“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.