Archive for October, 2014

Newsletter #13: Languages for Collaboration

October 26, 2014

Knowledge is everywhere. It’s there in classrooms, the traditional locus of learning. It’s also there in company strategy and in grandmother’s tales. When you work on a thousand piece puzzle with your family over the holidays, you are participating in a knowledge collaboration.

Scholars have long known that the key to accumulating knowledge is a shared language. Sometimes it comes across as jargon, but often the shared language makes it possible for a distributed network of scholars to read and understand each other.

Most of us work in teams now; often teams distributed across the world. A major challenge for a distributed team is to arrive upon common mental models of the task at hand – teams often face a tower of babel problem with different members and groups talking past each other. We need a new language of thought that allows teams to share the same story while being able to modify the story for their own needs.

Despite the immense advances in sharing technologies, we are far from having shared languages for collaboration. The best known collaborative medium in the software worl – Git – makes it possible for developers to share code. Github is the default location for developers to meet and collaborate. However, most collaborations aren’t about code. While the practice of using git is spreading to other fields, it’s still far from a general language of collaboration. How can photographers use github for sharing insights? What about a sales team?

In order to solve that problem, we need to understand that Github is really a graph-based language of collaboration, but it’s a relatively restricted language. We need a richer language of collaboration that works for teams in sectors outside the world of developers, a language that’s visual as well as text based and equally importantly, a language that’s based on the insights we have gleaned into our minds in the last thirty years.

Of course, language – by that I mean, spoken language, not computer languages – has been the medium for collaboration for a long long time. How can we make technology enhance those natural capacities? Writing was the last invention that transformed our use of language. I believe that the true promise of computing is in its avatar as writing 2.0. We need a combination of cognition, design and software to crack the collaboration problem.

This week’s links

  1. The Myth of the Lone Genius, or why collaboration is key. 
  2. The latest version of the Git manual – in case you want some light reading. The good news: it’s free. 

Newsletter #12: Access to Capital

October 18, 2014
Looking for Money?

Looking for Money?

What is cash? My economist friends will have their own answers, but as far as laypeople go, cash is what allows you to buy stuff. Cash goes in, stuff comes out. Cognitively, cash is tied to property. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, and you need cash in order to possess, then cash is at least nine tenth’s of the law. Get your own bag, as the famous Lay’s advertisement said. 

That’s so twentieth century. Cash is no longer about possession. It’s about access. The clearest demonstration of this inversion is in the evolution of people’s bodies over the last thirty years. When I was a child, rich people were fat and poor people were thin. The term “healthy” (hear it in your inner ear with a thick North Indian accent) meant plump. A well-rounded individual, so to speak. Now it’s the opposite. Rich people are thin: they eat organic food, exercise in gyms and take vacations in the Himalayas. Poor people eat junk food, work behind a counter and take no vacations. Then, as now, body mass is a sure sign of wealth. It’s just turned upside down: when wealth was about possession, rich people possessed a lot of fat. Now, they hanker after experiences – the luxury float at Burning Man, the junket at TED or at Davos, the evening spent with the Dalai Lama and so on. Let’s call it access capital(ism)

There are huge economic consequences to this shift toward access, but I am not going to dwell on them. Instead, let me point out what access capital does for our personal lives. In the earlier era, the slogan was “money can’t buy me love;” which is true, for love doesn’t lend itself easily to possession, but in the age of money as access, love is exactly one of the things that can be bought. The data bear me out: in the US, not only are the rich thinner and better looking, they are much less likely to divorce. It’s not a matter of keeping the family property – women in the upper middle class have much more financial freedom than they ever had. They are staying together for love. Love can be bought with access capital because money now means more experiences, more education, more smarts, more networks – in other words, all the things that make people interesting and worth falling in love.

Conversely, poverty is not only bone-crushing, it’s also soul-numbing. The new inequalities we are creating are likely to be much deeper than any of the last hundred years; they will be genetic as much as social. Both nature and nurture will conspire against the poor.

Access capitalism is fundamentally tied to information and knowledge. The easiest way to ensure access is to wire our brains to become more access seeking. That’s a what a good education does. A rich person has a sixteen year access advantage on a poor person by the time they get to the workforce, starting with the grossest measures such as the number of words they hear before their brains mature. If we care to tackle the 1% as a society, we have to invest massively in systemic tools for expanding people’s minds. 

This week’s links

  1. Access to knowledge is going to be a key battleground over the coming decades; it’s no surprise that journal publishers are among the worst offenders. Here’s a great article about the IIT-KGP guy who built google scholar and has chosen a lower profile path at google as a result. 
  2. If one way to prevent access is to put it behind a paywall, another way to prevent access is stop people with knowledge from moving to other locations. It turns out that companies are doing that in a big way now. If immigration laws are the bane of blue collar society, non-compete laws will be the bane of the knowledge society. It’s not about moving in physical space alone; it’s about movement in mental space as well. 
  3. Meanwhile, our schools are stuck with laughably outdated ideas about education


Newsletter #11: Occupy Knowledge

October 10, 2014

I got into the pursuit of knowledge for the adventure, for the sense that we were exploring parts of the cosmos that had never been explored before. That might well be a personality issue. I once read that people get into science for one of two reasons:

  1. They tried to blow up their homes while doing chemistry experiments in the basement.
  2. They read a lot of science fiction

If you had to guess which one is the adventurer type, which one would you guess? The danger of too much science fiction reading is that the fiction might dominate the science. It might also serve as a Walter Mitty-ish imagination without power.

Knowledge without Imagination

Unfortunately, we are in the opposite of the Walter Mitty situation. We have too much power and too little imagination, and too much control and too little ethics, all of which suggest that we are approaching the end of an era of knowing.

At the same time, we are undergoing a maker revolution, a world where the ordinary person can once again hope to contribute to a new era of creation. The internet, as it spreads into the world of things, also makes it possible for us to aggregate people and knowledge in unprecedented ways. In other words, we have all the prerequisites for a new epistemic imagination, a new adventure in the world of knowledge.

That new adventure requires a social infrastructure, a new architecture of knowing.

Organic Knowledge

Our current knowledge systems – schools, colleges and universities in particular – were designed for an era of knowledge scarcity. Consider the three key ingredients of knowledge aggregation:

  1. Literacy and Numeracy
  2. Data
  3. Texts

For most of recorded human history all of these ingredients – as an aside, note that history itself needs all three features listed above – were scarce. Very few people were literate. Even fewer were numerate. Arguably the latter is still true. Data was scarce. Human beings spent years collecting data about stars, minerals and fossils, just to name three of the most important objects investigated by science. Texts were restricted to a very small elite; even with printing, only a few people had access to libraries that conveyed an accurate representation of the state of human knowledge.

Our institutions are built around the idea of knowledge scarcity. We hoard data. We jealously guard our ideas until they can be published. Universities are built around this idea as well: they project an aura of elitism, of being the preserve of a select few. They arrange people on a linear scale of smart to stupid, with entry being reserved to the smart few. Lecture halls and exams are designed so that the chosen masters can evaluate potential apprentices.

In economic terms, knowledge, especially what might be called higher learning, is designed to be a luxury good. While some form of knowledge is made available to everyone, the kind of knowledge that allows you to prosper on epistemic grounds (i.e., prosper because of the knowledge you possess, not the people you know) is still pretty closely guarded.

I find that strange. Almost every other industry has been democratized. While there are luxury cars and high end computers, we are used to the idea that a mass produced car or computer is an exquisitely crafted device that works well for almost everyone’s needs. In fact, it’s the democratization of computing and transport that has led to advances even at the higher end. The tablet of today is better than the supercomputer of fifty years ago. We would’t have seen those advances if – as the chairman of IBM once said – there were only 7000 computers in the world.

I believe that we are the advent of an era of the consumerization of knowledge, of a period where anyone can access as much knowledge as they desire at any time. The internet has made that possible. At the same time, we are at the advent of an era of the cognitivization of knowledge as well, i.e., of an era where human knowledge is no longer seen as a scarce resource. Instead, knowledge will be part of a living breathing world that we navigate like we navigate the physical world. We are now ready to add a knowledge layer to the physical layer of the earth. Think about it as augmented reality meets epistemology.

The Basic Assumption

The organic knowledge hypothesis has two components:

  1. Human created knowledge (artificial knowledge, so to speak) should be layered on top of our cognitive structures, i.e., we should be embedded in it and be able to navigate it just like we navigate physical space.
  2. Networked communities of learning should arise to occupy knowledge niches in this new knowledge ecology.

This Week’s Links

  1. What happens when machine learning gets lateral thinking. It’s only a matter of time before algorithms start saying “I feel your pain.”
  2. Knowledge needs texts. Texts need writers. Writers need to type. Typing needs a keyboard. The story of the best keyboard ever made

Newsletter #10: Appsolutely

October 4, 2014

We think of apps as pieces of software; things that help us get things done or avoid getting things done. But they’re also excellent props for story telling. Just as we leaven our conversations with interjections, proverbs and idioms, why not leaven them with apps? Especially apps that do exactly one thing. What UX designers call microinteractions are nothing but an expanded version of what humans beings have been using in dialog and sensorimotor interaction for millennia.

I was on a bus yesterday when it almost hit someone. The bus was turning left into the Harvard bus station. Meanwhile the pedestrian was walking and texting at the same time, oblivious to the fact that he had stepped right into the bus’s path. Fortunately, the bus driver was paying attention. He braked hard to avoid the man. You should have seen the man’s face – nothing like having a ten ton bus screech to a halt inches away from your face.

As it so happens, I had just slipped a book I was reading on microinteractions into my backpack. A microinteraction on a mobile device is a single thing you do in or with an app. More generally, a microinteraction is one action anywhere, like saying uh-oh or OK when someone asks you a question. Opening the door to your car is a microinteraction. Entering your email address in an app is a microinteraction. Avoiding a pedestrian who steps in your way because he wasn’t paying attention is a (failed?) microinteraction.

As Saffer emphasizes throughout his book, good design is as much about the microinteractions as it is about the big features. Some great apps are great precisely because they do one thing supremely well. App design is increasingly getting unbundled; it’s moving toward single use cases. There’s always the danger of going overboard with the focus on microinteractions, but we invariably design a good app when we focus on that one thing that delights the user.

Or save his life.

Don’t we need an app for that? High end cars are equipped with pedestrian detectors, but what about an app for pedestrians to avoid buses, cars and other walkers? I present to you my ticket to app infamy:

The Lifesaver



This week’s links:

  1. Dan Saffer’s book on Microinteractions. I can’t say it saved my life, but it helped me understand how to create an app for doing so.
  2. Yo. Enough said.  
  3. Donald Norman on the Design of Everyday Things. Cognitive Science meets Design. 
  4. Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. The original source of all these ideas.