IxDA Stories: Meet Aza Raskin
Interviewed by Poppe Guthrie on the IxDA Stories podcast
Tell us something about yourself that we wouldn’t get from the bio. I thought something interesting was maybe your transition from mathematics and physics back to design, if you wanted to speak a little bit about that.
Mathematics and physics, for me, are incredible tools. They’re really maps that let you understand the questions of the universe.
Mathematics and physics help you figure out why things happen the way they do. For me, tying this back to design is actually not so surprising because design is about asking why is it that humans work the way they do? In fact, mathematics, physics, design, art, language, metaphor, are all very similar. They’re mechanisms for mapping the whys and the hows of the universe and turning them into a kind of praxis.
One of my favourite metaphors is origami. I always come back to origami because I think it’s just one of those universal metaphors and it illustrates the concept of nature versus nurture very well. Nature is sort of like the net of origami– the preexisting folds. And with the same net, you can make a crane, or you can make a frog. You can make many different things with the same folds, but there are many things you can’t make. Nature is the folds, nurture is how it folds up.
We can also think of language as a kind of piece of origami that folds in on itself. For example, synonyms, words that mean the same thing but are pronounced differently. In this metaphor, thinking of language as a net in origami, where language touches in on itself, where it touches are the synonyms but if you fold it a different way, those are the rhymes, the words that sound similar but mean different things. And so it’s a fun way of thinking about language.
You can also expand this metaphor to the ergonomics of our body, how the human body bends and folds. We design chairs based on how we bend and fold because if we don’t, we’d break our backs, we’d cease to be able to stand right. But there’s also an ergonomics of the mind, cognetics, there’s an ergonomics of human relationships, there’s an ergonomics of communities, there’s an ergonomics of societies and if we’re unaware of the ergonomics, then when we design systems for them and make technology, we end up bending and folding ourselves in ways that can tear us or break us.
Imagine a different way of designing things, based on understanding the origami of human ergonomics, then you can make incredible origami and beautiful structures. I think those are the kinds of systems we should be creating. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram should be designed on these principles, but they’re sort of blind to those multiple scales of ergonomics and so they end up ripping apart the fabric of our identities, the fabric of our relationships and the fabric of our societies.
Can you dig more on the ergonomics of the mind, the cognetics?
Designs for the ergonomics of the mind, cognetics, function in the same way that there are fundamental truths about how the physical body works. If you design an interface that requires people to press two buttons that are 10 feet apart at the same time, it’s just impossible. If you design a chair in such a way that there’s a bump right in your lumbar, you’re just going to be super uncomfortable and you’re not going to be able to sit right and it’s going to cause damage.
Cognetics is understanding how the human mind works, what are its biases, how it bends and folds. An example of this is the “magical number seven, plus or minus two” concept, which refers to the capacity of short-term memory. And the “peak-end” rule, a cognitive bias that impacts how people remember past events– intense positive or negative moments, and the final moments of an experience. So, if you’re designing a vacation, you should always have the best experience be end-loaded so that it becomes your memory. Another one to throw in would be the illusory truth effect, which is that the more times you hear something repeated, the more likely you are to think it’s true, even when the claim that you hear repeated gets debunked.
This can be seen in the way that Facebook and Twitter’s amplification algorithms work. They create a kind of attention monopoly where people that post a lot get an extra boost, a sort of tailwind, which means that most misinformation is driven by a very small number of accounts. If they’re the ones posting all the time, it becomes an attention monopoly.If you don’t understand the illusory truth effect inherent in trend algorithms, you can design irresponsibly and break our information ecology.
Another relevant example of cognetics is rhyming bias; people view things that rhyme as being truer. The final one that comes to mind is stopping cues. If you’re drinking a glass of wine, your brain wakes up when you finish that glass of wine and asks if you want another, but if the glass of wine continually refills, you don’t really have that stopping cue so you just keep going. That’s what infinite scroll does; the more you scroll, you never get the cue that you should stop and your brain never has the chance to catch up to your impulse. Those are some examples of cognetics, or the ergonomics of the mind.
So with that concept, and taking in consideration the conference theme which is Design In Perilous Times, and that we have the largest, most global and most diverse audience that this conference has ever had, what is the most important concept that you would like to share with this audience?
I think there’s a twin concept to be shared. The first considers where we are as humanity, what problems do we face. E. O. Wilson has this wonderful quote, “The problem humanity faces is that we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” The lever of technology gets longer and longer and longer so when we make small changes, we do increasing amounts of damage. As technology becomes exponentially more god-like, it requires, as designers, exponentially more wisdom to be able to wield it without hurting ourselves and hurting our society and hurting our relationships. That requires an exponential sensitivity to where we, as human beings, have vulnerabilities, where we are weak. We also need to understand where we are strong and where we are cognitively able.
There are many ways of doing that. There’s incredible research and literature out there. It starts with incorporating a diverse set of perspectives. Think about a designer at Facebook. 70% of Facebook’s audience is outside of the US so the image of who that designer is designing for, sitting in the Facebook office, is 70% wrong. The scope and the power and the surface area on our lives that technology now has is so pervasive. Our responsibility has to scale with that power.
The second concept is that there’s still a glass ceiling to design. And that glass ceiling is the business model. It’s how our companies are funded and how our companies make money. We, as a profession, need to be taking interviews at companies like Facebook and Twitter and in the interview process, we must be asking how design can try to heal our social fabric, instead of promote hate speech, instead of having algorithms that give hate a home field advantage. We need to get these companies to start thinking about how design addresses these issues, because I think we as designers and user researchers and anthropologists have a lot to say and a lot to do in this space, and these companies need to protect design from the growth team. I think this kind of questioning, when we are interviewing and going into companies, can have profound effects.
Along that vein, it’s so easy to get squashed by the business model, by the necessity to make money, what are some tactics you think people could employ, either in a big or small company or product?
There are a couple different layers to that question. One layer is to get to know the other designers across teams and have conversations about what values you think the company should be putting into their products. Or where your company should be making a stand, because it’s really scary to do it alone, to be the one person raising their hand, but it turns out that a lot of people are thinking the exact same thing. The difference between now and four years ago, is I think most people really see the problem now. The Social Dilemma was watched, Netflix told us, by 38 million households in the first 28 days. That’s something like 50 million people. So all of a sudden, we have a shared vocabulary to talk about these issues. Coming together to talk about it really does start to shift a company’s direction.
I think some really tactical stuff is working to integrate anti-metrics with the metrics. Often we have just one metric, like daily, weekly or monthly active users, or session time, and that sort of just collapses humans down to one number. It would be better if instead we have anti-metrics or other metrics that say if one number goes up, this other number needs to go down. That way you broaden out what it means.
The other thing we can do is push for thicker data, using Trisha Wang’s term for anthropological studies. Don’t just rely on usage numbers, really push for getting out into the field so that the people closest to the pain you’re solving for have a say in product direction.
Let’s take a step back, something a little lighter that I was really intrigued by, is your upbringing in Silicon Valley and the influence your father had over you and being around all these inventors and great minds, can you speak a little bit about that?
A lot of the conversations now end up being fairly critical of technology, but really it’s critical of the way that we’re wielding technology and we’re blinding ourselves to the lack of values that we’re injecting into our technology, which essentially pushes amorality out to the world.
It was hard to realize how special it was growing up in Silicon Valley, growing up with my father, until I had some distance from it. There was a constant sense of possibility and just trying stuff. I remember in my house, my father had a shop he had built over many years, we made model airplanes and we had an entire wall of tiny little bins with legos inside of them all labeled “1x1”, “1x2”, “1x3”, “1x4”, “1x4 thins”, “1x4 caps”, the blocks with holes in them, all the shafts, all the connectors. Having this at my fingertips took the distance between having a thought and having something in your hand to almost nothing.
There was a constant tendency in our house towards making and creating. In my later companies, one of our values was to never have a meeting when a prototype will do, and I really feel like that’s how I was brought up. Jef, my father, would really add the context to everything that I was learning. I’d be taking a math class and it might be a little bit dry, but he would always add the historical context. I remember him teaching me in fifth grade proof that 0.9999999 forever, actually equals 1. And the proof that ½ + ¼ + ⅛ + 1/16 + etc. forever, equals 1. It’s a fairly simple proof, that Georg Cantor originally did, that there are multiple sizes of infinity and some infinities are the same size, but some infinities are bigger than others and that sense of wonder has really pervaded my life. This taught me to perceive the world as more magical than it seems. Using the tools of science and mathematics, we can begin to describe what the world actually is, and it’s so pretty.
People might want to hear more about your Earth Species Project, if you want to speak about that?
With the Earth Species project, we’re turning to one of my original loves which is language. When I was in college, I got really into writing stochastic approximators to English, essentially things that look at statistical patterns of language and regenerate new language. I ended up turning in a paper in college that was mostly generated, it was a little cherry-picked by me, but I trained it in all of my peers’ essays and remember it getting a C, which is funny, because one kid got a C-, so it technically passed the Turing test.
So the Earth Species Project is a non-profit that uses the latest in advanced machine learning to map, decode, and translate animal communication and non-human language. The end goal is the culture change that comes with seeing that either humans aren’t as special as we think we are, or rather, that the rest of the world is way more special than we think it is. The fundamental technology that lets us even believe that this is possible is a new field called unsupervised machine translation which, in 2017, showed that you can, without any examples, without any rosetta stone, without any dictionary, translate between at least two human languages.
So imagine you’re given a book in an alien language and another book in a different alien language and somehow by just studying the statistics of the language you can translate between the two. That’s possible. Like babelfish technology. And it sort of works by creating a shape which represents a language. I imagine something like a galaxy; for example, you make a shape for German, you make the shape for Japanese, and by aligning the two shapes on top of each other, just matching shape to shape, the point which is “dog” ends up being in the same place in both languages and you can make the translation. It’s not just true for Japanese and German, but also for Finnish, Turkish, Korean, Chinese, etc. This illuminates a sort of hidden pattern that unites human beings– what is language but a model of the world and how we feel about it? Despite the drastic differences in our contexts, our histories, our cultures, there still exists such a fundamental similarity that most human languages, it appears, share a universal end shape.
The Earth Species Project seeks to understand if you can build these shapes for animal communication as well, and if you can, is there any overlap with human communication? And if there is, you can start to build yourself a rosetta stone. It will be fascinating to see the parts where we have overlapping experience and can translate that, but even more fascinating would be the parts where we can see that there’s complex structure but they can’t be directly translated to the human experience. That’s when you’ll get the greatest perspectives and perhaps wisdom.
So that’s a little bit about the Earth Species Project. It’s something I’m so excited about. I feel like my days are a dream because we work with people who did the original research showing that elephants and dolphins are self-aware. They would paint a dot on the dolphin’s fin where they didn’t know that there was a dot on them, they would then look in the mirror, see the dot in the image in the mirror, and try to get the dot off. That shows that they have to be aware of what they’re looking at. We’re working with many luminaries in this field and getting to apply these new tools to old problems.
It’s just so exciting. I sort of think of these tools like the microscope and telescope of our era, in the sense that they let you see both with greater granularity and at a much broader scale. Our hope is that just like the telescope let us look out at the universe and discover that Earth was not at the center, that these tools are going to let us look out at the universe and discover that hey, humanity is not at the center.
The other project I’d like to share is Make Space. I’m working on this with Weiwei, May-Li, Jason, and Julius. Our goal is to put humane technology into practice. Right now, if you want to be social online, you’re forced to do so through an app. Because our operating systems aren’t collaborative, they’re designed for single-user mode, which is crazy. We live in 2020 and the most advanced operating systems like iOS and Android are still designed for solo-user mode. That means you have to move into an app, which is usually an attention or surveillance capital based application, just to be social. And that sucks, because we have to use contaminated infrastructure for the things that we need and that’s fundamentally unsafe. That’s why they’re inhumane.
The question we’re exploring with Make Space is what it would be like to really understand the ergonomics of how people gather, how we have fun, rather than designing for corporations. Zoom is great, but it’s sort of sterile, it’s designed for B2B corporations, it’s not designed for the artists and the aunties and for friends to come and spend time together. The idea of Make Space harkens back to the very first vision of the web. The first browser was read and write. You could read the web, but it wasn’t just consumptive, you could just as easily change the web as you were browsing it. It was just a fluke of history that the second and third browsers didn’t have write, it just took too much time to actually code that up. So then consumption became the default of the web. For us, we’re really creating these 2D zoomable canvas spaces where creation is just as easy as consumption. We’re really excited about it. May-Li Khoe is one of, I think, the judges for the IxDA competition, so make sure you go check out makespace.fun
If you could commission any artist, dead or alive, to create a work of art just for you, who would it be and why?
I’m going to cheat slightly. I would love a collaboration with James Turrell and Brian Eno and I’d love it to be a space for thinking with others. James Turrell creates those incredible spaces where there’s a column of light or a window that’s surprising. Space and light are his medium. And Brian Eno I feel like does the same thing but with audio. A collaboration between them would lead to a beautiful contemplative space for contemplation. I think it’d be a vibe.
Is there something else you think you should share with the pre-Interaction audience?
I’m really excited for what our field does next because we, as a field, have the practical knowledge and the theoretical underpinnings to understand what brings people together and how to create interfaces where people can find meaning and create. And now that we live in a world where we’re all stuck behind our screens and we only see each other and the world through the rectangle of our screens, that work is so necessary. If we can band together and use that power, and really push against and up-level our resistance against business models that are tarnishing the things that we build, I think we could be a really big part of re-strengthening the social fabric that technology has replaced.
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