Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part I)

I’ve been circling around Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action for years now and finally got around to reading it. As it turns out, I should have read it a long time ago, since it has so much to say (indirectly) about design and what it means to be a designer today, especially designers in the experience design realm. As it turns out, there is a reason for the fact we’re constantly fighting about things like role/discipline boundaries and titles. The book also offers and analyzes a way of working that is very very much how I work and, I suspect, how many people in my field do as well.

The Reflective Practitioner was written in the early 1980s and took as its premise that the world of work was changing rapidly, that there was a group of people (Richard Florida’s Creative Class mostly) who, unlike doctors, engineers, and scientists, didn’t rely on technical knowledge for their expertise. Schön calls these people “practitioners” and their ranks include everything from social workers to city planners to architects and designers. People who, in the words of Charles Reich, “can be counted on to do their job, but not necessarily to define it.”

Practitioners, Schön says, have “an awareness of complexity that resists the skills and techniques of traditional expertise” and are “frequently embroiled in conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests.” (Much like ever project I’ve ever worked on!) Being a practitioner means that the traditional methods and techniques of analytical thinking and scientific process simply don’t work. Problems in the messy world of practitioners “are interconnected, environments are turbulent, and the future is indeterminate.” What is called for under these conditions, Schön argues, are professionals who can, as Russell Ackoff says, “design a desirable future and invent ways of bringing it about.”

All isn’t roses for practitioners, however. We’re struggling against 400 years of Technical Rationality, which is “problem-solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique.” Technical Rationality is ingrained in our workplaces and in our universities, and the professions that practice it (doctors, lawyers, engineers) are emphasized and revered over those that don’t. Professions that practice Technical Rationality apply general principles (medicine, law, physics) to specific problems to achieve unambiguous results (health, justice, bridges, etc.).

However, Schön points out, “Increasingly we have become aware of the importance to professional practice of phenomena–complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict–which do not fit the model of Technical Rationality.” Instead of simply problem solving, practitioners instead need to problem set. That is, “to determine the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen.”

Schön says,

In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to practitioners as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations that are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do a certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense.

Problem setting is where we “name the things to which we will attend and frame the context to which we will attend to them.” This cannot be achieved by Technical Rationality, because Technical Rationality depends on understanding what the end is. Only through naming and framing, which do not depend on applying general scientific principles, can these complex problems eventually be solved.

This, however, doesn’t stop practitioners from looking for tried-and-true methods and techniques that will solve all their problems in a neat way. You see this all the time with designers at conferences and on mailing lists, searching for the next great method. Schön says that for practitioners, replying on methods and techniques will leave them solving problems of relatively little importance, for both clients and society at large. It is only by “descending into the swamp” where the practitioners must forsake technical rigor that the really important and challenging problems will be found.

How practitioners should do this is in Part II of this review.

Review: Managing Humans

On a tip from Joel Spolsky, I picked up the informative and entertaining Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager by Michael Lopp. Not that I have read many of them, but Managing Humans is probably one of the best no-bullshit books on managers, staff, and office life in general for those of us who work in the software/web/engineering/design world. I recommend it not only for people like myself who are getting their feet wet managing people, but also for people who aren’t managing anyone in order to understand what their boss (and their boss’ boss) does and thinks about all day. If you’ve ever wondered, What do those managers do all day? this is the book for you.

Lopp goes over the basics of running a team: from hiring (on resumes: “you have 30 seconds to make an impression on me”) to resigning (“Don’t give too much notice”) to dealing with difficult employees (“Get the freaks to solve their own problems”), Lopp (or his alter-ego Rands) has practical advice on how to deal with it. And not crap like “Get your team to be the best it can be!” but tactical suggestions on how to play common scenarios. like bad meetings, employee freakouts, and dealing with burnt-out staff. And he does it in a readable, funny way.

Highly Recommended (for managers especially).

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I don’t usually review non-design books here–unless of course, I can somehow relate them to design. But I won’t do that to Book 7 of the Harry Potter series. And No Spoilers for those who are still reading or will wait to see the movies.

I finished the book in about 13 hours of solid reading–about 20 hours after I bought it. I seldom have such a pop-culture moment–probably not since the Star Wars Episode I (ugh) premiere or the Survivor Season 1 finale have I gotten so wound up about an event like this. It’s doubly odd since I was a late-comer to the Harry Potter train. It was really my wife and kid reading them over the last year that dragged me kicking and screaming into the books and movies. About two years ago, I had even written part of a blog post called “Put down your Harry Potter and pick up His Dark Materials instead” but I never published it. Instead, I slowly got sucked in, and here we are.

One of the marks of a good author is this: can they make you care about inanimate objects in their books? There is a horrible scene in one of the later Patrick O’Brien books when the ship’s crew has to get rid of these two particular brass cannons, tossing them overboard, that had been a part of the series for years/books. It was devastating to me. I had many of the same type of moments while reading the last Harry Potter book. J.K. Rowling is no stylist like O’Brien, but she is just as good of a storyteller, if not better.

It’s the craft behind the books that is so good, and it is particularly obvious in Deathly Hallows, as the pieces of previous books, some stretching back to the first books of the series, fit together like some massive table-sized puzzle, made up of smaller puzzled. Reading Deathly Hallows, I found myself saying, “Oh, that’s why that happened” or “that’s what was going on there” more than once. It’s really a masterful bit of plotting, and it is something the likes of which I have never seen before, except perhaps in massive comic book arcs like the Dark Phoenix Saga of my youth. One only needs to compare the heavy-handed plotting of, say, the Star Wars movies or even (blasphemy!) The Lord of the Rings, to see the achievement here.

So goodbye, Harry. I can’t wait to read you again, some 20 or 30 years from now, with my grandchildren. Or perhaps, even just by myself.

Review: Dreaming in Code

Anyone who has ever worked on a large software project that has gone seriously awry and is behind schedule will do as I did: wince their way through Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code. Dreaming in Code is an account of the three years (and counting) spent designing and developing Chandler, a Personal Information Management (PIM) system, led by Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus 1-2-3 and the author of the seminal Software Design Manifesto, which should be required reading for all interaction designers. [Full disclosure: Mitch is a client and my experience working with him and his team was nothing like the quagmire detailed in DIC. It was challenging but fun, and Mitch is a visionary guy, able to leap between big picture and tiny details. Always have clients who are smarter than you.]

Chandler itself is a visionary idea, one that is similar to MayaViz’s CoMotion software in that it treats all bits of data (addresses, calendar entries, email, etc.) as fluid objects that can change and be used in different forms. Building that idea turns out to be a massive problem, as is detailed (sometimes in almost too much detail) in DIC. Readers who don’t have any programming background will likely find themselves occasionally glossing over some of the technical discussions and details, but as an introduction to what it takes to create a piece of software and as a primer on software history and methodologies, DIC is really top-notch. Very readable and it untangles subjects like programming methodologies more clearly than anything else I’ve ever read on the matter.

If you’ve never done a project like Chandler, this book is a window into what it can be like, although, as the book points out, every project is different. The Chandler team inadvertently makes a series of painfully bad errors in process, starting with the two years they spend without a solid design to work from, then their choice of a programming language none of the developers was an expert in, and even (as it turns out) in the choice of medium (desktop vs. online application). Then, as the slog continues, through its alpha releases, you are left just shaking your head: first in exasperation, then sadness, then resignation. It’s a wonder that any big software project gets done.

There’s some great pieces of wisdom tucked into this book as well. One in particular, to explain the slow start of the project, notes that it is always easier to make tools (and tools for the tools) than it is to make the product itself. Something that designers with our love of models also need to beware of.

Recommended.

Review: Managing the Design Factory

Donald G. Reinertsen’s Managing the Design Factory: A Product Developer’s Toolkit isn’t the type of book I typically read or review. But that’s fine; sometimes you need to look at the same thing through a different lens, and Reinertsen provides that: taking a cold, hard look at the design process and its outcomes. Despite the subtitle, I would say this more a book for product managers than for designers, but it contains plenty for designers to chew on and at least try to swallow.

Reinertsen’s first point: there are no best practices.

[T]he idea of best practices is a seductive but dangerous trap. Best practices are only “best” in certain contexts and to achieve certain objectives. A change in either the context or the objective can quickly transform a “best practice” into a stupid approach.

Instead of best practices, Reinertsen suggests we utilize “tools, not rules” and sets out to show and demonstrate some of them.

But first, he tackles some of the big questions, like what is the objective of the design process (what he calls “The Design Factory”)? Simple: to make a profit. Sales are the measure of how much users appreciate the value of our product, and we should be efficient in “converting time and resources into things people value.” (I told you it was a cold, hard look!)

[T]he only measure of the value of a design is its economic value. Our designs are not important because they are beautiful or because they are innovative; they are important because they make money. Our designs will only make money if we create recipes to turn material, labor, and overhead into valuable functionality better than our competitors do.

For Reinertsen, the purpose of the design process is to generate information (the “recipes” mentioned in the quote above). These recipes lose value over time (a recipe for a great 8-Track tape player wouldn’t be as valuable now as it would have been in 1974, say), so they must be managed and delivered in a timely manner. These recipes are also usually one-time processes. “There is no value,” Reinertsen writes, in creating the same recipe twice…we can only add value when we do something differently. If we change nothing, then we add no value.”

To make good recipes also requires good information, and the sooner the better. As most designers know well, making changes late in a product is far more costly than making them earlier on, so we need good information as soon as possible in the process to make the correct decisions throughout.

Information is a key theme throughout. One nugget of wisdom I found instructive was Reinertsen noting that “events that are less probable contain more information” and thus we should balance our risk/success rate to obtain more information. “When success is likely, the message of success contains little information, whereas if success is unlikely, the message of success contains a lot of information. Likewise, a message of failure contains more information if the failure is highly improbable.” We maximize the amount of information we can get by “approaching a 50 percent failure rate.” We need failure and risk. “When a design fails because we try something new that does not work, we generate useful information,” Reinertsen says. In fact, expert knowledge only comes from “being exposed to and remembering low-probability events.” What a great way to think about failure.

Risk isn’t to be avoided, but embraced. Reinertsen says we can make risk more attractive by

  • decreasing the magnitude of the downside
  • reducing the probability of the downside
  • increasing the magnitude of the upside.

Easier said than done of course. He goes on to note that “most product failures are caused by market risk” which is “a much tougher problem than technical risk.” Market risk is “determiend by how well the product specification meets customer requirements…Two factors that increase this risk are that customers often do not know what they want and that their requirements may change during the development process.” He then goes on to offer suggestions for managing this risk, including using a substitute product, simulating the risky attribute, and making the design flexible enough to accommodate changes.

Another thing that rings true is about deadlines in the design process:

[W]e rarely stop when we achieve a satisfactory solution, because this will simply result in a satisfactory product. Instead, we stop when we run out of time…activities are completed on-time or late. They are never completed early.

Interfaces are another key point throughout, but not interfaces how interaction designers typically think of them (as UI, say). Instead, these interfaces are the connections between different modules of a design–where one component of a system connects and communicates with another. An organization, too, is one such system, and Reinertsen looks at the various types of organizational structures and the communications between the different parts of a company. “The key driver of good communication is the amount of usable information communicated compared to what is needed to make good decisions.” In other words, you don’t necessarily have to increase the information flow to solve communication problems.

When designing products, Reinertsen says, it’s not enough to just find out what the customer wants. You need to find out “why they want it, and how they know they have gotten it.” This should be spelled out in what he calls a Product Mission, which outlines the product’s value proposition.

Why should a customer buy this product instead of a competitor’s? If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way in twenty-five words, then there is a fundamental problem with the design of the product…Most successful products have a clear and simple value proposition. Buyers typically make their choice between competing products on the basis of three or four factors.”

These factors should drive the design above all else. The Product Mission becomes “a compass for the design team, always pointing them towards true north.” One trick to do that, Reinertsen says, is to “write the advertisement for the product as one of the first team activities.” Another is to ask “what the mission statement excludes.” If it doesn’t exclude anything (the product is targeted to everyone, everywhere, at all times), it is useless.

Once you start having documentation (“specifications”), it is best, Reinertsen says, yto treat it as a flawed, living document, not something that is a fixed target. It’s a moving target and should be treated as such.

If you are a product manager or into the business side of design, I recommend this book for its clear-eyed view of the design process. Its economic perspective on our often-fuzzy art (“make the design resonate with more emotion!”) is a much needed tonic to design’s gin.

Review: Designing the Mobile User Experience

I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Barbara Ballard’s Designing the Mobile User Experience. In general, it is well-written, authoritative, and a boon to interaction designers working (or better, starting to work) in mobile. While I’m not sure this book alone will really enable you to design mobile user experience, it is a good introduction and overview of the mobile space.

It’s great that, rather than dive immediately into application design, Ballard spends the second chapter on the needs and contexts of users. I like that her definition of “mobile” has nothing to do with the device, but is instead a characteristic of the user. It’s the user that is mobile and is carrying the device. I was particularly drawn to the idea of user “microcontexts:” the social context, the physical environment, the application, and the interpersonal context of whom the user is interacting with all come into play.

Although the section on international usage patterns is good (albeit incomplete: no Korea or India?), Ballard makes some judgement calls that may only be true in the West. She says, for instance, that mobile devices being used by more than one person are rare. In some parts of Africa and, I believe, Indonesia, it is actually common. Families own sets of mobile phones and individuals simply take whichever one is charged and ready.

Ballard presents a number of different frameworks, models, and dissections that are useful for understanding the fractured nature of the mobile space. She presents a taxonomy of devices, a device hierarchy chart, the anatomy of Personal Computing Devices (PCD), and a method for selecting the device’s technology/platform (something interaction designers rarely get to do).

Designers, especially those new to mobile, will likely find the chapter on Mobile Design Principles particularly insightful, although here (like in other parts of the book) the technical jargon gets thick and becomes geared towards more developer types.

For designers of a certain ilk, the meatiest part of the book will be Chapter 6 on Mobile UI Design Patterns. (I personally find patterns hard to put into practice, but that’s another story.) Missing from some patterns is an accompanying image of the pattern, however, which makes some patterns hard to understand. Images of the patterns in actual use in addition to wireframe-like figures would have been nice. Designers who are into patterns might also checking out Ballard’s Mobile UI Design Patterns Wiki.

I was personally more interested in Chapter 7, strangely titled Graphic and Media Design. I’d call it, well, Interface Design. Using the brilliant metaphor of portrait miniatures, Ballard offers some really interesting advice for designing UIs for the small screen, such as that designers might want to replicate some of the characteristics of amateur art in their designs: no attention paid to the background, close cropping, and to play with perspective. Some color plates and examples of these practices on mobile devices would have helped this chapter.

Chapter 8, an overview of industry players, is probably crucial to any understanding of mobile even though for anyone with experience, this chapter contains very little insight. It’s also an industry that changes rapidly (although not rapidly enough in some cases). Likewise, chapter 9, on Research and Design, interaction designers will probably find puzzling and dated, springing from a very HCI/usability approach. A complementary book–and indeed, almost the inverse of this book–is Mobile Interaction Design, which I would recommend to really dig into interaction design for mobile. What’s missing from Ballard’s book is well covered there, and visa versa. I’d recommend the two books be read together (if you can afford the hefty price tags on both: $75 for this book, $60 for the other. Why are these books so expensive??)

As a final note, it will be interesting to see how the industry shifts (if at all) when the iPhone debuts in June. And how those shifts will affect this book. Very little is mentioned here of gestures, for example, and the iPhone makes some use of those, not to mention new haptic paradigms like multi-touch. Mobile design is changing rapidly and it is tough for any book to keep up.

Review: Catching the Big Fish

I seldom read books on creativity. Which is kind of stupid, I suppose, since my livelihood depends upon my being creative. But for some reason, perhaps because he is one person in film who really follows his own vision, I was interested to hear what David Lynch (of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks fame) had to say about it in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.

Not surprisingly, Lynch has his own path to creativity: expanding his consciousness through Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM has been the way that Lynch expands his consciousness and thus he feels he is better able to catch “the big fish.” From the introduction:

Ideas are like fish.

If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.

Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They are huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.

Lynch details how he got into TM and what it has done for his work and life and if you like Lynch’s films he offers some interesting insights, especially about the role of the accidental during filming. (Note: I really think there are more parallels between the world of film and the world of interaction design that haven’t been explored at all. Some of the creative process is remarkably similar.)

Towards the end of this small book, Lynch offers this good advice: “Stay true to yourself. Let your voice ring out, and don’t let anybody fiddle with it. Never turn down a good idea, but never take a bad idea.”

May it be so.

Review: What Things Do (Part 7)

This is the final part, part seven, of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.

Most of What Things Do is prologue for Chapter 7, “Artifacts in Design,” in which Peter-Paul Verbeek outlines his philosophy for the relationship between humans and things. It can be summarized thusly: “Technology mediates our behavior and our perception, and thereby actively shapes subjectivity and objectivity: the ways in which we are present in our world and the world is present to us.”

Verbeek turns his attention specifically to design in this chapter, albeit limited to industrial design, but I think much of what he claims is also applicable to interaction designers as well. He writes,

Industrial design generally treats products from one or two perspectives: their functionality and their sign-value. A product must first of all be functional; it must do what it was designed and manufactured to do. Besides this, it has meaning or sign-value: human beings are drawn to particular product styles and not to others, and to use a product to express a lifestyle to which they (want to) belong.

Products have two of these sign-value or semiotic functions: denotative functions (which designers know of as affordances) that tell how the product can be used, and connotative functions that represent “the lifestyle with which its users identify, or want to identify,” such as “sturdy,” “traditional,” “cutting-edge,” etc. (It’s not by accident all those Web 2.0 sites look somewhat alike.) Products, therefore, are bearers of meaning. A car, for instance, isn’t only for transportation, but also for showing one’s status and taste.

Verbeek, however, is less interested in this semiotic reading of products than he is in the role of artifacts as mediators between human beings and the world. This mediation, he writes, “is not a product’s function but rather a byproduct of its functionality.”

What things “do” encompasses more than merely “referring” or “functioning.” Things mediate the relation between human beings and their world not in a linguistic but in a material way. They fulfill their functions as material objects, and by this functioning they shape human actions and experiences. Such “material mediation” does not take place on an interpretive level, but on a sensorial level.

One aspect of this materiality is how an object looks. Design has “grown increasingly concerned with the visual appearance of things,” Verbeek claims. But the aesthetics of things goes beyond the visual, and, I would argue, into interaction design.

The sensory relations that are possible in the case of useful objects reach beyond the visual, for such things are meant to be used rather than looked at. The aesthetics of products concerns the practical dealings with them and involves their bodily presence, rather than just what they look like or signify, or how they are interpreted or read.

And here is the crux of the argument, where Verbeek’s thoughts touch fully upon interaction design:

Mediation occurs on the basis of practical dealings with things. When things are used, people take up a relation to the world that these things, thanks to their “hanidness,” coshape. In this coshaping, not only does the human interaction with products have a sensory character, so does the human-world relation that is mediated by the products. Human experience and existence can only acquire a specific shape on the basis of sensory perception and sensory dealings with with world…By extending the domain of aesthetics to include the sensorial in the broadest sense, therefore, it becomes possible to give the notion of mediation an explicit place in the industrial design process…The meaning of aesthetics in design then comes to include not just style and beauty, but also the relations between people and products, and the ways in which products coshape the relation between humans and the world.

This is what interaction design, in the broadest and deepest sense, already (at least partially) does. This “relation between people and products” and between people and the world is at the heart of interaction design. The “aesthetics” of interaction design are more far-reaching than only the visual (although of course the visual is still intensely important).

Naturally, one cannot define design this way without touching upon ethics, and this is what Verbeek addresses next.

Designers engage in “ethics by other means”; that is, their products codetermine the outcome of moral considerations, which in turn determine human action and their definition of “the good life.”

Things help shape the answer of how to act in any given situation. With a gun in my hand, I may react differently when angered. Gerard De Vries says, “Our existence is furnished with many different kinds of devices and technological systems. These are what instruct people in contemporary societies ‘how to live’.” Thus, for Verbeek,

Design ethics requires that artifacts be treated as members of the moral community, conceived as the community in which morality assumes a shape. Things carry morality because they shape the way people experience their world and organize their existence, regardless of whether this is done consciously and intentionally or not. The very fact that they do this shaping charges designers with the responsibility to make sure that things do this in a desirable way.

Verbeek offers some advice as to the type and character of the types of products designers should be designing. The first is for designers not to try to aim for products that people are “devoted” to, but rather to those people are attached to. “Products to which people develop an attachment are not generally as emotionally charged and irreplaceably present as heirlooms, but neither are they as anonymous as a throw-away item…what distinguishes these goods from our most loved possessions is that they are used rather than cherished.” Transparency helps to form those attachments. Products’ functionality should be “understandable and accessible.” This allows people to fix them (instead of discard them) when they break, but also it “makes it possible for people to become involved with products as material entities. For when a product is transparent, it is not only functionally present but it exhibits how it is functioning.” Users have to be connected to both the commodity and machinery, in Borgmann’s terms.

To this end, Verbeek implores designers to create “engaging products”–products that involve people in their functioning. A cello, for instance, only produces music when a human plays it. Products should become more dependent on human operation, not less. Products should also integrate into everyday practices in a more engaging manner. Computers as they are designed now are for human-to-computer, isolated engagement, for example, but they need not be so. Humans need, in Verbeek’s words, “to deal with the products themselves, and not only with what they do or signify. When only the functionality of products takes center stage, we are merely involved with what products do and not with how they do it.”

In conclusion to this long review, let me note that I certainly haven’t encapsulated all the ideas in this thought-provoking book, which provides a great walkthrough of major points in the philosophy of technology. How this theory can be put into practice is a challenge for us all.

Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6

Review: What Things Do (Part 6)

This is part six of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.

In Chapter 6, “Devices and the Good Life,” Peter-Paul Verbeek examines the work of Albert Borgmann to answer the question, “How do artifacts coshape human existence?” Borgmann has looked at how technology affects what he calls “the good life” and how it shapes the interactions people have with the world.

Technology for Borgmann isn’t a monolithic force, but should rather be thought of in discreet bits–as devices. Devices create “a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives.” This device pattern “inheres in the dominant way in which we in the modern era have been taking up with the world.”

Devices deliver availability, which is to say that they make things available to humans that are difficult to acquire without their help. Something is available, according to Borgmann, if it is “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” Devices obtain what previously humans had to obtain with things. A device isn’t a thing. A thing, says Verbeek,

cannot be separated from its context or its world nor can it be divorced from our involvement with it; dealing with a thing requires us to engage with it and its environment. A device, on the other hand, puts out of play its context and does not require engagement; it does the work for us and without our involvement.

Devices, via their machinery make available commodities. Machinery makes up “the background of technology” and remains hidden as much as possible. Machinery is “pure means”: means that are “independent of the goal, divorced as much as possible from the commodities it delivers.” The reason the machinery is hidden is so that “we can enjoy commodities without having to engage ourselves with their production.”

This, however, leads to a style of life that could be labeled “consumption.” Technology allows us to be disengaged from the social and physical production of commodities, and because the machinery that makes this possible is in the background, this pattern of consumption remains mostly hidden. The irony of technology is that “it promises enrichment but delivers impoverishment…Though the great technological breakthroughs of the past have liberated human beings from misery, most technological innovation nowadays only serves to diminish our engagement with the world.”

Borgmann takes this bleak view one step further, noting that Western societies are mostly built upon this background of technology and consumption.

Technology hooks up seamlessly with [a] specific constellation of ideas about freedom, equality, and self-realization. By making ever more goods available, technology makes it possible for human beings to realize their desires without imposing a content on how they go about it.

“Liberal democracy,” Borgmann writes, “is enacted as technology…[We need to] consider democracy not just as a political system, but as a set of institutions which do aim to make everything available to everybody.” Technology, while making it seemingly possible for everyone to have “the good life” also radically shapes the world to make that goal possible, in order to make the device paradigm work. “The liberal ideal of free self-realization appears in practice to involve mass consumption and work in order to make more consumption possible.” In fact, Borgmann claims, liberal democracies rely on technology to keep them stable. The promise that technology will bring prosperity to all through availability has prevented social unrest because the lower and middle classes “acquire the perspective that tomorrow they will wake up to what the rich have today.”

To obtain a true “good life,” Borgmann feels we need an alternative to to technological consumerism, yet one that still exists within the device paradigm. To which he offers focal things and focal practices. Focal things “draw together human involvements, things that invite engagement with themselves and what they make possible” and that concern things greater than just ourselves. These focal things create focal practices “[sponsor] discipline and skill which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of mind, body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union.” Focal things and practices are meaningful and not necessarily efficient like a machine would be. Verbeek uses the example of a marathon: no one runs one because it is more efficient than a car. Focal practices aren’t the most convenient path to reach a goal, but are more about the realization of a goal.

Verbeek (justifiably) takes Borgmann to task for his stark view of technology. He notes that

Borgmann does not see that technology can not only reduce engagment but also amplify it. Technology not only gives rise to disengaged consumption, but also to new possibilities for engagement…Technology indeed makes things available, but the lack of human involvement in the process does not mean that humans are not involved in the product. Reduction of one form of involvement usually goes hand-in-hand with the amplification of other forms.

Looking at involvement, Verbeek contrasts Borgmann’s views then with Latour’s from the previous chapter. Involvement can be direct or indirect. “By encouraging particular actions (invitation) and discouraging others (inhibition), some forms of involvement are called forth and others are suppressed or excluded.” Verbeek rightly notes that devices themselves, instead of being simply machinery for delivery of commodities, can also invite involvement both with themselves (a video game) and with what they make available (the music my iPod plays). Verbeek calls these “engaging devices” and rightly notes that

Some artifacts such as a piano indeed create involvement with their functioning and thus give rise to the intriguing situation of both withdrawing from people’s attention and calling attention to themselves at the same time…A piano is never entirely ready-at-hand, but neither is is exclusively present-at-hand–its machinery is not completely in the background but not entirely in the foreground either…Heidegger’s binary opposition…needs to be challenged, but also the idea that artifacts need to be ready-at-hand to be useful.

Next: the final installment: A Philosophy for Things.

Review: What Things Do (Part 5)

This is part five of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.

Chapter 5, “The Acts of Artifacts,” asks, What role do things play in human life and action? To answer this, the author Peter-Paul Verbeek looks closely at the philosophy of Bruno Latour, particularly his actor-network theory. Verbeek writes,

For Latour, reality cannot be adequately understood if humans and non-humans are treated “asymmetrically.” The two cannot be had separately, but are always bound up with each other in a network of relations. Only by virtue of this network are they what they are, and can they do what they do.

The actor-network theory basically states that agency, the ability to act, isn’t limited to humans alone. Objects can also act when in relationship–a network–with other actors (or “actants”). Things don’t have an “essence” until they are part of a network, although they do have “existence.” In a network, there is no real difference between things and humans. Both only are present and have meaning from their relationship with other nodes, human and non-human, on the network. “Actors can be as much human as non-human, and networks are not structures but relations in which translations take place of entities that assume relations with each other,” Verbeek writes.

The separation of things and humans (“subjects” and “objects” in Enlightenment thinking), is becoming “less and less believable.” We’re now surrounded by things that straddle the boundary between human and non-human: “embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers, and so on.” That is, many of the things that interaction designers have to create and work with every day.

In Latour’s view, humans and objects are deeply intertwined. Objects aren’t simply neutral objects, but mediators that actively contribute to the ways in which ends are realized. Latour calls this technical mediation and it has several facets:

  • Translation. Technology can translate a “program of action.” Verbeek uses a gun as an example: a gun can translate the action of “taking revenge” into a new action of “shooting someone.” “Both the gun and the person change in the mediated situation…they are transformed in their relation to one another.”
  • Composition. Mediation always involves several actants that jointly perform an action. Thus, action “is simply not a property of humans but an association of actants.” Latour calls this composition.
  • Reversible Black-Boxing. The blending of humans and objects in a network is usually invisible, a “black box”, but it can be untangled if, say, an object in the network breaks, revealing all the interconnected relationships.
  • Delegation and Scripts. This is the most important facet of mediation, especially for designers. Latour uses the example of a speed bump to illustrate this concept: “Engineers “inscribe” the program of action they desire (to make drivers slow down) in concrete (the speed bump).” Thus, not only is it a “transformation of a program of action, but also a change of the medium of expression.” The task of a policeman (getting people to slow down) is delegated to the speed bump. This creates “a curious combination of presence and absence: an absent agent [such as a designer] can have an effect on human behavior in the here and now,” notes Verbeek. Latour says we should “think of technology as congealed labor” that can, in Verbeek’s words, “supply their own user’s manuals. They co-shape the use that is made of them.” Latour calls these built-in actions or behaviors that an object invites scripts. The perception of which, I would add, are what we designers (after Gibson and Norman) call affordances.

In the next installment: what role does technology have in obtaining “the good life?”