Toward a new paradigm of compassionate digital objects.
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Symbiosis is a mechanism that allows systems to adapt faster than if they were to rely on a strict evolutionary process to achieve the same internal augmentation. The calorie (energy) cost is scalable and depends on the type of symbiotic relationship.
Much of our software is symbiotic, today. It relies in a web of dependency on dependencies - small libraries that provide discrete functionality, where it doesn’t make sense to build that functionality internally. A lot of the internet’s infrastructure is accessible via web APIs that extend the utility of software systems. They increase flexibility and adaptability in exchange for an energy cost (translated into money, our poor abstraction of it).
The users of your software are doing so to extend a specific aspect of their individual or collective physiology, like I am using Are.na, here, as an artificial memory store. Or a team might use it to encourage a collaborative exploration of an idea or concept.
The role of the designer today is in the design of relationships and the study of symbiosis. It is a fundamental primitive.
Connection Threshold As The Catalyst From Simple to Complex Digital Systems
At some point, simple digital systems breach a threshold at transform into complex ones.
This threshold might be the total number of connections, or "possible interactions" that a system accommodates. With each new feature and user, these systems rapidly multiply the total number of possible interactions that can be initiated.
At the point of the breach, an invisible catalysis occurs, and emergent phenomena are now capable of manifesting.
This phenomena might emerge through security breaches, social and cultural developments, or "novel" (i.e. unintended) uses for the system.
At this point, the system - the platform or app or "digital product" - is "out of the control". The creators enter the system as participants along with the users - and can only resort to observing for emergent phenomena and adapting the system to it. This cycle of emergence and adaptation will persist for the system's life as a complex entity.
"The definition of infrastructure is often uselessly broad and abstract: One early 19th-century definition was “the installations that form the basis for any operation or system.” But another approach is to view infrastructure as context — that which establishes a relationship between one thing and other things. Infrastructure creates adjacency where it wouldn’t otherwise exist, frequently in the form of a physical connection. For instance, the massive Denver International Airport, opened in 1995, put an otherwise relatively remote city at the doorstep of the world, replacing a small regional airport with a major international hub. Urban street systems link houses, stores, and workplaces, defining neighborhoods and cities as coherent entities. Airports and roads, however, are only the most tangible examples of infrastructure. Organizational schema like geographic coordinates or the Dewey Decimal System are also infrastructure, as is the internet and everything it comprises, at a global scale."
Some cognitive theories define culture as a distributed cooperative substrate, and an essential component of "cognition in the wild".
The book "The Secret of Our Success" which establishes that "culture" is that secret ingredient, presents numerous anecdotes to support its thesis. One of these is in the extraordinary hardship that Western colonial explorers faced when arriving on strange lands. Despite their apparently excellent skills, intelligence, and physical shape, they nonetheless struggled to survive.
The book reasons that raw intelligence isn't enough - and what they lacked was the relevant cultural knowledge that had evolved amongst the local inhabitants of that region over centuries or milenia.
Today it's clear that we are facing a similar crisis as more of civilization's coordination and communication systems are remade through the internet and digital technologies. Over time, new cultural norms will emerge to help us with foreign demands like attention management, but for the time being we find ourselves mostly afloat, with this knowledge either non-existent, only partially effective, or localized and so far poorly disseminated.
While technology companies aren't incentivized to guide the formation of "positive" or "healthy" cultures, I'd argue that they are largely oblivious to it. Without a vocabulary to describe it, or processes to help seed it, they will continue to blindly shape it through unsophisticated product development decisions.
Open question: can we define convenience technically as the point at which the output energy necessary to instantiate an outcome drops below the threshold at which we perceive it as being “laborious” ie demanding significant energy.
What’s that threshold, numerically?
Water from a well vs a tap.
Hunting food vs ordering it.
Walking for hours vs driving for minutes vs being driven for minutes.
In the context of a design language, ambience is objective and process.
Ambience as Objective
Ambience is the result of a harmony (fit) between an object and its environment. Like Music for Airports played in an airport. Or reading on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Flow states are, too.
In the design of digital objects, ambience represents a harmony between the digital object, its user, and the environment they both exist within. For the sake of consistency, it may help you to consider these as "archetypal forms": Object, Agent (user), and Environment.
Today, most of our design practices focus primarily on the Object, seeing the Agent through the Object's point-of-view. Likewise, little space is given to the environment except to understand how to design an Object to fit within it ("product-market fit" being the best popular example).
Ambience as Process
We are "products of our environment" says a popular platitude. The universe shaped this planet, the planet shaped us, and we have been shaping ourselves ever since. Language. Writing. Agriculture. Feudalism. Capitalism. Corporations. Democracies. Many of these inventions have become so enmeshed in our daily lives as to become ambient (i.e. invisible). You don't think about the years of schooling that taught you to read these words, or the effects that the English language has on how you think, reason, and engage with the world. You just do it.
These systems have far more influence over our designs than we do. Our brains are a cognitive system that enabled the development of language. Agriculture created "ownership", calendars and new coordination technologies. Today's power-law based VC model incentivizes the creation of very specific types of technology companies that produce a very specific type of digital product.
In APD, design is practiced in the context of these influences: of what we can, and cannot control. It helps us understand where these influences are coming from, how they will naturally sabotage or support our efforts, and how we can use them to design towards an ambient, harmonious outcome.
Ambience as influence
At a certain point, effectively abstracted infrastructure like global shipping, tap water and the internet become ambient - harmonious and invisible - as the output energy necessary to use them continues to fall below a noticeable threshold.
Additionally, various larger systems become so well established in social groups as to become ambient and invisible to their participants, without actively looking. Culture and customs. Money. Capitalism. Consumer behaviors. Etc.
And of course there are natural systems that govern how we have evolved and how we continue to think and act in the world, which cannot be perceived without formalized processes like The Scientific Method, or languages like mathematics.
Scale corrupts. And absolute scale corrupts absolutely.
Software systems are created iteratively to grow, adapt and evolve over time. At first, the team focuses on attracting a small niche of users, and on developing a small collection of complimentary features to "solve" a "problem".
With phones as interfaces into a planetary computer, a simple app or website can grow, adapt, and evolve itself: the one, small niche becomes several. And eventually millions. The small collection of features proliferates into an overgrown network of them - each trying to maintain a balance of functionality, consistency, interoperability, and security.
As the simple software system scales, it interfaces & influences with more of the world's complex systems. And, soon, it becomes a complex system itself. With each new culture it comes into contact with, and each new feature introduced, the points of possible failure and manipulation increase exponentially. The system simply lacks the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the many, so it prioritizes the needs of the few.
What began as a local experiment from a trio of co-founders soon scales out of control. For while we have perfected the art of scaling our technologies, we have neglected the art and grace of designing and guiding them to "egalitarian ends" (h/t ed).
Two friends create a small app within a popular, pocket sized device. It can connect one person with a destination to another with the means to get them there.
It is a seemingly simple system.
Yet, when this seemingly simple system scales atop a planetary computing infrastructure, something else happens.
Many people input an address, and push the button, and many cars arrive to take them to their destinations.
And now, this seemingly simple system is interfacing and unexpectedly influencing complex economic, social and political systems in cities across the planet.
It is reshaping the transportation habits of millions.
It is reducing public transportation ridership.
It has created an entirely new class of contract worker. Some happy, some sad.
It has destroyed the value of the medallions - licences - used to manage the regulated taxi industry.
And it has created entirely new political discourse atop political ire.
Ambient Product Design is a design language for the creation of harmonious interfaces within planetary scale computing.
It encourages adaptability in the face of complexity.
The creation of playgrounds over paths.
And Ecologies over artifacts.
"APD is a generative language for the creation of digital systems that exist within the edge of chaos".
(e.g. between the ordered determinism of computer systems and the chaos of complex real world systems)
Playgrounds over Paths
Today's standard design wisdom focuses on the design of linear paths. Sometimes they may branch, but they're ultimately a sequential set of steps towards a desired outcome.
Within complex systems, these paths often lack the flexibility to adapt to emergent conditions - users acting outside the "designed boundaries".
Instead of designing explicit paths, APD is oriented towards the design of playgrounds - limited spaces where the boundaries are defined by the mechanics of the system. Within these playgrounds, desire paths will naturally form based on different factors: cost, convenience, bounded rationality, etc.
Instead of designing the "center" and scripting how activities within it must unfold, it designs the periphery instead, leaving the center alone. It hopes to create a free space, that can accommodate the emergent behaviors of its users.