While being driven around England it struck me that humans are currently like the filling in a sandwich between one slice of machine — the satnav — and another — the car. Before the invention of sandwiches the vehicle was simply a slice of machine with a human topping. But now it’s a sandwich, and the two machine slices are slowly squeezing out the human filling and will eventually be stuck directly together with nothing but a thin layer of API butter. Then the human will be a superfluous thing, perhaps a little gherkin on the side of the plate.
This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.
So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.
I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:
Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?
An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality - Los Angeles Review of Books
Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:
Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.
SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.
And on Borges:
He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.
A history of buttons …and the moral panic and outrage that accompanies them.
By looking at the subtexts behind complaints about buttons, whether historically or in the present moment, it becomes clear that manufacturers, designers and users alike must pay attention to why buttons persistently engender critiques. Such negativity tends to involve one of three primary themes: fears over deskilling; frustration about lack of user agency/control; or anger due to perceptions of unequal power relations.
The terrific Hugo-winning short story about inequality, urban planning, and automation, written by Hao Jinfang and translated by Ken Liu (who translated The Three Body Problem series).
Hao Jinfang also wrote this essay about the story:
I’ve been troubled by inequality for a long time. When I majored in physics as an undergraduate, I once stared at the distribution curve for American household income that showed profound inequality, and tried to fit the data against black-body distribution or Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution. I wanted to know how such a curve came about, and whether it implied some kind of universality: something as natural as particle energy distribution functions, so natural it led to despair.
Just last week I came across an example of what Ethan describes here: accessibility (in a pattern library) left to automatic checks rather than human experience.
An even-handed assessment of the benefits and dangers of machine learning.
Almost every technological innovation over the last 300 years has had side effects which actually increase the number of opportunities for employment. The general trend is that the easier something is to do, the more demand there is for it.
Cameron looks at the historical effects of automation and applies that to design systems. The future he sees is one of increased design democratisation and participation.
This is actually something that designers have been championing for decades – inclusive design at all levels of the company, and an increase in design thinking at all stages of product development. Now that we finally have a chance of achieving that it’s not a time to be scared. It’s a time to be celebrated.
During the Industrial Revolution, as new machines were invented to increase output, business owners often dreamed of an entirely automated workforce—of a factory without workers. I assume their workers had different dreams.
Ethan thinks through the ethical implications of increasing automation and efficiency über alles:
I can’t stop thinking about how much automation has changed our industry already. And I know the rate of automation is only going to accelerate from here.
At the very least, maybe it’s worth asking ourselves what might happen next.
There was a time, circa 2009, when no home design story could do without a reference to Mad Men. There is a time, circa 2018, when no personal tech story should do without a Black Mirror reference.
Black Mirror Home. It’s all fun and games until the screaming starts.
When these products go haywire—as they inevitably do—the Black Mirror tweets won’t seem so funny, just as Mad Men curdled, eventually, from ha-ha how far we’ve come to, oh-no we haven’t come far enough.
There’s this idea that our homes — and our lives, and our workflows, and everything, really — should be micromanaged and accessed through technology, but, like many new experiments, this kind of technological advance has little actual real-world benefit. Like many new experiments, smart home technology is a perceived convenience masked as a wild hair — it’s advancement because we can, not because we need to.
A lyrical assessment of the current state of home automation.
Things are getting really smart on their own, but they’re still struggling to interact as a community — the promise of a smart home falling short because our appliances can’t draft a cohesive constitution. What’s more, we ourselves are struggling to modulate our reaction to these gadgets. We’re getting excited about automated lights and pretending the future has already come.
A thoroughly entertaining talk by Andy looking at the past, present, and future of robots, AI, and automation.
I still find the landscape of build tools completely overwhelming, but I found this distinction to be a useful way of categorising the different kinds of build tools:
Build tools do two things:
- Install things
- Do things
So bower, npm and yarn install things, whereas grunt, gulp, and webpack do things.
Training a neural network to do front-end development.
I didn’t understand any of this.
I’m a Google Manufacturing Robot and I Believe Humans Are Biologically Unfit to Have Jobs in Tech - McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
Normally a McSweeney’s piece elicits a wry chuckle, but this one had me in stitches.
Humans are also far more likely to “literally cannot right now.” I have never met an automaton that literally could not, though I have met some that theoretically would not and hypothetically might want to stop.
When another company achieves success, there’s a lot of pressure to investigate what they did right and apply that to our own organizations.
But we still have a chance. As long as we run brave organizations made up of even braver souls who are willing to embrace expression, trust their intuition and experiences, and stand up when everyone else is sitting down, we will survive.