Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Oct 2018

Brigadoon Annapolis Transcript, Pt4

Final installment of the notes which led to our Brigadoon Annapolis lecture on Digital Humanism.


I’ve mentioned the term agency a few times in this talk, and that’s more or less the core of what digital humanism design means. How are we using these tools in order to better understand what we do right and wrong? Some of this will come from putting information together with others — think along the lines of “wisdom of the crowds” or “communities dominate brands.” Both of those are excellent books by the way. Some of this will come from getting back in touch with how others are impacted by our actions or inactions. Yes, design is also attention to empathy. Lastly there’s this matter of trust. Trust is the name of the game right? We don’t have an economy without trust. We don’t have a basis for reputation and value without trust. We have possibilities becuase of trust. So let’s dig into why these three matter, and how we design humanity because of these three.

Pardon me if I say it like this, but sometimes I feel as if we speak about collaboration more as it is a theology rather than its a condition of our psychology. As someone bent a bit more towards the artistic end of the spectrum, collaboration takes on the duality of positive and negative interactions. This could be as simple as a design critique of a new application, all the way to a series of conversations which develop better lifestyle decisions for those engaging in public services. Collaboration is the way to go if you want to embrace success today. And no better is that seen than within many of the services we use.

Group chat, Slack, project management, MBAs, networking events, Amazon referrals. All of these (and more) are stages of collaboration. Collaborate however is a verb. It has an end result. Without agency of oneself, that end-result becomes muddled. And so you collaborate on a project, but the end result is a dark UI pattern keeping you from cancelling your Amazon account. Oh, you’ve embraced the theology, but in doing so, you’ve diminished the agency of those you’ve likely collaborated with.

Wait. That makes collaboration come across as a bit morbid. It isn’t. Its the action of a tool in this humane toolkit. Let’s move forward…

Regardless of how much you might collaborate with others, there’s always the perspective of the other person. How will they be impacted by your decision to do xyz? This question is really more of an aftershock of design — that is, what empathy is being employed to drive this action? We hear about empathy usually from a lack of it or it being considered inappropriately. Emojis are made, and people would like to use them, but they are all yellow faces with commonly Caucasoid features. A company supports veterans by employing them, but only places themselves in neighborhoods where veterans have done well for themselves financially and socially. A retail company employs seniors and people with disabilities, but leaves their public website and pay systems inaccessible to those with diminished sight and motor capabilities. Empathy isn’t exactly an uncommon topic. It just happens to have been given a bit more of a view due to how collaborative we’ve become.

Being collaborative is just one end of the continum. We realize our humanity not only in the context of one another, but also in the context of knowing ourselves. This tension, or friction, is how we come to define living, define humanity. When an item is able to tug on our sense of self, adding to what we already value about ourselves, then we say that it “gives life” that it “enhances what it means to live” or that it “follows with a pursuit of happiness.” The challenge of collaboration is therefore a challenge for an against such a personal metaphor of what it means to live. How can I embrace what it means to be along with others when I am also challenging with what it means to embrace what I am today? This tension is humanism, or rather, it is within this tension that we figure out what it means to become more human by each moment.