Last month, Benjamin H. Bratton, an associate professor at the University of California’s San Diego campus, posted the text of a talk he was invited to give at a TEDx event, also held in San Diego. Bratton is concerned about the way that TED talks influence how we think about complex subjects. Toward the end of his remarks, Bratton asserts:
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration,” it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of de-mystification and re-conceptualization: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.
In the time since Bratton’s initial post, the conversation around his ideas has gone viral, at least partly aided by an op-ed pickup of the original work that appeared in The Guardian last week. Much of what I read in response devolved into a defense or critique of TED itself, a natural move given Bratton’s focus.
But I think Bratton’s observations, while applicable to TED, challenge us on a more fundamental level. As Bratton says: changing how we think is hard work.
The same day that The Guardian picked up Bratton’s post, author Hugh Howey took on the prediction business in his post, “Screw predictions. What the hell just happened?” Succinctly:
These people are in the business of describing yesterdays as if they were tomorrows.
If there is a reason to not be in the prediction business, that would be it.
But there’s a difference between predictions and scenarios. The reversed adage, “Some things must be believed to be seen,” applies. There’s value in spending some grounded time in places that have been neither mapped nor outlined.
Those places aren’t always synonymous with a 21st-century Nirvana. A few weeks ago I linked to a talk, “What screens want“, given by Frank Chimero. My post drew out some points I felt were important to publishing, but that earlier consideration left out his conclusion, in which Chimero considers our future on and of the web:
That’s how I feel about the web these days. We have a map, but it’s not for me. So I am distanced. It feels like things are distorted. I am consistently confused.
See, we have our own abstractions on the web, and they are bigger than the user interfaces of the websites and apps we build. They are the abstractions we use to define the web. The commercial web. The things that have sprung up in the last decade, but gained considerable speed in the past five years.
It’s the business structures and funding models we use to create digital businesses. It’s the pressure to scale, simply because it’s easy to copy bits. It’s the relationships between the people who make the stuff, and the people who use that stuff, and the consistent abandonment of users by entrepreneurs.
It’s the churning and the burning, flipping companies, nickel and diming users with in-app purchases, data lock-in, and designing with dark patterns so that users accidentally do actions against their own self-interest.
If his point of view is not clear enough, Chimero adds:
And I hate this map of the web, because it only describes a fraction of what it is and what’s possible. We’ve taken an opportunity for connection and distorted it to commodify attention. That’s one of the sleaziest things you can do.
But Chimero offers a scenario – not a prediction, but an option – that beckons:
We can make a new map. Or maybe reclaim a map we misplaced a long time ago. One built on extensibility, openness, communication, community, wildness. We can use the efficiency and power of interfaces to help people do what they already wish more quickly or enjoyably, and we can build up business structures so that it’s okay for people to put down technology and get on with their life once their job is done. We can rearrange how we think about the tools we build, so that someone putting down your tool doesn’t disprove its utility, but validates its usefulness.
If we fall back to Bratton’s assessment: who in publishing is prepared to “raise the general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us”? For that matter, who in publishing is working to make the web’s potential more than a collection of “in-app purchases, data lock-in, and designing with dark patterns so that users accidentally do actions against their own self-interest”?
We can’t claim to be culturally, politically or economically significant and then stand by silently as the web is colonized. Well, we can, because we are. Let the chips fall where they may.
I wrote yesterday about “the unquestioned primacy of containers“. We see the continuation of those things we want to see continue. As Bratton, Howey and Chimero independently point out, that road is one we’d be better off not taking.