We need to un-fatten computation
In tech, and in business generally, we use words that mean everything, and thus mean nothing.
As always, you are reading DisAssemble, a philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products and human-digital interactions.
I want to apologise for the delay in the latest newsletter, which is only now appearing more than 3 months after my last. With the war in Ukraine, I asked myself “does writing about the philosophy of technology with regards to designing new and better technologies matter?” It didn’t feel as though it did, at the time. It felt vacuous, self-indulgent, ineffectual.
I realise it is true, however, that relative to the horror that regularly occurs in much of the world, all philosophising, all musing, can be argued as self-indulgent and inconsequential. Does that mean we shouldn’t do it? When contrasted with direct action, philosophising can feel pointless. But I think that abstract thought, paired with context, can enable action (as I discuss in this newsletter). And action stemming from deep thought about human-technology interactions is perhaps more important than ever, given the extent to which the Ukraine conflict, and indeed many other conflicts, are mediated by - and indeed often driven by - digital technology.
So I know I will continue to write and speak about this topic. I hope you’ll continue to join me. And please let me know your thoughts and feedback (you can reply to this email, or email me: vikram at lightful dot com).
Company values. They are the intended as a collective touchstone for groups of not necessarily similar people.
What they are in practice is often utterly meaningless pablum for anyone who doesn’t know the basics of How To Be A Human.
“How did you practice Excellence today?” your manager is supposed to ask. Not at all patronising.
These values commit us to nothing (the irony being that one of the values in the image above is commitment ). There is nothing to latch on to - no behaviour can be ascertained as being particularly innovative or committed or excellent. These terms can be true or untrue depending on how one views a particular situation, and how one chooses to weigh and interpret the various variables in their worldview. As a consequence, mutually agreeable actions that might result from these values are difficult to ascertain.
As a category, these words are ‘floating signifiers’, a term coined by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He said that ‘floating signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.’
We should be ‘ethical’? Ok, so when our marketing tries to convince people of a product they don’t need, we should call it out?
It might be argued that values aren’t supposed to be directives. But a lack of concomitant context means that values, by themselves, really offer nothing to an employee asking ‘how should I do my job?’ or ‘what course of action should I take?’
For example, with a business value of ‘innovation’, would we be speaking about innovation in the technologies we use? The outputs of the business? The fundamental nature of what a business is? The problem with saying ‘innovation’ just generally is that it means nothing to the employee - it’s too broad, so it’s something people end up ignoring.
This then is a kind of runaway subjectivity. It takes the wrong cue from poststructuralism - a lack of a universal meaning, a truth constituent on context - to get away with saying both something and nothing. It feels like something has been said, but in reality nothing has been said.
This is also a complaint about the moral framework that prizes values about all else: virtue ethics. Virtue ethics sees our main moral question as ‘what sort of person should I be? Valorous? Kind? Charitable?’ Yet virtue ethics says nothing about what one should do.
And language is about commiting us to action - especially in context of a job. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas, notes this (according to Terry Winograd et al):
Every language act has consequences for the participants, leading to other immediate actions and to commitments for future action….if [a] speaker says "Yes, there is water in the refrigerator" and the hearer can't find any, the speaker is committed to give an account… Either they reach agreement that the statement was inappropriate, or they articulate part of the assumed background ("I thought you were looking for something to drink," "I assumed we were talking about chemical composition..")
Words can only enable action if the interlocutors have a mutual agreement on what they collectively mean, otherwise a breakdown in communication occurs. In a conversation this can happen easily, yet in more amorphous organisational structures, this can be difficult.
And without the context of a conversation, of an agreed upon background, you might argue that these words are fattened with too much meaning - and thus in essence mean nothing. This is directly opposite to the flattening of words I identified in my last newsletter. Flattening, of course has its own problems of being too prescriptive about behaviour, with no room for incorporating the nature of the subject or the context.
There is a fine line here between a fattening and a flattening of words, of avoiding a floating signifier and overly-codified signifier. Words get their meaning from context, so we must work to understand these different contexts and how they intersect with words to generate meaning.
Of particular relevance to me, and perhaps you, in this spirit is Lucy Kimbell’s analysis of design thinking:
‘Design thinking’, like company values, is subject to fattening. Designers, business and academics all slap different meanings on it. So for someone like me who has to enact ‘design thinking’, this ambiguity of what is agreed upon can be difficult to deal with when you are trying to please a client. If your account manager says ‘we will do design thinking’ to a client - to what exactly are they referring? What is my team to do? What do others think that we agreed to?
Lucy Kimbell’s analysis of design thinking is so striking because you get a feel for design thinking in terms of what it means in different contexts: as a cognitive style, as a theory, and an organisational resource.
At each context we are pulled - committed - to different meanings and actions that stem from them. You don’t have just general ideas of how to be, but what to do, as well.
I’ve taken a similar structure forward in my own job as Head of Design, and the results have been beneficial.
In my experience, it's often those in marketing and higher level executives who like using words like ‘human-centred’ as a sort of magic powder that manifests solutions by virtue of their own linguistic inertia. The more of this magic powder you use, the more people believe that you can solve problems.
Let's use design thinking. Let's be human-centred. I’ve heard this more time than I can count, yet the people who say it rarely understand the implications of saying it.
To many, these floating signifiers may create a feeling of goodwill, but rarely do people understand what this means in terms of actions at the coalface. In other words, they have downstream effects.
My ‘What do we mean?’ chart is one method to ascertain and codify what we mean by using certain terms at a ‘business level’, and what downstream effects these words might have - how we might think, what types of skills are required. But it’s also a recognition that there are slightly different meanings at different levels/contexts, with different aspects emphasised.
We could also do this with company values. For example, with innovation:
In this way we can recognise a subjectivity of the words, by inferring how one might act to express these values based on stated conditions or context. We can navigate the delicate balancing act between the fattening and the flattening, the floating and the over-codified.
What’s more, at different levels, people will be better at each of the skills or ways of thinking - but they may not even realise it (as I’ve discussed). Spelling out how skills emerge in different contexts, and identifying whether you have indeed practiced these skills helps to articulate how these skills then ‘ladder up’ to concepts (like values, methods etc).
Of course, it’ll never be a perfect parallel to any particular context. But it’s a helluva lot better, and less condescending, than asking your employees to practice excellence.
Stay well, and I’ll see you again in a lot less than 3 months.