Excerpts from Peter Morville, Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything, 2014, Semantic Studios.
“People keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable, and sequential when they can’t. Everything is deeply intertwingled.” – Theodor Holm Nelson
In 1974, Theodor H. Nelson wrote and self-published a book with two covers. The first, Computer Lib, is an introduction to computers that notes “any nitwit can understand computers, and many do.” The flip side, Dream Machines, is an invitation to the future of media and cognition that states “everything is deeply intertwingled.” This prescient codex served as a bible to many pioneers of the personal computer and the Internet.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
This infinite loop to nowhere results from treating symptoms without knowing the cause, a bad habit with which we’re all too familiar. Part of our problem is human nature. We’re impatient. We choose immediate gratification and the illusion of efficiency over the longer, harder but more effective course of action. And part of our problem is culture. Our institutions and mindsets remain stuck in the industrial age. Businesses are designed as machines, staffed by specialists in silos. Each person does their part, but nobody understands the whole.
The information age amplifies connectedness. Each wave of change – web, social, mobile, the Internet of Things – increases the degree and import of connection and accelerates the rate of change. In this context, it’s vital to see our organizations as ecosystems. This is not meant figuratively. Our organizations are ecosystems, literally. And while each community of organisms plus environment may function as a unit, the web of connections and consequences extends beyond its borders. All ecosystems are linked. To understand any complex, adaptive system, we must look outside its limits. For instance, the story of Isle Royale is a lesson in systems thinking. In 1958, predictions for the rise and fall of populations were grounded in classic predation theory: more moose, more wolves, but more wolves, less moose, and less moose, less wolves, and so on. It’s an interesting, useful model, but it’s incomplete.
What’s interesting for our purposes is that the surprises in this story result from exogenous shocks. They come from outside the model of the system. In ecology and economics, such disruptions are often explained away as rare, unpredictable, and unworthy of further study. But that’s an ignorant, dangerous conclusion. The truth is that the model is wrong.
Information in Systems When I graduated from college in 1991, I had no plan, so I moved in with my parents. I worked by day (mind-numbing data entry) and messed around on my computer at night. One Saturday, while browsing the public library, I stumbled upon a tattered old book about careers in library science. As I learned about libraries, I thought about the networks – AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy – I’d been exploring. They were a mess. It was hard to find things. Could librarianship be practiced in these online computer networks? That question sent me to graduate school at the University of Michigan.
In 1992, I started classes at the School of Information and Library Studies, and promptly began to panic. I was stuck in required courses like Reference and Cataloging with people who wanted to be librarians. In hindsight, I’m glad I took those classes, but at the time I was convinced I’d made a very big mistake. It took a while to find my groove. I studied information retrieval and database design. I explored Dialog, the world’s first commercial online search service. And I fell madly in love with the Internet. The tools were crude, the content sparse, but the promise irresistible. A global network of networks that provides universal access to ideas and information: how could anyone who loves knowledge resist that? I was hooked. I dedicated myself to “the design of information systems.”
Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati led us to independence with their manifesto for pervasive information architecture. Information architectures become ecosystems. When different media and different contexts are tightly intertwined, no artifact can stand as a single isolated entity. Every single artifact becomes an element in a larger ecosystem.iii
Soon they were joined by new voices. Jorge Arango, a traditional architect by training, put a new twist on the old metaphor by arguing that where architects use forms and spaces to design environments for inhabitation, information architects use nodes and links to create environments for understanding.iv
And we’ve begun to learn the cost of free. In recent years, we’ve begun to lose newspapers, bookstores, libraries, and privacy. Now we search for answers in a sea of advertisements, thinking carefully (or not) about where to look, who to trust, and what to believe. These are wicked problems but not impossible. No field has all the answers, but together we can do better. That’s why I’m writing outside my category about the nature of information in systems. It’s not all about information architecture, and I’m a long way from library school. But this inquiry is important. Connectedness has consequences. Information changes everything.
Or, in the words of John Gall, “the system always kicks back.” In Systemantics, a witty, irreverent book published in 1975, Gall uses the example of garbage collection to explain that when we create a system to accomplish a goal, a new entity comes into being: the system itself. After setting up a garbage-collection system, we find ourselves faced with a new universe of problems. These include questions of collective bargaining with the garbage collectors’ union, rates and hours, collection on very cold or rainy days, purchase and maintenance of garbage trucks, millage and bond issues, voter apathy, regulations regarding the separation of garbage from trash…if the collectors bargain for more restrictive definitions of garbage, refusing to pick up twigs, trash, old lamps, and even leaving behind properly wrapped garbage if it is not placed within a regulation can, so that taxpayers resort to clandestine dumping along the highway, this exemplifies the Principle of Le Chatelier: the system tends to oppose its own proper function.vii
Our society is organized around the opposing principle that the whole equals the sum of the parts. Reductionism, the idea that any system can be understood by studying its parts, was introduced by the ancient Greeks and formalized by French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century. During the ensuing scientific and industrial revolutions, reductionism and specialization were so spectacularly successful, they became embedded within our culture.
Reductionism is truly valuable. In fact, its value is part of the problem. Success blinds us to alternatives. And, we’re reaching its limits. Optimizing for efficiency through specialization eventually compromises overall effectiveness. Plus, some problems can’t be solved as parts. Economic volatility, political corruption, crime, drug addiction, lifestyle disease, and environmental degradation are systemic. Nobody creates these problems on purpose or wants them to continue. They emerge from the system and are wholly immune to the quick fix. That’s where systems thinking comes in. While conventional thinking uses analysis to break things down, systems thinking relies on synthesis to see the whole and the interactions between parts. As Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking and business management, explains: Systems thinking looks at relationships (rather than unrelated objects), connectedness, process (rather than structure), the whole (rather than just its parts), the patterns (rather than the contents) of a system, and context. Thinking systematically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach, and different ways to organize society.viii There’s a subversive dimension to systems thinking with hints of danger and risk.
As the legendary systems thinker and environmentalist Donella Meadows explains: Some interconnections in systems are actual physical flows, such as the water in the tree’s trunk or the students progressing through a university. Many interconnections are flows of information – signals that go to decision points or action points within a system…information holds systems together.ix In her book, Thinking in Systems, Donella makes it clear most problems in systems are due to biased, late, or missing information; and adding or restoring information is often the most powerful intervention. Simply changing the length of a delay may radically change behavior, causing overshoots, oscillations, and even total collapse of the system. Feedback loops are central to the design of information in systems.
This need for visualization is something we share with systems thinkers like Donella, who explains: There is a problem in discussing systems only with words. Words and sentences must, by necessity, come only one at a time in linear, logical order. Systems happen all at once. They are connected not just in one direction, but in many directions simultaneously. To discuss them properly, it is necessary to use a language that shares some of the same properties as the phenomena under discussion.xi Both practices rely upon a visual language for analysis and design.
Donella may overstate her case, for even when words come one at a time, the narrative that emerges is often nonlinear. Good stories tend to wander. They draw upon our memories, associations, and emotions to create rich, sensory experience. Often, words are the best way to paint a picture. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs does this brilliantly. In a text with no image, she helps us see the city as a system. Her words bring sidewalks, parks, and neighborhoods to life. Jane shows us why traditional maps aren’t good for urban planning. By focusing on roads and buildings, maps reveal the skeleton but miss the point. A city’s structure is evident in its mixture of uses, the life and activity it nurtures, and the conditions that generate diversity. To see and improve our cities, we must use a different lens. Imagine a large field in darkness. In the field, many fires are burning. They are of many sizes, some great, others small; some far apart, others dotted close together; some are brightening, some are slowly going out. Each fire, large or small, extends its radiance into the surrounding murk, and thus it carves out a space. But the space and the shape of that space exist only to the extent that the light from the fire creates it. The murk has no shape or pattern except where it is carved into space by the light. When the murk between the lights becomes deep and undefinable and shapeless, the only way to give it form or structure is to kindle new fires in the murk or sufficiently enlarge the nearest existing fires.xii
Her 1961 book was an attack on conventional city planning and a perfect illustration of systems thinking. Jane recognized cities as problems in organized complexity, a jumble of parts interrelated into an organic whole. She believed good cities foster social interaction at the street level. They support walking, biking, and public transit over cars. They get people talking to each other. Residential buildings have porches. Sidewalks and parks have benches. Safe neighborhoods are mixed-use with “eyes on the street” all day. Jane’s vision was hopeful, and she made an impact. Her text is required reading in urban studies. Her ideas have become conventional wisdom. Our world is more livable because of her.
All innovations have unintended consequences, and the system always kicks back. These are lessons we must heed as we take information to the next level. Mobile apps aren’t products. They are service avatars that link users into business ecosystems. Websites aren’t products either. They are systems within systems. That’s why content management is messier than garbage collection, and why information architects must be systems thinkers. When strategy and structure meet people and process, our maps must be subject to change, because things rarely go according to plan.
It’s a story of success that came by surprise. But it’s also a reminder that our work depends upon an encouraging cultural context. I was lucky the Library was ready for change. I know this because I’ve learned the hard way that many organizations are not. For instance, several years ago, I worked with a community college on their website redesign. When I talked to executives, I explained the course catalog and faculty directory were the most important and most broken parts of the students’ digital experience, and I laid out a plan for renewal. Then, politely but firmly, the president told me that both were off the table. The catalog, managed by a vendor, was too costly to modify, and changing the directory might upset the faculty and their powerful union. So that was that. We restructured the whole website, quite nicely I might add, without touching its most sensitive parts.
Information architecture is an intervention. It disturbs an established system. To make change that lasts, we must look for the levers and find the right fit. If we fight culture, it will fight back and usually win. But if we look deeper, and if we’re open to changing ourselves, we may see how culture can help.
In fact, as an information architect, I find the Agile Manifesto relevant and inspiring. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Working software over comprehensive documentation. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Responding to change over following a plan.xiv And Agile aligns perfectly with systems
In the 1950s, Toyota figured out how to avoid the pitfalls of mass production by embracing what’s now called Lean.xv In design, all relevant specialists were involved at the outset, so conflicts about resources and priorities were resolved early on. And in production, managers learned that by making small batches and giving every worker the ability to stop the line, they could identify, fix, and prevent errors more quickly and effectively. Instead of serving as cogs in the machine, workers were expected to solve problems by using the five why’s to systematically trace every error to its root cause. Similarly, suppliers were expected to coordinate the flow of parts and information within the just-in-time supply system of “kanban.” This transparency ensured everyone knew a missing part could stop the whole system. In short, managers gave workers and suppliers an unprecedented level of information and responsibility, so they could contribute to continuous, incremental improvement. And it worked. Quality soared, and Toyota became the largest, most consistently successful industrial enterprise in the world.
In recent years, Eric Ries famously adapted Lean to solve the wicked problem of software startups: what if we build something nobody wants? He advocates use of a minimum viable product (“MVP”) as the hub of a Build-Measure-Learn loop that allows for the least expensive experiment. By selling an early version of a product or feature, we can get invaluable feedback from customers, not just about how it’s designed, but about what the market actually wants. It’s a holistic approach that recognizes the risks of vanity metrics such as total number of users. As Eric explains “that which optimizes one part of the system necessarily undermines the system as a whole.” xvi
Our systems are mostly people, which means our expertise is useless without empathy.
Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened.xvii As an information architect, I always begin by watching and listening, because understanding is central to my work. Clients often don’t know what’s wrong. Instead of solving the symptom, I dig for a diagnosis. Design is an intervention. In keeping with Hippocrates’ wisdom, we should “first, do no harm.” Of course, to do nothing carries risk too. So, we study and plan, but we also build and test prototypes and MVPs.
We’re also far from unbiased. It’s not just that we care about nature. Many folks earn a living from the world’s longest prey-predator study. There’s funding from the National Science Foundation and outreach that includes books, videos, lectures, scientific papers, newspaper articles, websites, museum exhibits, art, and surveys of Michigan residents, because it may come down to a vote. These sources are neither impartial nor immaterial. Information governs intervention. It’s the link that makes the loop. So it’s not just about a website or an island. It’s all connected. How we think about information in systems changes everything. Our ideas transform the world. We had better know what we’re doing.
The skills I learned in library school give me an edge. Whether I’m buying a car, planning a trip, or solving a health problem, my ability to find and evaluate information is invaluable. Sadly, most people lack this literacy. Unlike “the three Rs” of reading, writing, and arithmetic which are interwoven within the K-12 curriculum, information literacy falls through the cracks.
At the crossroads of capitalism and the Internet, it’s increasingly hard to identify the interests behind the information. It’s not just advertisers and politicians who spin. Even science is suspect. When we don’t ask who funded the study or who stands to gain, we risk being misled. Is man behind climate change? Do vaccines cause autism? Do mammograms save lives? If we don’t get better at answering, we’re in for big trouble. But let’s be clear. Search isn’t enough. Our literacy deficit can’t be addressed by consumption alone. Consider the following definition of information literacy. The ability to find, evaluate, create, organize, and use ideas and information from myriad sources in multiple media. In the information age, we are all information architects.
First, establish a common platform for search and navigation to contain costs and enable a consistent user experience. Second, train the merchandisers to improve their digital literacy. And third, broaden the role of the user experience group beyond left navigation, so they can work with merchandisers on user research, holistic metrics, and design initiatives that build towards a whole greater than the sum of its parts. These multi-level challenges are typical.
Like muscles, our minds are antifragile. Stress makes them stronger. In today’s fast-paced era, the ability to change is a literacy. We can get better at getting better, but only if we’re willing to face our fears. Each time I begin a project, I experience a moment of terror. My new client is trusting me with their business. They believe I can help. But what if I can’t? What if I’m unable to answer their questions or solve their problems? What if they already know what I know? Intellectually, I know these fears are unfounded. I’ve been here before, many times, and I always find my value. But that doesn’t ease my mind. The path to peace runs through the fear. The only way out is to start.
But now, eating lunch where Ernest Hemingway spent summers as a child, I recall one of my favorite stories of his, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which opens with an epigraph from a meditation by the metaphysical poet, John Donne. No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friend’s or of thine owne were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. When I was a child in England, my dad often quoted it to me. Even today, this poem strikes a chord, but the ring of its bell isn’t wide enough, because it’s limited to man. In today’s flatter, fatter era of climate change, mass extinction, and lifestyle disease, “no island is an island” may be a fitter frame. To draw us together is good, but nature belongs in the circle.
The only constant isn’t change. There’s connectedness too. Weaving them together to mend culture is the work of our age. To succeed, we’ll need information and inspiration which means looking forward and back, as literacy is a legacy we inherit, build upon, and bequeath. Given fuzzy goals, we’ll also need humor, because while frame-shifting is heavy lifting (like camping it’s intense) it’s also the secret to a good joke.
Well, for starters, Siddhārtha Gautama, the person who became known as the Buddha, was an information architect. Living in India, two and a half thousand years ago, he rejected the rigid hierarchy of the caste system – the fourfold division of persons into brahmins, rulers and warriors, farmers and traders, and servants – and embraced universalism, believing enlightenment is open to all.xx Then, he shaped several new taxonomies, including the three marks of existence, the four noble truths, the five hindrances, and the noble eightfold path. Of course, the deepest, most difficult ontology Buddha taught is anattā, non-self. This notion there’s no self – that while we’re more stable than a tornado or a sandbar, we belong in the same category – is counterintuitive and disturbing, particularly to those of us in individualistic Western cultures. Self as process not substance is outside our model of the system.
That’s why it’s so hard for us to grok Buddhism. We’re weird. And by that I mean western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”). It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others – and even the way we perceive reality – makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors.xxiii
When we use a pencil to sketch ideas, the pencil becomes an extension of our bodymind, and the marks we make change the course of thought. We literally think on paper. In the words of cognitive scientist Andy Clark, human cognition includes “inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world.”xxv Our tools, like our bodies, become “transparent equipment.” We see through them to the task at hand. Brain imaging studies have shown that as we build fluency, we incorporate tools – pencils, hammers, bicycles, words, numbers, computers – into our bodymind schema. Then, in accordance with the principle of least effort, we strategically distribute work through the whole system of mind, body, environment. We use calculators for math. We offload memory to contacts and calendars. We rely on Google for retrieval, so there’s less need for recall. And when we play Scrabble or Tetris, before we see a solution, we move the tiles with our fingers, because it’s faster than modeling those shifts in our minds.xxvi
The over-prescription of drugs and surgery is an epidemic. We’re fixing things that aren’t broken, and the cost is astronomical. For instance, seventy percent of us suffer severe back pain, and in the U.S. alone this results in tens of thousands of surgeries a year, but the herniated, ruptured, and bulging discs commonly attributed to back pain are seen almost as often in the MRIs of healthy people.xxix All too often, diagnostic classifications are made based on visible but harmless imperfections by doctors who are blind to the invisible but powerful connections between mind and body. Of course, we’re not all in the dark. Many doctors regularly prescribe placebos. They trust in the efficacy of mind over matter. And the market for complementary and alternative medicine – over $35 billion spent out of pocket each year – shows some patients grow impatient with medical orthodoxy. But mostly the $3 trillion healthcare industry rolls on.
Like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, and ideas – are buried by design.
What values are implicit in this scheme? What is the intent and impact? Who does it help? Who gets hurt? What are its alternatives? And why is this the one we use? Why does it endure? We must subject all taxonomies to such questions because their imprint belies their impact.
Unlike Share or Retweet, Like nudges us into “friendly world syndrome.” We have a hard time “liking” bad news, so most of the sad stories simply fade away, leaving us in a safe, happy place that’s good for business. When we think about taxonomies, we tend to focus on whole systems like Dewey Decimal, but like Like, a single word can embody a worldview.
On one level, when we use words to make places, the map is the territory, the word is the thing, and language is the environment where experience and exploration occur. But on another level, that’s simply not true. Since understanding arises through the unity of mind, body, and environment, language can’t contain meaning, or to put it poetically, in the words of Hui-neng, the patriarch of Chinese Buddhism: Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger. In the systems we design, our words do lots of pointing.
The first step in taxonomy construction is defining its purpose. What’s the goal? Who are the users? How will we measure success? But this isn’t a linear process. A taxonomy merits Agile, not Waterfall. To put objectives before ontology is good, but we must also pair classification with context. Where will the taxonomy exist? What parts will users encounter and when? Will they touch it on mobile? Will they see it on TV? A taxonomy is part of a cross-channel information architecture. To make the whole work, we need a build-measure-learn loop that gets how the parts fit together.
In the 1990s, when we began talking about facets and Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, each online store had a single taxonomy, and nobody knew who he was. They still don’t, but we’re all indebted to the mathematician and librarian from India who realized that a single taxonomy isn’t nearly enough.
Faceted navigation serves up a custom map to search results that helps people understand what they’ve found. Users can then select filters to clarify and refine their query. Is this for a man or woman? Do you prefer black or unorthodox orange? A vegan wallet for $50? Yes, we have a few of those. Search is transformed into an iterative, interactive conversation in which users build complex queries, one simple step at a time. And, in social, categorization is as easy as a #hashtag.
Tag creation is idiosyncratic, bottom-up, and object-centered, and so are its use cases. The value of tags is realized in the strange connections (and descriptions) that appear once a user finds an object. Figure 2-19. Three types of classification. Each way of organizing has strengths and weaknesses. Taxonomy affords a view from the top, facets help us muddle through the middle, and tags build bridges at the bottom. As information architects we must define the right mix for each system by balancing value and cost.
Netflix invented a unique classification scheme that blends taxonomy, facets, and tags. They built an ontological model with over 1,000 microtags, and hired a team of taggers to describe 14,000 movies and TV shows. Then they designed algorithms and a grammar for stitching facets and tags together into a colorful array of 76,897 microgenres.xxxvii
Users experience these microgenres as categories. They are easy to understand and use. But there’s no taxonomy. There are no subsets or supersets of Cult Evil Kid Horror Movies. Based on viewing history and interests, users are shown a few microgenres, each with several matching titles. It’s a great way to find movies that also invites introspection and understanding, since most of us don’t realize that we like Emotional Independent Movies Based on Books until we’re told so. Netflix has earned a sustainable competitive advantage by creating an exceptional information architecture. They got the basics right, invented new forms of categorization and personalization, and assembled these elements into a coherent whole. This is our challenge.
While there are no opposites in nature, we use dualism to create order and make sense of experience. These opposites generate meaning. We understand hot in relation to cold, light in relation to dark. This dualism runs deep. Studies show “the binary opposition is a child’s first logical operation.”xxxix We start with self-other, edible-inedible, and work our way up to good-evil, digital-physical, map-territory. The pairings are usually hierarchical, and the first tends to be primary. It’s better to be in than out, up than down, true not false, us not them.
Dualism works because it’s simple, but that’s also why it fails. Politicians win by painting in black and white. They say folks are either with us or against us. But this path leads to tribalism and genocide. Most horrors of human history begin with the categories of us and them. Even when it’s office politics, dualism is serious business. It divides people and obscures the truth. Is digital the opposite of physical? Is that a sensible way to split the staff? Like the Wikipedia, binary opposition can be a good place to start but a terrible place to end. Benchley’s Law – there are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t – points us in the right direction. To collaborate, we must admit ambiguity and complexity, and avoid premature classification.
Spatial ordering of physical objects isn’t how ontology works. Wittgenstein famously debunked this classical theory by questioning the category of “games.” It has no clear boundary as no common properties are shared by all games. Some involve skill, others luck, some you can win, others you cannot. Instead the category is united by overlapping similarities or family resemblances. It’s hard to define a game, but we know one when we see it. Fuzzy sets have a center and periphery. Some members are better than others. A robin is a better bird than an ostrich. An orange is a better fruit than a tomato. Madonna is a better singer than Bill Clinton. Terror is a better feeling than detachment. Most sets are bounded on the surface but fuzzy beneath. We think we can define them until we can’t. In this failure lies freedom. When we admit they’re not sets in stone but embodied in cognition, we’re able to classify creatively.
Paul Hiebert, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist, did just that when he invented the concept of centered sets. His work as a missionary in India led him to ask the question “Can an illiterate peasant become a Christian after hearing the Gospel only once?”xli By tradition, the church was organized as a bounded set with clear definitions of membership and carefully circumscribed beliefs and values. Hiebert proposed a more inclusive, dynamic way to form categories by defining a center, and by paying more attention to direction than location. In his model, a Christian is anyone who moves towards Christ. Some are closer to the center in knowledge and maturity, but all are equal members of the set. It’s an ontology that values openness, change, diversity. It amps up permeability and softens the boundary between us and them. In 2012, Dan Klyn borrowed this theory to re-frame the relationship between user experience and information architecture. In his account, using centered sets is like herding cats. The center is a pail of milk that draws cats. For user experience designers “the pail is design, and it’s situated in a place where users and their experiences are the center of gravity.” xlii And what about information architects? What’s their center? Well, those crazy cats are centered on meaning. Or is it placemaking or planning or cognition?
Might a “holacracy” of self-organizing, multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams work better?xliv In holacracy, authority and decision-making are distributed, and members can be in more than one circle. Zappos and Medium are giving it a try. Maybe we should too.
Lee Rainie delivered a brilliant keynote in which he presented the results of a Pew Research Center study aimed at learning how and why Americans value public libraries. He concluded by noting the data indicates that “libraries have a mandate to intervene in community life.” xlvi Later we were discussing “the vision for the library” and one participant advised the public librarians to aspire towards “a vision for the community” instead. This re-framing opened the door to an invigorating conversation about interventions and partnerships to address literacy, poverty, crisis informatics, and more. To shift mindsets from insular to open is to change the world for the better.
One shift that can help us all is to change our minds about planning. Like search, planning is a literacy that’s not taught in school, and yet it’s a key to success in life and work. We plan events, trips, families, sites, systems, companies, and cities. We do it all the time but make the same mistakes. First, we procrastinate. We fear complexity, so we start too late. Then, in a hurry, we split ideas and execution into phases or roles. We draw lines in our minds that segregate. The binary oppositions of think-do and plan-build are myths. Like yin and yang, these seemingly separate forces are interrelated and entangled. You can’t do one (well) without the other.
We should take these lessons online to plan-build sites and systems, because the binary opposition of agile-waterfall is just as much a myth. The Agile Manifesto backs “responding to change over following a plan” but makes a point of saying that both have value. Yet Agile is used often as a platform for proclaiming the wireframe is dead. Meaning shifts from intent to interpretation, and plans go out the window. We all know death by documentation sucks, but to pivot and sprint into an Agile death spiral isn’t a whole lot of fun either. Fortunately, the plan-build pendulum is now swinging back to the middle thanks to a succession of expensive unplanned disasters.
Last year, I worked on a responsive redesign for a database publisher. Our team built wireframes and design comps to conduct quick, cheap experiments, and then an HTML prototype to enable new loops of build-measure-learn. Each of these cognition amplifiers is unique. Together they teach us that one way is the wrong way. As architects, designers, and developers, we each bring discrete value to think-do and plan-build. All too often, classification obstructs collaboration. It splits us and them, and our products show the seams, and our users bear the scars. The things we make are reflections of how we see and sort ourselves, so let’s classify-plan accordingly, and be mindful that making frames is work.
For instance, Stewart Brand’s concept of pace layering gets a lot of love. He argues that in complex systems, it’s vital that distinct layers can change at differing rates. The combination of fast and slow creates resilience. Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast gets our attention. Slow has all the power.liv
It’s a model he used brilliantly to explain buildings – site, structure, skin, services, space plan, stuff – and how, in time, they learn. lv It’s since been adapted widely in many fields. The order of layers affords comfort. It belies a measure of control. But all maps are traps. This is too. So, what’s the opposite of pace layers? Is it everything’s intertwingled?
The layers exist. There are no layers. Both statements are true and useful. Everything depends on context. In the 1990s, the design of hardware and software as separate layers was clearly the right strategy, until Steve Jobs returned to Apple and proved the power of synthesis and integration. We find similar opposition in our work on the Web. To define projects, managers limit by layer. We aim to refresh the interface without touching architecture. We optimize search with no content strategy. We stretch across silos, then trap ourselves in layers. To escape, we must help folks see how a simple change to a single page can send ripples from code to culture. When we limit by layer, it’s vital we look for levers. We should also look to nature for insight. For instance, coral reefs are made of layers, but that’s only one way to see them. Jamaica’s reefs in the 1950s served as a lovely archetype of a thriving ecosystem. Hundreds of species – sharks, snappers, parrotfish, jacks – swam among the colorful sponges and feathery octocorals sprouting from the hard coral base. In the ensuing decades, the reefs were subjected to stress and shock. Fishing and tourism grew rapidly. A fierce 1980 hurricane caused major damage. But the system appeared to bounce back. Biologists were impressed by the reef’s resilience. Then, in 1983, an unidentified pathogen decimated the long-spined sea urchin population. Left unchecked, algae quickly covered and killed all the coral, and the whole system crashed. On a healthy reef, a new pathogen decimating a single species (like the urchin) might not have had catastrophic consequences, because an essential reef function – like keeping algae in check – could be performed by more than one species. On the highly compromised Jamaican reef, however, the continued flourishing of the ecosystem as a whole became entirely dependent on a single species continuing to do that job. The loss of the urchins, an otherwise modest trigger, caused the reef to collapse virtually overnight.lvi It’s vital to note that nobody predicted this chain of events. Cross-layer relationships that are easy to see after are often invisible before the event. Resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to disturbance through resistance and recovery. In our systems, we can respond better if we frameshift from layers to the levers that bind together fast and slow.
Dream of living your one-planet life in a bright green city on a sustainable and thriving planet…We need, through brilliant innovations, bold enterprise and political willpower, to make sustainability an obligatory, universal characteristic of our society, not an ethical choice. We must remake the systems in which we live. We need to redesign civilization. Anything less is failure. lvii Our old categories create externalities. We enable ourselves to cause pollution, suffering, and collapse outside our model of the system. But every action has an unequal and non-opposite reaction. We’re dealing with karma, not physics. Man is not apart from but a part of nature, which makes the equations far more complex. It’s unclear how we’ll change the course we’re on, but it starts with redefining ourselves.
Now, in the United States, the Nonhuman Rights Project aims to reclassify animals as persons, not things. Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals. Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal ‘personhood’ and finally get their day in court – a day they so clearly deserve. lix Civilization is arguably a story of an expanding moral circle. Over time, we’ve extended kindness from kin to tribe to nation and beyond. In 1776 when Thomas Jefferson declared “all men are created equal” he implicitly excluded women, African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Quakers, Catholics, men without property, and anyone under 21. The Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness applied to less than ten percent of the human population. Whether we’ll extend ourselves further, or not, is unclear, but shouldn’t we take the time to consider our principles of classification? Is the boundary of our moral circle fuzzy or fixed? Is the center sentience or suffering? How do we circumscribe empathy? Is it emotion, fairness, or simply might makes right?
In meditation, Buddha learned everything is process, there is no self. Two and a half thousand years later, modern science is proving him right. The average age of cells in the body is 7 to 10 years, and our whole skeleton is replaced every decade.lx A person is a pattern that doesn’t exist. And it’s not just impermanence that blurs what’s mine. We have fuzzy borders too. The body is an ecosystem of ten trillion cells that also contains one hundred trillion bacteria that together affect digestion, weight, health, and even our mood. Each of us includes 2 to 5 pounds of them. This gives new meaning to Walt Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We don’t know our limits. Francis Crick speculated that the claustrum, a thin layer of tissue beneath the insular neocortex that has two-way links to nearly all regions of the brain, may be responsible for integrating myriad sensations – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – into the single, unifying experience of consciousness.lxi Of course, whenever we unify, we also divide. We invent self-other as one in what Albert Einstein famously called the “optical delusion of consciousness.” To make sense of an infinite universe, we create categories to reduce complexity. And we use tools and language to spread the load across mind-body-environment.
In 1934, Paul Otlet envisioned a scholar’s workstation that turned millions of 3 x 5 index cards into a web of knowledge by using a new kind of relationship known as the “Link.”lxiv In 1945, Vannevar Bush imagined the memex, a machine that enabled its users to share an associative “web of trails.”lxv In the early 60s, Ted Nelson coined “hypertext” and set out to build Xanadu, a non-sequential writing system with visible, clickable, unbreakable, bi-directional hyperlinks. lxvi
In 1968, Doug Englebart “real-ized” these dreams by showing hypertext (and most elements of modern computing) in “the mother of all demos.”lxvii Through the 70s and 80s, dozens of protocols and networks were made and merged, and in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web as a public service on the Internet. The rest, as everyone knows, is history.
Ted Nelson did just that in 2013 in a tearful eulogy for his old friend, Doug Englebart. It opens with a pledge, “I for one carry on his work by keeping the links outside the file, as he did.” The inclusion of this technical reference in a eulogy shows the depth of commitment of both men to an unrealized ideal. In all the dreams of hypertext, from Otlet and Bush to Nelson and Englebart, users were able to build and explore shared trails, but that’s not the realized model. In HTML, authors create one-way links inside the file. This simple, modular approach helped the Web to spread like wildfire, yet it also ruled out core features of earlier visions. Ted Nelson imagined a vertically integrated system that managed everything from code and interface to copyright and micropayment. Xanadu’s transpointing windows would support bidirectional links, transclusion, and side-by-side comparison. It would elevate the work of scholars and advance Doug Englebart’s dream to augment human intellect, so we might understand and resolve the world’s seemingly insoluble problems. In the eulogy, Ted Nelson makes clear the heights of their ambition and their depth of disappointment. I used to have a high view of human potential. But no one ever had such a soaring view of human potential as Douglas Carl Engelbart – and he gave us wings to soar with him, though his mind flew on ahead, where few could see…And here we twiddle in a world of computer glitz, as the winds rise, and the seas rise, and the debts rise, and the terrorists rise, and the nukes tick. Now I appreciate Ted’s perspective, and I find his honesty refreshing, but I choose the confusion of hope over the clarity of despair.
Since recognition is easier than recall, search is no substitute for words on the screen. As Marcia Bates illustrated long ago, the process of seeking is iterative and interactive, more berrypicking than math.lxix What we find and learn changes how and where we look and who and what we seek.
If you look deeper, you’ll see triples – subject, predicate, object – defining semantic relations as precisely as possible. In ontological experiments, domain-specific models of entities, relationships, and attributes push the limits of information visualization and knowledge discovery. We’re on the verge of teaching systems to make links that uncover new questions.
Fishboning helps us to improve quality and understand cause-and-effect, but it rarely tells us precisely where to fish or swim next. Figure 3-7. A fishbone diagram
Our plans are not only subject to butterflies but to the cobra effect as well. In colonial India, the British government tried to reduce the number of venomous snakes in Delhi by paying cash for dead cobras. It worked for a while until people began breeding cobras, then the government killed the bounty, and breeders set their snakes free. Our actions may achieve the opposite of our goals especially when humans are involved. Pads and helmets made football a more dangerous sport. Censorship generates enormous publicity. Iatrogenics, adverse effects from medical treatment and advice, is the third leading cause of death in the United States; a visit to your doctor may kill you. Of course, perverse incentives are partly to blame, but it’s messier than that. People are hard to predict. We make mistakes. We’re bad with numbers. We’re surprisingly irrational. And we imitate each other, so ideas and behaviors, good and bad, spread like wildfire. In short, people make complex systems even more weird and unpredictable.
I had an idea to create one new page with a simple table to show “what’s open when” across all the program areas of the foundation. This Apply for a Grant page was a big hit with users, becoming the second most visited node after the home page. However, not long after launch, the Board of Trustees noticed the table, and they were shocked by the number of programs that were not accepting applications. This made waves in the organization. There was talk of removing the page. Then a few programs changed status from closed to open, suggesting that the tail might wag the dog. Then I heard that wasn’t true. Those programs weren’t truly open. Fortunately this didn’t last long, and transparency won the day. The philanthropy clarified itself, explaining that its strategic approach to funding obviates the need for unsolicited applications in several areas. Managers already know who’s who in their community. They invite applications, advance collaborations, and make investments accordingly. Figure 3-9. Information changes organizations. The ripples made by this pebble were fascinating. A modest change to the information architecture brought strategy and culture into question. I’m pleased by the introspection it led to, but I can’t take credit as it wasn’t my goal. Surprises in life are more common than most of us care to admit.
In the words of Jeff Hawkins, “Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex and the foundation of intelligence.”lxxvi It’s impossible not to predict the future, yet we get it wrong all the time. We use our “theory of mind” to anticipate the actions and reactions of colleagues and customers, but people are full of surprises. Experiments help, but induction has its limits. Even minimum viable products can’t predict the long now at scale.
double-loop learning, a concept he introduces by analogy. A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, “Why am I set at 68 degrees?” and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double-loop learning.
In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges, a blind Argentine librarian, wrote an amazing story, The Garden of Forking Paths, about a book and a labyrinth containing “an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times…all possibilities.” This use of analogy to connect the forks of space and time is poetic, irresistible, and recursive. In 1991, Herbert Simon, the polymath pioneer of artificial intelligence and decision theory, wrote “I have encountered many branches in the maze of my life’s path, where I have followed now the left fork, now the right. The metaphor of the maze is irresistible to someone who has devoted his scientific career to understanding human choice.”lxxviii
For double loop learning, we must first admit error, something Bill Gates does well. After the Gates Foundation spent $2 billion to replace large schools with small ones and realized only modest gains, Gates publicly concluded they’d made an expensive mistake, and decided to switch direction. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), we’re reminded such honest admissions are refreshing because they’re so rare.
Retrospective sensemaking is an invisible yet powerful force in our lives. As Karl Weick suggests, when what precedes why, it’s impossible to undo. People need to be less casual about action since whatever they do has the potential to bind them and focus their sensemaking. lxxxiii That’s why we must make time and space to explore before we act. As Dave Gray explains, in knowledge work our goals are fuzzy, creativity is vital, and the path to success is not a straight line.
Eric Raymond argues that forking is a taboo of open source culture and almost never happens. There is strong social pressure against forking projects. It does not happen except under plea of dire necessity, with much public self-justification, and with a renaming.lxxxvii The right to fork is an important freedom of open source, but it’s also a last resort.
The Tell-Tale Brain, V. S. Ramachandran connects the dots between creativity, synesthesia, and the architecture of the brain. In biological systems, there is a deep unity between structure, function, and origin. You cannot make very much progress understanding any one of these unless you are also paying close attention to the other two.xci I recall learning my mum sees letters, numbers, and words in color.
The ability to use analogy is the root of creativity, and like the future, it’s unevenly distributed. We all see the road not taken isn’t really about a road, but its meaning is missed by many, and its artistry is the domain of the few. We will invent the Web ahead by making cross-modal connections in our mind-body-environment. That’s what we all missed in our original vision in a dream of Xanadu. To augment human intellect isn’t enough. Action, emotion, and perception are part of it too. Hypertext is a place to start, but one-dimensional links are a trap. To escape flatland, we must expand awareness. As information architects, we must identify and use invisible connections in space and time. To build places made of information is exciting, but it’s not the point. We must also rise to the challenge as architects of individual, organizational, and environmental synesthesia. We must make links, loops, and forks into levers for positive change.
“The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct but that it counts.” – Brigitte Jordan
Still, it’s over the top. Our club makes me uneasy. What bothers me most is the uniforms. They are beautiful. Since our club is run by the University of Michigan, our girls are decked out in blue and gold. While a lot of teams satisfice with cotton t-shirts, we have personalized, lightweight, wicking Nike jerseys with matching shorts, warm ups, and backpacks. As our girls prepare to play, I can’t help feeling we’re on the wrong side of the tracks. And sure enough, we are crushed by the t-shirt team, just like in the movies. Later, after a day of losses, I tell Claire not to worry, it’s the first tournament of a six-month season, the team will get better. Of course, it was all downhill from there. Our coach was a hard-ass all season. One girl was berated for not hitting hard enough. Later it turned out her finger was broken. Claire was told she couldn’t take a break even though she felt sick. Soon after she was vomiting into a bucket. The girls were taught how to trick the referee. They were instructed to lie. The coach invited them to voice complaints. Claire did so and found herself benched. The parents weren’t any better. Our alpha mom reduced other moms to tears, taunted the opposing teams, and paid for weekly private lessons with the coach. This looked like pay-to-play corruption to us, but several of the parents said that’s simply how you play the game. The next year we switched clubs. The new one was a little less expensive and a whole lot better. When the coach told the girls it was okay to miss practice for homework, since education is more important than volleyball, he actually meant it. When we lose a game, you won’t hear a word from our alpha mom. We don’t have one. The girls practice in an old warehouse, no windows, flickering lights. It’s nothing fancy. Neither are the uniforms. And that’s the way we like it. We found our fit.
Over the years, I’ve realized that understanding culture is central to what I do. First, as an information architect, I must understand the culture of users. When I run a “usability test,” evaluating the system is only half my aim. I also hope to uncover the beliefs, values, and behaviors of the people who use the system. Before imposing my own theories, I want to see how they define their world. What can we learn from their use of language and the way they sort concepts into categories? Which sources of information and authority do they trust? What is the meaning behind their behavior? For years, I’ve used lightweight forms of design ethnography as part of my user research practice. It’s helped me to better understand and design for oncologists, middle school children, university faculty, bargain hunters, and network engineers. And, as the systems we design only grow more rooted in culture, I’m convinced we must dig deeper into ethnography. Second, as an outside consultant, I must understand the culture of the organizations for which I work.
Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT and the father of the study of corporate culture, offers a useful definition. Culture is a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.xciii Culture is a powerful, often unconscious set of forces that shape both our individual and collective behavior. In an organization, culture is reflected in “the way we do things here.” It influences goals, governance, strategy, planning, hiring, metrics, management, status, and rewards. And culture is an artifact of history.
In a heroic effort to make the invisible visible, Geert Hofstede led a multi-national, multi-decade research program to study cultural differences. He concluded that six dimensions – power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, pragmatism, and indulgence – offer insight into what makes us tick differently. Let’s take a look by comparing two countries. Power distance describes the degree to which members of society accept and expect the unequal distribution of power. In the United States where “all men are created equal,” the score is low relative to China where formal authority, hierarchy, and inequality require no justification. As inequality continues to rise in the U.S. we can expect cultural resistance.
Brigitte Jordan, the legendary corporate anthropologist and beloved godmother of design ethnography, made a mark early in her career with a brilliant series of cross-cultural studies of childbirth. In one, conducted in a U.S. city hospital in the 1980s, she used video, medical records, and postpartum interviews to explore and describe the culture of obstetrics. The people present in the labor room with the woman are her husband and a nurse…The husband appears intimidated…The nurse is in a delicate position…she needs to assess the woman’s state within a small range of error in order to be able to call the physician in time for the crucial stages of delivery that require his presence, but not so early as to waste his valuable time…she is very much preoccupied with the electronic fetal monitor (EFM)…even though it has never been shown that routine EFM treatment improves birth outcome…The woman is not allowed to push. Every effort is made to keep her from giving in to the overpowering impulse to bear down. She is asked to suppress the urge long enough for the physician to come in and pronounce her ready. The physician is paged several times but does not appear…The physician finally arrives, together with a male medical student. He examines the woman and declares she is ready to push. The staff prepare her for delivery…The child is delivered by the medical student who announces it’s a boy…Finally, several minutes after the baby is born, he is given to his mother to hold. xcviii In the half hour before the baby is born, the woman “knows she has to push and says so clearly.” The nurse largely ignores the woman’s body and voice but repeatedly checks the EFM (19 times in 5 minutes). When the doctor enters the room, he doesn’t talk to the woman, and after making his decision, he says “she can push” and the nurse relays the message. Throughout the labor, participants work hard to maintain the definition of the situation as one where the woman’s knowledge counts for nothing. They all know she “cannot” push until the doctor gives the official go-ahead. Within this particular knowledge system, it is believed that only the doctor can tell when a woman is ready to push – information he gains from checking the dilation of the cervix during a vaginal examination. This fiction is maintained collaboratively, by the woman herself, her husband, the nurse, the medical student – in the face of the fact that anybody who cares to look or listen can see that this woman’s body is ready to push the baby out…However, what the woman knows and displays, by virtue of her bodily experience, has no status. In short, the woman is treated as an object, and the doctor is in charge of the facts.
Jordan uses this powerful ethnography to illustrate the concept of “authoritative knowledge.” Within any social situation a multitude of ways of knowing exist, but some carry more weight than others. Some kinds of knowledge become discredited and devalued, while others become socially sanctioned, consequential, even “official,” and are accepted as grounds for legitimate inference and action…The legitimation of one way of knowing as authoritative devalues, often totally dismisses, all other ways of knowing…The constitution of authoritative knowledge is an ongoing social process that both builds and reflects power relationships within a community of practice…The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct but that it counts. To be fair, we may rely on hierarchical decision-making for good reason, but authoritative knowledge is driven by both efficacy and power. So it’s naïve to inquire which way is better. Better for whom? Better in which contexts? Better for what purposes? These are the questions we must ask.
Within a culture, the idiosyncrasy of authoritative information is mostly invisible. Insiders rarely question their institutional ways of knowing. As a consultant, I’ve had clients who place too much faith in my expertise, and others who don’t trust enough. Some use “usability tests” as the sole source of truth. Others track conversions as the way to know what’s right. And an awful lot of folks simply believe the boss knows best.
Unsurprisingly, Clifford Geertz, the eminent pioneer of symbolic anthropology, defines culture metaphorically. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.xcix Ethnography is how we discover and describe this meaning, and Geertz argues it isn’t defined by a methodology but by a particular way of knowing. “What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, thick description.”c
In The Ethnographic Interview, James Spradley offers a thick description of the art of thick description. He sees words as keys to culture, noting “language is more than a means of communication about reality: it is a tool for constructing reality.”ci He enjoins ethnographers to pay attention to the words we hear and use. For instance, the people we study and interview are informants, not subjects, respondents, or actors. Ethnographers adopt a particular stance toward people with whom they work. By word and action, in subtle ways and direct statements, they say, “I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”cii We must be careful how we ask questions.
Ethnography is tricky since we aim to discover from our informants not just the answers but the questions as well. It’s all too easy to impose our assumptions on their culture. In observations and interviews, we should aim for what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” – an attitude of openness, awareness, and curiosity without beliefs or expectations.
This is discouraging, but lasting change is possible if we work to understand the source of inertia. As Peter Senge explains “Resistance is a response by the system, trying to maintain an implicit system goal. Until this goal is recognized, the change effort is doomed to failure.”cxi Senge also offers a word of encouragement. “Small changes can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.”cxii His insights capture my experience as an information architect precisely. In recent years, I’ve learned to search for a fit and to look for the levers. I aim to align my design with culture, and to the extent that a cultural shift is desirable, I look for sources of power while cultivating my own humility. My approach to intervention is inspired by the wisdom of Edgar Schein. Culture is deep. If you treat it as a superficial phenomenon, if you assume that you can manipulate it and change it at will, you are sure to fail.cxiii
To identify opportunities for cultural jujitsu, a multi-level approach is most useful. If our design invites resistance from the corporate culture, for instance, perhaps we can look to an organizational subculture or the national culture or human nature for support. Also, rather than limit ourselves to a single tactic, we must embrace multiple ways of changing. Figure 4-9. Multiple ways of changing. Often, our first tactic for making change is information. To improve diets, we tell kids about the links between donuts, soda, obesity, and diabetes. To improve efficiency, we inform staff about new procedures or values. These educational interventions draw upon the power of authoritative information to change minds and behavior.
People tend to deny data that proves inconvenient truths unless the driving forces (burning platform, external threat, positive vision) are greater than the restraining forces (self-justification, fear of change, cultural inertia). To offset defensiveness, we may need to guide folks through a U-shaped process that makes room for learning through unlearning. By observing the system and mapping the whole, we unfreeze beliefs and open minds.
As Otto Scharmer, a leading proponent of Theory U, explains: The journey from ego-system to eco-system awareness or from “me” to “we” has three dimensions: (1) better relating to others; (2) better relating to the whole system; (3) better relating to oneself. These three dimensions require participants to explore the edges of the system and the self.
Each of these three leaders embodied their values and inspired people to tell their story. A compelling vision isn’t enough. Actions and words must fit. We withhold belief in the absence of behavior. But since only a few may witness the original act, it must be sufficiently interesting to be shared widely. In short, to change a culture, you must change the story.
Marc Rettig offers a model for parallel thinking which builds upon William Gibson’s insight that “The future exists today. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
As the researchers explain, the approach leads to success because it starts with locally grown seeds. Positive deviant behavior is an uncommon practice that confers advantage to the people who practice it compared with the rest of the community. Such behaviors are likely to be affordable, acceptable, and sustainable as they are already practiced by at risk people, they do not conflict with local culture, and they work.
Alone, each small win stands a good chance of making it past the cultural immune system. Together, multiple small wins create a visible pattern of progress. V.S. Ramachandran explains that “Culture consists of massive collections of complex skills and knowledge which are transferred from person to person through two core mediums, language and imitation.”cxxx We can use this monkey see, monkey do proclivity to our advantage. Once people perceive a trend, they are infinitely more likely to adopt a new tool, process, belief, or value. Under certain conditions, after passing the proverbial tipping point, a culture can change shockingly fast.
In Strategy Safari, Henry Mintzberg uses the blind men and an elephant to kick off a tour of ten schools of thought within the discipline of strategic management. He shows each school is valid but incomplete. A strategy is a plan, but it’s also a pattern, a position, and a perspective. No real strategy can be purely deliberate (prescriptive) or purely emergent (descriptive) since one prevents learning while the other prevents control. Strategy formation is judgmental designing, intuitive visioning, and emergent learning; it is about transformation as well as perpetuation; it must involve individual cognition and social interaction, cooperation as well as conflict; it has to involve analyzing before and programming after as well as negotiating during; and all of this must be in response to what can be a demanding environment. Just try to leave any of this out and watch what happens!cxxxiii Strategy is a balancing act that’s as difficult as it is unavoidable.
Structure had as much impact on strategy as strategy had on structure. But as changes in strategy came chronologically before those of structure, and perhaps also because an editor at The MIT Press talked me into changing the title from Structure and Strategy to Strategy and Structure, the book appears to focus on how strategy defines structure rather than on how structure affects strategy. My goal from the start was to study the complex interconnections in a modern industrial enterprise between structure and strategy, and an ever-changing external environment.
For instance, the more I read about nutrition, the more I questioned meat. My quest for health led me to study the ethics and environmental impact of our culture’s carnivorism. I did a lot of reading and thinking, but it was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer that did the trick. My wife begged me not to read it, but I’m a red pill kinda guy. So I consumed the book and turned myself into a flexitarian, which means I annoy everyone. My wife is upset. She’s a great cook, and I’ve cast a shadow over her recipes. Omnivores are unsettled. My choice invites them to question their own. And vegans are irate. How can I see the truth but continue to drink milk? I’m convinced that normal factory farming practices are deeply immoral. The environmental impact is catastrophic, and the abuse of antibiotics and growth hormones is hazardous to human health. But it’s the cruelty to animals that pushes me over the edge. My moral circle is a fuzzy set. My family is at the center. That’s a bias with which I’m at peace. But I fail to see a clear moral line between human and non-human animals. I don’t want to cause any sentient being to suffer or die. Of course, I fail at that too. I live in a suburb. I drive a car. I pay taxes. I buy fruits and vegetables from farms that use pesticides. I own an iPhone. I eat pepperoni pizza with our teenage daughters. There is no moral high ground. We all cause pain and suffering. All humans are hypocrites. All of us are complicit in the crimes of civilization.
once in a while, we should embrace humility by reflecting upon the wisdom of Voltaire. Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
In his book, Yanofsky explains the philosophical consequences of the nonlocal effects of entanglement. One consequence of entanglement is to end the philosophical position of reductionism. This position says that if you want to understand some type of closed system, look at all the parts of the system. To understand how a radio works, one must take it apart and look at all its components, because “the whole is the sum of its parts.” Reductionism is a fundamental supposition in all of science. Entanglement shows that there are no closed systems.cxlvii All systems are interconnected. This subatomic truth resonates equally at global scale. It’s this vital insight that motivates people to care for the health of their environment, and it’s the first of Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology.cxlviii 1. Everything is connected to everything else. 2. Everything must go somewhere. 3. Nature knows best. 4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Interdependence is also the basis of systems thinking. It explains why the whole is more than the sum of its parts and why our ability to predict or control the behavior of complex adaptive systems is less than we think. In 1972, Donella Meadows and her colleagues at MIT explained the potential consequences of interactions between natural and human systems in their landmark book, The Limits to Growth.cxlix They used a computer model with five major variables – world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, resource depletion – to explore a range of possible scenarios. They saw that if growth trends remained unchanged, we’d experience a sudden, uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity within the next hundred years. This scary conclusion garnered worldwide attention. The book sold more than 12 million copies in 37 languages and helped launch the environmental movement. But it was also widely criticized as a Malthusian doomsday prophecy that failed to recognize the enormous power of technology, democracy, and capitalism.
Markets and technologies are merely tools that serve the goals, the ethics, and the time horizons of the society as a whole. If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains.cli
Information is the key to transformation. That does not necessarily mean more information, better statistics, bigger databases, or the World Wide Web, though all of these may play a part. It means relevant, compelling, select, powerful, timely, accurate information flowing in new ways to new recipients, carrying new content, suggesting new rules and goals (that are themselves information). When its information flows are changed, any system will behave differently.clvi Of course as Calvin Mooers warned, information has its limits. Many people may not want information, and they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information. Having information is painful and troublesome. We have all experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it. Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain.clvii
In contrast, the free public library has managed to endure. It’s a source of information and inspiration that tells a tale of rags to riches, not the rich get richer. Andrew Carnegie nailed it back in 1889 when he explained “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” The library is one of the last surviving places where we are citizens, not consumers. When we ask a librarian for trusted counsel, their only motives are to teach us to search and to help us to find what we need. And the library is a treasure for the independent learner. It may still be the only place where a dirt poor kid like Andrew Carnegie can access databases, the Internet, and books. Of course, the library isn’t only a space for information. Public libraries share all sorts of things, including tools, toys, and telescopes. And they afford a peaceful refuge where an individual can escape to read, write, search, think, and learn. A library, like a national park, teaches us that we all benefit when our most valuable treasures are held in common.