Conceptual zombies

Zombies are ghosts in reverse. A ghost is a soul without a body. A zombie is a body without a soul.

Both are products of the question: “Where did this person’s personhood go?”

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Conceptual zombies are real. I’ve seen them and talked with them. To themselves, even, they are instances of a category. When they open their mouths they speak on behalf of the category they are. “As a…” When they address you, they address the category you are. They demand that you respond as addressed.

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Evaporated

Around 1994 I had a horrifying dream about a melancholy girl who lived in a tiny apartment above a Ducati showroom. In my dream, she decided to annihilate herself by feeding herself into a transparent tube (like the pneumatic tubes used in bank drive-throughs) which ran from the corner of her room, down the building and into the city’s underside. She just evaporated into vagueness and seeped away.

I never could drive past the real-life Ducati showroom without experiencing loss. Whenever the dream comes true, the sadness is ready.

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It’s the experience, stupid

People think software is becoming more frustrating because the world has become more complex.

This is false. Software is worse because development has been drastically accelerated. The shortened cycles leave little or no time for best design practices that ensure that real people experience the updates as useful and usable. The QA testing often suffers, too and software is released with major bugs. And this is all by design. But don’t take my word for it. The following passage comes from page 4 of the Bible of this development approach, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries:

I’m a cofounder and chief technology officer of this company, which is called IMVU. At this point in our careers, my cofounders and I are determined to make new mistakes. We do everything wrong: instead of spending years perfecting our technology, we build a minimum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers way before it’s ready. And we charge money for it. After securing initial customers, we change the product constantly — much too fast by traditional standards — shipping new versions of our product dozens of times every single day. We really did have customers in those early days — true visionary early adopters — and we often talked to them and asked for their feedback. But we emphatically did not do what they said. We viewed their input as only one source of information about our product and overall vision. In fact, we were much more likely to run experiments on our customers than we were to cater to their whims.

Traditional business thinking says that this approach shouldn’t work but it does and you don’t have to take my word for it. As you’ll see throughout this book, the approach we pioneered at IMVU has become the basis for a new movement of entrepreneurs around the world. It builds on many previous management and product development ideas, including lean manufacturing, design thinking, customer development, and agile development. It represents a new approach to creating continuous innovation. It’s called the Lean Startup.

If you read the book, it becomes abundantly clear that Ries thinks very much in terms of engineered things: software, organizations, innovations. And what he wants to do with those things is to improve them as rapidly as possible, through trial and error. This makes sense, given his background.

What Ries fails to consider, though, is the experience real people are having while advancing his project of continuous innovation. He is not thinking about what it is like for a real person to try to do something important with his latest “terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer” release. And he is certainly not thinking about what it is like to live in a world where most software is developed this this way, and consequently is in a stage of disrepair and renovation all the time. The “fail fast” trials of innovators translate directly into our own failures to get stuff done with reasonable effort because our tools never work like we expect.

And imagine: this is thought of as progress in the industry. In the 90s and early 2000s the software industry was progressing in a different direction. More and more people were talking about designing experiences. What was meant by experience is that when we design, our ultimate product is not the object we are engineering but the subjective experiences people when they use it. But somewhere along the way, experience became a cool euphemism for “thing” with no reference whatsoever to real people or the experiences they have. People now work on their “experiences” and it doesn’t cross their mind to wonder how you will experience what they’re doing.

So, the next time you go to open some software and cannot figure out how to use it anymore, or when software updates and it crashes on you, or feel a pit in your stomach when you see a dozen app updates — just know that the owner and investors in charge of this software probably read this book and thought it sounded like a pretty great idea.

One day when we will look back at this time in our history, maybe our minds will boggle that the folly of this approach wasn’t obvious to everyone. But for now, we’re just bobbing in this boiling broth, singing “ribbit”, and blaming technological progress and ourselves for what is in fact an industry-wide brain fart.

Luckily, I got out of UX (user experience) just before it was taken over by Lean Startup, and designers were demoted to front-end prettifiers and design researchers were pushed to the margins of the process, if not out of it altogether. I have no professional skin in this game. But as a user, I do still have quite a bit at stake. I would love to spread my enlightened frustration as far as possible.

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Othering Otherers

There is no perfect harmony of rights, where everyone can live freely without fear or discomfort.

Once we gain a significant degree of physical safety and comfort, we experience psychological danger and pain from the words and ideas of other people. And once we are free from the fear and pain of their words, we will become distressed by their concealed thoughts. And once we feel safe from concealed thoughts, we will become sensitive to the dangers of unconscious thoughts. There is no limit to our demands because there is no limit to the subtlety of our sensitivity to the reality of Otherness. Otherness is inherently painful.

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It is hard to speak of Otherness from the first-person perspective (“How am I failing to recognize and respect the Other who is unlike myself?”) Instead we say it from a second-person perspective (“How are you othering, and failing to respect the Other who is unlike yourself?”). The Other in question is either Oneself or some Other who plays a persecuted role in the moral drama of one’s own understanding, which is another way of saying Oneself. Or we say it from a third-person perspective (“How do Those People other the Other…?”), and need I say more?

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Dimensions of thought

Breadth of thought pertains to the topical range of information one considers in one’s thinking.

Thoroughness of thought pertains to the completeness of information one considers within the range of one’s thoughts.

Thoroughness is often confused with depth of thought, but depth pertains not to the information considered, but to the available range of conceptualizations of whatever information is considered. How many levels of meaning can be derived from the available information?

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For some time I have been uncomfortable with the phenomenological metaphor of “horizon”. The term suggests “breadth” of vision, when what is meant is more connected with breadth. Surely we can find a better metaphor, maybe even a non-ocular one.

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Naive moralism

A naive moralist cannot discern the difference between his own moral views and justice, which adjudicates precisely between conflicting moral views, assuming the ultimate validity of none. Justice does not “privilege” any moralism over any other, but this view requires a capacity to put one’s own morality in pluralistic perspective, which is much harder than it sounds.

Naive moralism is not incompatible with hyper-awareness of naive realism — in fact, they might even belong together. A person who scoffs at self-evident facts, who knows the canon of cognitive biases by heart, is entirely capable of wholehearted belief in self-evident moral principles, for instance, fairness.

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Most talk of “privileging” privileges its own knowledge of what privilege is, how it works, who is and is not privileged, and what ought to be done to whom to redistribute unfairness and to establish justice. And it does so with privilege’s oldest trick:unconsciously privileging the assumptions and arguments it uses to demonstrate the objective truth of its claims.

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Coalition of opposites

One group of individuals is systematically oppressed by another group of individuals. Two witnesses to the oppression are offended and moved to stop the injustice, but for opposite reasons.

The first witness sees the rights of individuals being violated by other individuals.

The second witness sees one group violating the other group’s right to equality.

What is the injustice?

For the first witness, the injustice is focused on the attempt to strip individuals of their status as citizens and to impose a different status upon them. In a liberal democracy only one category matters: citizen.

For the second witness, the offense is focused on the power imbalance between the two groups. Justice demands equality among groups.

When the two witnesses discuss the oppression, they seem to agree.

The first witness sees that the power imbalance between groups is what makes the oppression of individuals possible, and agrees with the second witness that this inequality between groups must end, but (and this is left unsaid) for the sake of the individuals whose rights are violated.

The second witness sees that the rights of individuals are being violated, and that no individual should be subjected to such indignities, but (and this is left unsaid) because no group is inferior to any other group.

Both witnesses agree that the oppressed should unite and stand together to oppose their unjust treatment. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the oppression of another group. Only individuals functioning as a group can effectively resist another group.

In the urgency of stopping the immediate oppression the two witnesses fail to notice that their differences are greater than their commonalities.

When the political conditions shift, the coalition fractures.

The first witness is shocked to discover that the second believes that all members of the oppressing category are responsible for the current crime and the entire history of oppression perpetrated by its category. The justifications are a drawn from the social sciences, but the moral impulses driving those justifications (the “motivated reasoning” as they say) are now far too close to those of the oppressors: individuals are understood as manifestations of a group, and never mind that such justifications are persuasive only to those who share that impulse, the truth is self-evident and everyone whose opinion matters sees this to be true — and now our group has the power to impose these categories.

The second witness is shocked to discover that the first witness wants to defend the rights of individuals to think whatever they want, even to believe in an essential inequality among groups, even to publicly state these opinions, even to state them with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on other groups, or even to try to persuade them of their own essential inferiority! What is not permitted is any effort, whether by an individual or group to violate any other individual’s rights.

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