The Fosbury Flop and the power of unanticipated, optimistically contrarian perspectives to make creative work “creative” in the sense of genuinely audacious, distinctive, and worthy of double-takes. The story goes that Dick Fosbury looked at the high jump from a different perspective. He had the audacity to jump differently - backwards, appropriately enough — rather than the front-facing scissor kick, which now looks quite awkward and ungainly. The shift from a previously accepted normal to a farm-fresh and new way of seeing, making sense of, and being in the world often has this effect, when we stop and wonder — “What took them so long to put wheels on luggage, anyway?”
One of the more personally/professional impactful books from the last 12 months was David Epstein’s “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” I was reminded of it while finishing up the first Near Future Laboratory podcast, which has just gone up(!)
The first episode is a discussion with two of my colleagues and friends at the Laboratory — Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova. We had no topic to start — only an appointment on the Laboratory’s shared calendar endpoint.
Fabien quickly set the topic of discussion on what he refers to as ‘ambidexterity’, which may have come from a description for a creative role I saw in a Slack channel last summer that used the term ‘technodexterity.’ I thought technodexterity’ was a wonderful, evocative term. It evokes in my mind the kind of person who is a bit ‘range-y’ — of broad interests and curiosities and an ability to easily switch positions on the squad and shift perspectives, holding multiple perspectives simultaneously or thinking through problems from more than one, overly-disciplined point of view.
This kind of technodexterity felt like an ability whereby one could understand and comprehend constraints, find optionality and formulate alternative and unexpected possibilities. A dexterous person would be comfortable discussing user research, vague strategy insights from the marketing folks up on the third floor, construct interaction and business models simultaneously, be able to ‘see’ the protectable IP, and always holding all of that in place while considering the sensitivities to values and ethics undergirded by, say, ‘the brand’ and its place in the world outside, the marketplaces, and those thorny cultural and political and legal contingencies of an ever-shifting world occupied by customers, stakeholders and normal, ordinary everyday humans trying to live a happy life in an unhappy world.
In our inaugural podcast, we discuss these things.
While I was trying to figure out what one does with a podcast (brought to you by the self-deprecatingly long-winded Not Everyone Needs A Podcast Podcast Network®), I was brought back in my mind to Epstein’s “Range” now that its been precisely one year since I read it.
“Range” responds to some of the bigger quandries I (and I suspect many others) face professionally when trying to understand what I am when I ‘work.’ It was as if “Range” described me, and even a bit as to why I might be this way.
On many occasions I find myself getting queasy when asked by a family member or a prospective colleague or employer, “What’s it that you do again?” (Or just told by a loved family member — “I have no idea what you do, especially after you just tell me what you do.”)
That question ties me up in knots forever. I get dizzy with confusion. Oftentimes I wish I could just say, “I’m an accountant. I do accounting for small to mid-size building supply firms.” And that’d be the end of it. Everyone would know what I do, who I do it for, and I could enjoy lunch without feeling as though I might throw up.
But what do you say if you’re an electrical engineer and CS guy who’s a product designer futurist with a doctorate in history of consciousness who started a bicycle computer company and writes code, builds hardware to help craft design fictions through images of imaginary things to help think about what could be? And writes a 170 page annual reports from the future based on a 14 sheet Excel financial model to make it easier to write an 11 page business pitch? And writes a newsletter in and around the topic of Design Fiction? (“Design what? What the heck are you talking about already, I’m trying to enjoy my Cobb Salad and you still haven’t told me what you do.”)
I suppose one thing you do is find other people who do as you do.
This is what brought the entire cast of characters together at the Near Future Laboratory. We are each of us, to varying degrees, Range-y. Our interests and influences and inspirations come from across a broad landscape of idioms.
What comes out of the work is decidedly unanticipated, unexpected results that are sometimes productively meaningfully unexpectedly strange, perhaps at first blush nonsensical but meaningfully and imaginatively generative with the typical case being that we Range-y sorts deliver inspiring alternatives and optimistically contrarian, farm-fresh perspectives.
Recently I was prompted to consider what might be the constituents of a design-technology based creative team. You can probably imagine broadly what such a team might consists of, in a general sense, dependent of course on the expected practical goals of the team and its mothership. There are probably even templates to be found online for such a team consisting of boxes with a title or role all connected with lines and arrows in some kind of pyramid-like hierarchy.
Is the product of your work meant to be software “products”? You’ll want some of those “full-stack engineering” types. Making a dongle or a connected coffee mug or some such? You’ll want some firmware and device control people and a clutch of mechanics types who are okay spending weeks eating KFC at a far-away factory. Etcetera.
I’m being facetious, but the serious point is that for typical teams with a specific desired outcome there’s a playbook to run with a typical fixed set of boxes that define specific roles. It’s like a football squad — you always need a quarterback, or a goaltender, depending.
But, in my experience, there are two broad roles that I find do not have a box, and perhaps should.
One is the creative generalist — the Range-y role — who is an active contributor who is expected to offer and represent the unexpected, unanticipated and even contrarian perspectives. I heard the term ‘Trusted Contrarian’ on a bike ride once, which is resonant with this kind of role. This isn’t a role that just pokes holes in everything, or just spends all day ‘Red Teaming’ prevailing assumptions. Its more contributory and participatory, but allergic to the institutionalized ‘Kool-Aid.’ The TC is generative — asking ‘why?’ and contributing alternatives and productively unorthodox/unanticipated perspectives. Maybe ‘Optimistic Contrarian’ captures it — the OC.
The other role is The Mirror — a kind of studio bard, who reflects back the work and reminds the studio of its place in the organization and the world outside of the organization. It is very easy to forget that there is a world beyond the personnas and user types that are neatly formulated. So too is it easy to forget the connection between, say, the code one writes and its implications and effects beyond the interface. (I don’t have a bard at my little earnest one-person ‘firm’, but I do write our/my history there. It’s now two volumes of images and text covering six years of work because I haven’t found a printer that wants to bind more than 400 pages in a single volume.)
Together these roles are not extraneous nor do I think, in this epoch of The Algorithm, are they a luxuries. Humans, especially operating in a bubble of self-affirmation, are terrible with future optionality and multiple perspectives. Jack Dorsey gave an awkwardly earnest interview last summer I think it was in which he was pressed to consider Twitter’s role in the raucous decidedly uncivil discourse ount on our internet. He said they just didn’t anticipate that such would happen because they didn’t have anyone who was capable of seeing such happen. No Trusted and Optimistic Contrarians about puzzling over unintended and unanticipated dumpster fires is a bad thing. Having Range-y folks who think different, see different, and can do the work rather than sit above it — this is key.
It was a world of technical, playful experimentation and exploration during the optimistic “1.0” era of the algorithm — say, from 1996 until, somewhat arbitrarily, Amazon first sold something and the RSA made transactions seem secure. It was a time when APIs played peacefully together and there was a sense of optimism and possibility undergirded by a wiring together of a bunch of cute algorithms that had some modest intentions and integrity, and that were designed to create more habitable worlds and experiences through technology.
Now roles in the design-tech world are terribly disciplined and narrow, meaning only specific kinds of work gets done, with specific skillsets, and from fixed perspectives, which are largely about extracting attention and devising new techniques of coercion. The work ends up focused on acquisition of every endpoint and touch-point. ‘Disruption’ means you’ve found a more effective way of getting a ‘user’ to do something that is mostly in your own best interests, at the expense of the ‘users’ best interests.
We could use a bit more undisciplinarity so as to find pathways out of this odd, unsettling, unsustainable world in which our experiences are determined and mediated by The Algorithm.
I’m an optimistic contrarian. I believe and want to help find the path towards better, more considered, modest technologies that can take us towards more habitable futures . We just need folks with fresh perspectives and some farm-fresh algorithms.
Let’s work to make 2021 a year where we apply our exceptional talents, wealth, and perspectives in design, engineering, strategy, research, business, etc., to create a more habitable world that promotes righteous social and environmental justice, understanding of the value of difference and diversity, and civil, respectful discourse.
Enjoy a safe and healthy ease-in into the New Year.
P.S. Oh, and-also — don’t forget: please subscribe to “The Near Future Laboratory Podcast, brought to you by the Not Everyone Needs A Podcast,Podcast Network”, Venice Beach, California.