Universal gentrification

“As soon as a religion comes to dominate it has as its opponents all those who would have been its first disciples.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

My older daughter has joined a reading group studying gentrification, and we’ve been having sporadic conversations on the topic of economic and cultural transformation of neighborhoods. I’ve also been reflecting on some similar transformations I have seen in my life, in particular what happened to the field of UX over the last 25 years — not only the methods, the culture, the politics of the field, but also the qualities and quality of the output of the field. From where I stand I see an explosion of productivity, unceasing change and novelty, and a dramatic diminishment of genuine excitement. There is a lot of force and motion, but somehow without much energy and life. Today, I see this in terms of disciplinary gentrification…


Any novel situation presenting new problems without established methods for resolving them will attract a particular kind of mind drawn to experimentation and improvisation, groping by intuition and tolerant of ambiguity, perplexity and anxiety, (and perhaps repelled by routinization, methodological constraints and prioritization of efficiency over exploration). Let’s call this type “pioneering intuitive”. The field is still more or less open, and this openness attracts intuitive pioneers exactly the way an open plain attracts settling pioneers.

Once the novel situation has been worked on long enough, the experimentation pays off, through development of general approaches to identifying, framing and resolving particular species of problems within the situation. The field develops language and reusable methods, guided by common heuristics. The open field becomes a discipline.

As the discipline matures, more and more methods continue upon the path Roger Martin describes in The Design of Business. What began as a mystery, and gradually developed as general methodology, now formalizes into an established methodology, with defined roles, procedures, specialized tools, technical language, and products. More and more, judgments guided by rules-of-thumb are sharpened into decisions determined by defined rules and criteria. There’s less need for deliberation and experimentation (though these things never completely disappear). The discipline now attracts experts who can march into a problematic situation, quickly diagnose it, provide a set plan using proven best practices and then efficiently resolve the problem effectively. At this point, the discipline becomes highly attractive to other experts who view competence almost exclusively in terms of expertise of this stamp.

It is important to note, experts are a type — a kind of mind very different from the intuitive pioneer type. Experts are analogous to the specialist tradesmen who flocked to western cities after the cities grew out of isolated trade posts. Experts want to ply their trade and their greatest joy is productivity, meeting set goals, honing skills, growing organizations and reaping the rewards of their work.

Once a field develops this far, it begins to lose the qualities that attracted the first wave of practitioners. And in fact it starts to drive them away. Seeing smoke from a neighboring cabin is unsettling because this signals change — change back into the regulated, routinized highly constrained and controlled existence the pioneer fled out into the frontier.

For experts, experimentation, reflection, deliberation, openness, indefiniteness, improvisation — those are means to an end of developing a mature, predictable, repeatable and highly efficient discipline. For intuitive pioneer types, these indeterminate qualities are the challenge of the work, and the primary pleasure of it. They begin to move away into other types of problems that have not (yet) become the domain of experts. And the field left behind has all the qualities that gentrified neighborhoods have. They’re stylishly and respectably cool, safe, highly valued and powered by ambition and accomplishment, but nothing deeply unexpected, daring or surprising can happen there anymore. The weirdos have moved on. Something is lost — some intangible feeling of inspiration and life has dampened out — and the products seem less interesting despite their increasing flawlessness.

This happens to all kinds of spaces — physical, cultural, intellectual — and they happen on all scales. Cities, nations, civilizations, questions, topics, fields of study, companies, industries, economies.

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Judgment and liberalism

Our humanity is bound up with freedom of interpretation.

The capacity to interpret and respond effectively is what is meant by the word judgment.

To the degree an individual’s capacity to interpret is denied and interpretations suppressed, that person’s individuality and humanity is denied.


Society always requires some degree of denial — tempering — of individuality, but the proper degree is contestable and is a matter of judgment. The belief that such tempering is unnecessary and unjust might sound liberal, but in fact is typically the result of  illiberal privileging of one’s own judgment over the judgment of others who might experience excesses of untempered individuality as interfering with their attempts to live a reasonably peaceful life. The belief that the tempering of individuality can be settled unambiguously and rendered incontestable by laws or rules is also illiberal, because this belief generally presumes the objective correctness of one’s own interpretation of law.


Forms of liberalism that try to create conditions of material and social equality according to a single privileged interpretation of fairness are not only shallow, but they inevitably degrade into illiberal leftism. Deep liberalism is democratic and agonistic.


Are you a liberal? Ok, then: Where are you prepared to make painful concessions to public will? Where will you sacrifice intense superficial convictions to your deeper loyalty to liberal principles?

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Game of games

Every afternoon Father Nicanor would sit by the chestnut tree preaching in Latin, but Jose Arcadio Buendia insisted on rejecting rhetorical tricks and the transmutation of chocolate, and he demanded the daguerreotype of God as the only proof. Father Nicanor then brought him medals and pictures and even a reproduction of the Veronica, but Jose Arcadio Buendia rejected them as artistic objects without any scientific basis. He was so stubborn that Father Nicanor gave up his attempts at evangelization and continued visiting him out of humanitarian feelings. But then it was Jose Arcadio Buendia who took the lead and tried to break down the priest’s faith with rationalist tricks. On a certain occasion when Father Nicanor brought a checker set to the chestnut tree and invited him to a game, Jose Arcadio Buendia would not accept, because according to him he could never understand the sense of a contest in which the two adversaries have agreed upon the rules.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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Polite contempt

Respect for someone — or even something — is maintaining an attitude that this person, or thing — this being — has something to teach us. Normally respect consists in a general mood of regard, maintained by various formal (etiquette) and informal signals.

This ambient background mood of respect is sometimes activated in an appeal to be heard and trusted on some matter that might not be considered if the one making the appeal is not respected. — “Hear me out…” “Trust me on this…” “Stay with me…” “Think this over…” — The “object” of the appeal might be a prediction or a plan, or a counter-intuitive fact or difficult concept, or maybe a gut sense or incipient insight, or a feeling or ineffable experience, but the activation of respect always involves some kind of extension of faith beyond the personal limits of the respectful, whether experiential, cognitive, predictive, practical, judicial, etc.


There are situations where an appeal for respect reveals false signaling of respect. The person was treated in respect a respectful manner, but was not actually respected. The appeal is denied, and what the person has to say is disregarded.


There are people who are so profoundly disrespectful they are not aware that respect is a reality indicated through the signals of etiquette. They think respect is etiquette.

If a person has a rigid and unfaithful mind that resists learning, etiquette will be the closest approximation to respect they can muster, and it is far better than nothing.


There are also situations where a person intentionally treats a person with contempt while maintaining perfect manners of respect. This is a delicate game that requires both mastery of the formal rules of respect and control over one’s own emotions. The players in this game compete to provoke the other to produce damning evidence of formal disrespect to present before a judge. This is a game of polite contempt.

The trick to surviving this game, if you lack one or both skills needed to win it, is to know how to change the game.


A kind of elevated, benevolent contempt can develop across power differentials — where the powerful go so long with so little sense of vulnerability to their inferiors that respect slips away unnoticed. It is simply a known fact that the disrespected do not know, are unaware they do not know, and are not even aware of the factors that obstruct or distort their knowledge. Their views can be safely dismissed. But not letting them speak is impolite, so the superior listens patiently — very patiently, because this is an act of waiting for the other to finish saying things that are known to be wrong. It is all done in innocence, but innocence is grossly overrated.

This is a variation on the game of polite contempt. Let’s call it benevolent contempt.

This benevolent contempt is often present in pity and exercised through charity.

It is why recipients of charity so often hate their benefactors.

The fact that the crime is committed innocently with conceit of equality with no trace of ironic self-awareness makes things far worse.


Contempt dehumanizes, alienates and infuriates. Even polite, benevolent contempt.

People treated with contempt will win back respect, one way or another, sometimes violently. “You thought you had no need to listen to what I had to say, didn’t you…?”


I am terrified at the ubiquity of contempt.

Everyone already knows everything, including why their opponents mistakenly think they know everything.

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Behind the symbolic forms of any person’s “religion” is something much deeper, a religion-behind-the-religion which cannot be spoken about in any direct way but which can be effectively summoned, concentrated, evoked, extended, intensified and hopefully shared through religious forms — through performing, plastic and social arts.

My religion is Reform Judaism, but my religion-behind-the-religion is radical liberalism, which I believe grew out of Judaism, and in fact developed from the unceasing active reforming of the tradition.

Some people sneer at liberal religions, and view them as watered-down, lukewarm, modernistically-compromised versions of religion in pure form. From the perspective of the religion-behind-the-religion called Fundamentalism and its antithetical opposite Atheism, it is impossible to see liberal religions any other way than dilutions of pure religion, but from the perspective of religious liberalism, religion reduced to its forms and to passions about those forms has ceased to live as real religion and has devolved into something more about beliefs than relationships with God.

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Why reclaim “liberalism”?

Friends ask me why I want to reclaim the hopeless word “liberal”. I will list a few answers.

  • Liberalism is descriptive. Liberalism prioritizes individual freedom above all other political values, all its efforts are focused on protecting the freedom of all individuals within its domain, and all political problems are framed in these terms. To a liberal, there is no oppression of a group, there is oppression of individuals who have been classified as belonging to a group. Hannah Arendt spoke as a liberal when she said “the physical extermination of the Jewish people… was a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people, and that only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime, could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism.”
  • Liberalism is despised by exactly the right people. Now that the illiberal left has joined the illiberal right in heaping scorn on liberals, this is a perfect time to re-embrace liberalism as a political identity and to oppose the common illiberal tendencies of its critics. The differences between Trump supporters and social justice warriors are superficial. Both ideological tribes vocally identify as a category of person, defined against and opposing other categories of people — while never allowing themselves to notice that their core loyalty is to Identitarian ideologies that exploit identity and tribal resentment to advance the interests of those who ditto/re#hash/retweet the party line to signal that they are woke/red-pilled to the true truth. Each Identitarian denomination enrages and justifies the other, while failing to see its own role in the other’s intensification.
  • Appropriating the liberal pejorative is the punkest option. It is a linguistic reclamation (apparently!) that defies antithetical assignment — that is, avoids the pitfall of positioning as a member of your enemy’s enemy, who is also an enemy). By doing so, you become a reviled outsider’s reviled outsider. The two most highly respected, most mainstream tribes of “reviled outsiders” competing for the status of most aggrieved and oppressed group in America, Trumpism and SJWism, will reject you with equal disgust. It’s hardly surprising they react the same: from a liberal perspective the two tribes are more alike than different, and what unites them is an incapacity to see politics in non-Identitarian terms. Both feel vastly superior to the strawman liberalism of their stunted imaginations and like to attribute their own confusions about liberalism to liberalism itself, seeing liberalism as a confused and unconscious agent of its antithesis. (Thus, “All politics is identity politics; you just can’t see it, silly liberal.”) Calling yourself liberal ensured wins you the honor of double-rejection, with nowhere to go. Punk.
  • Liberalism is ripe for rediscovery and rearticulation. Liberalism luxuriated in hegemonic complacency throughout the second half of the 20th Century, and like all hegemonic successes became boring. Requiring no help, it stopped attracting intellectual help, and got neglected, dusty and stale. But under the grime is fallow soil and untapped reservoirs of inspiration.


I have been wanting to present my view of liberalism in terms that have inspired me. The following is a hasty first draft. I’m publishing it for the sake of getting it out there. Expect revisions, because this is an obsession:

  • Liberalism exists to maximize individual freedom.
  • Liberalism strives for human identity, specifically on the right to individuality shared by all members of this universal identity group. This striving is never perfected and is subject to gross delusions and missteps, but the ideal stands.
  • Liberalism frames political problems in terms of the ideal of maximizing the freedom of all individuals. Liberalism, left-leaning, right-leaning or centrist can be recognized through it use of liberal framing of political problems and solutions.
  • One important and often overlooked form of freedom is freedom of judgment. Freedom of judgment means judgments can, will and ought to differ, even on core questions of freedom and infringement of freedom.
  • These differences in judgment produce radically different practical worldviews (aka lifeworlds). These worldviews can produce radically different visions of life. They are the stuff of religious conversion. Those who have been “born again”, or “woke”, or “red-pilled” or “enlightened” only one time should attempt a second conversion in order to grasp what is meant by pluralism, which is a central deep fact of liberalism.
  • When freedom of judgment leads even to different judgments pertaining to the limits of individual freedom (for the sake of individual freedom) there are no means for settling differences before they are hammered out with actual trial. Conflict is necessary for liberalism, and the principled embracing of this fact is agonism.
  • Individual freedom of judgment necessitates democracy. Democracy is grossly imperfect but it is the best available means for achieving practical equality and symmetry of judgment. Nobody’s judgment can be privileged over another’s however much that judgment judges itself correct and proves its correctness by criteria and methods it judges sound.
  • Freedom of judgment entails objective pluralism. People sometimes bat around the term pluralism, to mean diversity of feelings or opinions about objective truth, but this misses the point. Objectivity is a hard-won accomplishment — not a starting point, and certainly not a firm foundation, regardless of what fundamentalists of religion or science tell you.
  • Because democracy is imperfect and because factions can form, consolidate power and use nondemocratic means — bullying, terror, commercial coercion, even legislation — all for righteous and necessary causes (national defense or civil right emergencies calling for emergency measures, because EMERGENCY!) — it is crucially important to allow individuals to form creative alliances to oppose what they view as oppressive forces.
  • To feel entitled to assign individuals to groups, and to not only see them primarily in terms of their group membership, or to treat them as such, or to expect them to accept this identity assignment — but to require them to accept legal status as a group member whether they want it or not is a violation of liberal principle and indicates that some group has gained so much power that it no longer feels democratic obligation. Such groups — whether formally organized or organically united under common ideology — are ripe for being taken down a few notches until they regain humility and a sense of liberal mutuality.
  • The right to self-determination of one’s own alliances and group identities is an individual right, as is the right to reject the identity claims of others. Any practical imposition of categorization on another individual ought to be resisted.
  • And finally, in case any illiberals have made it this far and still mistake themselves for liberals, I will scare them off with this: liberals understand that the single most important liberal institution is the free market. Left-leaning liberals think the market must be regulated to some degree to preserve its liberal effect. Right-leaning liberals think the market is inherently liberal. But all liberals value the free market exclusively for how it supports liberalism.
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I looked up the etymology of the word “entertain”. Inter- (among) + tain (hold). To hold-among.

Then I looked up “consider”. Con- (together) + sideris (stars).

It is hard to miss the stark difference in situatedness between entertaining a a possibility and considering it: holding it among us versus gazing at it from lightyears away.

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Leftist Identitarianism is an identity

(The following is a rant inspired by the recent debate between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein.)

Leftist Identitarianism is itself an identity, one with more real-world reality and salience than any of the canonical identities it recognizes and focuses upon.

Where people habitually list their identities before speaking — “speaking as an x, y and z…” — they should say “speaking as a Leftist Identitarian who identifies as x, y and z…”

Once you recognize that in academia and most popular culture Leftist Identitarianism exercises hegemonic power to 1) define which canonical identities are really real and which are fanciful inventions, 2) what moralities are truly fair and moral and which are subjective interests disguised as objective principle, 3) which opinions are uncomfortable truths that must never be silenced and which are harmful prejudices that must be deplatformed, 4) what is an unjust privilege and what is a qualification for claiming superior insight, 5) what is righteous indignation at being told what you can and can’t do because of the color of your skin (or your sex or who you love, etc.)  and what is merely rage of the dominant identity when it feels its sovereignty being challenged — you can see why members of alleged dominant identities are lining up around the block to check their privileges: the advantages of the canonical identities are positively dwarfed by the privileges gained through membership in the Leftist Identitarian identity.


Let’s go back through the five privileges I listed above, but apply them to Leftist Identitarianism viewed as a hegemonic power.

1) Leftist Identitarians believe they know the true identities, and understand them so well they can precisely calculate their effects in order to counter-balance them. But the possibility that they maybe they have defined identities in a way that conveniently removes their core identity from similar calculations and counter-balancing is unconsciously excluded from consideration. 2) For all their talk of combatting privilege, Leftist Identitarians privilege their own convictions and calculations concerning who is overprivileged and to what degree, and who ought to be granted more privilege, how much they should be given. Leftist Identitarians even privilege the perceptions and judgments of people from marginal groups — who then ditto the truths of Leftist Identitarianism, while white, male, straight Leftist Identitarians piously shut up and “let other people’s voices be heard”. 3) Leftist Identitarians have unilaterally imposed purely demographic ad hominem criteria on whose anger is hate and whose is frustration. Under Leftist Identitarian redefinition of racism, based on the color of your skin, not only are you allowed to judge other people by the color of their skin, you might even be celebrated for doing so if you support it with socio-poetic eloquence that move white Leftist Identitarians to tears. 4) Leftist Identitarians see their own class privileges as deserved qualifications and proof their knowledge is more objective, their judgments more circumspect and their altruism purer. A degree from an Ivy League school is evidence a person is better educated, better informed and more insightful on social issues — and not a token of superior social class that entitles them to scold, lecture and behave dismissively toward their social inferiors. Knowing the best people, eating the best food, drinking the best wine, wearing the best clothes, reading the best books, having the best health habits, displaying the most natural, graceful manners, being up on the latest everything — these are simply evidence of subtle discernment, not open flaunting of class. Whenever unfairness is assessed, the massive material differences and social advantages of class are presented as givens built into the human condition, unfortunate but unavoidable, but the differences among the canonical identities within classes are presented as unconscionable crimes. Where are the cries for removing institutional class prejudices? Who’s demanding the removal of alma maters from resumes? from preventing the well-connected from using their connections to get ahead of those who have not been given access to exclusive social network? from using excellent breeding to signal upper-class membership? 5) No person likes to be treated with contempt. No person of any race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, or any other categorization wants to be told that their perceptions and beliefs are just symptoms of social pathology and that their opinions can be summarily diagnosed away and dismissed. Anyone in a position of weakness who tries to make appeals to someone in a position of strength but is not given a fair hearing because the strong can dictate terms and those terms exclude the validity of the appeal. Hegemony bestows the luxury of dominating the question of justice, defining the terms of the debate and decreeing who is the hegemonic self-deluded and who is the righteous defender of the oppressed, marginalized and silenced.

To use Ezra Klein’s words: “That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you… when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, ‘God he’s right. That is just identity politics.’ They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it.”

Until Ezra Klein and his fellow Leftist Identitarians start applying their own principles symmetrically, and start shutting up and really listening to the voices of people who do not look like members of their in-group and who speak from a different perspective and out of different experiences than their members — those systematically excluded outsiders will continue to say “This is my experience and you don’t understand it.” They will continue to elect right-wing illiberals who at least give them the illusion of being heard and considered.

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Given the emotional connotations of the word “empathy” and my suspicion that few people have actually had firsthand experiences with empathy outside of merely emotional understanding I am going to re-adopt the term synesis.

Synesis is a greek word for understanding, and it literally means togetherness. It is a capacity to take-together otherwise chaotic data together-with other people. Synesis does tend to generate sympathy — similar feelings — but it also produces similar interpretations of data, suggesting similar practical responses. Where these intellectual, evaluative and practical responses differ, they appear to be the effects of subjectivity or taste — different but not altogether alien.

What is most important to know about synesis, and where it differs in connotation from empathy is synesis is social and learnable.

With empathy, we can respond to another person’s subjective experiences with emotions of our own, but we are permanently locked out of first-hand knowledge. We have our feelings about what the other experiences, and we can remember what they tell us and try to remember and relate it, but the other person’s experiences are theirs and they have privileged knowledge to these subjective truths. If we treat empathic knowledge as the goal of understanding others, true understanding is the insight that acquiring real knowledge of another person’s experience is impossible. This is true as far as it goes, but it artificially limits the possibilities of learning and gaining synesis.

With synesis, we can learn to make conceptual, moral and practical sense of the world in the way another does, and in fact the way groups understand other members of groups. The learning is never perfect, but it is far more adequate than those whose knowledge of otherness is limited to empathy, who tend to wax pious about the unknowability of the Other. As we develop synesis we get progressively better at anticipating how others will perceive things, how they will feel about them and what responses will seem advisable and acceptable, and we get better at speaking fluently, appealing persuasively and acting productively with them. We learn to make room for one another in our understanding.

This is crucial: synesis is the basis for all political alliance. Where it seems otherwise, look closer.

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How to talk about politics?

I think I am going to try to organize political conversations around a single all-purpose question: “With respect to this change you want, if you could wave a magic wand and pass any legislation you wanted, what would you legislate?”

This idea is not mine. I think I’ve heard it from at least two friends of mine. But I’m starting to think that this format is essential to political discussion. Until an issue or concern is framed in terms of legislation it is merely cultural or social and pre-political.

I’m sort tired of pretending that personality disorders expressed in political terms are political conversations. This is not because I find personality problems boring. On the contrary, I think they’re fascinating: it’s the legislation part I find hard to think about.

I am not sure I am interested in politics as I defined it. I think there are better ways of talking about my interests.

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I think a lot of what is currently lauded as strength is actually aggressive weakness.

Aggressive weakness says “I’d be stronger if other people didn’t prevent me from being strong.” It resents signs of strength in others, interpreting them as evidence that these others are consuming an unfair portion of a limited supply of power that ought to be shared, so everyone can be equally strong. It celebrates outbursts of indignation, irritable analyses, passionate denunciations and other articulations of resentment as “brave” or “insightful” — despite the fact that they are riskless repetitions of tried-and-true formulas that guarantee applause, head-pats, dittos, retweets, etc. from fellow weak aggressives.

Strength is different. Strength likes strength. It wants resistance, challenge. Strength will even acknowledge its own weaknesses, often in the form of self-mockery. Strength does not need other people to make way to allow it to be strong, and in fact any refusal to make way and grant it permission or even better — to confront it — provides strength an opportunity to activate and to experience itself.

It could be argued that aggressive weakness is a preliminary to the taking of power in order to gain strength. I’m skeptical that strength is ever gained that way. I suspect if weakness manages to seize instruments of control its own weakness ensures it will use the control unskillfully, and at best will only undermine the strength of others without actual gain of strength.

In my experience strength is generated through living as one ought to. When one is prevented from living in a way that generates strength, then one has a case for taking aggressive action. But the focus is not on other people and how they live, what they believe or what they have. The focus is on the goal of being free to live in a strength-generating way. Other people’s lives, beliefs and possessions might be altered in the effort to free one’s self, but if the other and resentment toward what they have is the focus, my bet is on catastrophe.

I believe this is a liberal attitude, as opposed to what is called “liberal” today, but what is, in fact, a degrading left-wing illiberalism.

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Scientism vs designerism

Rereading Richard J. Bernstein I can now see clearly why my first encounter Beyond Objectivism and Relativism was such a revelation and relief to me as a designer:

But we must realize that “individually the criteria are imprecise: individuals may legitimately differ about their application to concrete cases.” Furthermore, when the criteria are “deployed together, they repeatedly prove to conflict with one another.” Kuhn seeks to make sense of rational disagreement in theory-choice, disagreement that cannot be resolved by an appeal to precisely formulated determinate rules. Kuhn also claims that over time such disagreements can be and are rationally resolved by the force of arguments in the relevant scientific community. But even here it is misleading to speak of proof (if our model of proof is a deductive argument). Rather, the cumulative weight of the complex arguments advanced in favor of a given paradigm theory, together with its successes, persuade the community of scientists. “Such a mode of development, however, requires a decision process which permits rational men to disagree, and such disagreement would be barred by the shared algorithm which philosophers have generally sought…. What from one viewpoint may seem the looseness and imperfection of choice criteria conceived as rules may, when the same criteria are seen as values, appear an indispensable means of spreading the risk which the introduction or support of novelty always entails.”

Often in the name of scientific rigor, the kinds of rational arguments offered by designers in support of their judgments are dismissed as subjective. When you realize these attempts at rigor are actually scientistic misnorms to which working scientists do not conform (and that if they were to conform to these misnorms scientific progress would halt) designers have a way to disarm those who wish to suppress innovation in the name of objectivity and rationalism.

I am also seeing some fascinating parallels with Roger Martin’s mystery-heuristic-algorithm model for the evolution of knowledge. He sees heuristic as a step on the way to perfection of knowledge in codifiable algorithm. Years ago I argued with him on LinkedIn that algorithm is not always a desirable end, and in fact in some cases this stripping away of individual interpretation and judgment can harm an employee’s ability to connect with customers. But I can also see that Martin was applying some prejudices of the folk philosophy predominant among business managers.

Now I have a paranoid theory that Design Thinking is a sort of cargo cult — the methods and the symbols used by designers dropped into the business world, but stripped of the designer folk philosophy that permits those methods and symbols to produce quality work. It is a designeristic misnorm — a fanciful antithesis to business scientism…

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Mark of the philosophical laggard

Failure to stay current with philosophical thought has the form: “Beyond this point philosophy ran astray.”

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Seinfeld wisdom

“Your blessing in life is when you find the torture you’re comfortable with.” — Jerry Seinfeld

I’ve tried to say something like this before, but this is how to say it right.

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Golden Ages

As great as television has become in the 21st Century, podcasts are even greater. The wealth of insight available through podcasts is staggering.

My suspicion is that this is largely due to the medium’s low production overhead, which enables individuals to work relatively quickly and spontaneously (thanks to advancements in sound recording technologies and user interface design) alone or in small teams (also thanks to tech/UI) — the most fertile conditions for creation and to be able to reach a large audience without the need to persuade media distribution gatekeepers that their content will appeal to their target audience — a soul-killing endeavor that often fails, resulting in filtering, dilution and conservative punch-pulling of the most novel, risky and exciting experiments.

1) Good tools — light, transparent, activity-supporting — enabling users to focus exclusively on the creative object, 2) liberation from the need to enlist extended technical teams, with all the attendant money and management burdens, 3) cheap or free distribution of the creative product, 4) access to a market of consumers who become the arbiters of success, and 5) removal of approval gates (and gate-keeping mindsets) that come with all expensive endeavors — all these things support the takeover of industries by people with ideas and creative talent from the domination of technical, managerial and financial considerations.

In other words, the best creative products result from maximizing investment in design minimizing the overhead of management, engineering, finance, logistics, sales and marketing.

(When software development finally passes an analogous threshold, and software can be produced by designers focused exclusively on how people interact with what they’re making, we will have far better lean methodology for producing software.)

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Domain hoarding

I use domain names as a sort of intellectual property registry. I know I will never use most of the domain names I register, but I do want to plant a flag in the terms I invent or want to settle and develop in my own way.

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Coinage: misnorm

When people have a distorted image of a discipline, and harbor a detailed misunderstanding of how that discipline achieves its results, this can result in a “misnorm”. A misnorm combines a fanciful picture of what a discipline really accomplishes, how it functions at the micro and macro-level, why it has developed its various practices, and consequently, how it is most effectively managed.

Management is where misnorms are most damaging — where groups of practitioners are required to conform more closely to the misnorms of their own field, or where well-meaning innovators attempt to import “best practices” from other fields. In such cases, rigor means introducing effort-wasting burdens, removing necessary flexibility and autonomy, and, worst of all, the smothering of the tacit skills and intuitive judgment that are the substance of mastery of any craft.

This last casualty of misnorms, is itself the result of the greatest misnorm of modernity: scientific rationality. Behind the misnorms of scientific rationality is the craving for a fully explicit world, where articulate logic plans, directs and evaluates all behavior, which makes all gut responses, inspirations and talent obsolete. These irritating ineffables are quarantined to another misnormed sphere of activity: creativity.

This is why reexamining the history of science, ethnographically studying the daily practices of scientists doing science, and philosophically interrogating scientism is so crucial to life outside the laboratory. These investigations reveal a scientific methodology that resembles life as most of us know it, where logic, language, craft and inspiration are combined in flexible collaboration — not segregated and forced either to march in line or to frolic whimsically.

If scientists were forced to conform to the misnorms of science, science would cease to happen. Luckily, the prestige of science is such that this does not happen. But unfortunately paralyzing imposition and enforcement of misnorms does happen all the time in other less prestigious and empowered fields, such as education, where teachers are forced to conform to innumerable incompatible misnorms of education. Where education still happens, it is done entirely despite the control of politicians and administrators. It appears this misnorming dysfunction is also happening in the field of medicine, where the power of doctors is overwhelmed by the even greater resources of the insurance and legal industries.

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Orginality then and now

The 20th Century ideal of originality was based on an individual as sufficient condition of creation: “I alone originated this.” Or “the help I got arriving at this original idea could have come from any number of sources, but I alone am the one irreplaceable element.”

I hope the 21st Century ideal of originality will be based on an individual as necessary condition of creation: “Had I not been there this would not have originated. But the same is true of my fellow-collaborators.”

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Some people, when confronting an abstract idea, ask “what can I do with this, practically, concretely, in specific applications?”

Other people, when confronting a concrete practicality, ask “what can I learn from this, theoretically, abstractly, generally?”

Unfortunately, all too many people in the business of concrete practicality do not regularly confront abstract ideas because they lack a taste for the theoretical, and too many people in the business of abstract theory do not regularly apply their theories in concrete situations where they need to affect change, because they lack a taste for the practical.

Had I understood myself earlier, I might have protected myself from the harassment of the business world, but I think I might have followed a better-beaten curriculum. Then again, I might have travelled further along a paved road and come to where it could be paved further. But then… is “further along the same path” really where we want to go? I don’t know. My curriculum has been a mixture of accident and intensely urgent questions that seem to erupt up from beneath myself in response to my efforts to live this practical life I’ve blundered into.

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Where we are

An irritable, snobby, consensual contempt — “everyone who matters knows those people are hateful idiots” — stands on one side; paranoid, delusional belligerence stands on the other. Both claim privileged knowledge of “what’s really going on”, and this knowledge not only absolves them from respect, or even forbids them to respect — it philosophically precludes respect. We are philosophically ill, and this illness, being a species of mental illness, is reflexive: mental illness shows us a world that confirms the truth of our views.

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