As software eats more of the world, we’re abstracting more controls to panes of glass. Touchscreen-based user interfaces are more flexible and cheaper to design, develop, deploy, and iterate than dedicated physical controls. But touchscreens come at the expense of nuanced control in critical situations, where tighter feedback loops between the system and its operators can make all the difference.Jorge Arango – Touch Screens and the Loss of Nuanced Control
But there’s a cost. We’ve unleashed dangerous oversimplifications of our humanity, and they’re spreading like viruses. They disrupt so many layers of our being, from our mental health, to our identities, to our relationships and our politics. We need a tribe of designers who are ready to step up and help lead the immune response. We need designers who care.Modus – Our Lives are Becoming Comfortable Illusions
The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday.
An obvious example that comes to mind is in programming, and in fact this is the context in which the seed of this idea first came to me. In my first digital electronics lab at UMR we learned how to program the 8088 processor using machine language (or maybe it was assembly language). I have no memory of either language, but what did stick with me was the idea all higher level languages are simply abstractions of those languages that humans can understand and write. The farther away from machine / assembly you get, the easier (more convenient) it is to get the machine to do what you want it to do, but at the cost of understanding what exactly you are telling the machine to do. And as things get more convenient, you don’t even need the experience of understanding: writing a block of code to do something in a given context becomes nothing more than a copy/paste from Stack Overflow or some other place where someone (or something) else has already had the experience of creation.
A very different example, but one still close to my heart, is the sport of rock climbing. I learned to climb when I was in high school, in the early ’80s, when it was still a novelty. Before we could actually start climbing we had to learn basic rope management, the various knots, how to belay. And the gear, though effective, was by today’s standards, very rudimentary; if you needed your gear to do something, you figured out how to make it work. Today if you want to climb, you just go to the local rock gym, rent a harness and some shoes, get a quick lesson on how the auto-belay works, and away you go. Not saying this is a bad thing, I love that so many people are being introduced to the sport, even if they only climbing they ever do is in the gym. But that commoditization of the experience, that extreme convenience, abstracts them away from the joys of adventure climbing. And turns the experience of climbing, in many ways, into just another workout.
Of course, these examples are important, but they aren’t life and death. Like, say, knowing how to hunt, kill, clean, and prepare your own food. Or how to clear some land and build your own shelter. Or so many other aspects of simply surviving that we (in the so-called developed part of the world) no longer need to worry about. Or, perhaps more accurately, don’t need to worry about at the moment.
One last example for now: When I first heard Dave Gray talking about his latest book, Liminal Thinking, I wrote down “layers of abstraction” among my notes. Though different from the other examples here, I couldn’t help but see that connection. That the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.
The many layers of abstraction, the incredible conveniences we have today, and the commoditization of experience are not, in and of themselves, bad things. As I mentioned at the start, this is the story of progress. It’s when we forget that this is happening, when we start to believe that this is the way things have always been without understanding how we got here, that we run the risk of losing our ability to progress.
The problem with putting a label on something is that it becomes all too tempting to commoditize anything that uses the label, to standardize until everything in that label can be turned into a checklist or piece of software. My first real experience with this was with Knowledge Management. So much promise when I first came across the concept and started practicing it in the late ’90s, it wasn’t long (early ’00s) before KM was mostly synonymous with document/content/information management. An inherently complex endeavor well suited to navigating uncertainty was turned into an attempt to capture knowledge as if it were some static thing, to turn every situation into something that can be solved with a past best practice.
I also saw this in my personal life, as I learned more and more about autism and the lives of autistic people. As the parent of an autistic son, I had a lot to learn. The most important lesson I learned was, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” And yet, it seemed as if everyone was trying to make me believe that all autistic children were the same, that the “cause” of their autism was the same, and that if I would only do [insert some craziness here] then they would no longer be autistic, or they would be better able to cope, or whatever. Ooh, look, there’s a label, let’s come up with a way to standardize that and get people to use (aka buy) our method to do something with it. Though there may have been some sincere interest in help parents help their kids, mostly it seemed to be about profiting from the situation without worrying about actually understanding the situation.
More recently I’ve been learning about Agile. When I read the original Agile Manifesto I couldn’t help thinking, “Exactly.” This is how I’ve approached most things throughout my career, even though I’m not a developer and don’t work in an “agile shop”. But then I dig deeper and realize that Agile is apparently no different from that early experience with KM. A great idea corrupted by people interested not in the ideas themselves, but in somehow profiting from those ideas. Methodologies and frameworks and do it this way exactly you can’t mix and match because if you do then it is not [insert framework]. And oh by the way you need to take this certification course and take the test because if you don’t then no one will hire you.
OK OK, probably a bit harsh.
All is not lost when it comes to Agile, at least from this beginner’s mind. (I’ve kind of given up on KM.) Ideas such as Modern Agile, Agility Scales, and others give me hope that I’m not the only one that thinks this might be the case. I don’t know nearly enough about all of the hundreds (thousands?) of frameworks out there to say that I can use any of them, but I do understand and apply an agile mindset.
I’m still working through these ideas. Would love to hear your thoughts.