Let's Get Technical III: Design as the Conscience of the World

By Jonah Bailey on 04 03 2015

At Midwest UX in 2013, I was standing in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House in Grand Rapids when the docent guiding my group remarked that Wright was incredibly opinionated about how modern life ought to be lived. So much so that he carved his opinions into every facet of his architectural creations. He believed that a sitting room should be for sitting and reading. So he made no affordance for any other type of activity in the main sitting room of the house. No paintings were to be hung in the main area of the house because they would distract from the central intended activities: contemplation, relating with one another and reading. He believed that the home was a refuge from the outside world and thus went against the trend of the day by hiding the entrance to the home instead of making it a wide open welcome to the world. As I commented on this “opinionated design” Wright practiced, Matt Nish-Lapidus agreed and posited, “This is the sort of design we should engage in. We should think about the world we want to see and design for it.”

As the technological advance of the 21st century continues, I believe the human race needs opinionated designers who will place themselves at the crossroads of life and technology, crafting solutions that prioritize an ethical future we can all be a part of. For now, technology is, by its very nature, a neutral medium; it will be what we make of it. If we leave technology to the amoral and money-hungry, or worse, to war hawks, it will continue to advance at breathtaking speed and quite possibly in unhealthy directions. As designers, isn’t it our responsibility to act as the conscience of the world, advocating for solutions that promote long term survival of the human race and our planet as a whole?

(HT to Kaleem Khan who's talk on design ethics at Interaction 2011 got me thinking in this vein). If we don’t have a deep understanding of how technology works and what it can do for us, how are we going to fulfill that role?

The Rise of the Machine

The three hundred pound gorilla lurking in this discussion is the development of artificial intelligence. It might seem like a far-off concept–closer to the world of science fiction than to our present day–but it may be that a lot closer than that. We already live in a world that runs on Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). “Artificial Narrow Intelligence is machine intelligence that equals or exceeds human intelligence or efficiency at a specific thing.”1 Google Search, something that all of us use everyday, is “one large ANI brain with incredibly sophisticated methods for ranking pages and figuring out what to show you in particular.”2 All of the world’s best chess players are now ANI systems. Your car is full of robust ANI systems that know better than you do when your anti-lock brakes should kick in and how to tune your engine for maximum performance.

The next major step in AI will be from ANI to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)—a computer that is as smart as humans in general terms rather than in one narrow field. The jump here is huge and it will take an amazing leap in computing power to make it happen. But as we’ve already discussed, technology is advancing at unprecedented, exponential levels. In a survey of hundreds of scientists about when they believe AGI will be achieved, the median year was 20403. That’s in 15 years. And once AGI is achieved and recursive self-improvement kicks in… Artificial Superintelligence will follow more quickly than we can imagine. And the ramifications of that development are vast. As a designer, I see a lot of my peers purely focused on user-centered design, pursuing "design-thinking" or occupied putting out the prettiest pictures on dribbble.com. Is that going to help us be present in a conversation about AI? If we consider technology and programming to be outside our purview and focus on other things (as worthwhile as they may be), we will be uninformed and ill-equipped to participate in this crucial development as the twenty-first century progresses.

What To Do

1. Play

It has never been easier to get involved in creating with emerging technologies. The Raspberry Pi and Arduino projects have brought the ability to tinker with electronics to the masses. Start by getting a starter kit for both/either platform off of Amazon. If you go with an Arduino kit, also grab “Programming Arduino: Getting Started with Sketches”.

After you get a bit of competency, try making your own physical product. You might fail. In fact, you probably will! But you’ll learn and immerse yourself in the technology stack for a very small investment. Heck, if you are feeling daring you could give making your own Nest Thermostat a go. If you want some other ideas, Zach Dennis already wrote a great post last year about all the BLE enabled devices that should exist in our homes already.

For a lower impact approach, check out Hopscotch. It’s an iOS kids’ game designed to introduce core programming concepts like sequencing, abstraction, values and conditionals. Only there’s no tricky syntax or typing. Just drag and drop functionality to be applied to elements. It may be child’s play, but it is still useful to learn how to program computers.

2. Code

The best way to gain deeper understanding about technology is to learn to code. You might need to do it on the side if your job doesn’t require it. There are a multiplicity of places on the world wide web where one can start from no technical competency and progress quickly through courses and one-off tutorials:

3. Read

Steven Frank’s “How to Count: Programming for Mere Mortals” is a great introduction to how computers work at a very low level. Its introduces a programmer’s mindset without getting bogged down in the specifics.

Eliezer Yudkowski’s section on the type of AI he works on (Singularity) is well worth your time if you are looking for more information on machine intelligence.

Safari Books Online recently put out a list of the most influential books on software. Many of them are approachable and can be tackled by anyone with a cursory understanding of programming as a practice.

4. Make

The Maker Movement advocates for individuals to learn-through-doing in a social environment. They tend to congregate in Meetups and/or in makerspaces/hackerspaces. These are great places to get help when you get stuck in a project or gain a foothold on a concept that escapes you. You might not need to join a local meetup or Maker Space to get what you’re looking for. But sporadic attendance could be highly advantageous in your learning endeavors.

The Goal is Learning

I don’t think it’s necessary to gain fluency in any one language or area of programming. The goal isn’t even to make a functioning piece of electronics. What is important is to immerse oneself in the practice of making and programming to gain a deeper understanding of the technology in play.

As technology advances and eventually outpaces human life, who is steering the ship? My hope is that designers and other ethical, opinionated individuals will be part of the collective exploring the possible futures we could inhabit. But as I said before, if we aren’t at all technical and aren’t able to grasp the most basic functions of the technology we work with, how can we claim a place at the table? If we are just designers making pretty pictures on paper or digital screens, I’m not sure we have a place in this conversation. If, on the other hand, we are technology generalists who are adept at analyzing complex problems, seeing their place within a larger interconnected system, and are skilled at utilizing technology to enhance the health of the entire planet, then I think we have a huge part to play in the future of life (in its many forms) on this planet. The world needs us to have our feet firmly planted in the sphere of technology, but with deep understanding of how the things we are designing work and empathy with the world around us so that we can maximize our chance for survival.

Header image from Matthew DiVito

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