My friend J. lived in Vienna during the Pandemic. His five-year old daughter used to play with the neighbour’s child. Interaction came naturally for the two of them. They were about the same age. Except, they didn’t have a common language. One spoke only German, the other Dutch and English. That wasn’t a problem though. They had a tablet handy, with Google Translate on it.
By default, we think of AI – and digital technology– in terms of its individual benefits. We ask, how can the machine help me reach my goals, or the goals of my company? Technology takes on a different meaning if we consider it in the context of a group. The question here becomes, how could the machine transform relationships?
I wonder if there is a subset of UX research that focuses on collective experiences, or if companies explicitly design software for communities. What kind of tools would we need to draw user personas and empathy maps, not for individuals but for groups? And how would we pitch this collective value proposition?
I shared a piece on Linkedin not long ago. It’s an article about the Prehistory of the Internet, challenging the default narrative. We’ve all heard of ARPANET, how the Internet was born from a military project to create a distributed communication network – one that would resist a nuclear apocalypse. This colours the way we think about the Net.
Yet there is another strand in the genealogy: bulletin boards, organised on a local basis, accessed through modems, via phone lines. This thread is not about scientists exchanging knowledge in real time, or military generals coordinating reconstruction efforts. It’s about random weirdos discussing whatever online, or using the technology to meet up and discuss arcane areas of pop culture.
Reductionism is tempting. We love to say that something is just something. It’s comforting, and it makes us sounds smart. Yet most of the world is hybrid, messy – sources confused and mingling. Same with the Internet: it’s a global distributed network, resilient and globally connected. It’s also an aggregate of local networks, enabling new ways of organising communities. It’s a whole lot of other things too.
Recognising this hybridity – more generally recognising complexity – is about more than precision for the sake of it. It’s about gaining greater freedom. The more we train ourselves to recognise that the things around us have complex genealogies, the more we can imagine different futures – each in the continuity of a different ancestry.
In 2020, an AI wrote a piece for the Guardian. By scanning the enormous amount of texts available on the web, the machine was able to reproduce verbal patterns in a way that somewhat made sense. This is writing through brute force computation, aggregating cliches.
Yet, it’s not exactly true that an AI wrote a piece for the Guardian – to the same extent that few authors write alone. The final text was edited. Humans used their critical meaning-making ability to select, arrange, and cut through the various drafts compiled by the machine.
We like to think of authorship in romantic terms. The poet is a pure fount of original thought. They’re a channel for the Godly muse to reach other humans. The first draft is a work of genius. Editors only polish and refine. AI-writing seriously challenges this view.
But what if we framed things differently? What if we placed editors at the core of the human effort of meaning-making. The first draft is just an attempt at capturing what floats around. Editing is where original thought emerges. If we were to use this model, then we could also think of AI as a mediumnic tool, at the service of the editor. A tool to capture an elusive ‘spirit of the times’, better than any first draft.
Code serialises problems. It’s formal logic and clear communication. How surprising then that it’s not part of our English curriculum, as an extension of argument analysis. Coding as the art of unambiguous thought, expressed in unambiguous language.
‘Women have always been healers’. This is how Barbara Ehrenreich opens her pamphlet Witches, Midwives and Nurses. In the Middle Ages, wise women served as health practitioners, among the peasants and the poor. They alleviated suffering and saved lives. To do this, they relied on empirical experience, transmitted from others, or derived from observation and intuition, through trial and error.
At the beginning of the modern period – with the rise of capitalism – those women were banned from medicine. Church and State leagued against the ‘witches’, systematically tracking, persecuting, and executing them. Their crime – often – was curing people without the right to do so. This was a dangerous form of concurrence for the new figure of the male doctor, upper class, university trained and properly licensed. It was all the more dangerous as doctors’ training relied on ancient canons and dogma, rather than empirical experience. For centuries, their capacity to cure and care was therefore doubtful. Hence the witch hunts, so that the rich would bleed, while the poor were deprived of the more available and affordable care offered by wise women.
Women came back on the healthcare scene, though, as the figure of the nurse emerged. Except she – for in her initial guise, she was very much gendered – was not a wise healer, with deep empirical knowledge of plants and practices to cure ailments. Rather, she was modelled on the society lady, offering gentle and docile support to the trained (male) doctor. From expert healers, women had been recast in the default role of professional assistants. And what if people suffered, or couldn’t afford care – as long as class and gender norms were kept in place.
When I was a child, my mother ran a one-person graphic design agency. Her logo was a witch on a broom. My cousin is a speech therapist with unconventional methods – cats, dogs, donkeys – and stunning results. She has a witch hanging from the ceiling in her practice. On the other side of my family, one of my aunts used to gather herbs and keep goats as pets. Another would cure sunburns by imposition of the hands, a gift passed on by an old wise woman. I even heard that my grand-father was from a family of village healers. Witchcraft, in short, is not a thing of the distant past for me, but part of my heritage.
It was also part of popular culture, from when I was a kid. I remember Elizabeth Montgomery twitching her nose on Bewitched, I remember shows about mysteries on TVs, and book series on paranormal experiences om the bookshelves at home. I remember reading La sorciere de la rue Mouffetard in primary school, and becoming a healer or a magician myself every lunchbreak during a role playing game stint in Middle School. Later on, it was Harry Potter, X-men, and vampires. More recently, it’s been Astro-memes, and the fascinating Weird Studies podcast – introduced by my co-author Corin Ism – reflections on art and philosophy ‘at the limit of the thinkable’. So, yes, for me, magic has always been part of the fabric of life.
Back in high school, I was often praised for my ‘synthetic spirit’ – esprit de synthèse. I ended up inquiring from a teacher what they meant by it. It’s your capacity, they said, to make sense of things, and express that meaning clearly. Find relevant patterns, and summarise them in a way that others understand. Like a good reduction – this is how I think of it now – it’s about caramelising knowledge.
‘Synthetic spirit’ is not an expression I’ve heard much in English. When I typed ‘esprit de synthèse’ in Google Translate, the machine proposed ‘analytical mind’. I can see the overlap. My friend Ashish is an analytics lead in a tech start-up. He describes his role as solving puzzles, finding answers to questions from heaps of data. Sorting through the mess takes time, but the result comes in a sudden flash, like magic.
I can see the overlap, and yet the words carry distinct overtones. Analysis implies a process of division – breaking things down into their parts. It has a surgical cleanliness to it. It also sounds like it can be professionally taught and assessed. Synthesis, by contrast, is intrinsically murky. It’s odd bits put together, in context, guided by intuition and experience. The proof is in the pudding – and like any great pudding, the recipe won’t capture the secret: it’s all in the sleight of hand.
As we outsource our memory to the Internet, one of the risks is that we lose our capacity for synthesis. I recently stumbled upon a dialogue with the editors of a new book, ‘A global history of the 20th century’. The authors – both history professors – describe a common shortcoming among their students. They’re able make sense of a specific historical event (say, May 68 in France), but they struggle to place an event in its broader context. They can’t articulate its relevance, or follow the various chains of rippling causality connecting it with everything else that happened in the world.
Things always make sense in relation to each other. Without enough background knowledge in our heads, we become unable to make meaning, no matter how much is accessible online.
Writing a global history of the 20th century is about providing such background knowledge: a shared foundation for historical sense-making. That work is relevant because, as time passes, matters of concern shift. They certainly did since the 19th century, and the German Idealist vision of a ‘universal history’ centred on the rise of Europe and human progress. Unless we consider the 20th century through lenses relevant today – demographic explosion, questions, political violence, or the Anthropocene – we will have nothing but a set of disconnected facts.
Good synthetic work, like good comedy, can do wonders for its time. Then it fades. Like old jokes, insights from that sense-making work either enter common consciousness as commonplace knowledge – or they become antiquated oddbits.
I remember this conversation with a lover once, who identified as a wizard. We were speaking of the Radical Faeries, and the long tradition of queer resistance. ‘They used to call them witches,’ he said, ‘they were men and the women who chose an alternative life, and lived in the woods. They would make soup, using whatever was nutritious – forest animals, leaves, insects. That was a free life – it was in touch with the environment too – but it was threatening to the mainstream. So to discourage people from leaving the village, they focused on the witches’ brews, and used disgust. Imagine eating toads!’ Then he laughed – ‘They did the same for us. Imagine anal sex!’
Capitalism sets a clear distinction between the place of work and the place of care. There is a private space for social reproduction – where women exert invisible labour – and a space of economic production, dominated by men. Witches blur the categories, and therefore threaten capitalist constructions. Imagine, healing methods that cannot be reproduced at scale, and monetised! What a scandal! Besides, we should get rid of those forests and commons, with their messy governance and proliferating wildlife. Better enclose the fields, and breed sheep.
Magicians rely on external forces to transform the world. The gift should be shared freely. This is the wisdom behind Peter and Simon the magician. Professionals have no such qualms. They learn formal skills in learning institutions – at a measurable cost – take long apprenticeships, and charge accordingly. For healers and other intuitive practitioners – facilitators, coaches, change experts – the relationship is not so straightforward. We learn on the job, from others, or in a sudden twist of genius. How much, then, should we charge?
I have learned not to compromise on sharing the gift for free, by-passing all advice to the contrary. But what I am comfortable charging for is constraints on my own timetable. The gift should be shared freely, true, but if you want it next Thursday from 8 to 11, there’s a cost for that. Or if you have any further request – format, direction, delivery mode – then again, here’s a cost.
My mother taught me to think by myself: ‘Others are doing it’ was never a valid excuse, but a source for deep mockery. My step-mother had a more professional outlook. Her default frame of mind was ‘What’s everyone else doing?’
Good design requires a balance between introspective judgement and social exploration. But each of us has a preference, a default direction. This is a defining trait of character, and when left unspoken, a major cause of disagreement.
In Christianity, nothing is forbidden. This is the crucial break. There is no sinful act in itself. Sin only lies in the relationship we have with our own actions. This is radical freedom.