What will we allow to challenge what we can imagine?

This week in our theory class we read a number of articles that took a very strong stance on a couple of topics. While all were intended to explore this question of “What limits what we can imagine?”, many focused on a specific arena from healthcare to futurism to the technology of things and had a very clear opinion on the positive or negative nature of these things.

These strong opinions led me to consider that maybe we were not asking the right question as we read these articles, maybe we should be taking a more critical lens to their arguments in general, rather than focusing on the author’s approach to this specific question, “What limits what we can imagine?” (which, by the way, implies we should set limits on what we can imagine and that just seems absurd any way you slice it).

I don’t believe the issue is our imaginations. We need more imaginative thinking in the world today. The issue is how steadfast we should be our pursuit of the future we imagine. The real question should be, “What will we allow to challenge what we can imagine?” And, I will tell you why.

Michael Lewis, the writer of books like Money Ball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side, has created a new podcast that was released April 1st. It is called Against the Rules and explores the idea that Americans have lost faith in the referee (the person who calls out missteps beyond the rules of law, games, etc. in government, business, media, and beyond). I listened to the first two episodes this week. I highly recommend listening to it and was struck by their relation to the statements being made in our readings.

What struck me about these episodes and our readings in relation to us (our class) becoming designers pretty soon is that, in some ways, as designers we are referees. We have power. We are the ones with the power to decide what is ethical and what is fair in terms of the products we design. We are entering the design world at a time where, as Michael Lewis would put it, many groups that hold power in some way are under scrutiny from to police officers to journalists in regards to what they have found to be fair. I believe, we should be held to the same standards as any of these groups.

What our readings lacked and what this podcast highlighted for me was a lack of faith in humanity to make the right decision. The podcast spoke about ways that certain industries are combating this sentiment by giving more sets of eyes to making calls about what is ethical and what is not. For instance, the first episode talked about the NBA call center, where refs review calls previously made by other refs.

How this applies to our readings

In some of our readings, specific social groups were targeted for not being ethical enough or creating products that were deemed unethical.

As an example, last Tuesday, we walked into class to be greeted by this screen:

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Essentially, our attention was being drawn to this “popular” hashtag because it easily summarized an argument made in some of our readings this week. One of those readings was by Byron J. Good and, in it, he talks about the sort of miseducation that happens in med school where you are rewarded for “’not how much time you spend with your patients or how caring you are with them or how good a rapport you establish with them…’, but your presentation of cases.” In a reading by April Starr, a designer who’s husband recently spent a week in the hospital, she says doctors can be (insinuating that all are), “control freak(s) (who) want to stroke (their) ego by talking with the patient in front of all (their) resident minions.”

What I want to point out about these articles and the 111 slides of deck that were created by our instructor to support their argument is that it is blaming humans who operate within a system. If I could distill their argument into a sentence or two, it would be something akin to, “Doctors are imperfect and make poor decisions and so we must do something to stop doctors from being imperfect and making poor decisions.”

If we took that approach, we should probably be tackling the ways that all of humanity is imperfect and makes poor decisions. And the reality is that humans are and will be as human as they ever were and nothing (other than outsourcing human tasks to things like robots) will prevent them from continuing to do imperfect things. But, what we can do is help one another make better decisions and that is what we should be discussing.

How our discussion of the readings missed the point

An interesting thing about the deck that guided our discussion on this topic (which again was mirroring the arguments made in a few of our readings) was that on the 111th slide, it flashed simply the title of a reading that made a more productive argument. Slides 114-117 had screenshots of tables from this article as well but were flipped through at such a rapid rate there was no time to consider them. This reading was about, “Reframing our health to embrace design of our own well-being.” Essentially, it offers an argument that, “Healthcare’s many stakeholders can’t agree on a solution, because they don’t agree on the problem. They come to the discussion from different points of view, with different frames,” placing more onus on the system rather than the humans operating within that system.

The solution they offer to the same problem that these other readings have brought up in a less productive way is something called self-management. “Self-management suggests a fundamental shift of responsibility. Patients reclaim their role as adults responsible for their own well-being.” In other words, the writers of this article, Hugh Dubberly, Rajiv Mehta, Shelley Evenson, and Paul Pangaro, are offering that maybe part of the solution to healthcare is to create products and solutions that empower the patient to guide their own care.

The deck quickly shifted back to the negative consequences of imperfect doctors and the poor decisions they can make. By the 133rd slide, we were talking about instances in which doctors felt so ashamed of the imperfect nature of people in their profession that they felt inclined to apologize.

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The 133rd slide of our reading discussion deck

At just a moment when a portal was opened into discussing the cause of the sentiment that was expressed in our readings and in the subsequent slide deck, the portal was closed, as we quickly flipped to the next slides. It felt like the deck was structured in such a way that was meant to guide us towards a “right” opinion, doing all it could to present the case for this one argument. And it was trying so hard to convince us that it was right, that it negated actually discussing what caused the issue in the first place.

What it means to us as designers

I could talk a bit more about some of the articles we read the past week, about the Internet of things and futurism and management. An article we read by Tom Vanderbilt on futurism states, “Futurology is almost always wrong.” Ian Bogost argues against the Internet of things in saying, “Nobody really needs smartphone-operated bike locks or propane tanks. And they certainly don’t need gadgets that are less trustworthy than the ‘dumb’ ones they replace, a sin many smart devices commit.” Ultimately though, I believe my recount would become a bit repetitive. Most all of the readings have a similar theme. It is that they take a stance around what is right and pit the opposite against it as wrong. As if to say, there is always a good and evil. Black and white. My side and yours. But do little to discuss the actual cause of the issue they are concerned with.

What we need in the world today is not more people who are so convinced their “side” or their opinion is right. As designers this is exactly what we should be moving away from. What we need is not to discuss (even chastise) certain social groups because of the ethical missteps of a few. As designers we should not be as concerned with discussing whether a certain social group or design fad is good or bad. but rather what the negative implications of our designs might be and how be can create a solution that solves for those.

What we need, much like Michael Lewis is stating are more referees in some instances, reform to the policies of the referees in some other instances, and more faith in the referees in the rest of the cases. The world feels more polarized right now than it has ever been before and statements like #DoctorsAreDickheads are not the kind that will bring us together and are never the kind of statements that lead to a conversation that ends in a solution. What’s more, conversations centered around these kinds of statements, whether it is, “The Internet of things is ridiculous,” #DoctorsAreDickheads, #BlackLivesMatter vs. #PoliceLivesMatter usually digress into a conversation around whether one side or the other is “right.” These conversations are unnecessary and shallow when they negate discussion of the actual cause of these issues.

What we need are people who are interested in learning more about one another’s experiences. We need lines of communication between “vying” populations. We need to be talking about the systems at are in place that create any sort of injustice, examining those systems, and then adjusting them, rather than blaming the imperfect humans who operate within those systems