Friday, May 26, 2017

Book note: "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari

I am apparently one of the few that has not read Yuval Noah Harari's first book "Sapiens". I did not even realize this until I got his new book "Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow". Now after I have read "Homo Deus" I understand why the first book got so much attention and praise. It is not often you find a book that takes on the biggest possible perspective of humanity, its history and future, and manages to do it without completely making a mess of it.

After I read the book, I read several reviews of it, most of them were quite bad. They do not really seem to get the basic ideas in the book and therefore end up with arguments and critique that clearly David Runciman in the Guardian. Runciman presents the book in a way that, in my view, represents the ideas quite well. I will therefore not here write much about the book, instead, just read his review.

A couple of my own thoughts about the book. Harari introduces the notion of "Dataism" at the end of the book. I found the chapter "The Data Religion" to be fascinating. The way he describes dataism, what it means and what it leads to, opens up many questions and challenges especially related to my own field. Of course, Harari is extraordinary bold, uses the biggest possible brush to paint his picture, which means that as a reader you easily react on details that you may find incorrect or problematic. That is unfortunate since it means you might miss the bigger picture. To get something from a book like this, you have to engage with it at the level of the big ideas it tries to explore. Anyway, the notion that dataism is the next religion and that it can make humanism extinct is quite an ambitious and maybe to many a scary idea. Harari states that if this is correct then humans are not 'needed' anymore.

One strength of the book is, of course, the way it is written. It is easy and fun to read. Great examples and clear arguments. The text is full of conclusions and statements that most would not even dare to express. I truly enjoyed reading the book and I agree with Daniel Kahneman who write on the back of the book "Homo Deus will shock you. It will entertain you. Above all, it will make you think in ways you had not thought before".

Monday, May 22, 2017

Brief book note: The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff by Bergman & Whittaker

I guess all of us are every day reflecting on how to organize our 'digital stuff', that is, our digital documents, pictures, videos, presentations, etc. Even though we know this, we are often overwhelmed by the speed of the growth of our digital stuff and even more about how to handle it. If you read blogs and magazines there are millions of pages with advice on how to organize, de-clutter, save, purge, etc. However, most of this advice are based on some individuals personal experience and experimentation and not on any broad (empirically based) understanding of what works for most people. That means that all of us can be inspired by the advice we read and then try it on our own, but sometimes we might want to know more about what 'really' works.

In the new book by Ofer Bergman and Steve Whittaker we are presented with what they argue is "The
science of managing our digital stuff".

The book is based on many years of research in the field. The book covers aspects of managing stuff that most of us are familiar with but do not really know much about if it works or not. The book is however not a handbook. The authors are quite clear about that. They write "We believe that research should be very careful in recommending 'good practice'. First, it is difficult to measure whether a practice is good or not. More importantly, ....., individual preferences are prevalent in PIM [personal information management], so that even if a practice is good for some people, research still needs to provide evidence that it will be good for others who implement the same practice. For this reason, we refrain from giving practical advice in this book." (p 235) (I really appreciate this position and I wish we would see it more often.)

Even if this book will not help you to solve your everyday problems of organizing your digital stuff it will help you better understand what the problem is and why it is so difficult. And for those who study any form of organization of data at the intersection between people and machines, this is a great book.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Brief book note: The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

In these days of 'alternative facts' and a growing rejection of science and truth, it is both depressing and refreshing to read a new book by Tom Nichols "The Death of Expertise--the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters".

Nichols has a wonderful way of describing what is going on today with a dismissal of knowledge and expertise. The book is full of extraordinary examples that he examines closely in an intelligent and clear way.

Nichols asks if this is a new problem and his answer is yes. He comments on what is different from earlier times when he writes:

"The death of expertise, however, is a different problem that the historical fact of low levels of information among laypeople. The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it's the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture, and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. ... This change is not only unprecedented but dangerous." (p 20).

This is a depressing picture and as Nichols argues it is not only unfortunate, it is actually "dangerous" and as such something that needs to be dealt with.

Even though Nichols does not provide any simple solutions and ways forward, he is a strong advocate for reason and rationality. And he discusses to some extent what it would take to strengthen the role of reason in our society.

What I particularly like about the book is that Nichols is not looking at the problem from an elevated and superior position, he is not just complaining and blaming others, instead, he approaches the issues with a lot of self-reflection and also criticism of those who are supposed to 'know'--the experts. Overall, a timely and great book.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"..matters which no lips of man could teach"

One of the most frequent questions and comments I hear in relation to the notion of 'Design Thinking' is actually not about design, instead it is about the word 'thinking'. "If design thinking is such an efficient approach to change why is it only about thinking?" This is a very good question and in many cases a question that leads to highly uncomfortable answers.

In our book, The Design Way, we argue that designing is about the hand and the mind, about thought and action. We do this by introducing the old greek notion of sophia as a form of knowledge that combines the hand and the mind. Or as we call it "the knowing hand".

This idea that as an excellent designer of any kind you need both your mind (theory) and your hand (practical skills) is not new. For instance, in one of the first books on design, Vitruvius wrote: "Pytheos made a mistake by not observing that the arts are each composed of two things, the actual work and the theory of it." (Vitruvius, P 11). In the following pages Vitruvius makes a strong case that any architect [or designer] needs to be trained and skilled in both theory and practice.

Christoffer Frayling makes a similar comment in his book "On craftmanship". In one of the chapters, he elaborates on the need for students to have practical hands-on experiences complementing their education. He refers to John Ruskin who wrote: "Let a man once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick  level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters that no lips of man could teach him." (Frayling, p 84)

Of course, Donald Schön made the same argument over and over in his writings (heavily inspired by the ideas of John Dewey). One of my favorite texts on this topic is to be found in Dewey's book "How we think". In the chapter on Judgment, Dewey makes an extraordinary case for how to develop once judgment ability. One core argument is the need for repeating encounters with situations of different kinds, that is, the particulars of each practical situation teaches us more than any theory without action can.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where the 'split of sophia' is still alive, where the hand (practical knowledge) is separated from the mind (theoretical knowledge). The proponents for each of these tend to look down on the other. It is as common to see statements that denigrate any form of theoretical or philosophical knowledge as to see statements that look down on practical knowledge and skills.

When it comes to designing, this type of division is completely out of place. Designers need to have a deep understanding of the theory, principles and philosophy that guides their own work and how it relates to more universal ideas and philosophies, while at the same time have sophisticated training in the concrete skills, materials, techniques, and procedures needed in their field. And of course, neither of these two is enough in itself, it is only when they are combined into a whole, when 'sophia' is reconstituted that they create the knowledge foundation that can lead to excellent designs.

This means that 'design thinking' is not only about thinking. It is about doing design. And doing includes both the hand and mind. I mentioned above that this is a conclusion that is in many cases highly uncomfortable since it means that those who are drawn to the thinking aspects of design has to accept that no design is a result of pure thinking. At the same time, those who love to do design, has to accept that excellent design is a result of their actions being inspired and informed by thinking. So, go think and do.


Dewey, John. (1991, originally 1910). How We Think. Prometheus Books.

Frayling, Christoffer. (2012. On Craftmanship--towards a new Bauhaus. Oberon Masters.

Nelson, H. & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way – Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. 2nd Edition. MIT Press.

Vitruvius. “Ten Books on Architecture" Chapter 1. ( the whole book is here

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Knowledge Claims Made in Design Research

I am happy to report that an article by my PhD student Jordan Beck and me has just been published in a new issue of She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation (Volume 2, Issue 3, Pages 179-270, Autumn 2016).  [If you can't download the article, email me]

The title of the article is:

Examining the Types of Knowledge Claims Made in Design Research

The article discusses what distinguish research in design areas when compared to other research areas. We do this by focusing on what type of knowledge claims researchers make in their publications. We found some fairly clear differences between research areas and also some distinct patterns when it comes to research in design.

Here is the abstract of the article:

While much has been written about designerly knowledge and
designerly ways of knowing in the professions, less has been written about
the production and presentation of knowledge in the design discipline.
In the present paper, we examine the possibility that knowledge claims
might be an effective way to distinguish the design discipline from other
disciplines. We compare the kinds of knowledge claims made in journal
publications from the natural sciences, social sciences, and design. And
we find that natural and social science publications tend to make singular
knowledge claims of similar kinds whereas design publications often contain
multiple knowledge claims of different kinds. We raise possible explanations
for this pattern and its implications for design research."

And here is the last section "Conclusion" from the article:

Multiple knowledge claims of different kinds within individual journal publications
might be the consequence of a young, multidisciplinary field. Another explanation
might be that scholars publishing in Design Studies tend to embrace the values of
design and science, which may account for those publications making claims of
fact and claims of policy. Finally, a third explanation might be that scholars publishing
in Design Studies are writing for multiple audiences with diverse needs. For
example, if a scholar is attempting to write for professional designers, it becomes
relevant and useful to make claims illustrating the utility or applicability of findings
in practice.

Our purpose in writing this article is not to make generalizable claims about
design research or the design field. Nor are we attempting to characterize all publications
in Design Studies, Nature, or the American Sociological Review. We do believe that
our comparison of publications in these three journals can serve as grounds for further
inquiry. It would be possible, for instance, to analyze a more comprehensive
sample of Design Studies publications to determine whether the pattern we describe
in this paper is generalizable. It would also be interesting and worthwhile to compare
our results with an analysis of other design journals to see if and how knowledge
claiming in other design journals manifests different patterns. Moreover, in
this paper we only discuss the kinds of knowledge claims made in design research
as opposed to the legitimacy of the claims in the field or the reasons for publishing
these kinds of claims.

We believe that understanding knowledge-claiming practices is an important
part of intellectual culture building. And it might be a fruitful area for design
research to distinguish itself from other intellectual cultures, since many of the
scholars and researchers working in the discipline apply research methods that
are not unique to design—like anthropology and ethnography—and they work on
topics that could be studied by other fields. Design could be considered a social
activity and, thus, studied by sociologists and psychologists on their terms and
within their culture. The knowledge claims contained in publications, therefore,
could be seen as an interesting and important distinguishing feature of the design
discipline whereas its objects and methods of study might be less distinguishable
from others.

We should continue to engage in the kinds of self-reflective questions that
brought the discipline to where it is now. But we should also begin to think more
intentionally about the kinds of knowledge we are producing and what the consequences
of its production might be."

Friday, May 05, 2017

Book Note: Byung-Chul Han "In The Swarm"

I am reading my second book by Byung-Chul Han. The title is "In The Swarm: digital prospects". Han is a professor of philosophy and cultural studies in Berlin. His books are very short, this one is about 80 short pages. I mention that since it means that you can more see his books as long articles.

So, I will only here comment on the notion of the 'digital swarm' that is the core idea of the book.
Contrary to many other theories of what the digital revolution has led to, Han argues that it does not lead to increased broad political and community involvement. The reason for this is that what we see as a consequence of digital media is not a establishing of a 'mass' or 'crowd' or any other social construction that has a 'soul' or a 'spirit'. Instead, the digital swarm consists of 'isolated individuals', there is no 'we'. There is no "internal coherence. It does not speak with a voice" (p 10).

This 'swarm' has, according to Han, characteristics that do not correspond to the popular image of what social media leads to or can do. One is that it leads to a "gathering without assembly--a crowd without interiority". Sometimes these individuals come together in gatherings, for instance in "smart mobs". Han continues, these individuals "collective patterns of movement are like swarms that animals form, fleeting and unstable. Their hallmark is volatility." (p 12). 

To me, this type of language makes sense in relation to phenomena we experience on social media. Large swarms of people 'liking' and supporting a protest during a fleeting moment in time, just to move on, to the next 'issue' or 'cause', without creating or constituting a sustainable structure or foundation that can engage with real issues, in real time.

Of course, we all know examples where social media truly makes a difference and have influence our society. however, Han's reflections are, in my view highly interesting and raise a lot of questions. I am eager to read more in this book, even though it has already been valuable enough to me.

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