Sunday, July 20, 2008

What do we lose when we don't do our own shaping?

Some thoughts after reading the recent Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains" by Nicholas Carr.

Part of the motivation behind Compendium is to augment the human ability to create and shape large collections of ideas and relationships in a shareable, collective manner, not just within an individual's head or a single document. And also, not just as a big computational mass, but as something that can be given deliberate, expressive shape, just as people do when they write books or essays or create other kinds of expressive works. This is different than how Carr characterizes Google's project, as a Taylorizing of intellectual processes:

Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does... it carries out thousands of experiments a day... and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

It's (according to Carr) an artificial-intelligence view of the world, where a large chunk of human intellectual effort is replaced by automation.

Certainly Compendium has its computational aspects, and the interweaving of computerized information (of various kinds) with that entered and shaped by human beings is one of its fundamental constructs. But for me it remains, at root, an expressive medium, giving human authorship over connections between ideas at a larger scale than other tools. Computation is part of that, but mainly in the same way as movie cameras embed advanced technology and put it at the service of the filmmaker. It's still up to the filmmaker to make and express something worthwhile. The camera will never do it for the person.

I wonder if some of the resistance, or incomprehension, that many people have when they encounter Compendium could be due to what Carr writes about. Are we turning away from direct, deep engagement with particular texts (as both readers and authors) in favor of that we can skim, or which can be largely created for us, especially on the connection level? Why, he seems to say, should we bother drawing direct and explicit connections, when the search engine can always find and recreate them for us, dipping into an infinitely larger pool than we could ever do for ourselves?

When we read online... we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

(quoting playwright Richard Foreman)
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

To some degree I do this myself, using Gmail and its fantastic search as my primary personal repository, letting the service provide automatic connections between all my emails rather than laboriously doing so in Compendium. I explain this to myself by saying, well, it's different for an individual than for a group, and Compendium is really more about group shaping at least in its design intent (although there are people using Compendium more as an individual tool, and I have done some of that myself).

Monday, July 07, 2008

It's about the experience

During our conversation on the waterfront at World Financial Center a couple of weeks back, David Price, Mark Aakhus, and I were talking about some of the ideas underlying our respective approaches. I mentioned a few of the ideas expanded on in a previous post, related to transformative mediation and multi-perspective communication. Mark said something about how approaches like transformative mediation can founder on the presumption that people entering into them are already resolution-minded. If they aren't, the dialogue won't get to the required level and the potential of the approach won't be realized.

This connects for me with something I was talking with Jeff Conklin about recently. Ultimately what matters for approaches like Compendium is not the notation, the software, or the theory; it's the experience they make possible for people participating in them. The technical or procedural components are enablers but not determiners. It's what can (but doesn't always) happen in actual practice, in real sessions, between the people that is the real essence.

When I first saw CM/1 with Jeff & company in 1992, what struck me like a bolt was not the software or the method, but rather the potential for a kind of communication to emerge, enabled and made more likely by these. From time to time over the years we have see this fully flower in particular sessions, when people are able to see and share in each other's meanings and perceptions in a way not often found elsewhere.

If the experience can be brought into being, it doesn't matter so much whether people are resolution-minded going into a session. The experience itself enables them to be and act that way.

This is something difficult to prove empirically in a controlled experiment, but it's no less real for that. Practitioner skill, in one form or another, is often what makes the difference. In future posts I will describe some of the sessions where we saw the approach realize its potential and provide this kind of experience.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Constellations of meaning

Some more thoughts behind what Compendium is about as a project.

In transformative mediation, the goal of the mediator is to help the parties in a dispute bring about increased recognition of the situation of the other person, better ability to articulate one's own position, and enhance the ability to see connections between the two.

This means bringing about the ability to see the world as each other sees it, and in doing so to see our own world more clearly. We need to understand each other's perspectives and to make our own known with clarity and expressiveness. Even more, we need to clarify our own seeing, to be aware of nuances where we thought there were none. Hearing, being heard, and learning in the process.

This is more than points of view or ideas about an issue, that can be abstracted and written down. It is also about ways of seeing and ways of talking and listening, modes of expression and emphasis, ways of knowing. There are different kinds of logic, and sometimes illogic. We need containers for these, where we can see them separately but also see how they come together. And containers for those containers.

There are many ways of seeing, knowing, talking, and an infinitude of things to see and know. We need means to bring these together, without losing the identity of each portion or facet. We need a way to see and make the connections, to have them be explicit, visible, and shareable. This also needs to be open for further questioning, to always allow and imply that such exploration is possible.

The communication, the medium, and the vehicle shouldn't end when we come to the boundaries of the current tool that contains it, because then its trajectory is interrupted. There needs to be a means to bring the content and the forms beyond those boundaries. That means shouldn't require the whole corpus to be recreated. With today's software, the boundaries of individual tools no longer need to be iron walls requiring wholesale re-creation. But most tools do provide a kind of boundary: the explicit connections, especially the connections between views, are lost when we move a body of ideas across the boundaries. Means need to be found to allow bringing what matters from one form to another, without losing the connections.

I've often envisioned each idea standing like a light, with all the related ideas and associations arranged around it like a constellation. Each has a particular relation to the idea, and the relations are visible, each with its own character. I can see where and how this idea (or person, thing, picture) matters to the others that orbit around it. Each idea also orbits around other ideas, each part of other constellations of meaning.

When we need to focus on one, we can put it in the center of the constellation, but all the others are there also.

It takes effort, and skill, and commitment to bring something like this into being and to keep it coherent, engaging, expressive, and useful.

Each of us have something like this going on within ourselves -- constellations of meaning, symbols, connections, ideas, memories, feelings. Some talented people are able to make portions of these visible and compelling to others, through art, speech, or design. That's what we do when we make meaning manifest, give it some tangible form. But there are few ways to bring these together and show the points of connection, at least in their entirety. Media like blogs and wikis go part of the way, but the connections are still largely implicit and hidden, up to the individual to bring out, or to the invisible collective mind. They are there, and real, but not available in the way I think is needed.

This doesn't mean that each portion or view has to be all things to all people. A view can be as eloquently and expressively fixed as its authors intend. But there need to be ways that allow that view to be explored, questioned, opened up, without losing its integrity or identity.

What would it get us if we had tools and practices that encouraged this level of communication? To me it means seeing each other's identities more clearly, and understanding our own better. Our history is stained with the ways in which we stick each other in false containers, and the ways we stick ourselves in them. Being able to see and talk about the constellations of meaning we each operate within would reveal the ways in which our ideas about identity do not define or confine each other. There is more than what this facet alone shows. If you saw all of it, if you saw where it connected to what you are, we would not be as opposed, we would not be enemies, we would not reduce each other to just the pieces that our own limitations make most loudly visible.

We are as capable of seeing each other's value, what needs to be supported and protected in the other, as we are of forgetting or choosing to ignore these, to see only the portions that conveniently let us act as if the other's concerns had no value. Our history shows that as one of the things to fear the most -- the choice of ignorance and the brutalities that result. It's what motivates my search for a way of communication that shows as many connections as need to be shown.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Slow design (part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Perhaps surfacing rationale as a resource for fostering creativity in design, has to be thought of more as something to tap into. As, counter-intuitively, a generator of creativity. It's the very attempt to do it, to have the different kind of conversation, using different words, tools, and methods, that can bring about creative leaps.

However, as I write this I think of the thousands of meetings, conference calls, instant messages, and shared web-screen sessions that I have participated in (as have most people working in software design, I'd guess). In nearly all there was no explicit method or shared display, except, sometimes, a pre-written document or presentation as the ostensible focus. No way to check or to know whether individuals were actually looking at it or even paying attention, although that could come out in the degree to which people express agreement or disagreement with someone speaking. Usually there are one or a few people leading the discussion and doing most of the talking. Issues are discussed, alternatives posed, ideas voiced, realizations occur, forward movement almost always made, and a record of varying quality written down. If it's a face-to-face meeting, usually sketching on a whiteboard, sometimes extensive and a major focus of attention, sometimes just a few boxes and arrows.

It's not that this approach doesn't work. It usually does, and often very well, or it wouldn't be the dominant mode of design conversation. And the often substantial pre-work that occurs plays into it as well -- documents, diagrams, presentations, prototypes -- which can have a great deal of craft and care put into them. Earlier meetings and pre-conversations also inform any later conversation. All of these require and result in engagement and shaping, and often the quality of the artifacts and their usefulness in the larger conversation is a direct result of the engagement, participation, and skill of the participants who created or gave input to them. Each meeting is the sum of all these previous conversations, meetings, and artifacts -- a hive of memory and thought that is present as a resource, even if it has little or no explicit form.

So there is no question that the above isn't effective. Perhaps a better question to ask (one that was not voiced explicitly at the workshop), is "Why do anything else?" Why do anything other than what we normally do? Generally speaking, there may be no need -- the normal works fine. It's only when it doesn't, when it's felt that something else is needed, or that something is missing, that we need to try something different.

It seems to me that design rationale can best be expressed as questions: Why are we doing this? What does this mean? Have we captured all the alternatives? Do we understand why we're chasing this one? Are we going to need to remember this? Even if these questions come up in the normal flow, as they sometimes do, usually the answers and the deliberation are evanescent, gone with the wind except maybe as shreds in the memories of a few of the attendees.

Using tools and approaches like Compendium to make this kind of conversation explicit, to engage in it and record it, to actively shape and craft it, is the largely untapped resource that can make the benefits of this kind of conversation deeper and more lasting. It works best when it's engaged in as a careful, intentional exercise, confined to special times, like a kind of heightened speech. It can be difficult to make the switch into that mode, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Plenty of similarly worthwhile activities feel like they go against the grain and are hard to get ourselves to do -- like meditation, or writing blog entries on topics like design rationale.

Setting aside a given amount of time -- say 45 minutes in a day of design conversation, even spread out in several 15 minute increments -- where we work in this different manner, carefully and explicitly forming questions, alternatives, pros and cons -- saying to each other that "we're not going to leave until we've done this" -- creating an intentional artifact that requires us to work, look, and talk differently for a little while -- can enrich both our designs and our thinking about design. At minimum we'll have the kind of record that normally doesn't exist, but we might also gain the hidden benefits that come from engagement in such collaborative shaping of meaning.