Archive for October 2008

Ubiquitous Computing and Borges' "Parable of the Palace"

October 26th, 2008 — 2:52pm

I’ve been look­ing at ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing for the past few weeks, work­ing on the first install­ment of what will be a recur­ring col­umn in UXMat­ters, and it’s had me think­ing a lot about Borges’ enig­matic Para­ble of the Palace.
I’m not exactly sure what the res­o­nance is — it lit­er­ally popped into my head a few weeks ago — but the con­nec­tion has stuck with me. Maybe it’s the quan­tum uncer­tainty of the tale? Or the ambi­gu­ity of the sym­bols. Are design­ers the poet? It feels that way some days. Is the palace the world around us? Maybe we’re also the emperor…
With­out fur­ther ado, I present the para­ble in it’s entirety.
Para­ble of the Palace
by Jorge Luis Borges
That day the Yel­low Emperor showed his palace to the poet. Lit­tle by lit­tle, step by step, they left behind, in long pro­ces­sion, the first westward-facing ter­races which, like the jagged hemi­cy­cles of an almost unbounded amphithe­ater, stepped down into a par­adise, a gar­den whose metal mir­rors and inter­twined hedges of juniper were a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of the labyrinth. Cheer­fully they lost them­selves in it — at first as though con­de­scend­ing to a game, but then not with­out some uneasi­ness, because its straight allées suf­fered from a very gen­tle but con­tin­u­ous cur­va­ture, so the secretly the avenues were cir­cles. Around mid­night, obser­va­tion of the plan­ets and the oppor­tune sac­ri­fice of a tor­toise allowed them to escape the bonds of that region that seemed enchanted, though not to free them­selves from that sense of being lost that accom­pa­nied them to the end. They wan­dered next through antecham­bers and court­yards and libraries, and then through a hexag­o­nal room with a water clock, and one morn­ing, from a tower, they made out a man of stone, whom later they lost sight of for­ever. In canoes hewn from san­dal­wood, they crossed many gleam­ing rivers–or per­haps a sin­gle river many times. The impe­r­ial entourage would pass and peo­ple would fall to their knees and bow their heads to the ground, but one day the courtiers came to an island where one man did not do this, for he had never seen the Celes­tial Son before, and the exe­cu­tioner had to decap­i­tate him. The eyes of the emperor and poet looked with indif­fer­ence on black tresses and black dances and golden masks; the real merged and min­gled with the dreamed–or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took. It seemed impos­si­ble that the earth should be any­thing but gar­dens, foun­tains, archi­tec­tures, and forms of splen­dor. Every hun­dred steps a tower cut the air; to the eye, their color was iden­ti­cal, but the first of them was yel­low and the last was scar­let; that was how del­i­cate the gra­da­tions were and how long the series.
It was at the foot of the penul­ti­mate tower that the poet (who had appeared untouched by the spec­ta­cles which all the oth­ers had so greatly mar­veled at) recited the brief com­po­si­tion that we link indis­sol­ubly to his name today, the words which, as the most ele­gant his­to­ri­ans never cease repeat­ing, gar­nered the poet immor­tal­ity and death. The text has been lost; there are those who believe that it con­sisted of but a sin­gle line; oth­ers, of a sin­gle word.
What we do know–however incred­i­ble it may be–is that within the poem lay the entire enor­mous palace, whole and to the least detail, with every ven­er­a­ble porce­lain it con­tained and every scene on every porce­lain, all the lights and shad­ows of its twi­lights, and every for­lorn or happy moment of the glo­ri­ous dynas­ties of mor­tals, gods, and drag­ons that had lived within it through all its end­less past. Every­one fell silent; then the emperor spoke: “You have stolen my palace!” he cried, and the executioner’s iron scythe mowed down the poet’s life.
Oth­ers tell the story dif­fer­ently. The world can­not con­tain two things that are iden­ti­cal; no sooner, they say, had the poet uttered his poem than the palace dis­ap­peared, as though in a puff of smoke, wiped from the face of the earth by the final syl­la­ble.
Such leg­ends, of course, are sim­ply lit­er­ary fic­tions. The poet was the emperor’s slave and died a slave; his com­po­si­tion fell into obliv­ion because it mer­ited obliv­ion, and his descen­dants still seek, though they shall never find, the word for the universe.

2 comments » | Art

The Internet of Things - Or The Internet of Whens?

October 15th, 2008 — 11:22pm

I just requested a copy of The Inter­net of Things pam­phlet by Rob van Kra­nen­berg from the Net­work Note­books series (by / Geert Lovink — who’s basi­cally around the cor­ner now that I’m here in Ams­ter­dam). In com­bi­na­tion with a read through Every­ware, it’s got me think­ing about some of the basic assump­tions we’re rely­ing on to frame the future of com­put­ing as it impacts our lives.
One of the key enablers under­ly­ing The Inter­net of Things is the IPv6 stan­dard, whose address scheme has an unbe­liev­able range of pos­si­ble addresses — 2 to the 128th power — so many that attempts to make it com­pre­hen­si­ble by anal­ogy strain the bound­aries of the absurd.
All of these com­par­isons beg the essen­tial ques­tion of what exactly we will be address­ing. So far, the gen­eral class of objects ‘Things’ is the most likely that I’ve heard posited. All of more spe­cific sug­ges­tions — such as all the grains of sand in the world, or every plant in every farm field on the planet — remain in the cat­e­gory of the sim­ply fan­ci­ful.
I think this focus on objects as the dom­i­nant type of addressed node in the new net­work lacks imag­i­na­tion. [At the IFTF sug­gests the Inter­net of Verbs]
The the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity uni­fied space and time, so why not use IPV6 to address moments of time as well as huge col­lec­tions of things?
Mas­sive cloud stor­age arrays and ultra-wide-band data trans­fer infra­struc­tures may make it fea­si­ble to record the cumu­la­tive sen­sory expe­ri­ences of entire human lives, or groups of peo­ple, or whole crowds; why not give each dis­crete fem­tosec­ond slice of these aggre­gate expe­ri­ences an address for easy archiv­ing, retrieval, and manip­u­la­tion?
Going back 13 bil­lion years to the begin­ning of the uni­verse would give us The Inter­net of Whens.
Map­ping every deci­sion made by peo­ple dur­ing the course of their day (200 on food alone), or their life, would give us The Inter­net of Whys.
Labelling all the loca­tions in the four-dimensional coör­di­nate scheme would cre­ate The Inter­net of Wheres.
Address­ing all the cells in all the human bod­ies would result in The Inter­net of Whos.
We must be bet­ter attuned to the pos­si­bil­i­ties afforded by all this ‘space’ we’re giv­ing our­selves to play with.

1 comment » | Ideas, Networks and Systems

Is American Culture Healthy?

October 10th, 2008 — 4:27am

Try­ing out the Ask500People polling / sur­vey / crowds­marts (col­lec­tive intel­li­gence is too clean a term for this) ser­vice, I thought I’d throw out a com­pli­cated ques­tion, but ask for a sim­ple answer.
In light of the col­lapse of Amer­i­can — and now global - finan­cial mar­kets [which are melt­ing faster than the polar ice caps, if anyone’s inter­ested in what may prove to be a telling envi­ron­men­tal par­al­lel with dire impli­ca­tions for our col­lec­tive future], I’m won­der­ing “Is Amer­i­can cul­ture healthy?“
Here’s the responses so far — join in!

2 comments » | Curiosities

Frameworks Are the Future (Slides From EuroIA 2008)

October 8th, 2008 — 6:28am

In case you couldn’t make it to Ams­ter­dam for EuroIA 2008, or if you were in town but pre­ferred to stay out­side in the warmth of a sunny Sep­tem­ber Sat­ur­day than ven­ture into the mar­velous Tsuchin­ski the­ater, I’ve posted the slides from my talk Frame­works are the Future of Design.

Comment » | Building Blocks, Information Architecture, User Experience (UX)

User Experience: About To Be Commoditized?

October 2nd, 2008 — 7:02pm

Read­ing about the recent release of Social­Text 3 I was struck by the strong par­al­lels between the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of enter­prise envi­ron­ments in 2003/2004, and the emerg­ing pub­lic Web 2.0 land­scape. The essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics of many enter­prise envi­ron­ments are:

  • Syn­di­ca­tion: streams of mod­u­lar con­tent and func­tion­al­ity broad­cast widely to sub­scribers within the fire­wall, such as enter­prise data feeds, ERP, BI capa­bil­i­ties, CRM, cus­tom capa­bil­i­ties shared via SOA
  • Ser­vices (e.g. envi­ron­men­tal, like the bees we used to have for pol­li­na­tion): iden­tity, secu­rity, pub­li­ca­tion, data man­age­ment, cloud stor­age, imap email, etc.
  • Social Struc­tures: tan­gi­ble net­works & com­mu­ni­ties of like-minded peo­ple, ori­ented around a com­mon prac­tice, pur­pose, process, or pain; think of all the matrixed, hor­i­zon­tal org struc­tures and ad-hoc net­works encoded via inter­nal email lists, IM, sprawl­ing intranets, cor­po­rate direc­to­ries, etc.

These same attrib­utes are emerg­ing as the hall­marks of the pub­lic Web 2.0 land­scape. This is how the three S’s man­i­fest for Web 2.0:

  • Syn­di­ca­tion: A lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive tor­rent of con­tent in the form of blogs, RSS, feeds, streams, APIs, for social objects of all types, as well as cat­a­logs of rentable content
  • Ser­vices: This layer is grow­ing rapidly for the pub­lic inter­net, with OpenID / OAuth, map­ping, visu­al­iza­tion, backup, cal­en­dar­ing — the list is nearly infi­nite, and still expanding
  • Social Struc­tures: The Web (and soon the mobile uni­verse) is pro­foundly social now, and will con­tinue to become ever more so.

I think you can eas­ily see the strong par­al­lels. It’s this sim­i­lar­ity between the older enter­prise envi­ron­ments and the emerg­ing Web 2.0 envi­ron­ment that user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers, — and espe­cially any­one prac­tic­ing infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture — should note.
Why? As I’ve writ­ten before, mod­u­lar­ity is every­where in this new envi­ron­ment, it’s appar­ent at all lay­ers of the infor­ma­tion world, from util­i­ties like pro­cess­ing power, to ser­vices, to the ele­ments that make up the user expe­ri­ence. The effects of mod­u­lar­ity in syn­di­ca­tion, ser­vices, and social struc­tures on devel­op­ers and IT have been pro­found; prac­tices, processes, orga­ni­za­tional struc­tures, and busi­ness mod­els have all shifted in response.
This wave of change first affected the devel­op­ers who build and work directly with code and sys­tems. But inevitably, dis­ci­plines fur­ther up the stack are feel­ing the impact of this shift, though many of us (and I’m putting user expe­ri­ence in this class) may not know it yet.
How will we feel that impact? One obvi­ous way is in the pres­sure to adopt agile and other mod­u­lar prod­uct con­struc­tion prac­tices cre­ated by and for devel­op­ers as the pre­ferred way to struc­ture user expe­ri­ence and design efforts. This is a mis­take that con­fuses the dif­fer­ent stages of soft­ware / dig­i­tal prod­uct cre­ation (as Alan Cooper explained well at Agile2008). Design is not con­struc­tion, and shouldn’t be treated as if it is. And one size fits all does not work when choos­ing the process and toolkit used for cre­at­ing com­plex dig­i­tal prod­ucts, ser­vices, or expe­ri­ences.
One result of this mod­u­lar­ity rules all approach to user expe­ri­ence is the ero­sion of bounded or well-structured design processes that bal­ance risk effec­tively for the var­i­ous stages of design, and were meant to ensure the qual­ity and rel­e­vance of the result­ing prod­ucts and expe­ri­ences. Ero­sion is vis­i­ble the trends toward com­pres­sion or elim­i­na­tion of rec­og­niz­able design con­cept explo­ration and usabil­ity ver­i­fi­ca­tion activ­i­ties in many design meth­ods.
More imme­di­ately — in fact star­ing us right in the face, though I haven’t seen men­tion of it yet in m/any user expe­ri­ence forums — is the grow­ing num­ber of sit­u­a­tions wherein there’s “No designer required”.
Exam­ples of this abound, but just con­sider this fea­ture list for the Social Text 3 Dash­board:

  • You decide what matters
  • Cre­ate your dash­board in minutes
  • Include 3rd party infor­ma­tion and applications
  • Track & attend to what’s most impor­tant to you
  • Sta­tus updates flow auto­mat­i­cally, as you work

If that’s not spe­cific enough, here’s what comes out of the box, in the form of pre-built widgets:

  • My Con­ver­sa­tions — changes oth­ers have made to any Social­text work­space page you authored, edited, or com­mented on
  • My Col­leagues — recent updates made by peo­ple you are sub­scribed to
  • Work­spaces — work­spaces you have access to and their activ­ity metrics
  • Work­space Page — any page from any of your Social­text workspaces
  • RSS Viewer — results of an RSS feed you configure
  • Work­space Tags — a tag cloud of all tags in a par­tic­u­lar workspace
  • All Peo­ple Tags — a tag cloud of all tags on peo­ple in Social­text People

No archi­tect required for most peo­ple here… and this trend is every­where.
And then there’s the awe­some spec­tre ofcom­modi­ti­za­tion. Lis­ten­ing to a friend describe the con­fus­ing expe­ri­ence of try­ing to select a short list of design firms for inclu­sion in an RFP made the link­age clear to me. I’ll quote Weil’s def­i­n­i­tion of com­modi­ti­za­tion from the paper ref­er­enced above, to make the point explicit.
Please recall that com­modi­ti­za­tion denotes the devel­op­ment of a com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment where:

  • Prod­uct dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is very difficult;
  • Cus­tomer loy­alty and brand val­ues are low;
  • Com­pe­ti­tion is based pri­mar­ily on price; and
  • Sus­tain­able advan­tage comes from cost (and some­times qual­ity) leadership.
  • Com­modi­ti­za­tion is dri­ven by excess capacity.

Please note that I’m not imply­ing user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers face overnight obso­le­tion.
But I am say­ing that I doubt our cur­rent dis­ci­pli­nary world­view and toolkit ade­quately pre­pare us for the real­i­ties of the new envi­ron­ment emerg­ing so rapidly. Code, by con­trast, is and always will be mod­u­lar. (After all, that is the defin­ing attribute of our alpha­bets.)
But user expe­ri­ence is holis­tic, and has to learn to build in its own way from these smaller pieces like a writer com­bin­ing words and phrases. Even­tu­ally, you can cre­ate works of tremen­dous depth, rich­ness, and sophis­ti­ca­tion; think of Ulysses by James Joyce, or the Mahab­harata. These are richly nuanced expe­ri­ences that are the result of work­ing with mod­u­lar ele­ments.
My sug­ges­tion for one response to the oncom­ing wave of mod­u­lar­ity and com­modi­ti­za­tion is to focus our value propo­si­tion in the cre­ation of tools that other peo­ple use to define their indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. In other words, shift our pro­fes­sional focus to higher lay­ers of abstrac­tion, and get into the busi­ness of defin­ing and design­ing frame­works, net­works, and sys­tems of expe­ri­ence com­po­nents. Prac­ti­cally, this will mean things like observ­ing and defin­ing the most valu­able pat­terns aris­ing in the use of sys­tems of mod­u­lar ele­ments we design, and then advis­ing on their use to solve prob­lems. This is the direc­tion com­mon within enter­prise envi­ron­ments, and in light of the appear­ance of pub­lic pat­tern libraries (Yahoo’s UI), I think I see it hap­pen­ing within parts of the user expe­ri­ence com­mu­nity. I’m not sure it’s hap­pen­ing fast enough, though.
I hoped to com­mu­ni­cate some of these ideas in my talk on why frame­works are the future (at least for any­one prac­tic­ing Expe­ri­ence Archi­tec­ture) for the 2008 EuroIA Sum­mit that just took place here in lovely Ams­ter­dam. I’ll post the slides shortly. In the mean­time, what do you think? Is user expe­ri­ence ready for the mod­u­lar­ized, enterprise-like envi­ron­ment of Web 2.0? How are you respond­ing to these changes? Is com­modi­ti­za­tion even on your radar?

2 comments » | Enterprise, Information Architecture, Tools, User Experience (UX)

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