Recent Media Lab grad Drew Harry and co-founder Frances Yun have launched a site called Six Questions. I recently participated and answered my six questions. Here they are.
In designing user interfaces, we aim to empower the "user" to understand and control the system at hand. Output via screens and speakers, with input from a keyboard, a touch screen or gestures. Between them, the "user" is understood to be our conscious "mind" - the logical bit of our brain that thinks it's in charge.
This "mind" is actually not nearly as "in charge" as it thinks it is. In fact, our larger and often much more wise mind - the emotional, sub-conscious, parallel-processing, pattern recognizing part of our nervous system even manipulates and deceives our conscious mind. Articulated long ago as Dual Process Theory, Kahneman formalizes them as System 1 (this vast, quick and automatic aspect of thinking) and System 2 (the small "conscious" mind that logically considers and judges).
There is a basic fitness function to having our conscious mind feel confident, whether fighting, mating, or even making the small decisions that people make to get through a day. But the confidence we are building is with the small and logical part of our minds, deceiving ourselves that things are ok when another part of ourselves might know otherwise.
This is articulated in an experiment described by Trivers in which subjects are asked to listen to a series of voices, some of which are their own. Depending on the confidence of the subjects, some tended to attribute their voice to others ... or conversely, mistake other voices as their own. The interesting thing was that the galvanic skin response that connects to our parasympathetic nervous system always reacted consistently to our own voices, even when our conscious minds were deceived. (Trivers 1985)
Whether it's the decisions we make or the assessments of how we feel, we are consistently persuading ourselves that the world is organized and coherent, and that we understand what's going on, most of the time. In fact, the world is complex and chaotic. Most of what goes on in the world -- and even in our own bodies -- is beyond the comprehension and (luckily) the control of our little minds.
Thus, good design communicates with the broader, faster, more emotional system. What we call the "flow state" or "in the zone" is just our little minds getting out of the way so that our bigger and more intuitive mind can run the show. Whether throwing a basketball or driving a car, if our logical minds were coordinating each step, it would be impossibly difficult to coordinate all of the steps. However, our little minds are "smart" enough to get out of the way when we have mastery and allow the rest of the system dominate.
Why is it then that we seem to insist on building and assessing our systems based on what our little mind thinks? Think about the testing in schools that only measures local knowledge and logical skills, or designing user interfaces around what the user is focused on like pull-down menus and the mouse pointer.
I believe that we must focus much more on creating interfaces that send information to -- and receive controls signals from -- the rest of our system. This could apply to sensors for health, assistive robots, the Internet of things, thermostats, or future vehicles.
The problem is, individually and collectively, our little minds don't like to give up control. We have to trick our minds to get out of the way sometimes. That's where deception emerges as a design pattern.
In the late 1800s, James Naismith, a pastor and a physical education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts realized that he needed a way to deal with young kids who would become restless and unruly during the harsh New England winters. He knew they needed the exercise, collaboration and competition they got the other nine months of the year.
So Naismith invented basketball, allowing kids to exercise indoors, to compete and collaborate, all through playing this fun new game. It worked swimmingly, and quickly spread through YMCAs and became the sport it is today. My bet is that if he had called it "social ball" or "don't-beat-each-other-up ball" it probably wouldn't have been nearly the hit that it was.
Was this subtle deception immoral? Was it effective? Which part of the mind was Naismith looking to address, and which part did he find ways to speak to?
Today, we spend so much time telling our conscious and self-deceived minds what we want it to do. What if we spent more time trying to induce our minds to get out of the way, through meditation, play, prayer ... or even deception. We need to think less like industrial designers (designing for the intentions of the conscious user) and more like game designers (designing for the desires and quick, "irrational" behavior of our mind.) We need to design our medical devices, computers, vehicles and communication tools to be influenced by what we really do and think. Not just what we tell ourselves we are doing or thinking.
I think this framework first came up in a conversation with John Maeda. The original observation was that artist and scientists tend to work well together, and designers and engineers work well together, but that scientists and engineers don't work as well together, and likewise, neither do artists and designers. Engineers and designers tend to focus on utility and understand the world through observation and gathering the constraints of a problem to come up with a solution. Artists and scientists, on the other hand are inspired by nature or math, and they create through pure inner creativity and pursue expression that is more connected to things like truth or beauty than something so imperfect as mere utility. Which is to say, there are many more ways to divide the brain than into left and right hemispheres.
However, I think a lot of the most interesting and impactful creative works tend to require all the use of all four quadrants. Many of the faculty at the Media Lab work in the dead center of this grid--or as I like to call it, this compass--or perhaps they lean in one direction, but they're able to channel skills from all four quadrants. Neri Oxman, one of our faculty members who recently created The Silk Pavilion, told me that she is both an artists and a designer but switches between the modes as she works on an idea. And to look at The Silk Pavilion, it's clear she could easily qualify as either a scientist or engineer, too.
I think that there are a variety of practices and ways of thinking we can use to get to the center of this compass. The key is to pull these quadrants as close together as possible. An interdisciplinary group would have a scientist, an artist, a designer, and an engineer working with each other. But this only reinforces the distinctions between these disciplines. And it's much less effective than having people who use all four quadrants, as the project or problem requires.
The tyranny of traditional disciplines and functionally segregated organizations fail to produce the type of people who can work with this creativity compass, but I believe that in a world where the rate of change increases exponentially, where disruption has become a norm instead of an anomaly, the challenge will be to think this way if we want to effectively solve the problems we face today, much less tomorrow.
Update: A good book on this topic. Gold, Rich. The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Rich calls the quadrants the "four hats of creativity".
Originally posted on LinkedIn.
On May 24, together with Nate Silver, Caterina Fake and Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, I will receive an honorary doctorate from The New School. Thanks to Nancy Lublin and everyone at The New School for making this happen.
It turns out that I'm actually an alum of The New School. Back in the fall of 1985, I took and completed two online courses - "Artificial Intelligence & Life" and "Propaganda: Lit Science" which were part of a batch of the first fully online graduate school courses for credit. (MOOC schMOOC!) It used a pre-World Wide Web system called EIES. I remember these courses fondly, especially the Propaganda course. They were really engaging and involved a lot of peer learning.
With all of the excitement about massive open online courses (MOOCs), it's interesting to reflect that we've been doing versions of these since the 80s.
Last year, MIT asked me to walk with the faculty during commencement, but I didn't have a academic robe. MIT offered to let me wear an MIT robe, but I felt it would be "grammatically incorrect" for me to wear a robe posing as a college graduate so I opted not to attend the official commencement. This year, I'll be able to walk with the faculty proudly wearing my gown from The New School. ;-)
And no, I won't make you call me "Doctor Ito". Ha!
Shaka just released his book, Writing My Wrongs that you can buy on his website. It's an amazing book and an amazing story. I just attended the book launch party earlier this week and have posted some photos on Flickr. Shaka is one of the MIT Media Lab Director's Fellows, a Knight Foundation BMe award winner and one of the most inspirational friends I have. I was honored to write the following foreword to the book.
On July 1, 2012, the MIT Media Lab announced that we would be creating an Innovators Guild-a team of scholars, executives, and designers that would go to communities around the world using the power of innovation to help people. Our first focus for this was Detroit.
Three weeks later the Knight Foundation, which was funding our trip, organized a meeting with Detroit community leaders. We gave presentations about MIT and the Media Lab and about how we had come to Detroit to explore how we could create innovative solutions to long-standing problems.
Then, during the Q&A, a tough-looking black man with dreadlocks stood up and spoke. "Many well-meaning people come to Detroit with a missionary mentality. Then they get discouraged when they realize how just how tough our problems are. If you want to make a real impact you have to go out among the people in the communities and not buy into the romanticized view of Detroit based on Midtown and Downtown." Although there were other comments expressing skepticism, this one stood out. We realized, for the first time, that we were looking into the face of reality-The Truth.
After the formal part of the meeting, the man came up to us and introduced himself as Shaka. He said that if we were willing he would show us the real Detroit. We immediately accepted the offer. On the next trip we avoided Downtown altogether and went straight to Brightmore on Detroit's West Side, a neighborhood full of burned-out, vacant homes and liquor stores fronted with bulletproof glass. Shaka told us stories that had none of the romance, but they were real.
We quickly realized that we couldn't just fly in, do good, and go home. We needed to introduce ourselves to the community, learn about the people who live there, and build trust. If we wanted to have a positive impact on Detroit we had to be there for the long haul.
In the following weeks, my team from the Media Lab and creatives from the design firm IDEO flew to Detroit, working with Shaka and others to come up with a plan for how we might be able to join the community and work together. We then invited Shaka and the Detroit team to the MIT Media Lab to meet students and faculty and see and learn about what we do. Bonds began forming between the Lab and the Detroiters.
In October, we all converged on Detroit-setting up a base at the headquarters of OmniCorpDetroit, a vital, local organization. We were a team of community leaders, chief innovation officers, students, and designers. Each of the teams started working on projects ranging from solving the streetlight issue to urban farming. Shaka emerged as our natural leader, keeping the energy high and the teams working together.
By the end of an insanely productive three days, I had a plan. I would make Shaka a MIT Media Lab Fellow and he'd be our man in Detroit-our connection to the incredibly important world he represents. Since then, Shaka and the Media Lab team have started to work together extensively, and Shaka continues to inspire and challenge us.
In December, Shaka emailed me that he had a rough draft of his memoirs and asked if I was interested in reading it. I read the entire book in two sittings, riveted. Shaka is, among his other talents, an amazing storyteller. The book is funny and moving and astute and by the end I felt as if I had been the one convicted of murder, as if I'd spent seven years in the hole, and gone through the dramatic transformation from angry, scared young boy, to enlightened teacher and leader.
And by the end I could begin to see how a generation of bright children full of promise are channeled into a system that sees them as little more than felons-in-waiting. Yet again, Shaka has inspired me to help right the wrongs by, in this instance, helping him "write the wrongs". The book may be about Shaka's past, but it points to a future in which we all take the next step to build a more just society.
Back in the early 90's, I had a small startup called Eccosys. It was started by a rag tag team of friends in my apartment. We knew a lot about the Internet, but few else in Japan did. As the Internet started to get more and more press, a lot of companies started creating and trying to sell Internet products.
Eccosys struggled to get "real" Internet related work. Then, I met Kaoru Hayashi, the CEO of From Garage. From Garage was a small advertising production and planning shop that had literally started in a garage a few blocks from my apartment. Dentsu was one of From Garage's biggest clients. From Garage and Eccosys made a unique team of Internet-enabled producers, and we helped a bunch of companies launch Internet-related products like Sun's Java, IBM's OS2 Warp, and Lotus Notes' Merchant Server. It turned out that in the early days, there was much more money to be made helping people talk about the Internet than actually making money doing anything on the Internet.
As more and more work from Dentsu and others went "digital" Kaoru and I decided that it made sense to formally join forces and in 1995, we created Digital Garage and merged all of our companies into one company. At Digital Garage, with the help of the ad agencies, we launched Infoseek Japan and began the first effort to sell ads by CPM - Cost Per Thousand (impressions).
In Japan, there are a number of huge ad agencies. As the story goes, each of original ad agencies picked a medium and specialized. Dentsu, which is short of "electronic communications" in Japanese, picked radio and TV and hit a jackpot as these media turned out to be the winners. In a uniquely Japanese way, Dentsu not only advertised, but they lead the way in the development of the media supporting their innovation and business development.
Digital Garage and Dentsu have worked together closely for decades, but I'm super-excited that we are now "family" with today's announcement of the decision for Dentsu to make a significant investment in Digital Garage and create a business alliance.
Jeff and I spent the day cranking on our book. Feeling good about the structure of the book and we made a lot of progress.
One of the things I decided I need to do is to get my blog voice back so - hello!
We still don't even have a real title for the book, but we're close. Watch this space for more about the book as we get rolling.
Bassel / joi / CC BY
On March 15, 2012, Bassel Khartabil was detained in a wave of arrests in the Mazzeh district of Damascus. Since then, his family has received no official explanation for his detention or information regarding his whereabouts. However, his family has recently learned from previous detainees at the security branch of Kafer Sousa, Damascus, that Bassel is being held at this location.
Bassel Khartabil, a Palestinian-born Syrian, 31, is a respected computer engineer specializing in open source software development, the type of contributions the Internet is built upon. He launched his career ten years ago in Syria, working as a technical director for a number of local companies on cultural projects like restoring Palmyra and Forward Syria Magazine.
Since his arrest, Bassel's valuable volunteer work, both in Syria and around the world, has been stopped. His absence has been painful for the communities that depend on him. In addition, his family, and his fiancée whom he was due to marry this past April, have had their lives put on hold.
Bassel Khartabil has been unjustly detained for nearly four months without trial or any legal charges being brought against him. -- freebassel.org
This is our statement of Support to Bassel, his family and friends.
Creative Commons supports efforts to obtain the release of Bassel Safadi, a valuable contributor to and leader in the technology community. Bassel's expertise and focus across all aspects of his work has been in support of the development of publicly available, free, open source computer software code and technology. He pursues this not only through his valuable volunteer efforts in support of Creative Commons, but in all of his work in the technology field. Through his efforts, the quality and availability of freely available and open technology is improved and technology is advanced.
Please help us #FREEBASSEL by signing the support letter at freebassel.org.Cross posted from the Creative Commons Blog
I just finished reading Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. Daniel became one of my favorite science fiction writers when I read Daemon. Steward Brand turned me on to Daemon. If you haven't read Deamon, you should. I wrote about it back in 2008. After Daemon, Daniel wrote a sequel, Freedom™, which was also awesome.
In addition to being gripping thrillers that you can't put down, the books are all based on existing or near future technologies that make the stories amazingly scary and plausible. When Daniel wrote Daemon he was "an independent systems consultant to Fortune 100 companies. He has designed enterprise software for the defense, finance and entertainment industries," and can actually hack most of the technology that he talks about in his books.
In Daemon and Freedom™ the theme was a kind of MMORPG world gone wild where the online takes over the real world.
In Kill Decision, Daniel pivots and takes us to a world where autonomous mass-produced swarming drones establish a new era of warfare. There is an interesting discussion in the book where one of the characters argues the following:
In the middle ages, trained, mounted, armored knights could do an asymmetrical amount of damage taking out huge numbers of peasants making them an important unit of power. (Think Game of Thrones :-) ) This influenced the architecture of government - feudalism. Later, with the invention of gunpowder, a large number of mostly unskilled peasants properly armed with rifles could take on a relatively large number opponents, leveling the play field and paving the way for democracy.
WIth the autonomous drones empowered with the kill decision, brute force manufacturing and big data analysis - in other words money - could become the primary force of power.
Whether you're talking to Lessig about the corruption of modern lawmaking by special interests or the #occupy movement, it's clear that money and the aggregation of financial power is out of control and taking over the world. In Kill Decision, Daniel takes this trend and connects it very directly to the technology that we're all so excited about and adds a deadly and exciting twist.
There are a number of important elements of the story that take place in research labs at universities and it was a lot of fun comparing some of the characters to people in my new life at the Media Lab. (Looking forward to Daniel visiting the Media Lab.)
Overall, really great book. I totally recommend it and props to Daniel for totally nailing the timing. In case you missed it, see the Ted talk on autonomous quadrcopters from this year's TED which play a big role in in Kill Decision. I also loved the little details like the dig on Comic Sans. ;-)
Obviously, this is just one student and doesn't necessarily generalize, but I love that the electrodermal activity is nearly flatlined during classes. ;-) (Note that the activity is higher during sleep than during class...)
"Changes in skin conductance at the surface, referred to as electrodermal activity (EDA), reﬂect activity within the sympathetic axis of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and provide a sensitive and convenient measure of assessing alterations in sympathetic arousal associated with emotion, cognition, and attention."
Poh, M.Z., Swenson, N.C., Picard, R.W., "A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity," IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol.57, no.5, pp.1243-1252, May 2010. doi: 10.1109/TBME.2009.2038487 PDF