Us Now – Thoughts

I re-watched the documentary film Us Now earlier this week, and it comes highly recommended. It’s an hour long, and there are some really interesting contributors and contributions, but vitally, I thought it all hung together very well. Most of all, it was thought provoking – it posed more questions than it answered, or than it perhaps set out to answer. So I’m just going to throw together some of the parts I wanted to know more about, disagreed with, wondered where things were going, etc.
In no particular order (approximately the order I noted thoughts down throughout the film, but only roughly)

Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.
Clay Shirky. I thought this was one of the most powerful lines in the whole film. (That they used it in the intro and in the conclusion makes me think the editors thought so, too). And oh so applicable to design, particularly interaction and service design. Perhaps the next stages after behavior are habit and language?

The tension (?) between the possibilities of hyper-local services and the erosion (removal?) of geographic boundaries in linking people into communities or tribes. Examples: hyperlocal directory enquiries (where’s the nearest cash point?), mumsnet (parents dealing with similar issues, regardless of their geographical proximity?). Additonally, something that wasn’t touched upon, what contribution can technologies (GPS) and online services (Latitude, Fireeagle, or even flickr’s tags in combination with mapped photos) make in removing the friction of people to people (one to one, or one to many, or many to one) communication?

An interesting point was made by by a bandmember participating in a crowdsourced record-deal-assigning service. He said something along the lines of “these people don’t know us, so they have greater freedom to give honest ratings/reviews”, in other words there are no ramifications to giving an honestly negative rating. I’d like to think some more about how anonymity, community, and both in-person elements and lack of geographical colocation affect the honesty, accuracy, or ability of a given crowd to act within a system. This is nothing new, of course – there’s a reason voting is anonymous – but I wonder how it works differently when the stakes are so much lower, when a single vote might potentially even be seen as trivial.

The ability of collaborative systems to “pick the best solution”, or in the case of the Ebbsfleet United football team, “pick the best team”. In some cases, an average, or algorithmically chosen, or top-ranking answer is exactly what you want – amazon’s recommendations, google pagerank, and, perhaps, results pending, Ebbsfleet Utd. While such a system might avoid the catastrophic mistake by an individual as suggested, does it not perhaps also exclude the possibility of a stroke of genius or flash of insight? Perhaps more fundamentally, does it perhaps remove the ability to make compromises and tradeoffs – these are our two best players, but they can’t play together, for example? By always aiming for the middle of the curve, are we willing to exclude the edge-cases, both good and bad? This brings to mind Nokia Design’s recent work with open studios (see Jan Chipchase’s writeup, presentation, and paper). What’s interesting here is that the participative process is about bringing together and drawing out ideas and opinions – the analysis and choices are made by the team (and, presumably, down the line, the extracted insights are passed on to other teams and make their way through the pipeline to other researchers, designers, engineers, etc). Additionally, I’m sure these open studios have a great PR effect in these communities and beyond, along the lines of ‘Nokia are listening to us, they respect out needs’ – regardless of how many of the drawn features, or even extracted insights into needs and habits, make it into final production phones.

That fits nicely with Sophia Parker’s point, later on in the film, that “You don’t have to get your way to feel enfranchised” (00:48). I like this idea that it’s not just about having to get your own way; that it’s more subtle than that. I wonder whether “you have voted” is enough or whether a slight adjustment (irrespective of the overall outcome) in the results makes a bigger impact in people feeling enfranchised?

The suggestion that government might be run in a similar way, although perhaps made slightly tongue in cheek (“How would Gordon Brown feel if his job was done like this?“) brought other issues into sharp relief. How does diplomatic maneuvering work, when painful compromises have to be made? How about decisions that may be unpopular but “right”, however that might be defined? Would the result be lots of visible and shiny projects and a collapse in infrastructure, in the broadest sense of the word? Would long term thinking and strategic planning fall by the wayside? How often are popular or populist decisions either “right”, or even, selfishly, the best solutions for a nation state or region in the longer term? In a football team, there are 11 neatly defined variables – 11 players on the pitch, 11 choices to make – plus the formation – in the design of a mobile phone, and even more drastically in the running of a community or country, things are, as ever, more complex.

Does the wisdom of the crowd reflect the views of the crowd – or just of those that speak the loudest? It puts a very different spin on communication, PR, etc. All of these issues apply to a football team too, of course – nice guy, bad football player? flair over quietly solid? – but take on a different complexion when applied on a bigger and more impactful stage such as policy. The film touched briefly on that – a team of seurgeons was mentioned as being preferable to crowdsourced scalpel movements – but it would have been nice to go a bit deeper into the debate.

transparency makes you more electable” (00:49) – The same goes for companies and brands: “transparency makes you more buy-able”
Does it, though? Or does it put you at a disadvantage against those who are less transparent and thus appear cleaner or less tainted, or seemingly make less mistakes? How about those who are not transparent, but appear to be (eg, playing lipservice to transparency). What power transparency vs. impression of transparency? This is much the same debate as that around greenwashing. Of course, with ever sharper tools for uncovering, communicating, and publicising mistakes and/or abuses, it may be that transparency is the only way forward, but it will be interesting to see the (no doubt bumpy) progression to that point. Things like the Guardian’s Datablog are interesting here – making available data in its raw form, for better/easier analysis, comparison, and general hacking and warping is an important step in allowing people to make their own links, draw their own conclusions, and double check what they are being told. In the states, seems to be taking a similar approach (“…enables the public to participate in government by providing downloadable Federal datasets to build applications, conduct analyses, and perform research. … strives to make government more transparent”).

The losers will be those who say “we’ll always make the best decisions – the winners will be those who recognise the world has changed” (00:41)
Really? I’d say this is true… unless the company/organisation/person does indeed often make the best decision. It’s rare, but it does happen. Apple are often trotted out as having wonderful innovative products & services, and often they do. What’s only sometimes said is that they function on the logic that they are right, that they can see things before others, that they, in fact “make the best decisions”. Steve Portigal wrote an interesting article for Interaction’s Journal about deisgn without research titled “Ships in the night“, which  discusses similar ideas, using Apple and Harley Davidson as examples – and pointing out the dangers of the approach. But are research and participative processes and systems always the best approach, as some seem to claim? (always being the key word there). Steve has a nicely balanced view on it – as ever “it depends” is the right answer. Genius design, intuitive design, co-creation, etc, all come in here – and I think it’s also key to remember that often research may be carried out, users are an important part of the process – but that this part of the design process isn’t documented and communiated externally (to the team, or the company). That’s different to a lone genius sitting in a room on their own plucking ideas from thin air.

An hour was a good length overall, but an extra 20 or 30minutes wouldn’t have felt out of place if it had included more debate. Still, perhaps sparking thoughts and fueling debate is enough?

I don’t have an overall coherent point to be made, just a bunch of observations and points of interest. Lots of glimmers of half-formed opinions on how some of this might apply to design, especially design research – and also to service design, where participation is so closely integrated into the whole discipline – but they need to germinate and ferment in my mind a little before becoming in any way coherent. Discussion and debate would help the process along, as it always does, and I look forward to sharing thoughts with people, here or in person.

← Back to the latest posts