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Relevance and Resilience

On systems that stand the test of time. Plus Jason Ulaszek on healing social rifts and other things worth your attention.
Jorge ArangoJorge Arango
January 24, 2021

Welcome to INFORMA(C)TION, a biweekly newsletter about systems thinking, responsible design, information architecture, and other topics relevant to humans who create digital things.

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The shearing layers of Sofia, by Jeremy Keith (CC BY 2.0)

It’s surprising how quickly moods can change. When I last wrote to you, I was angry. The events of January 6 in the U.S. Capitol shocked and distressed me. I’m feeling better now — a bit optimistic, even. A couple of things have happened since then. One, a new administration was inaugurated without further violence. (Low bar, I know.) Two, my conversation with Jason Ulaszek on The Informed Life gave me perspective. (More on this at the end of this email.)

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve come to realize that among the things I value most are those that stand the test of time. Old systems, organizations, products, cultural artifacts, etc. that are still actively enjoyed and maintained are doing something right. That they are still around means they’re worthwhile; they continue adding value to people’s lives. Their endurance makes giving them your precious attention worth your while.

I don’t know if anyone will read Living in Information a few years from now (I hope they will!), but I’m sure people will still read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. That book has proven useful to generations of humans living in very different contexts. It will likely continue to provide value for many generations more.

Another example: This weekend, my family and I watched two films, PLAYMOBILE: THE MOVIE (2019) and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). As with many of-the-now products, the former was flashy, fast, slick, ‘clever’, derivative, and filled with punny references to current pop culture. Although the latter is almost sixty years old, we enjoyed it more. I’m willing to bet which of the two is more likely to still be enjoyed six decades from now.

Relevancy is a tricky aspiration. We don’t design for our descendants. When we create something new, we want to attract the people-of-now: We want their attention and engagement — and their money. In a saturated information environment, that calls for novelty. But the allure of novelty fades quickly. As the expression says, it’s “a flash in the pan.” There’s a tension here: novelty doesn’t age well, but without some novelty, our undertaking won’t get the initial traction it needs to eventually stick around. We can still enjoy LAWRENCE today because it engaged its first audiences.

Enduring relevancy is one characteristic of long-lasting things, but not the only one. Resiliency is another. LAWRENCE hasn’t changed much since 1962, but we have. We no longer have movie palaces that support lengthy intermissions, and our attitudes towards colonialism have evolved. These changing contextual conditions challenge the film’s ongoing appeal; it remains relevant despite its changing context.

But then books and films are relatively static; they can’t easily adapt to changing conditions. (George Lucas’s meddling with STAR WARS is the exception that proves the rule.) Dynamic systems, on the other hand, can bounce back and adapt to changing contexts. Organizations and institutions offer good examples. Consider the Catholic Church or the Walt Disney Company. Both have endured significant structural and formal changes in their history, yet they’re still around and thriving — not despite their changing contexts, but because they’ve found ways of creating value with and within their new conditions.

A system’s ability to ‘read’ its environment allows it to overcome disruptions and make the most of growth opportunities. A robust set of (relevant!) values makes the enterprise worthwhile. Values motivate and engage us to undertake the hard work of structural change. Such change requires effort and leadership, but the resulting systems can better stand the test of time and therefore generate more value over the long term.

And this is why I’m feeling more optimistic. In his inauguration speech, President Biden outlined the challenging context in which we find ourselves in: the pandemic, the ravaged economy, our extremely polarized political environment. He countered this ‘read’ with a clear, simple list of values that unite us and make the undertaking worth maintaining:

Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.

A return to core values is what the current moment — and long-term endurance — calls for. All systems that stand the test of time respond to changing conditions. The key question is: how can the system change while remaining authentic to what it is; without sacrificing what gives it ongoing relevance? This requires not just the ability to see, listen, feel, and act clearly — but a grounding on why the enterprise is worthwhile.

The Architecture of Information

The latest post for The Architecture of Information delves into some implications of crowdsourced efforts to serve justice to the perpetrators of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. To wit,

efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable remind us that we live double lives: one in physical space, where our bodies act, and another online, where those actions are recorded – either by us or others.

There are ample photographs and videos of people who were in or around the Capitol on January 6. Some of these were posted to social networks by the assailants themselves, who unwittingly implicated themselves. The FBI is following up with leads from these data points and several people are already under custody.

More intriguingly (at least for information architects), people have also used unrelated information systems such as dating sites after the attack to ‘out’ suspects. It’s likely the designers of these systems didn’t account for the possibility of their being used for such purposes.

I’ve stated my unequivocal support for serving justice to the people who attacked the Capitol and those who incited them. However, as a citizen and designer, I worry about the implications of our digital beings in our information society. The same technologies that can bring miscreants to justice can also tamper legal dissent.

As the pace layer model suggests, governance frameworks move slower than commerce and infrastructure. Much of our legal infrastructure was created for a world in which our actions and whereabouts weren’t being constantly tracked. Before legal protections can catch up, it’s up to the people who design, implement, and manage these systems to behave ethically and responsibly. It’s a big ask.

Privacy and Metadata – The Architecture of Information

Also worth your attention:

  • “While we hope to work with you on a wide range of policies that affect digital rights in the coming years, we focus here on the ones that need your immediate attention and ask that you change course on the previous policies and practices discussed below.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s transition memo to the incoming Biden administration. (Via Cory Doctorow)
  • In my last newsletter, I held back on including my thoughts on the attack on the U.S. Capitol. If you’re interested in reading them anyways, I’ve shared them on my blog.
  • As someone who cares about the longevity of systems, I love Stewart Brand's Pace Layer model. I often hear confusion about the model’s ‘Culture’ layer, so I wrote a post explaining my understanding of how it works.
  • More on structuring systems for efficiency and resiliency: The parable of the two watchmakers. (H/t Mickey McManus)
  • “You can bounce back from hardship with just one or two of these qualities, but you will only be truly resilient with all three.” HBR on how resilience works.
  • Being and context — “It is what it is.” (H/t Bob Kasenchak)
  • An exciting picture of where tech is headed. (Via Patrick Collison)
  • What if the right metaphor for interacting with AIs is as creative assistants?
  • Developing principles for creating better digital places.
  • Unpacking the innovation at the heart of Pac-Man's ongoing appeal.
The Informed Life Episode 53: Jason Ulaszek

Episode 53 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Jason Ulaszek. Jason is the founder of Inzovu, a design collective, and UX for Good, a nonprofit dedicated to providing “elegant solutions to messy problems.” Alongside with others, Jason worked on the design of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which commemorates the 1994 Rwandan genocide and serves as the burial ground of over 250,000 victims.

After the most extreme divisions imaginable, Rwandans have found ways of coming back together as a society — and design has played a role in the healing. Given the extreme political polarization in the U.S., which has now erupted into physical violence, I wanted to know more about how Rwandans did it. This powerful conversation with Jason has given me much to think about. I hope you get as much value from this interview as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 53: Jason Ulaszek on Healing Social Rifts

Parting thought:

Never prize as advantageous to yourself anything that will compel you some day to break your word, to offend against propriety, to hate, suspect, or curse another, to pretend, or to desire anything that needs to be veiled behind walls and curtains. One who has chosen above all to honour his own intelligence and guardian-spirit within, and consecrates himself to the cult of its virtue, never strikes a theatrical pose, or gives way to complaint, or feels the need of solitude or the companionship of crowds; and most important of all, he will pass his life neither pursuing nor fleeing from anything whatever.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (161-180 CE)

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Jorge Arango
Boot Studio LLC
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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