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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

“If people don’t like a flavor, they’re right, we’re not right.”

I love this quote from Suzanne Slatcher, who worked at Pixar in the early years. From the really interesting article Building The Next Pixar:

“Business is just an idea, like a movie,” says Slatcher. “What if we did this in this place at this time, in this style of packaging, with this choice of flavors? Would it work? There’s still a back and forth between creative and the audience, and you can’t be like ‘if I build it, they will come.’ No, we’re in a democratic world where everyone has opinions. If you’re making your cartoon and your joke’s not funny, it’s just not funny, it has to go. If people don’t like a flavor, they’re right, we’re not right.”

That last sentence is a key concept in product development as well. If people don’t like our “flavor” of product, they’re right and we’re wrong. We have to fix it, not try to convince them that they don’t “get it”.

Sketching as Sensemaking

I’m a big fan of sketching, and this post by Jacob Rader does a great job of explaining why it’s such an important part of the design process:

Sensemaking is the active conversation we have with the events that we encounter; it’s our ability to take in information, process it, and derive meaning and action from it.

Rather than focusing on the external, sketching provides us a sensemaking process for our own creative flux. When we’re presented with a problem our minds go to work to create this cloud of ideas, populating it with information and attempting to form connections. This facilitated sensemaking turns that abstract concoction into a concrete reality. This works because sketching forces us to make decisions and apply structure to our ideas. By externalizing we pass those fragments through a filter of our own experience creating a foundation to build our ideas from.

When we externalize the pieces of an idea through a sketch we’re making a testable “design move” which we’re able make judgements around. This positions us to make further moves that iteratively cycles and builds an idea.

Surrender your eyes and ears!

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.

Marshall McLuhan

In other news, Google Glass is on sale today.

Audacity, courage, or madness?

John Maeda on The Great Discontent:

I’ve never met anyone who is good at what they do creatively and is super-confident.

Well, that’s a relief. Because I’m not feeling particularly confident right now. He goes on to say this:

If you have audacity and take on a risk, it means you don’t know what you’re getting into; you’re walking through a door, into a dark room, with no idea what’s there. If you have courage, it means that you know exactly what’s behind that door; there’s something dangerous, hard, and it’s going to make you really uncomfortable.

I don’t know if I’m audacious, courageous, or just plain crazy, but in case you were wondering why it’s been so quiet here over the past couple of weeks, it’s because I just moved from Cape Town to Portland, and today started a new job as Director of Product at HealthSparq. I’m excited about the move and the role, but also pretty nervous about the dark room I’m walking into. But I guess that’s what makes life exciting. That not knowing that keeps us pushing to find our own limits so we can break through them.

I expect things to stay a little bit slow on Elezea for another week or so. This week is obviously crazy, next week I’m speaking at Industry Conf, and after that things will hopefully return to a reasonably regular posting schedule. I just felt that I probably owed you guys an update.

Thanks for caring.

Silence!

I had a particularly noisy weekend, so I’ve been thinking about silence quite a bit. This morning I came across Chloe Schama’s How Silence Became a Luxury Product, and it really resonated with me:

Unwanted noise is perhaps the most irksome form of sensory assault. A bothersome sight? Close your eyes or turn the other way — eyesores are, generally, immobile. An annoying taste? Spit it out. (Why was it in your mouth?) Sound, on the other hand, is ambient, elusive, enveloping. Even the softest drone can echo cacophonously if it worms itself into your head. Ulysses was not seduced by the sight of the sirens. Poe’s telltale heart does not torment with its smell. “Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption,” groused the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought.”

The article goes on to explain how silence has become a commodity — one that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. I found the article through Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s Enjoy the Silence, a great piece on the proliferation of noise-canceling headphones:

I also discovered that an artificially imposed lack of noise can make perfectly normal sounds—the hum of a fan, or a colleague’s phone conversation—feel like an assault on the senses. The quiet becomes habit-forming, and I’m not entirely convinced that that’s desirable. What good is it to live in the world if we just choose to ignore it?

The articles reminded me of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s exploration of imposed silence in How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks. Here is how one monk answered the question What do you feel like silence adds to your actions?:

The silence does make me aware of my inner workings — what we call in the monastery, “self-knowledge.” I can’t pretend that I’m always a nice guy, always patient, always calm and receptive. I have to admit that I can be abrupt, cold to offenders, or would often prefer efficiency to the messiness of other people’s moods. Silence seems to keep me from idealizing myself.

Since we’re on the topic of silence we might as well look back to Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts about it in his message for World Communications Day back in 2012:

Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.

Secret, Whisper, and the lure of annonymity

Austin Hill wrote what is so far the best critique I’ve seen of apps like Whisper and Secret. Here’s the general point from his essay On your permanent record:

When a participant in iterative prisoners’ dilemma has no identity or feels free from the responsibility of their actions in social interactions communities quickly degenerate into a race to the bottom. This is when trolls, abusers and the worst part of our humanity starts to become a strategic advantage in seeing your actions get more attention by continuing to push the envelope of acceptable behaviour.

And about those apps specifically:

Out of all the problems on our planet that need our skills as entrepreneurs, out of all the incredible opportunities to improve the lives of our customers or fellow human beings — we need to fund & waste engineering talent to build a better TMZ?

I do not doubt that voyeurism and rumour mongering are popular leading to profitability. It’s the reason why every grocery store check-out isle is packed with tabloid magazines and not Popular Science or The Economist. But really?

This point led me to tweet this the other day in response to a question about the VCs who fund these apps:

Mark Suster added his voice in another good article called How do I Really Feel About Anonymous Apps Like Secret?:

My general instinct is that most anonymity apps breed car-like behavior. Intolerance. For all the terrible things people have said over the years about me on Hacker News simply because they didn’t agree with my opinion on some topic I feel certain that if most spent an afternoon with me they would feel very differently. It’s like racism or prejudice. It’s very easy to hate a group with whom you never interact and when you live in a big city where there are many ethnicities and sexualities you realize we are all just human. Same wants. Same needs. Same goals. Even VCs.

I’ll leave the final word to Tim Fernholz in When it comes to secrets, Wall Street titans and Silicon Valley VCs see eye-to-eye:

So if you’re an ardent believer in anonymity, be careful: If you reveal something important enough to be legally protected on one of these platforms, your anonymity might not be secure. The only secrets you can safely reveal on these platforms (and even then, only as long as they’re not crimes) are your own.

Speed-reading and comprehension

In the excellent Reading to Have Read Ian Bogost sums up why I’m not a fan of Spritz, a speed-reading app that’s been making the rounds:

In today’s attention economy, reading materials (we call it “content” now) have ceased to be created and disseminated for understanding. Instead, they exist first (and primarily) for mere encounter. This condition doesn’t necessarily signal the degradation of reading; it also arises from the surplus of content we are invited and even expected to read. But it’s a Sisyphean1 task. We can no longer reasonably hope to read all our emails, let alone our friends’ Facebook updates or tweets or blog posts, let alone the hundreds of daily articles and listicles and quizzes and the like. Longreads may offer stories that are best enjoyed away from your desk, but what good are such moments when the #longreads queue is so full? Like books bought to be shelved, articles are saved for a later that never comes.

The core issue with Spritz (and speed-reading in general) as a way of dealing with this kind of overload is this:

But can you really read a novel in 90 minutes with full comprehension? Well, like most things that seem too good to be true, the answer unfortunately is no. The research in the 1970s showed convincingly that although people can read using rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) at normal reading rates, comprehension and memory for text falls as RSVP speeds increase, and the problem gets worse for paragraphs compared to single sentences. One of the biggest problems is that there just isn’t enough time to put the meaning together and store it in memory (what psychologists call “consolidation”).


  1. That’s the dude who was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. 

Smart cities need to bring citizens into the discussion

Gary Graham writes about some of the dangers of the smart city movement in Too-smart cities? Why these visions of utopia need an urgent reality check:

Ideally a future city will have inner-city areas that are sustainably created through private, for-profit initiatives, and investment based on genuine competitive advantage — not through artificial inducements, charity or government mandates.

The people living in cities far outnumber the people making decisions about what those cities should look like in the future. They are disconnected from the plans being made by companies and even governments on their behalf.

We need to start working with everyday citizens to find the right questions — and then work with them towards developing solutions to the problems they raise.

The article also mentions the city of Brasília as an example of a failed experiment because it didn’t take the needs of its citizens into consideration. That’s a topic that’s near and dear to me:

Together, we can avoid building digital Brasílias — projects that generate buzz, but don’t meet the needs of the people who live there.

The need for “demanding technologies”

Tim Wu brings up some interesting points in Why Making Technology Easier to Use Isn’t Always Good:

We make ourselves into what we, as a species, will become, mainly through our choices as consumers. If you accept these premises, our choice of technological tools becomes all-important; by the logic of biological atrophy, our unused skills and capacities tend to melt away, like the tail of an ape. It may sound overly dramatic, but the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.

Wu explains that if everything is easy, we’ll simply stop learning things. So what are these “demanding technologies” like?

Three elements are defining: it is technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast — like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions — usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.

Teens online: give them freedom plus communication

danah boyd wrote an interesting op-ed for TIME called Let Kids Run Wild Online. She argues that restrictive monitoring software is not the way to go to keep teens safe online:

The key to helping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn’t more restrictions. It’s freedom plus communication. Famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest neighborhoods were those where communities collectively took interest in and paid attention to what happened on the streets. Safety didn’t come from surveillance cameras or keeping everyone indoors but from a collective willingness to watch out for one another and be present as people struggled. The same is true online.