design hell – from August, 2010

More old stuff. Opinion, no pictures… Perhaps I should’ve stuck with pictures?

My own personal hell would be designing graphics for a committee made up of people who have dabbled a bit themselves with drawing pictures… Socialized art. Socialized design. Shirky describes it in his new book, though he doesn’t use those words. Downplay quality for the sake of wider group involvement.

I ordered Cognitive Surplus as soon as Shirky tweeted it was available. I read less than the first 100 pages and hit a snag that made me set the thing aside. The scenario that had me piqued was a minor one in which Shirky asks us to consider the kitchens portrayed in House Beautiful, those “designed to a fare–thee–well with a place for everything and everything in its place”. Shirky makes a point when he says that if you were a guest at a dinner party, “you likely wouldn’t dare set foot in the House Beautiful kitchen because the design doesn’t exactly scream Come in and help!. [Shirky’s] kitchen on the other hand, does scream that”. You see, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment; I’d love any opportunity to get into a well designed kitchen to try it out and I’d avoid Shirky’s. And I have no desire to make an lolcat. He made assumptions and obviously wasn’t talking to me.

Before reading about how unappealing well designed kitchens are to most normal people there were a few other comments that sent shivers down my spine. Earlier, Shirky says, “Increasing freedom to publish does diminish average quality—how could it not?… …The easier it is for the average person to publish, the more average what gets published becomes.” Socialized literature. What happens to the artist, the author, the musician, the genius? Will there be enough people to honestly appreciate them so their insights can be used by society or will they be discarded by the massive social network of average citizens? If discarded, will average society raise its self up, slowly, but effectively?

In my own thought experiment, I try to first imagine a Sistene Chapel without Michelangelo. Then I wonder where a sense of quality will come from.

This is complex stuff and it’s been debated by much greater minds than mine. Orwell wrote The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Marx addressed it and so, unfortunately, did the author of Mein Kampf. So I tread slowly with much caution, side reading, and thought. There are many observations I value in Cognitive Surplus, many I’ve highlighted (something I rarely do):

• In a world where opportunity changes little, behavior will change little, but when opportunity changes a lot, behavior will as well, so long as the opportunities appeal to real human motivations.

• if you only pretend to offer an outlet for [their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing] while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt.

• The ability for community members to speak to one another, out loud and in public, is a huge shift, and one that has value even in the absence of a way to filter for quality.

• When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to its scarcity.

• When [verbal feedback] is genuine and comes from someone the recipient respects, it becomes an intrinsic reward, because it relies on a sense of connectedness.

We shall see how this all shakes down. I need to see a bit more of people doing for the love of doing instead of the love of praise, connectedness, or money.