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

Sorry, I can’t talk right now

The Economist tries to answer the question Why is everyone so busy? and it doesn’t tell a pretty story about ourselves. It starts with the economics of it:

When people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

This part makes us sound like terrible human beings, but it’s hard to disagree with:

The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the opportunity cost of leisure (ie, choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feelings of stress. The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it. And pleasures always feel fleeting.

And of course we tell ourselves that one day it will be different:

Writing in the first century, Seneca was startled by how little people seemed to value their lives as they were living them—how busy, terribly busy, everyone seemed to be, mortal in their fears, immortal in their desires and wasteful of their time. He noticed how even wealthy people hustled their lives along, ruing their fortune, anticipating a time in the future when they would rest. “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy,” he observed in “On the Shortness of Life”, perhaps the very first time-management self-help book.

This is a long article and I know you’re busy, but try to make time for it…

The challenge with remote work is what happens next

Sticking with the theme of remote work, Steven Sinofsky wrote a great post called Why Remote Engineering Is So Difficult!? There’s a lot of food for thought, but here’s the main issue:

The core challenge with remote work is not how it is defined right here and now. In fact that is often very easy. It usually only takes a single in person meeting to define how things should be split up. Then the collaboration tools can help to nurture the work and project. It is often the case that this work is very successful for the initial run of the project. The challenge is not the short term, but what happens next. […]

If I had to sum up all of these in one challenge, it is that however you find you can divide the work across geography at a point in time, it simply isn’t sustainable. The very model you use to keep work geographically efficient are globally sub-optimal for the evolution of your code. It is a constraint that creates unnecessary tradeoffs.

Projects often start off ok, but then start to unravel as every small miscommunication and missed messages add up to a much bigger problem. I find this stuff fascinating not just because I work at Jive (where we don’t use email at all), but because we’re seeing such an explosion of remote work everywhere as our tools keep getting better and better.

Steph Yiu’s post Still figuring it out: communicating remotely with lots of people is another good one to read, since she walks through all the tools they use to get their work done. Our setup at Jive is very similar, except that we use our own tool where they use P2 (their WordPress intranet theme).

Smart cities and dumb technologies

Adam Greenfield reminds us that the “smartness” of technologies comes from the people who use it, not the technology itself. From The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamorous technology:

It’s simply that in both these cases, the sustaining interactivity was for the most part founded on the use of mature technologies, long deglamorised and long settled into what the technology-consulting practice Gartner refers to as the “trough of disillusionment”.

The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high-bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services. These implications should be carefully mulled over by developers, those responsible for crafting municipal and national policy, and funding bodies in the philanthropic sector.

I like the term “deglamorised” very much. It’s a reminder that our goal as designers isn’t to make cool stuff—it’s to help people do great things with the stuff me make.

Technology and time fixing vs. time working

I really enjoyed Eddie Smith’s The ascent of failure, a post on the many ways our technology can fail us. He starts off with a parenting story that’s infinitely relatable, and goes on to make some good points about how fiddly we’ve become with our technology:

With Yosemite and iOS 8, we have even more interdependence through features like Handoff. Now, a MacBook, iPhone, and iPad are no longer three things but a system of things—an ecosystem with an even higher chance of failure by virtue of sitting atop an ever-rising house of cards.

I think it’s worth pondering the time we spend fixing our tools and toys versus the time we spend solving problems and actually getting to play.

I’m not convinced that having complex tools is a necessary condition for achieving remarkable results.

Maybe this non-complexity is another reason why vinyl is seeing such a revival. Or why paper notebooks are making a strong comeback, spurred on by brands like Field Notes, Moleskine, and the one I personally use (and love): Baron Fig.

When only some workers in a company are remote

There are lots of great points in Chris Hardie’s Distributed vs. In-Person Teams, an article on the challenges and opportunities of remote work. But this part, in particular, stood out because I’ve experienced it myself:

Having some remote workers is harder than being fully local or fully distributed. […] This dual approach is probably a recipe for disaster when it comes to building shared vision and common culture in an organization. If there are team members who have a daily experience of being in the same space together and sharing all of the quirks and benefits of that, remote workers will almost always feel excluded in some way, culturally, logistically or both. When only part of the team is forced to consider the implications of having a distributed group, an unfair burden falls to the remote worker to keep their needs in front of everyone else. At best it adds a weird kind of tension to team relationships, and without incredible discipline and initiative, it probably won’t work in the long run.

This gets even worse when the remote workers are in different time zones. The remote workers are almost always the ones who have to give up their evenings to do Skype calls.

Book excerpt: How to avoid building products that fail

I just posted another excerpt from Making It Right to Medium. It’s called How to avoid building products that fail, and it’s all about starting the product development process at the right place:

When it comes to building products, the starting point is — always—needs. Not what we assume would be cool, but what users or the business need to be successful. […] One of the biggest mistakes we can make in product development is jumping to execution before an appropriate planning cycle has been completed, so we need to give planning the attention it deserves.

The real reason for vinyl

Dave Pell in a short note about music streaming, radio, and high-res audio:

I’m at the tail-end of a pretty severe audio-related midlife crisis (related: Anyone want to buy some vinyl?) and I’m convinced that the return to Vinyl and the quest for audio excellence has less to do with sound quality and more to do with nostalgia for what listening to music used to be — an often communal activity that required focus and was more than just a soundtrack for whatever else you happened to be doing at the moment.

As someone who is at the beginning of his vinyl-related mid-life crisis, Dave’s words really resonated. Yes, I’m chasing upgrades and better sound, but I also know that one of the real reasons I’m doing it is because I get to sit on the floor with friends and nerd out about music:

Yes, it makes me write pretentious pieces on Medium about “the experience” of vinyl, and I feel a little bit embarrassed about that. But on the other hand, maybe it’s ok. I think it’s possible to be self-aware about the real reason why we do things, yet still embrace what we thought it represented and enjoy that. I have to believe it’s possible to hold those opposing things in my head without spontaneously self-combusting. And you know what, if my chase for audio excellence is actually about a chase for closer connection with other people, it’s probably ok anyway.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Expanding our technology worldviews

A couple of weeks ago Andrew Watts published A Teenager’s View on Social Media, and the post got a lot of attention. Most of the tech world linked to it. Today, danah boyd (whose work researching teen use of social media I highly admire) published a response called An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media. She makes some excellent points about how the story was reported, particularly the narrative that was built around one person’s experiences:

I don’t for a second fault Andrew for not having a perspective beyond his peer group. But I do fault both the tech elite and journalists for not thinking critically through what he posted and presuming that a single person’s experience can speak on behalf of an entire generation. There’s a reason why researchers and organizations like Pew Research are doing the work that they do — they do so to make sure that we don’t forget about the populations that aren’t already in our networks. The fact that professionals prefer anecdotes from people like us over concerted efforts to understand a demographic as a whole is shameful. More importantly, it’s downright dangerous. It shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in, what gets promoted by journalists, and what gets legitimized by institutions of power. This is precisely why and how the tech industry is complicit in the increasing structural inequality that is plaguing our society.

Our church is doing a series on social justice at the moment, leading up to MLK day. Yesterday the amazing Michelle Jones read a section of Maya Angelou’s eulogy to Coretta Scott King, and those words seem to fit well with danah’s piece and the conversations we’ve been having in the US recently:

Many times on those late evenings she would say to me, “Sister, it shouldn’t be an ‘either-or’, should it? Peace and justice should belong to all people, everywhere, all the time. Isn’t that right?” And I said then and I say now, “Coretta Scott King, you’re absolutely right. I do believe that peace and justice should belong to every person, everywhere, all the time.”

And those of us who gather here, principalities, presidents, senators, those of us who run great companies, who know something about being parents, who know something about being preachers and teachers — those of us, we owe something from this minute on; so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history. We owe something.

I pledge to you, my sister, I will never cease.

I mean to say I want to see a better world.

I mean to say I want to see some peace somewhere.

I mean to say I want to see some honesty, some fair play.

I want to see kindness and justice. This is what I want to see and I want to see it through my eyes and through your eyes, Coretta Scott King.

If we’re going to see justice, honesty, and fair play, we’re going to have to step out of what we know and what we’re comfortable with, and speak up (and do up) to do our parts to bring others along with us. And that means, at the very least, to change our perceptions of the tech world and the people who use the things we make. I’ve written before about the digital usability divide (what danah calls “increasing structural inequality”), and I only see it getting worse unless we — who make the web — get a better understanding of all demographics.

You’re even righter than you think

Oh man, Some 2015 Predictions on The Awl is so good. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I have to:

No human, for the entirety of 2015, will be convinced of anything but his own rightness by any “explainer” site. They will become extremely popular, fully stocked with “Perfect Response” and “Reasons Why” posts that are first and foremost affirming to the reader, and secondarily intended to demonstrate the rightness and virtue of the sharer. One high-growth post-type in 2015: “You’re Right, But For Even Better Reasons Than You Think.”

Why Apple has a successful design culture

I’m not a big fan of these types of articles, but I did like Mark Kawano’s point about what makes Apple a successful design organization in 4 Myths About Apple Design, From An Ex-Apple Designer:

It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better … much more than any individual designer or design team.

If everyone cares about design, the usual mantra that “UX is 50% design, 50% politics” turns into a much more manageable ratio.