I will not apologise for starting this post with a poem
because it can help us understand and respect 'things' that are difficult to label and categorise.
You’re reading DisAssemble, a biweekly philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products.
I am so afraid of people's words.
Everything they pronounce is so clear
this is a hand, and that is a house,
and beginning is there, and the end over there.
Their meaning frightens, their mockery-play
and their claims to know what's coming, what was;
no mountain thrills them now; their estates
and their gardens abut directly on god.
I warn; I ward them off. Stay back.
It's a wonder to me to hear things sing.
You touch them, and they stultify
You are the very destroyer of things.
-Rainer Rilke, In Celebration of Myself
Rainer Rilke wrote about things in his ‘thing’ poems. He wanted to let things - everyday objects - speak for themselves. He intended his thing poems to allow things to express themselves as they were, not as they appeared to us, objectified.
As evidenced in the above poem he did this because he felt that naming a thing is the death of that thing. He seemed to feel that by creating an 'object' out of something, by putting boundaries around it, we fail to understand a thing on its own terms.
As, such he worked to observe and ‘become’ a thing, and through this assembly, thing + poet became poem.
This is not just a flighty artistic muse, I promise. This is a compelling frame with which to reflect on how we think about the things that we deal with every day.
In my last newsletter I discussed assemblages. I described them as a type of object-concept hybrid.
An assemblage, I argued, is helpful term to use to consider new type of ‘thing’, one that contains objects and concepts. A 'use case', or 'British Society' can be considered assemblages. Both of these necessarily contain ideas and objects. An assemblage also might be a project you have, a committee you are a part of, some way of working, or a service you provide. All of these have concepts (e.g., ways of thinking about things, guidance, values), and objects (people, places, tools). You know that you are working with an assemblage when you can't easily fit it into being solely an idea or an object.
But there is no need be exact about what an assemblage is. Indeed, argued persuasively enough, most things can be considered assemblages. This newsletter, for example, contains ideas and is also an object of sorts. It could be an assemblage. The point of assemblages is that they push back on the modernist ideal of rational, immutable categorisation. And in embracing amorphousness we can understand an assemblage’s qualities.
Yet we are disinclined toward respecting that which is amorphous or even to treating it as ‘real’. When faced with the ambiguousness of assemblages we often either reduce them to their component parts (like science does) or see them as part of something bigger (often like philosophy does). We can call these activities undermining or overmining, respectively.
We tend to overmine or undermine as a way of compensating for the ambiguity of an assemblage. There’s a sense that these actions make things ‘realer’ to us, when in fact they engender ignorance of the actual qualities of an assemblage.
Reducing the service that is buying a plane ticket to separate instances of human-tool interaction, such as managing your seats or printing your ticket, ignores how a person’s expectations and behaviours are shaped across their entire experience of buying a ticket. At the same time, treating buying a ticket from a kiosk and buying a ticket online as just parts of the larger phenomena of ‘buying a ticket’ doesn’t address the qualitatively different aspects of those two different ways of buying a ticket.
We don’t just under/overmine in terms of our interaction with technology however; we do this with people as well. For example, in white collar jobs, we often undermine. Departments are plagued with ‘siloing’; that is, working in relative isolation, duplicating or ignoring each others efforts, instead of being part of a larger picture - department-spanning projects and initiatives. Alternately, in factories we often reduce people to being components of a larger project - especially as part of ‘scientific management’ - undermining them into mere cogs in a machine.
I left my last newsletter with a challenge: how can we understand assemblages on their own terms without undermining them or overmining them?
Rilke, through his poetry, gives us a hint. Let an assemblage speak for itself through observing it encountering the world, rather than trying to understand it on your terms.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek brings the point home in this debate with Graham Harman (who you might remember is the philosopher who came up with the concepts of overmining and undermining).
Zizek notes things (like assemblages) become real when they encounter the world. He gives the example of Shakespeare. We can’t grasp what the essence of Shakespeare’s plays are - even if we went into Shakespeare’s mind — because his plays gain meaning in how they encounter the world, not as something which has a definitive essence that exists outside of its context.
His plays have ideas, yes, but they are assemblages as they require actors, or at the very least a reader. Thus it’s through the enaction of Shakespeare's plays and a human encountering it in embodied ways that its qualities can be observed. His plays begin to have meaning when we act them out or when we see actors deliver the lines within context. In this way we aren’t finding some essential truth about one of Shakespeare’s plays, but we are witnessing what his plays mean in the context of our reality. It’s a parallel treating something as in situ rather than ex situ.
Such is the same with Rilke’s thing poems, which are assemblages that are combinations of the ideas of the poet and observations of the thing itself, enacted in the assemblage of a poem.
But this newsletter is about how we interact with technology - which is fundamentally different from a poem or a play. Isn’t it?
Take the user experience of using Spotify. It involves concepts - such as the moods and the expectations of the user. But it also involves objects, like songs files and the interface itself. Thus, the UX of Spotify is an assemblage.
To understand the UX of Spotify we would get users to enact it; we would watch how they experience Spotify. We would conduct user tests wherein they use Spotify, browsing and listening to songs. We wouldn’t just ask them what they think of the experience, because that isn't letting the assemblage encounter the world.
People without experience of user research are often confounded about why one needs to actually watch someone engage with technology to understand its utility and usability. When I start working on analysing the UX of some website or tool, I’m often questioned about my desire for user research: "We designed it, why can’t we just tell you what the good and bad things about it are? Why don’t you just look at the analytics?" But without seeing how a tool encounters the world, the qualities of experience can’t be made manifest for observation, especially the non-verbal and the implicit.
Observation is the paired quality of enacting assemblages. Being able to effectively observe something encountering the world is a vital yet underrated skill.
The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus provides a compelling example of how observation becomes a skill, giving the example of a soccer player.
“As one gains experience with taking up different perspectives on a situation, one acquires the skill to discriminate which stances are most likely to lead to success in a given type of situation. The result will be that one acquires the skill for immediately discriminating different meaningful types of situations. A situation will acquire a “look”-- it will show up, say, as the kind of situation that will reward a more defensive style of play, prompting one to change one’s stance or perspective.”
Situations will ‘look’ different to an experience soccer player. They will notice open areas of the pitch if they are on the offense, or when a player might take a shot if they are on defense. This in turn makes the observing player behave differently which in turn reveals more about the play.
Observing and responding to assemblages with skill allows you to understand assemblages for what they are. You gain discriminatory power in that you understand what to look for, and moreover, you understand the kinds of stances and perspectives that allow for the enaction of assemblages in particular ways.
An actor in a play will observe Shakespeare being interpreted through their own feelings and theatrical training. As a user researcher, I will observe what users do in the context of tasks - and what they don’t do. When faced with siloed teams in offices, skilled managers will observe opportunities for cross-department initiatives.
Rilke worked hard to achieve this sort of observational power. He emphasised seeing things with a sort contemplative contact. Here is a a great quote from Poetry Magazine on his version of this skill, which he called ‘Inseeing’:
“Inseeing described the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection. Rilke made a point of distinguishing inseeing from inspecting, a term which he thought described only the viewer’s perspective, and thus often resulted in anthropomorphizing. Inseeing, on the other hand, took into account the object’s point of view. It had as much to do with making things human as it did with making humans thing”
“If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.”
And this is true for assemblages as well. Understanding a city, a project, a culture, a job, a service, a user experience, or even a song (which could be considered an assemblage) requires skill in ‘inseeing’ and responding in order respect and understand the qualities that each of these assemblages has. In this sense, perhaps you too become part of the assemblage. So be like Rilke. Observe and respond.
…..See? I don’t need to apologise, right? Reading the poem was worth it. :)