say.
Yes. It is.
After another moment,Do you have a license?
Yes! Yes, I do have one of those.

I’m giggling now. I hand him my license. He looks at it. He looks at me. He rolls his chair over to his computer and types something.
Ok, there you are.
I realize he’s looking at my old employee profile, and I’m surprised that I’m still in the security system.
Why don’t you just let me go up?
I can’t do that.
What do you think would happen? Are you worried I’ll do something?
It’s against the rules. I don’t make the decisions.

I shrug, smile.
He picks up the phone and talks to someone. He says my name. He says Beth’s name. He hangs up. I stand. He sits.
What happens now?
They come and arrest you. I’m sorry, I’m just doing my job.
I smile. I love this guy.
Take this, just in case, and he hands me a guest pass ID to stick on my shirt. Ninth floor.
Thank you. As I head towards the elevators, he says something back, but I don’t hear it clearly. It sounds like Good tidings.

On the ninth floor, there is another man at a desk. He has a pad of paper next to him. My name is written on it. Beth’s name is written on it. He tells me Beth was not at her desk. Would I like him to send her an email? I consider this. I have no way to get the response unless I wait. I don’t have anything urgent to do. Beth is almost never at her desk, and when she is, she is often on the phone. I figure the chances are high, that if she is working, she will see an email quickly. Yes, sure, thank you.

He tells me it’s very quiet in the office today. I have forgotten it’s the Friday before a holiday week. I try to convince him to let me in. He won’t. He tells me it’s against the rules. He could lose his job. I have a nice face, and he doesn’t think I would do anything, but he could get in trouble just the same. I’m disappointed. There is a new, open layout that I’m told everyone hates, because there is no privacy and all the executives are working right next to everyone else. This doesn’t seem like it would be too big of a problem, because in my experience, startups are the only companies where the executives are in the office much. I have no way to know if the people that work there really hate this arrangement, because the only people I’ve talked to about it are people, like me, who don’t work there any more. I want to see what it’s like.

Beth is not responding, so I ask him to call some other people. He’s very obliging. It starts to feel like a game. Leslie, voice mail. Daphne, voice mail. Bob, strait to voice mail. No wait, let me try his other phone, voice mail. I remember that Beth, Leslie and Daphne all have summer homes. I don’t know if Bob has a summer home or not, but I’ve been told he has a new girlfriend, which is probably even more enticing than a vacation home. My friends don’t need rescuing. They aren’t locked up. They’re out in the world, and I wonder in which direction they’re bleeding, or if they’ve pressed and held, to stop the flow.