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

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.

The downsides of tracking everything about ourselves

As is often the case with these things, I just noticed two articles that make very similar points about the quantified self movement. In Quantify Thyself LM Sacasas makes the point that we don’t know what we don’t measure:

Not only do we tend to pay more attention to what we can measure, we begin to care more about what can measure. Perhaps that is because measurement affords us a degree of ostensible control over whatever it is that we are able to measure. It makes self-improvement tangible and manageable, but it does so, in part, by a reduction of the self to those dimensions that register on whatever tool or device we happen to be using to take our measure.

In a similar vein, Anne Helen Petersen has a great piece on Buzzfeed called Big Mother Is Watching You: The Track-Everything Revolution Is Here Whether You Want It Or Not. Here’s the kicker:

But there’s something to be said for the allure and beauty of the mysteries not only of our confusing, previously unknowable bodies, but the intricacies of life. For the daily banalities of tuning the thermostat, or of knowing you had a good night’s sleep because you feel good, not because an app indicated as much. For the pleasure of running without knowing how fast or how long or how many calories but simply because your body could and did move, and that even without a digital trace, a GPS footprint, or way to leverage evidence thereof against friends and co-workers — it nonetheless felt something like being alive.

How to Interview

Last year I accidentally became an expert on interviewing. I didn’t want to, but hey, we do what we need to do. I just published some things I learned in the process on A List Apart, in an article called How to Interview. Here’s one piece of advice on how to get companies to email you back…

Send separate, personal emails to each of the likely hiring managers you found. Make it really, really short. Don’t go on about how awesome you are—you’ll get a chance to do that later. Tell them you like their company, you like the role, you’re interested in talking. Link to stuff you’ve done: your LinkedIn profile, your portfolio, articles/books you’ve written, etc. Then ask them if they’d be willing to have a call, or forward your information on to the right person. The point is to not burden people. If they see a long email, the chances are high that they will delete it. But if they see a short email that’s respectful of their time and gives them the information they need to make a quick decision—that’s a different story.