Technology, analogy, evolution, and Don Norman

an old and a new Mini.
Technology drives analogy & evolution in design.

According to Don Norman, technology comes before identification of need. That is, you can only recognize a need if you already know about the technology that can be used to address it.  It’s not a conventional idea, and it can rub some people the wrong way, but – as I’ve written before – I think he’s right.

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Science leads design just as technology does

jellyfish are pumps
Jellyfish may lead to new pump designs.

A recent article at gizmag reported on a new notion for flexible pumps based on how jellyfish work. Such pumps would be very useful for various medical uses because they could be more easily implanted in humans. This is obviously a case of the beginning of a biomimetic design.

More importantly, though, I think this is an excellent example of how science – an understanding of the natural world – can drive design just as well as technology can.

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Technology, needs, and analogy in design

T-shirt reading "life is like an analogy"
Analogies can be very useful.

I’ve been thinking about Don Norman‘s notion of technology driving needs ever since I read and wrote about it some months ago. I’m still trying to understand the implications of it, and how it fits into my own views. One thing I’ve realized is that a design is constrained by the designer’s ability to recognize analogies between needs and existent technology, and that, as an educator, I have to urge my students to remain current about available technologies and to understand them as deeply as possible, because knowledge of those technologies and their impact on people will inform their designerly acts as much as their knowledge of process and method.

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Balancing Need and Technology

invention or design?
Does need drive invention? Or is invention really a mother?

Conventional wisdom tells us that we design technological artifacts in response to perceived needs; that is, needs drive technology.  The formidable Don Norman recently wrote a web article suggesting that, contrary to convention, technology can drive needs.  Norman’s article caused quite a fuss in the design research community, in which only some agreed with his novel perspective.

I don’t see the benefit of arguing one way or the other; it’s on par with trying to decide which side of a coin came first, the head or the tail of it.  I think a better way to view it is as an infinitely looping process whereby designers adjust reality to balance our needs with respect to a number of other forces, one of which is technological change.

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The politics of pile-driving

I hate it when politics gets in the way of technology and common sense.

In Weston, a community in the Greater Toronto Area, a new mass transit railway is being installed by GO Transit.  Generally, I approve of the expansion of public transit, but in this particular case, there are a number of problems that are causing substantial grief for the residents of the area and make me wonder if this project shouldn’t be stopped – at least temporarily – until the problems can be solved.

To install the railway, many structural elements are being pile-driven into the ground.  Pile-driving is a noisy activity, generating noise at as much as 135 dB, which is somewhere between jackhammer and a jet engine.  And there’s a lot of piles to drive.  Since this project has just recently started, now is the time to make sure that the right technology has been chosen for the job.

There is a “blanket” that is supposed to be installed around the head of the pile-driver, and that can lower the source sound by 15 dB.  (Remember that doubling how loud a noise is adds only 10 dB to the noise rating, so 140 dB is twice as loud as 130 dB.)  But it apparently takes 30-40 minutes to install and to remove, and this seems to be unacceptable to GO.  To confuse matters even more, the installer (GO) is a provincial entity, and the land on which the work is being done is federal land.  GO is saying it’s exempt, therefore, from City of Toronto noise regulations (which seem to be violated quite seriously in this case).

Now, it happens that there’s lots of ways to mitigate the noise.  One way would just be to say: Follow the rules, use the existent blanket, or we’ll sue.  There are also sound dampening walls, but it seems they are not exactly positioned in ideal locations.  Then there’s a variety of other technologies, one of which is outlined in this paper, that show marked noise reductions.

It’s clear that the noise is harmful, and it’s clear that there are ways to lessen the noise.  So what’s the problem?

Part of the answer may lie in papers like this one, the abstract of which I include verbatim:

This paper describes how the Florida Department of Transportation, (FDOT), District II, as a result of various ongoing legal issues with the City of Jacksonville, was abruptly forced to meet compliance within the City of Jacksonville Noise Ordinance program for all ongoing construction projects within the city limits. Specifically FDOT was required to meet the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board – Rule 4.0 Noise Pollution Control (Section 4.208 Construction or Maintenance Projects). This section of the noise ordinance limits construction related noise levels to 65 dBA when measured at the closest adjacent residential land use property line. Further, the noise ordinance specifically required that all compliance noise monitoring was to be conducted with a real time octave band analyzer. Due to the close proximity of residential land uses along both the east and west sides of Saint Johns Bluff Road, along with the significant noise levels associated with pile driving operations, the FDOT was forced to develop a reasonable and feasible noise abatement technique that would allow the timely completion of the pile driving phase of the roadway construction project. Failure to comply with the local jurisdiction noise ordinance would result in potential project delays until compliance was demonstrated to the City of Jacksonville. The enforcement of this local jurisdiction noise ordinance had wide spread implications ranging from potential project delays on all roadway work within the city limits to increased traffic congestion on roadway projects under construction. Further, all roadway construction projects previously approved by the FDOT had to consider an increased project cost that would specifically include the necessary noise abatement techniques to meet the City of Jacksonville Noise Ordinance for Construction Projects.

Notice the use of language here: FDOT was abruptly forced to obey the law, forced to develop a “reasonable and feasible” way to lessen the noise, and that failure to comply would delay the project, cause increased traffic, and increased cost of future projects.  No where does this abstract mention the health impact of this kind of noise, and the obligation of FDOT to the people of Florida.  And shouldn’t we expect governments to come up with “reasonable” solutions without being forced to do so?  If this attitude is pervasive in the public works world, it doesn’t surprise me at all that we’re having problems in Weston.

So, the problem isn’t technological: there are ways to lower the intensity of the sound.  The problem, it seems to me, is purely political.  There are three levels of government involved here (which is ‘way too many cooks in this kitchen), and they’re not playing fair.

This is one helluva design problem because of the constraints on the system, namely that every level of government is trying to do the least amount of work, and they’re all working for different stakeholder groups and therefore have different (i.e. conflicting) goals.  The City of Toronto is interested in the local residents, but they lack the funding to implement the platinum-level solution themselves – indeed, it likely lacks the funding to try to force the others to satisfy the residents.  GO Transit (the Province of Ontario) has to keep costs severely in check or the rest of the province will start thinking that Toronto is getting most of the available funding, which is politically bad.  The Feds don’t give a tinker’s cuss about this whole matter, because public transit is not something that Ottawa lobbyists (e.g. the auto sector, the petroleum sector, the insurance sector) care about.

I don’t have a feasible solution here, because I refuse to offer a political solution.  Since politics is a purely human construct, it can never outweigh other, real factors, like the health of individuals.  That politics does influence this situation at all scares me.

The correct answer is that the primary stakeholders are the City of Toronto and its residents.  They stand to gain the most from the new GO line, and they stand to suffer the most if and when things go wrong.  So the Province and the Feds should give control of the entire project to the City on a cost recovery basis: As the City identifies costs, the other levels of government just hand over the money to get it done.  If the project ends up costing more than it should have, then too bad – they’ll just have to cough up more cash.

Because people are worth it.

Smart planet = Screwed planet

IBM’s “Smart Planet” concept is a study in arrogance. Or maybe it’s the birth of the real Skynet.

Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, has recently been pushing a “new” concept called “Smart Planet.” The sound bite that goes with the concept is, according to IBM’s web site, is

“The planet will be intrumented, interconnected, intelligent. People want it. We can do it.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger explains the concept nicely in his blog, and there are hundreds of other web pages describing it. In a nutshell, the concept runs like this: because the world is so interconnected, bad things spread really fast, so let’s increase the amount of data we’re gathering and start automating decision making to increase efficiencies on a global scale because increased efficiency is always good and technology is becoming intelligent enough to do all this stuff for us.

The astronomical scale of the stupidity of this idea – and the cosmological scale of the ignorance shown by Palmisano and his henchmen at Big Blue – make it a serious candidate for Worst Idea Ever.

Don’t believe me; just read the text in the IBM site. Here’s the relevant bits from their front page.

“…[w]e’re all connected, today like never before: economically, socially and technically. When a crisis occurs on one part of the planet, it can bring problems to another part, within days or even hours.”

No we’re not. Chaos theory is a recent discovery, but the things it models have always been around. We’re only now realizing it. Technocrats might suggest that the connection intended here is the electronic kind – the connection we have through shared information (like this blog). Sure, but that’s an artificial connection that anyone can severe anytime they want (if they aren’t already web zombies, of course). Information doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what we do with that information. And those are two entirely different things.

“Yet this challenge is also an opportunity, and now is the time to seize it. People around the world are ready for change. And the planet is ready for it, too.”

Says who? Where are the studies that demonstrate that “people around the world are ready.” Does this include all the starving and warring people in Darfur? The Chinese peasants being ground under the heel of their government? The Taliban? Or does it just include white people who can afford broadband Internet connections in their Escalades? This sounds ‘way too much like Big Blue is going all Big Brother on us.

“Today, we are seeing the infusion of intelligence into the way the world literally works—the systems and processes that enable…”

No we are not. And what is intelligence anyways? There is wide controversy on how exactly “intelligence” should be defined. Try googling What is intelligence. Intelligence is only observable indirectly, through behaviour and action. And when I look at “the way the world literally works,” I see little if any intelligence. I see lots of instinct; I see lots of application of the laws of science – but I don’t see intelligence.

And what’s this “we” all about. Just because President-Elect Obama loves to talk in first-person plurals doesn’t make it okay for a multinational corporations to do it.

“…physical goods to be developed, manufactured, bought and sold; services to be delivered;”

Ah, there’s the rub. We can make stuff to sell to get rich, and get paid to do things that we really should be doing for free if we cared about our fellow human!

“…everything from people and money to oil, water and electrons to move;”

No; the laws of nature make things move. What humans do is hold that movement hostage for payment of some kind. Nature has been in a finely tuned dynamic balance for millions of years and here come Palmisano, saying IBM can do it better? Talk about arrogance!

“…and billions of people to work and live.”

And billions more to live unnecessarily short, sick lives in abject poverty and intellectual destitution.

“All things are becoming intelligent. Algorithms and powerful systems can analyze and turn those mountains of data into actual decisions and actions that make the world work better. Smarter.”

[Insert theme song of The Six Million Dollar Man here.] Sorry, what? Read that again, without the fluff: “Algorithms…can…turn…data into…decisions and actions….” This says they want decisions to be made by algorithms. This sounds like an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Let me be very clear here: I started programming computers in 1980. I still program for work and for enjoyment (yes, I find it relaxing). I’ve kept up with the new-fangled technologies. And I can tell you with absolute, 100% certainty, that there is no way, no how, under no circumstance, in any way whatsoever, that any algorithm we can conceive of creating, can make a real decision anywhere near as well as a trained and conscientious human can. The notion that software can make real decisions isn’t just science fiction, it’s bad science fiction – hell, it’s a fairy tale!

Software can drive subway trains, but it can’t drive cars – something that most humans can do nearly automatically with only little training. Software is used to help banks decide if individuals should get a loan or a mortgage, but it couldn’t predict the recent “global financial crisis.” Software can let a robot in a remote location perform live-saving surgery, but it can’t replace the human surgeon tele-operating the robot.

There may come a time, in the future, when all these things will be possible, but it won’t be anytime soon.

And having information is not the same as being smart. Making smart decisions depends on so many other things that aren’t covered by the kind of mass instrumentation that IBM is talking about.  You have to understand information; you have to integrate the information together with other information; you have to reason about its implications for your goals and goals of others; and you have to have some sort of ethic.  We’re drowning in information as it is – IBM wants to give us more?

The propaganda from IBM makes it sound like they want to turn the planet into a cyborg. We can’t figure out how to make a person into a cyborg – not that we’d want to – and IBM wants to do it to the whole planet?

And finally:

“Why get smarter? Because we can: the technology is both available and affordable. Because we must: the shocks we’ve seen to so many systems show that the current approaches aren’t sustainable. And because we want to.”

Because you can? We can blow the Earth up 10 times over; should we do that too?

Because you must? The system shocks have all been the result of humans and their technology. How can the same kind of thinking – that technology will solve all our problems – possibly work now when it’s been shown to be entirely inadequate in the past?  It was technocentric thinking that got us into the global mess we’re in now; more technocentricity won’t get us out of the hole, it’ll just make the whole deeper.

Because you want to? This is the kind of puerile response I’d expect from a child.

I cannot imagine a worse world than one in which IBM’s Smart Planet concept were implemented. It lacks ethical direction, it lacks accountability, it lacks the kind of global consensus that we really need now, it lacks any accommodation for the human “spirit” (not the religious kind), and it lacks any sense of history.

If we follow Palmisano’s Smart Planet, we will be thoroughly screwed.