Beyond the lens of user-centered design ⊗ Make way for the one-minute city ⊗ Neofeudalism and the digital manor — No.156

This week → Camera obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design ⊗ Make way for the ‘one-minute city’ ⊗ Neofeudalism and the digital manor ⊗ Playing chess is an essential life lesson in concentration ⊗ ‘If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds

Read the Sentiers newsletter on technology in society, signals of change, and prospective futures.

A year ago → The most clicked link in issue No.111 was You are now remotely controlled by Shoshana Zuboff.

Welcome back. I hope you were in a non-confined part of the world, or managed to enjoyed limited festivities like we did over here. As we still seem to be in the “long 2020,” lets hope for a quick uptick in good news.

The Learning Collection booklet is now set at “name a fair price,” and I wrote the short post Fellowships as a service, I’d love to hear what you think.

Thanks to the time off, the Asides section is longer than usual, and emoji-less. Reply if you mind and found them fun or useful and want them back.

Camera Obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design

Excellent piece by Alexis Lloyd (with Devin Mancuso, Diana Sonis, and Lis Hubert) on the failings of User Centered Design (UCD), they identify three key gaps; the obscuring of participants, obscuring the friction in underlying systems, and an obscuring of possibilities outside the metrics and situation of the designers. I’m not a designer and most of you aren’t, but it’s still a valuable read for a well presented glimpse into how so many apps and services work and fail. They also point to quite a few other thinkers and recent articles, like Kevin Slavin, Abeba Birhane, Dan Hill, and Robin Sloan. They close by proposing five useful design strategies to fill these gaps in design and thinking.

Perhaps one of the key insights is in shifting focus from users to actors, which lets us include many more people and the impacts the app or service creates. It’s a useful perspective which could also be used in policy, journalism, data collection, AI (independent of apps), and more.

The Internet, smartphones, machine learning, deep fakes, decentralized finance, addictive social media: today’s world features fundamentally new levels of complexity and scale which are beginning to expose some gaps in our approach, and we need to develop new approaches that address these complexities. […]

[W]henever we center something in a system, we give it more of our focus; we privilege it above the other elements in the system, often to the detriment of the broader system. […]

In effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them. […]

We have strived to design ‘seamless’ digital systems in which users go about completing their goals with little awareness of the underlying technology, where things happen ‘automagically’ in a way that seems ingenious, inexplicable, or magical. […]

By beginning to understand the various flows of value and feedback loops that exist within our system we can begin to model out what might happen in different scenarios if we were to alter those incentives through the removal or introduction of friction.

Make Way for the ‘One-Minute City’

It’s not mentioned in the article, but this overview of the one-minute city project could be framed as going back to first principles. Instead of grander scale endeavours or the recently popular 15-minute city, this Swedish project lead by Vinnova goes all the way back to one street at a time, which lets them experiment quickly, engage and co-design with citizens, iterate, and perhaps grow their interventions from there. The lovely temporary units imagined by Lundberg Design come in multiple shapes and uses, and “draw inspiration from things like LEGO or IKEA—or Minecraft—where you have a consistent system that can be adapted or hacked, remodeled, added to.”

The ultimate goal is hugely ambitious: a rethink and makeover of every street in the country over this decade, so that “every street in Sweden is healthy, sustainable and vibrant by 2030,” according to Street Moves’ own materials. […]

Piece by piece, these installations can transform streets into sites of sociability and mixing, joining up steadily into neighborhoods where the space used daily by residents extends little by little out into the open air. […]

Their real function, he says, is “to allow us to have a conversation about the future of streets with passers-by, people in the area, with school kids who hang out on them, people with electric bikes and scooters and so on.” […]

Sweden’s streets, Vinnova says, can become “an innovation platform for rapidly and powerfully addressing climate resilience, public health and social justice combined.”

Neofeudalism and the Digital Manor

In this years’s state of the world, Bruce Sterling writes “I had it figured that a failed coup would surely be followed by some kind of purge, but I didn’t get it that it would come from a united front of Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Youtube, Reddit, Twitch, Discord and Shopify.” Now read Doctorow’s piece linked above and see them as the warlords he portrays them as, shifting allegiances towards the end of a reign, following a costly mistake. It adds a layer to this view of our current predicament as serfs seeking the lords’ protection from bandits and being at their mercy.

To be safe, then, you have to ally yourself with a warlord. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a few others have built massive fortresses bristling with defenses, whose parapets are stalked by the most ferocious cybermerce­naries money can buy, and they will defend you from every attacker – except for their employers. If the warlord turns on you, you’re defenseless. […]

Therein lies the problem with trusting warlords to keep you safe: they have priorities that aren’t your priorities, and when there’s a life-or-death crisis that requires them to choose between your survival and their own, they will throw you to the bandits. […]

That aristocratic urge is why we see lock-in, kill-switches, overcollection and overretention of data, and the invocation of state power to silence crit­ics. As with feudal aristocrats, the state is happy to lend these warlords their legitimacy, in exchange for the power to militarize the aristocrat’s holdings.

Playing chess is an essential life lesson in concentration

Perhaps like me you’ll be a tad annoyed at the some of the frills in the author’s writing but keep at it, chess as a tool for concentration, and more notably Rowson’s distinction and explanation of attention, flow, and concentration is a worthy lens to consider. We talk a lot about regaining our attention but not quite as much about the quality of it afterwards. For many (me often included), even when focusing our attention away from feeds, we remain distracted and fighting to find some level of concentration. Finding it, he argues, “therefore entails developing the capacity to hold the emotional tension of mental complexity; we have to train ourselves to resist the temptation to give up, to oversimplify or project onto our perceived opponents.”

I believe concentration is a defining feature of a fulfilling life, a necessary habit of mind for a viable civilisation, and that chess can teach us more about what concentration really means. […]

Concentration is not always so rewarding. It comes and goes, forms and collapses, builds and then crumbles, because there is an upper limit to what players can hold in their heads at any one time. I find that I move towards my upper limit and away from it repeatedly. […]

Attention is fundamentally grounded in perception (how we attend), flow is fundamentally grounded in experience (how we feel), and concentration is grounded in praxis (how we purposively coalesce). […]

Lacking an ability to concentrate, it’s a struggle to construct and maintain a coherent and autonomous sense of self, which leaves us at the mercy of digital, commercial and political puppeteers. Without concentration, we are not free.

‘If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds

Six authors, including Nnedi Okorafor, Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds, reveal what does, and doesn’t, go into creating their worlds.

I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it. […]

When someone thinks they entirely understand the logic of human behaviour, the world-building is very flat, and the shadows that might have given it depth are filled in with the very schematic, simplistic assumptions the world builder assumes are universal truths. […]

Most of my mise en scène starts out real. I rarely need an overview of the economic/industrial base of the fantasy land, because my worlds are usually a direct parody of ours. After that, I think you can increase the illusion of depth by leaving plenty of space for the accidental as you write.


Header image: Dramatization of my holiday break. (“Man Reading” by John Singer Sargent.)