Autumn 2011, when the canary died

A friend texted me a link to an article by “Authoritarian by Instinct“. What follows is a somewhat edited (and hyperlinked up) version of my SMS avalanche of a response.


I was about to say that I’m surprised at the naivety of so many liberal critics, and that this reminded me of my frustrations with Mounk… Has he not read Arendt?

The whole thrust of authoritarianism is to replace all principles, all laws, all ideological systems with the arbitrary rule of one person, whose momentary intuitive impulse is all-powerful! We think of intuition as this lovely creative thing that just wants to generate beauty and novelty in the world, and in a sense this is true, but not nearly true enough…

I discovered the dark side of intuition when I went to work at an ad agency after toiling for a decade under the “rigid” methodologies of  User Centered Design (UCD) consultancies.

I was the crazy intuitive guy at my UCD jobs — the guy with the big bold ideas. I thought the free-wheeling intuition-friendly air of an ad agency would be refreshing…

Wrong. The ad world was crushing. Layers of creative directors with more organizational clout were intuitively deputized to creatively intuit and dictate to their subordinates what was best. The pace and ethos made appeals practically impossible.

I came to realize that UCD — or as many of us have decided to broaden it — Human Centered Design (HCD) — might slow us way down, and require us to articulate, justify, experiment and demonstrate the virtues of our ideas, but it gives everyone a chance to contribute and to shape what the team is doing.

These processes and requirements meet exactly the same resistance in the workplace as liberal institutions meet out in the public political sphere. Slow. Expensive. Formalistic. Uninspiring.

This is not a coincidence. Human Centered Design is liberalism for the workplace. HCD designers have managed to institutionalize liberalism on teams, in departments, even in whole companies. It has everything to do using the scientific method, government by assent, respect for reason and adherence to processes that make reason possible.

So, here comes my “design as political canary in the coal mine” story that I compulsively retell to anyone who’ll listen, and to many who won’t:

The reason I have been so upset about the state of design is that in 2011 — autumn of 2011, to be exact — all the liberal progress I’d been seeing in my field suddenly reversed. Three things: 1) Steve Jobs died (October 5, 2011), 2) Lean Startup was published (September 13, 2011), 3) front-end frameworks, like Bootstrap (August 19, 2011 and Foundation (September 2011), hit the development world.

All three of these factors marginalized design in crucial ways that have brought the digital water we users swim in to a rolling boil.

There’s a reason why our digital lives are immersed in pleasureless turmoil. Remember back when we would count the hours to the next Apple product release, and get excited when we saw that an upgrade was available to the software tools of choice? Now it all makes us uneasy, because it means yet more disruption where we really need stability. New features are more likely to make things harder for us than improve our lives.

This is not an inevitable effect of the world getting more complex. It is a direct effect of design’s marginalization. Engineers now run the show, and they’re into the Thing they make, as opposed to the experiences real-life people have interacting with things in real-life situations. This is what designers do, and it is why we use the language of “experience” when speaking about our practices. They are all focused on getting at the experiences people have.

But now the language of design has been appropriated and emptied. Engineers call their Things “Experiences”. When they hack together a front-end using a front-end framework, they call this “designing the User Experience”.

People who lack understanding of the radical paradigm shift (meant literally, in the Kuhnian sense) at the root of HCD — a root that could not be more at odds with the objectivist Industrial Age paradigm — are blind to the relapse to which we’ve succumbed. They never made the shift anyway, and these new retro-practices make more sense to the engineering mindset.

And sadly, this relapse has spread into politics, hitting both left and right extremes of the political spectrum, each feeding on conflict with the other, and is rapidly closing in on the center. We have the brainless sophistication of children trained by disillusioned Marxists to perceive the world in the terms of racist, sexist and other identitarian sociologies (ironically called “hermeneutics” of this and that) facing off against aggressively anti-intellectual thugs. Liberalism is now widely disparaged and declared vapid, naive and obsolete by the very people who are blind to what Liberalism is, how it is done and why it is so important.

Hopefully, soon everyone will have known all these things I’m saying all along, and I will retroactively have not been the only one freaking out about the loss of liberal democracy, the loss of design and seeing very vividly the connection between the two. Until then, stuck in this present, I am isolated in my own obsessive interests and worries.


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