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The thermodynamics of cooperation

This is the text of my closing keynote talk at the European Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work, Helsinki, 18 September, 2003.
A few years back, I arrived in New York to meet my daughter Kate for a vacation. She seemed her normal sunny self but, as we chatted in the lobby of her mother’s hotel, we noticed a lump behind her ear. It did not hurt, Kate said, but we resolved to see a doctor just to check.
It was a weekend, there was no house doctor on call, so we were advised to go to the emergency room of St Vincent’s Hospital a few blocks away. A gothic scene awaited us. There were armed guards on the door. Drunks and junkies lolled on the benches of the waiting room. A half-naked lunatic was running around. And most of the staff in the large gloomy space wore bright pink face masks. Kate, who was six at the time, watched this all with great interest. Her parents were pertified.
We were seen rather promptly by a nurse, and then by a doctor who took one look at Kate’s bump and said she had to be admitted. Within an hour she was in a children’s ward on an intravenous feed of antibiotics. She had mastoiditis, an infection of the bone behind the ear.
So began 17 days of hell. Increasingly stronger drugs, and then combinations of them, did not work. Kate’s temperature soared into the 100s and stayed there. The mastoiditis begat bacterial meningitis. It looked – and was – very bad indeed.
And the doctors were unsure what to do. Quite soon, two different teams had become involved, pediatrics and surgery. The pediatricians wanted to stick with the drugs; the surgeons said drugs would never do it, and wanted to operate.
The doctors examined Kate a lot. They would look at her charts. Someone would lay a hand gently on her head. In her room, they were gentle and respectful, but out in the corridor, and back in the staff room, they would argue, constantly. They would pore over crumpled printouts from online research someone had done earlier. They would look at at the endless test results. Boy, did they argue.
For us, as parents, these arguments added to our terror. In Britain, senior hospital doctors, and especially the god-like consultants, barely speak to
parents, let alone share their doubts with them. At St Vincent’s, we were involved in every twist and turn of their perplexity and worry.
In the event, the drugs never worked, Kate got weaker, and the decision was made to operate. It took eight hours – a team of twelve around a hole in Kate’s head that was less than two inches wide. But it worked, they saved her life, and I had had a crash course on collaboration, knowledge work, and the body that I do not recommend to anyone else.
So what did I learn? The first thing Kate’s story taught me was that the flesh and blood of the doctors and nurses is just as important as Kate’s flesh and blood. In the formal language of work and knowledge design, actionable medical knowledge is embodied. Having formal knowledge in your head is not the same as having it in your finger tips. Doctoring is a physical and fleshy thing.
This raises the first of three design issues I will discuss today. How do we design work that enhances tacit and embodied knowledge, rather than pretending that they do not exist, or do not matter?
The second lesson I learned is this: the where of medical intervention and care is important. Situations matter, because it is in physical situations that the continuous conversations that comprise care, take place.
The design question that follows from this is: how do we improve the capacity of situations to support these kinds of inter-personal interactions?
The third thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s is this: the meaning of a task plays a critical role in the way it gets done. Otherwise stated: matters of life and death foster great collaboration.
Antoine Saint Exupery put this simple point more memorably. “Don’t teach men how to build a boat. Teach them to yearn for the wide and open sea.”
Antoine’s wise advice raises a third design question. Are we sure that the design attention we give to tools for community and collaboration – the ‘we-ware’ – is in balance? Or do we need to think more about the ‘why?’ issues of collaboration?
1 EMBODIMENT
Embodiment is a big problem for the ‘information society’ as a project. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it very much.
But we can no longer evade an inconvenient fact: most of what we perceive and experience in the world comes not from conscious observation, but from a continuous process of unconscious scanning.
As Tor Norretranders explains, in his book, ‘The User Illusion’: “Subliminal perception, perception that occurs without conscious awareness, is not an anomaly, but the norm. Most of what we experience we can never tell each other about – with or without information technology – because we are not even aware of it.”
As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 billion bits of information per second. But the bandwidth of consciousness is only about eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.
The ‘information society’ is based on that teeny little one-millionth of data that we know consciously.
For the philosopherJohn Gray, the upshot of neuroscientific research like this is that, “We are not embrained phantoms, encased in mortal flesh. We filter and select from the the massive flows of input from our senses are so that our lives can flow more easily.
“Cybernauts seek to to make the thin trickle of consciousness – our shallowest sensation – everlasting,” says Gray. “But being embodied is our nature as earth-born creatures.”
John Christopher Jones has also warned about the dangers that come with the disproportionate attention we pay to digital communication. “Computers are so good at the manipulation of symbols – a thousand times better than robots are, even today, at the manipulation of objects – that we are all under pressure to reduce all human knowledge and experience to symbolic form.”
Remember Robert Reich? In his best-seller, ‘The Work Of Nations’, Reich predicted that we would all become“symbolic analysts”. The concept was so successful that Reich ended up as Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Labour!
I accept that ‘computer-supported collaborative work’, is a symptom, not the cause, of our tendency to undervalue the knowledge, and experience, that we human beings have by virtue of having bodies.
Besides, the design lesson I draw from the importance of embodiment is not that face-to-face is the only communication that counts. That would be dumb.
Low bandwidth can deliver high-value communication. The telephone, after all, changed everything – much of it for the better.
But, as designers, we must nonetheless guard against those who promote virtuality – and the myth of disembodied communities – for the wrong reasons.
I called this talk, ‘the thermodynamics of networked collaboration.’ I chose the title because of some alarming meetings I had with policy makers. Out there, in the real world of budget-making and vote-getting, the promise of disembodiment, of virtuality, is attractive for simple reasons. People think it will save money.
Automated, disembodied communications are attractive for the same reasons that e-learning is attractive. Organizations without organizers are like educational establishments without teachers. They save a ton of money.
Only, they don’t work – or at least, not optimally. Human beings are social creatures. Our networks and communities need the time, energy, presence, and participation of real people, to flourish.
That’s why I talk about thermodynamics. Human systems need inputs of human energy to do well. Everything else – the internet, agents, wireless, knowledge-mining – is contingent. They’re support, not the thing itself.
So, when designing systems, services, infrastructures – and work itself – we should ask whether our design actions will enable or disable human agency.
Embodiment is a killer app. Whatever it is that we design, it’s better if we design people in, not out.
2 SITUATIONS
The second thing I learned at Saint Vincent’s Hospital is that the situations matter a lot.
‘My’ discovery proved to have been made a long time before. Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago – in ‘Airs, Waters, Places’ – that, in order to understand the disorders in any subject, we must study its environment. “Treatment of the inner requires treatment of the outer,” said the sage. “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body”.
Biologists have also known this for ages. Biologists describe as ‘choronomic’ the influence on a process of its geographic or regional environment. Choronomy adds value.
So how are we to improve the situations in which our all-important people-to-people interactions take place? What kinds of knowledge do we need to bring to bear to do that?
Designers and architects should be able to help here. After all, they’ve been designing spaces and places for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, the mainstream of architecture – including most of the big-name designers – has lost the plot. They’re designing spaces as spectacles, not spaces that foster interaction and encounter.
Concert and exhibition halls, tourist resorts, sport stadiums, shoppping malls and cafes, all are designed as places for us to buy things, not for social interaction.
Raoul Vaneigem complained about this back in 1957, when he founded the The Situationist International. “The whole of life presents itslf as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” said the Situationsist Manifesto. “All that was once lived, has become mere representation”.
More recently, the spanish economist Manuel Castells wrote about the networked economy as the “space of flows” – a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand one way in which our world is becoming a hybrid of real and virtual space.
Unfortunately, the ‘flows’ metaphor has prompted architects to design squidgy and undulating buildings which are interesting (on first sight) to look at – but rarely foster better interaction. Often, they do the the opposite.
When new multimedia technologies and internet first appeared, there was excited talk of ‘parallel worlds’ and escape into a ‘virtual reality’. Now the fuss has died down and here we still are – in the same old bodies on the same old planet. Things have changed – but in subtle and more interesting ways. Now the real and the virtual, the artificial and natural, the mental and material, co-exist.
So what are the design qualities we need to make this new hybridity work?
Now here’s a thing. I don’t know!
I don’t have the answers to this question.
I just know that it’s an important question.
But I’m reassured by St Exupery’s insight. If the destination is attractive enough, we’ll find a way to get there.
We have the tools – hybrid space. The question remains, how do we want to use it?
For me, the best description of the destination is by Ivan Illich. Illich said, 35 years ago, that we need to:
“Give back to people the capacity to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships.”
“Re-frame institutions (such as medicine, or work, or education) as a support service in this transition – not its substitute.”
and
“Recover the ability for mutual self-care and learning, helped by – but not centered on – the use of modern technology.”
The theologian Martin Buber also saw things clearly. For him, the essential qualities that describe a healthy situation are ones that enable encounter, dialogue, and community.
Now you may well object that theologians do not make ideal clients. But Ivan Illich and Martin Buber anticipated what our wisest designers today have also discovered.
John Carroll, for example, in his wonderful book ‘Making Use’, says of design in today’s complex world that, “its ultimate objective and approach have to be discovered, not specified.”
Carroll criticises the traditional engineering approach in which, to get some kind of grip on complexity, the information to be considered is filtered, and overall task is ‘decomposed’ into manageable chunks.These chunks are put into a neat to-do list with deadlines, responsibilities and costs attached.
It’s a completely understandable and impressive approach. For a bridge, or a chemical plant, or even the shell of a new hospital, it works just about fine. But not with people-centered systems, says Carroll.
Decomposition is not only applied to hard things like nuts and bolts. If you look at the proceedings of the CHI (Computer Human Interaction)conference, there’s a thesaurus that lists – and attempts to explain – 137 terms that crop up in the papers selected for the event.
The thesaurus runs from agents, to work analysis. It includes subjects like augmented reality, cognitive models, ethnography, help desks, input devices, metaphors, predictive interfaces, story-telling, tactile inputs, and usability engineering.
As I said, 137 entries. CHI is for the good guys – human-centered designers who care about people – but their knowledge-base is fragmented and specialised – and becoming more so, year by year. If you look at the proceedings for an information systems conference, the thesaurus can be tens of pages long.
Someone told me that “research and practice hardly seem to speak to each other.” This is madness.
‘The situation’ is not where you do the design. It is the design.
3 MEANING
George Orwell could not imagine a society, whether a happy or a miserable one, without managers, designers and supervisors who, “jointly wrote the script for others to follow.”
In Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, many aspects of which have duly come to pass, designers staged the performances, put the lines in actors’ mouths, and fired, or locked in dungeons, “everyone who would improvise their own texts.”
John Grey, in a book you should read called ‘Straw Dogs’, describes our dilemma this way: “We are in a new kind of uncertainty: not knowing the ends, rather than not knowing the means.”
Ivan Illich, 35 years ago, introduced us to the idea of ‘counter-productivity’ in the institutions and systems upon which our society depends. Beyond certain thresholds of development, said Illich, institutions would become an obstacle to the objectives they are meant to serve.
Illich, like Orwell, was pretty accurate.
Medical systems render us anxious, but out of control.
Education gets automated, and fosters stupidity.
There’s so much transportation, that it’s hard to get around.
There is so much communication, that it’s hard to see, or hear, or think.
What these trends have in common that people are no longer helped, in illich’s words, ” to resolve their problems within the network of their own relationships in daily life.”
I mentioned the Manuel Castells’ metaphor of our age as “the space of flows.” This evocative metaphor also explains the changing nature of work in the new economy. We look at lot at the means, but not enough at the ends.
During the 1990s, new-economy rhetoric promised a rosy future. Rather than salarymen and women, or wage slaves, we would be self-employed ‘portfolio workers’. We would be ‘actors’, ‘builders’, ‘jugglers’, ‘stage managers of our own lives.’ Our every working moment would be filled with challenging projects, and boundless creativity.
Above all, we would be Free. Free of bosses. Free of command-and-control bureaucracy. They would be swept away by a tide of self-organizing groups.
The reality of net work, for most of us, turns out to be as near as dammit the exact opposite of those rosy promises. A huge gulf separates the rhetorics of the information society, from the logic, and hence realities, of the way it actually works.
Reality check: we are not living in an information society but in an information market. In this market, three powerful economic forces – downsizing, globalization, and acceleration – have all been socially disadvantageous to most of us.
Jobs, for one thing, are disappearing. The idea of a ‘steady job’ is no longer a reliable prospect for tens of millions of young adults. They face a future in which they will labour at short-term tasks – ‘projects’ – and change employer or client frequently.Their work will be fragmented and atomised. They will suffer a steady loss of economic power. They will exist as monads in ‘spot markets’ for ‘human resources.’
Yesterday (at the conference in Helsinki) I heard someone say, “the field of work and communities is still quite new.”
Colleagues, that is palpable nonsense. The importance of community may be new in computer science research. But, outside this little box, philosophers and social scientists have studed people and relationships and communities since more or less forever.
And they have some interesting things to teach us. “We work not just to produce,” said Eugene Delacroix, “but to give value to time.” That alone undermines the theories of efficiency that drive the design of many information systems.
But let me also quote three relatively recent observations. The evolutionary biologist S L Washburton has written that “most of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture, when men lived in small groups, on a face-to-face basis. As a result (says Washburton) human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exist. Man evolved to feel strongly about a few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time – and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him.”
My second quotation is from Yochai Benkler, a professor of law at New York University. In a paper called ‘Linux and the Nature of the Firm,’ Benkler argues that the eternal necessities of life are reasserting themselves in such phenomena as the evolution of free software. Benkler argues that free software is just one – although the most visible – example of a much broader social phenomenon. “We are seeing the emergence of a new mode of production,” he says. “Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects. The design lesson is this. In order to re-design work, we need to keep fundamental questions of human existence always in mind.”
For Charles Hampden Turner, too, “We overlook the extent to which needed appications give meaning and zest to our work. Without shared purposes, and moral meanings, we risk drifting into a culture of self-absorption and narcissism.”
In Japan they call this call the nemawashi factor. Originally a horticultural word that means ‘to turn the roots’, prior to replanting – or, by implication, ‘laying the groundwork’ – nemawashi has come to mean the process by which groups in Japan develop the shared understanding without which nothing much gets done.
Too much of the design we now do suffers from a nemawashi-deficit. Fixated on abstractions and tools, we lose touch with the connections between people in the world, and the values we have in common, that provide the meanings that impel us to work.

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