The Accidental Polymath

This is the opening chapter from my book “Hippo — The Human Focused Digital Book” which is available to buy now on all Amazon Platforms.


‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’ Friedrich Nietzsche

We don’t create, we discover. Mostly we discover what is already there, by aligning ourselves to a position so that creations emerge. Aligning in order to bring things into material form. To bring them into — manifestation.


Hello there. It’s Pete. If you’re reading this on a screen, welcome to the digital era. If you’re holding paper in your hands, I salute you. Very retro. Whatever your chosen platform is, it’s okay. Everything is always okay — as you will soon see. This book is going to twist and turn and you’ll need to use a lot of your senses to process things and understand what I’m saying and this is a good thing — to be tested. I want you to feel the polymath in you and embrace it. You see, throughout history, it has been the polymaths who were capable of nurturing human progress and this is a book about that — human progress — both historical and future progress. Da Vinci was a polymath who understood the necessity to study broadly and not locally and that in mastering an area or field that may appear disconnected to one’s main sphere, we can in fact develop further knowledge within the main. His message was not only to study the science of art, but also — the art of science. So I will begin with you holistically, and we won’t avoid any area of thought that will contribute to the discussion of emergent technologies and the trajectory of innovation from now and out into future times. There are ways to help co-ordinate these growth patterns forward to develop the master within us, and that’s what this book is: a set of thoughts to help co-ordinate us forward, and to help develop the thinking needed to do so.

It may seem obvious but the apparatus we are born with to read a book like this and to appreciate the wonders are everything we need as tools to evolve. They are all that we need and nothing more. Empiricism emphasises this, and that the role of evidence drawn through the senses is the thing to form knowledge: advocating that the senses are themselves the holy grails we search for through our ideologies. In science and indeed, scripture, yes — the answers are all in-built, we just need to learn how to switch on the nose, ears, eyes, fingers and the tongue, and once the switches are active, the live brain can receive more information because we are then — plugged in — to the universe. That’s what design is or at least should be: the bridge between us and our senses. Da Vinci was a genius, who taught that we could all stretch our intelligences to become like him and to achieve this flowering, we must develop these senses, stretch them and test them. This progressive method does not support a conforming or even satisfied inner spirit that is ever content, but one with a thirst for more knowledge. Thus, with more holistic knowledge we have, the more points of reference we have, which will build the platform for more understanding.

I was never an academic, I knew that one early. In school I was middle-tier in terms of how ‘intelligence’ was measured… but there are many forms of intelligence. ‘Middle-tier’ was just a smarter word for average but average based on — what? The group who were all being measured and tested on what was then considered intelligent? We can all access the higher elements and culture our own genius but to do this, we need to accept that the way this has been nurtured thus far has been somewhat ‘mediated.’ In no time, certain children are smart and others — not so much. Often these non-smart kids go on to build bridges, create great art works and write best-selling novels. Not so smart? Or misunderstood? Perhaps the measuring tools to decide who and what is intelligent are all out of whack to begin with.

One thing I was good at was re-building: taking things apart and putting them back together. I would bend toward problem solving and enjoy providing solutions. When people label me stoic or serious, in reality I’m just exploring what my gift is — my superpower to solve problems. I am — a designer. When I left school I found myself working in one of the most pervasive industries of the last twenty years… digital design. Was it a chance happening… or fate? With this one… I am still discovering.

During my time in industry a quiet revolution upended our concept of the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organisations. From London to Laos, Mumbai to Manchester, Nunavut to Nairobi, digital tech has crept into our lives as if through stealth and so deeply has it penetrated us, that it has completely redesigned life. Some say it is re-designing us. Hill stations in Nepal’s Himalaya, desert posts in Africa’s savannahs, in the deep oceans and the high skies, digital technology is now elemental in our landscape, and WiFi — as much a part of the ether as the wind and falling rain. It’s not going to stop. From bricks and mortar tech, through to analogue, digital and into the beyond: we are about to observe more change in the next ten years, than of the last hundred. We have a lot of reasons to be excited about progress yet some of the most popular trends — the proliferation of apps, the rise of the sharing economy, and the ubiquity of on-demand services — have not only brought about a greater degree of personalisation, convenience and economic growth but also questions around what kind of life we want to live in the 21st century.

It was 1996 and I left school with few transferable skills or qualifications and as far as education was concerned, I had no desire for any more of it; it had served its purpose. I was thrown a lifeline and got a job in a computer based training department at a helicopter manufacturer, grafting at the dirty jobs no one else wanted. It was an apprenticeship in design that made me feel like I was somebody.

There are only four stages of learning:

1. Unconsciously-incapable (the most fun)

2. Consciously-incapable

3. Consciously-capable

4. Unconsciously-capable

I was at stage 1. You know — when we experience going for new things with no handle on how we are doing them wrong. It was playtime again — I was in a room full of computers and it was the best time of my life. Kicking back with the designers and programmers who were older and all ‘graduated’. I was in my new element and you know that thing when you don’t realise you’re happy when you are? That was me, right there — working with hackers, makers, coders and pirates.

I was two years into my design apprenticeship and I left to join a company called Third Dimension — building virtual reality worlds and simulators. I was wet behind the ears, gullible, I could be led anywhere and I got lucky. Third Dimension’s role naturally evolved with the times and began to create something called ‘websites’ for this thing called the ‘Internet’. I really was at the forefront of a movement, riding a beautiful wave, one that would change the sea current… and I had no idea! All things had converged, self arranged, ‘aligned’ and things were taking form — they were manifesting. I found myself in a world of “HCI” — Human Computer Interaction, and it wasn’t long after I started this work that I read futurist Ray Kurzweil seminal work, The Age Of Spiritual Machines. In it, Kurzweil predicts a new era of thinking machines that will exceed human intelligence. But what type of intelligence? The idea seemed outlandish… but exciting nonetheless. The thing was, we were never able to create the singularity in his vision… until now. Could the movement I was now a part of in fact be, as Eric Schmidt once said, ‘the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had’? In hindsight — I think so.

Over the twenty years since I Forrest Gumped my way into that first job, I have zigzagged along a path of design where I’ve had to learn how to code, I’ve had to learn how to design think and I’ve learned how to think like a consumer for many different industries. I’ve worked with psychologists, psychotherapists and neuroscientists. I’ve lobbied politicians and walked in the halls of some of the largest companies in the world — selling and building this thing we call digital without ever truly understanding its potential. During this time there was always one thing that drove me and it was this question… why?

This innate curiosity about why people were doing the things they were and actually using the stuff that we were building… was to me… interesting. Was there perhaps a psychological reason… why? Neurological reasons? Much of the stuff I built was quite useless, but didn’t stop people literally — eating — it — up. This word — why — kept emerging, as I watched and observed the way people were interacting with the things we were building and these why moments — without even realising it — were steering my design toward the philosophical. But was this even allowed in my field? During times of genuine concern, I would try talking to colleagues about all of this. I soon learned to keep my mouth shut.

Pete: ‘Paula… why are we doing this?’
Paula: ‘Doing what?’
Pete: ‘Designing this?’
(Pause)
Paula: ‘Pete, stop being weird.’

Was I thinking in a way that school wouldn’t have allowed? Because I was really pushing the concept that we don’t have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, I was perpetually at a schism. On the one hand, I was a designer who was meant to let things loose, where quantity not quality was becoming more so the practice, but on the other hand — why? Why all of this? Why — why — why — why — why?

Why seemed to return during the silent moments on the commute back home, or in the shower, or chopping my carrots on a Sunday. Was my intuition secretly guiding me somewhere? I count myself lucky that each day I still get the opportunity to help make people’s lives easier but when I’ve been in client’s boardrooms, I’ve always felt rather alone — unable to philosophise and talk about things that were not to say… the natural corollary. For example, why make people’s lives easier? And define that word easier. Should for example, convenience and ease replace human experience? I have had many ‘whys’ over these years, and repressed them I have. The result of all that repression… this book.

My first twenty years in this thing called digital has been a golden age of personal computing. I was on the inside of a new industrial revolution and there was a compelling, simple logic behind a lot of the design thinking through this period but the twenty years before I started working were full of bigger breakthrough moments for the digital age and I’ve often wondered why the last twenty have been full of ‘incremental’ steps in interface design — as opposed to those monumental leaps. Apparently civilisations move in this fashion, incrementally and then suddenly, everything quantum leaps.

During those two decades preceding my start, the world added monitors and keyboards to computers. We saw Moore’s Law come true and the miniaturisation of semiconductors meant more power… in less space. Of course though, the real coming-of-age moment was an idea born in the 1970s and realised to full force in the 80s and 90s, a shift which would humanise computers and turn them into everyone’s current superpower: The Graphical User Interface. But as with all things, brilliant ideas need to evolve and move on and so it is my belief that because we’ve hung on so tightly and so strictly to the GUI, it’s led to the creation of erroneous touch-points and a continuous optimisation and massaging of something that was great, as a means to an end… but in itself should never have been considered the end.

Each day in my industry, we’re breaching new frontiers in science and technology, but for all the knowledge we have gathered, we’ve been surprisingly bad at handling the simple yet fundamental questions of what truly fulfils these human needs of ours. To know this, we must understand the human condition, and that was not part of my training in school — or anywhere. Instead, we tend to fall back on a simplistic, mechanical understanding of our desires and measure this and design to accommodate this.

For me, too many people have been designing the next version of something that exists, rather than trying to invent the best version of something new, something that is relevant. Without different perspectives, there is a real chance that the current approach to designing digital products may end up being built into the software that in fact runs our society and our lives — and if that happens, the ideology of a few design intellectuals will be amplified from novelty into a force that would colour our world with Isaac Asimov’s paintbrush. Perhaps considering why Asimov’s books should be read, as well as Kurzweil’s, will help move the discussion away from quantity and convenience and onto a different path — a more human focused one.

Lots of things have inspired me to think of design through a more human focused lens. For example, the Krebs Cycle, presents us with a map that describes the metabolic cycle. In this analogy, the four modalities of human creativity — Science, Engineering, Design and Art — replace the Krebs Cycle’s carbon compounds. In an Age of Entanglement, Neri Oxmas states, that ‘each of the modalities (or ‘compounds’) produces ‘currency’ by transforming into another’.

The Krebs cycle diagram is a fine example of how people in the industry are starting to expand our understanding of what good design could start to become by looking diagonally at more environmental elements.

Source: http://pubpub.media.mit.edu/pub/AgeOfEntanglement

Apart from the slowly emerging philosophical conversation, there has been little examination of the social effects digital tech has on us as a people and on civilisations as eco-systems. Sophie Deen from EduTech company Bright Little Labs in the UK recently shone a light on the fact that we may believe the world is more connected, but in reality only forty percent of the world’s people are connected to digital and the divide is growing year on year. Human interaction with anything, be it digital or physical, requires us to look deeply at the challenge and ask the question, ‘Is this universal or merely novel?’ In other words, we need to align ourselves more closely with balance in the digital things we make with respect of their effects on us, and our relationship with them. To even begin to go there, we must first accept that we have not brought psychology into the discussion like we could have. In this sense we have failed in a large way and this is something we must admit first, then we can begin again, and explore territory we have tried so tactfully to bury.

As technology becomes increasingly immaterial, and we move from information delivery to the fulfilment of abstract tasks (rather than aiding human needs), I ask this: does the technology we’ve created just add more layers of confusion? When we strip away all the technology, what are we left with? I will argue it is the same thing we started with — people. But before we move into the deep weeds of my design philosophy, a few words of caution… I have a reductionist approach to life, design and philosophy. I’m just not clever enough to be complicated but also, I’m going to argue forward my position on why this approach or way does have its strengths. Reductionism is how I’ve always approached design, with perhaps an odd balance of EQ / IQ. Ultimately, what I’ve always tried to avoid are overly complicated approaches to problem solving, but in an industry that prides itself in complicated approaches to simple challenges, it’s often forgotten and because of this, even some of the most widely used frameworks from the best design consultancies in the world baffle my mind. Occam’s Razor reminds that ‘when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better’, so even if the words in this book might at times feel a bit too deep and philosophical, it is in fact quite the opposite: for as we step back from the painting, breathe and re-look at what it all is, then we see what it is — just a vision of what could be.

I like looking at the little things because to solve a tiny challenge, I do it in a tiny way — based on a tiny insight. ‘Nature operates in the shortest way possible,’ wrote Aristotle, so is this not something to mirror? In the not too distant future, will digital design itself not be considered as quite a bizarre principle? Designing ‘screens’ to solve human challenges! Why not make the process more human by a leap and take away the screens? Use tech but without the parts? The buttons, the screens, the double clicking. On that note, what are buttons, usernames and… passwords? If we know how to climb to the end without them and get to be where we want to be, why use them as the vehicle? Why not zip-line? What we will find is that a lot of factors in design are in fact fictions and things we’ve been too dogmatic about as leaders in this field. Because of this, I’ve alienated myself from a lot of the businesses and colleagues I’ve worked with, like a belligerent child; because I would often debunk a brief or supposed customer need based solely on my point-of-view that it didn’t add anything — because it didn’t take into account the routes of our human condition, and build to service them. And so there I was in the corner — asking that same question… why? Why design it? Why do anything? Unless it knows of the human drivers and services them — unless it does — will it not simply evaporate? Or demand patchwork and a whole journey of plastering? Yes it will, because that is what I have observed in two decades. It then re-enters the cycle and like a soul entering a new body to learn lessons it didn’t in its past life, it seems to travel through the system yet again. Instead of leaping forward, it exists on that lower fractal, spinning in a vortex. I’ve watched it happen again and again. And again, we build a better version of the thing.

us·er — yo͞ozər — noun
A person who uses or operates something, esp. a computer or other machine.
A person who takes illegal drugs; a drug user.

This is the thing: we’re not users… we are people. We are not animals being farmed in an Orwellian dreamscape, we are conscious spirits — living, breathing entities — or have we forgotten? Maybe some of us didn’t even know? It’s mind — body — spirit, not mind — mind — mind.

Why do you all call your customers ‘users’? I don’t know. We’ve always called them that. Jack Dorsey, CEO, Square

We started using the word ‘user’ during the early days of modern computing. It was solidified by hackers, who used the term to refer to people who weren’t technical or creative, but people who just consumed the digital things being made. In the 90s it was paired with other words to create whole new meanings. ‘I invented the term because I thought Human Interface and usability were too narrow,’ Don Norman said. ‘I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.’ It has not been uncommon throughout the senior manager years of my career to stop a designer mid-functional-description and ask them, ‘how does the person using this thing feel?’ This… is what I want you to consider.

For me, technology should fit around how people want to feel. Then it is for us to be servicing that, rather than us playing God and creating new behaviours or habits or being bent on doing things to then observe what happens, making notes and carrying on, as if we were wearing long white coats and our markets were there to be experimented on. In fact, we need do nothing of the sort, as all of this market research seems to have been done. But which tech design culture ever encourages study of the epic poems, the bibles, historical record, philosophy and psychoanalysis? We return to the research process any polymath will take but is this method to progress in digital really necessary? Can coders benefit from the study of chi gong? Do designers need to read The Republic? Is there any benefit in teaching corporate bankers of The Hero’s Journey? Is there an example of any mathematician turned poet? Yes, and in 1048, Omar Khayyam was born in North Eastern Iran. No greater case could be put forward for the need to merge linear thought patterns with an organic approach than when observing the polymath who formulated algebra, and wrote of mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music and Islamic theology. He described the beauty of nature in his poems, pure love and wine. The Persian genius was also an astronomer and philosopher, and elegist of a one thousand four-line-verse poem, proving in the medieval period that one didn’t need to embrace language as one nor other, or that one didn’t need to approach something, as linear or organic. His Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra is now considered one of the most important disquisitions on algebra written before modern times. That means this: not only is Dave, the coder in my company, allowed to pick up poems by Milton… he should.

As a passionate observer of cultural, economic and tech trends, I’m excited about the feeling that we’re now at a critical turning point and if we can commit to a human focused approach towards designing our future with technology, and by starting first to understand what it means to be human and approaching this organically, holistically, and amplifying our best qualities, and not just playing into our base chemical demands and building more apps that nobody needs — then a bright and powerful future is there for us to claim. We just need to align, return to balance — zero point — and all we reach for will manifest as fast as the noise comes when we click our fingers. Amongst the hysteria of the digital revolution, we forgot we are human. Not any more.

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not only occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. John Naisbitt

Moving away from terms like ‘user’ and being more human is going to be difficult because it’s so ingrained into our industry now. In general psychology, there is a principle called the availability bias, which basically means we perceive something to be more important the more we are subjected to it and made aware of it. The tendency to overvalue what is — and undervalue what could be — forms the basis of much of our industries ethics. A lot of the time, the judgments we make, and why we make them, come not from critical thought or personal experience, but from the mere existence of that something in the first place. Like the term ‘user’. As a result, things that already get a lot of attention tend to stay popular and often seem to serve as the perfect point of entry. But it’s time to question those biases and realign.

It is as all of the philosophers have taught, where all psychology has returned to, and all art forms have been the creations for. It is the pursuit of one thing that underpins all the fundamental questions we have ever asked and it can be summarised in just two words: ‘know thyself’.


Copyright © 2017 Nexus CX Ltd

www.nexus.design

Paperback ISBN 978–0–9955361–3–5
E-Book ISBN 978–0–9955361–2–8

First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Nexus CX Ltd

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