This little essay is, like so many of the things that I post on Medium, a wooly ramble that doesn’t end with a pat conclusion. Apologies in advance.
I love the term “life-hack”. It’s been around long enough now to have entered the lexicon in a meaningful way and it sounds so clever, so reassuringly nimble. The term was invented by the tech writer Danny O’Brien and revealed to the world in a talk at an O’Reilly conference:
Note the subtitle: “Tech Secrets of Overprofilic Alpha Geeks”. Not just prolific, over-prolific; not just geeks, Alpha Geeks. It originally meant the kinds of things that one does at work or to interface with technology:
“O’Brien will talk to the most prolific technologists about the secrets of their desktops, their inboxes, and their schedules. The little scripts they run, the habits they’ve adopted, the hacks they perform to get them through their day…there will also be a wider discussion; is there anything we can apply from the way leading technologists bend hardware and software to cope with their needs? Are there any patterns from which mass-market manufacturers can learn? We cope pretty well with information overload.”
This strikes me as a reasonable way to approach the things which we do in our capacities as workers of a sort: managing the inflow of information, managing the processing of that information, managing the outflow of that information. Using the term ‘hack’ for this sort of action makes sense, a way to skip some of the complexity of a large system to accomplish a simple task within it. It seems very much to be a work-hack more than a life hack per se and because work tends to be a very large complex system, that makes sense. However, not long after this talk O’Brien was interviewed and said:
“And for most people, geeks or not, modern life is just this incredibly complex problem amenable to no good obvious solution.”
I am left to wonder: what is the conception of life which reduces it to a single problem in search of a solution? What sort of encapsulation of the entirety of the human experience allows it to seen as a system which can has un-necessary elements that can simply be skipped? I have to admit that when I first read this sentence I stopped cold and thought “if life is a problem, what is the solution?” But I realized I was misunderstanding O’Brien. He doesn’t mean that life itself is a problem, he means that the way that we interface with the world is a problem, modern life is a problem. The “life-hack” is essentially an adaptation at the organism-level to a larger ecosystem. It’s not evolution, it’s just a coping mechanism. Life hacking, or “hacking” in general, has taken on all kinds of new problems: tests like the SAT and GRE, sleep, eating, our physical health, the stock market, medical school. We have a near infinity of apparently poorly designed systems that need to be patched, momentarily fixed, skipped around, subverted, avoided. We don’t tend to think about these things holistically and in the kinds of time scales that they really require, we just want to skip past the bits of thing that we don’t like and be done with it.
Back to the original Life Hack, what exactly is the problem there? Well, according to O’Brien, there’s too much information coming from too many sources which aren’t differentiable enough to filter meaningful but too dis-similar to be easily compared across one another. There’s too many novel demands made on the processor of information, e.g. a person, for it to be reasonable. This might seem like an evolutionary problem where the organism just needs to adapt but evolution and adaption takes a long time. No amount of neuroplasticity is going to allow us to just “make a new conception of the world” on the fly again and again. You can’t just figure out who you and where you are all the time without making some serious compromises on both accounts.
And there’s some big drawbacks in having to make a new sense of self and place all the time based on reams of data that you can barely process. First, there is simply too much data for anyone to comprehend. The amount of data we attempt to sift through through and create every day is too large for most people to have any meaningful understanding of much less process in order to draw inferences and create correlations. Second, the personalization of that data is individualizing and isolating. More and more is targeted specifically to us, irrespective of context, social space, any notion of place or time. There’s an un-moored decontextualized firehose of data that demands our attention and our attention alone at all times. The constant availability of services is ever-more isolating; we are, in effect, alone with our data and there’s so much of that that we are mostly just overwhelmed by it.
There’s a great analogy to our overflow of data: American automobile culture. Once upon a time the car was the greatest democratizing technology of its time. Almost anyone could buy one and with it be freed from the tyranny of needing to live near to their work, school, church, or family. The physical space of life was suddenly blown wide open.
Much like the car, our relationship with our phones and networks and our displaced systems is increasingly individualistic and it has the net effect of insulating us from the world immediately around us. It removes us from any of the previously recognized boundaries and entities and places us in a never-quite-here space of invisible-service consumption. And much like American automobile culture, once you build culture and society around a new organizing principle, it is very difficult to dismantle or alter what infrastructure and regulation gets built around that principle. At that point you get stuck in an un-virtuous cycle of development: making things that fit into a flawed extant paradigm because it’s easy because the groundwork has already been laid. Right now most of our information platforms, news, critical debate, community conversations have positioned themselves as a part of the attention economy because that’s where the eyeballs are so they lean cheap, fast, divisive, and hyperbolic because that’s how the attention economy works. Is that good for nuanced discourse? Not so much. But it’s something that people understand and so it’s how things get built.
It used to be that people spent a lot of time designing tools for tasks within life. Technology and technological systems are now so all-encompassing though that now what’s getting designed isn’t a tool within life, it’s how we live.
Marshall McLuhan said “we design our tools and thereafter our tools design us.” And we’re now after one of the “design our tools” parts of platform capitalism. There will be more “design our tools” parts, we’ll have a breakthrough again soon and things will shift back to designing our tools again. For the moment however, for the next probably 10–15 years or so, we’re in the “our tools designing us” part.
A lot of what new products and services and systems are doing is finding new ways to fit extant tools into new places in peoples lives. The innovations are recombinant and the focus is on getting people to use tools that already exist in more and more of their life. Joseph Weizenbaum who was one of the originators of modern artificial intelligence once wrote:
The arrival of the Computer Revolution has been announced many times, but if the triumph of a revolution is to be measured in terms of the social revision it entrained, then there has been no computer revolution
But he passed away in 2008 before he could see what always-on ever-present computing looked like. I think we are now beginning to see the social revision that he refers to there: a broad-scale refiguring of how our society is organized and how daily life is lived. Things are becoming data-heavy, human-light, and are optimizing away human interaction in favor of solitary distraction. Writers like Amber Case have been writing about the need to reduce the friction of data overload and distraction for years, introducing the idea of “calm tech” and design principles for designing calmness into individual products and experiences. But the thing I find fascinating about the life hack and the need that drives it is the the thing which is seen as uncalm is life rather than just a technology inside of life. While technology may be driving this un-calmness, the technology is no longer simply a means to an end, it is the end in and of itself. And that’s an important part of understanding why things are being made the way that they are: instead of enabling someone to do something they’re intended to get people to use them for no particular reason. And that is pretty damn bizarre.
Obviously we’ve broken something in the classic Heideggerian conception of the technology becoming invisible to the user. What should be an invisible way to do something has become, in itself, living. And that’s a particularly bizarre corner in which to have painted ourselves: we seem to not particularly like the things we’re expected to do and yet there’s very little outside of that doing. Enough has been written about the attention economy that I don’t think I need to introduce it here but it is highly antithetical to the very nature of the Heideggerian techne and the products which it requires antithetical to many of the classical conceptions of product design. Product design began as a discipline that made things by finding what someone wanted to do and introducing a way to do that. Over time that evolved into an injection of new ways to think about problem and eventually into a new way to spend time and organize the very fabric of how we live. Most people are living in a hyper-designed world with that has no systematic design applied to it.
In the classic conception of technology things have an “in-order-to” quality inherent to them that becomes inseparable from the action. We use a pen in order to write, we use glasses in order to see, we use a photocopier to copy. What do we use Facebook for? It’s as difficult to answer as ‘What do we use church for?’. The density and ubiquity of products and their underlying platforms are making a system of living and the intent of a lot of those products is not so much enabling someone to do something but instead trying to get people to commit to a platform and live more of their lives through it. That is to say, a lot of that “problem of modern life” is from the wild diversity of products and the demanding incompatibility of so many of them. Some people do seem to take pride and maybe even pleasure in being able to organize and manage their interactions with all of these different platforms and products, in how they structure all of these life hack, but I can’t help but think that it’s lonely and unfulfilling work even in the best of situations. We’re all doing piecemeal work of designing a system just for ourselves because there doesn’t seem to be much design of the systems at a larger scale that helps us do other things than manage our own systems. This is in no small part of why big silos like Google, Facebook, Apple, are all so attractive: they do the systems design of managing a lot of your personal system for you. But picking what phone you’ll buy and what email server you’ll use and how you’ll tell your friend what you’re doing is just the very beginning of big systems design.
One way of looking at capital letter Systems Design is that it’s a proposition of how a life can be lived. The values and ethics of that system are enacted in the sort of life that the system asks you to live. Once you make the proposition about that you can ask someone to react to it and if you’ve designed it well, then they’ll participate in the system that you’re proposing. In effect, either you tell the truth about the life you’re asking someone to live or you obscure it because you know it’s not that attractive. Human Centered Design, the paradigm of the tail end of this last tool-making phase, asked us to think about desirability, feasibility, and viability. But there’s some different questions to ask now about products and their associated systems:
- What is your users role in the life cycle of your products?
- What is the role of your product in the life cycle of your user?
- What is the place of that life in the context of the systems which must sustain it? Products are supported by systems and those systems have so many users within them and each of them will appear quite differently to those systems at different moments. Systems should understand that life.
- What is the compatibility of systems and devices with other devices and systems? That includes even those unknown to the maker at the time. and that means that we should embrace standards, not because they’re good for the producer, but because they’re ultimately good for the user and their ability to participate in wider systems. Compatibility means sustainability.
- What assumptions are you making about how your users want to live? I’ll admit that this is a pretty strange question to ask when you’re trying to make something but increasingly I think it’s an important one.
If human centered design focuses on desirability, feasibility, and viability, then systems design requires compatibility, sustainability, and resiliency. And obviously there’s a lot of HCD that needs to go into making the things that actually are good systems level designs function but to put the one before the other doesn’t do the human race any favors. Post-industrial capitalism and the principles of building products for it in and of themselves isn’t going to help us figure out the pressing issues of the 21st century. Not to say that they don’t have a very important part to play in both, but we’ve seen about as far as they’re going to take us as foundational principles. We’re caught in the tyranny of desire: we’re left trying to make people want things without good reason to keep our businesses and systems viable without good reason.
One of the things about a well-designed system is that it will, by design, limit freedom: there’s things you should do and things that you shouldn’t do and therefore there are things that you can do and things that you can’t do. It’s fundamentally politically liberal in the sense that it privileges a value or right, perhaps a minority value or right, above freedom to act. And the thing about classic consumerism is that it isn’t really politically liberal, it’s economically liberal. It says that you should be able to do whatever your heart desires as long as you can afford it and the job of any institution is to meet that desire or even invent that desire if it doesn’t exist. Thinking of a big system isn’t necessarily thinking of what someone could do or might want to do, it’s thinking about what someone should do and figuring out how to get them to do that. You can design things without any respect for the coherence that daily life requires but it’s irresponsible to do so. Designing things without an eye for coherence means you don’t do anything to help foster coherence in the world and that generates more disruption, more noise, more agitation. While it might be fine to disrupt businesses and there is a fine art of disrupting a daily routine to reveal something important or true but a constant disruption is more than unproductive, it’s damaging. There’s a reason that constant distraction is a widely employed torture tactic, it breaks a person down, it destroys their sense of self. When you consider how things can cohere you begin to create a selection, you what that much abused term “curation” hints at: a selection of paths which coalesce into a thing, which calm and simplify. Fundamentally that’s at odds with classic late-industrial consumerism and that’s not all that bad of a thing because big systems shouldn’t be designed with the same rationale as a single product or an advertisement for a product.
Most systems fall into this mismatched philosophy, trying to balance political liberalism and economic liberalism. Many systems don’t realize they’re trying to balance these two divergent perspectives which makes them mushy and compromised. Moreover, plenty of systems don’t even realize that they’re designed or that decisions that are being made are design decisions. But designed poorly or designed well or designed unintentionally, it’s still designed. And the politics of that design, considered or invisible, are still present in every decision made throughout the conception, construction, and dissemination of that design. Architects and urban planners have known and acknowledged this for a while and that is a part of why both of these disciplines have become so diffuse in their practices. Product design and user experience design needs to do the same. Because you can design things without any respect for the coherence that daily life requires but it’s irresponsible to do so. Designing things without an eye for coherence means you don’t do anything to help foster coherence in the world and that help make life more confusing, difficult, and frustrating.
At IDEO we worked with a client to try to design a way to teach adolescent girls in rural Kenya about contraceptives and provide them with free reproductive health services. And figuring out how to do that was a process of understanding a lot of interrelated and unanticipated aspects of life in villages, Kenyan culture(s), and reproductive health. To design something as complex as a curriculum, a service, and an outreach campaign meant that we needed to design not like a product but like a system. We had to think about what our users believed, who influenced our users, how the lives of our users really were lived, and what our fundamental proposition to them might possibly mean to them. What we were designing was not simply a single experience, it was a whole set of experiences and services that all worked in concert. And that might seem extraordinarily complex but it’s fundamentally no different than creating any other kind of product, it’s just that we had to be explicit about who everyone was and how they thought about what we were making because our users and our partners demanded that of us. There were things that some of our users wanted which we didn’t allow them to do, there were things that some of users didn’t want which we did require them to do. Each of these unhappy bits of the system was as important to explain as the happy bits of the system, if not more important than the happy bits. And once we had designed a whole system and service we then delivered it to our partners who went out to teams at the county level and started to implement that program. When we went back a few months later to see how things were going we found that some of the core assumptions that we had made about how our system was going to be understood by the people we’d designed it for and how they would understand it and use it were wrong. We had designed for particular users and clients but misunderstood the needs and viewpoints of others. So we tweaked the system and all the touchpoints of it and redeployed. We had to consider how our partners, managers, field workers, village elders, teachers at local schools, parents, and finally girls thought about each other, about contraception, and about what we were trying to do. It required thinking about much more than how each of them thought and what they wanted, it required thinking about an entire program and how it could be replicated hundreds of times with minimal investment and how it could be maintained over years with minimal oversight. Ultimately the physical product was a few booklets and brochures and posters but it was also far and away the most complex thing I’ve ever worked on and I include in that software projects with hundreds of thousands of lines of code. And this was a system with a very simple goal: get adolescent girls to understand why they might want an IUD and help them get one if they wanted one. On the scale of systems it’s a “Hello World” exercise. And yet designing it was and is hellaciously complex. How do all of these people and beliefs and needs and desires and realities all overlap and how do we make something which can find a way to bring them all into alignment for a single fairly simple goal? How do you get people to recognize that things that they want aren’t necessarily good things and things that they don’t want might be actually pretty good in the long run? These are hard questions to even properly formulate, much less answer. They’re not questions that much of the discipline of design is particularly well suited to answer. There are other disciplines which are better suited to answer those kinds of questions though.
Architects and urban planners tend to think in terms of coherence and flow because they recognize the importance of designing things to create coherence in urban and sub-urban space. They’re guided by regulation but they’re also guided by a wealth of thinking about how things will go together. Landscape architects consider the how a garden will be to walk through, what it will be like to look at in different seasons, but also what kind of environment the garden will live in, what kind of soil the garden will be in, how much sunlight and rain the garden will have. They have a clear and articulated philosophy of what things they want to enable, encourage, allow, how a wide range of different kinds of humans can access all of those things. As the builders of products which are enabled by the systems which are designing everyday life it behooves us to do likewise, otherwise the system hacks that we’ll require people to use might just be having them ignore large bits of the daily life that they’re living.