Saturday, 3 September 2011

The beautiful, functional, invisible nation

nationcrafting: the beautiful nation

Most people, when you talk about design, think first of all about aesthetics, then about the idea of a relationship between aesthetics and functionality, between form and function.

Within this discussion, you will generally find two sides.

The first side will advocate that design fulfills some kind of emotional role. The concept of "Emotional Design" was analysed in depth by Donald Norman, who put forward the idea that humans primarily form an emotional connection with the world, that emotions are the primary channels through which we understand the word, and that it is those emotions which are later rationalised. Therefore, to create objects humans can understand and connect to with some kind of immediacy, we must above all create objects that are sensual, beautiful, emotionally and aesthetically pleasing. The cover of Norman's book shows off Philippe Starck's lemon juicer in all its glory (pictured above).

nationcrafting: the functional nation

The second side will advocate that form follows function, that the criteria for how things should look are some kind of aesthetic parallel to how they function. This latter approach is perhaps best exemplified in the Bauhaus chessboard, designed by Josef Hartwig (pictured above). In this chessboard, every piece is designed to correspond to its way of moving on the board. The knight - which always moves in two separate, perpendicular directions - is designed as two perpendicular blocks, reminding the user of this move. The bishop, which always slides diagonally, is designed with a diagonal cross on top. The pawns, which only move forward one square at a time, are presented as small cubes, etc.

nationcrafting: the invisible nation

There is a third approach to design, which is much less talked about, and even less actually seen. That's because it is invisible. Or, rather, it is so well tuned into how you live your own life, that you don't even notice it's there while you interact with it. The experience is invisible because it is just part of the fabric of your own reality.

Consider, for example, your interaction with human-generated light. Light is turned on by flicking a light switch next to the door as you walk into a room. The light fills the room immediately, and you go about your business in the room.

When a lightswitch or lightbulb stop working, or when the electricity supply stops, that is the moment when we become aware of the actual lighting system in the house.

Similarly, air conditioning works in the background while we go about our business, mostly unaware that it is working. When it stops working properly, we complain about the heat, or we complain about the fans being too loud. That is when we notice the aircon system: when it stops working.

Possibly the best way to witness invisible design is by analysing good film editing. Viewers are often surprised when you ask them to alert you everytime a cut happens in a film: the average shot is about 3 to 5 seconds, depending on a film's pacing, yet when we watch a film, following its chain of thoughts, we are mostly unaware of the cuts between shots actually taking place. A dialogue between two characters is interspersed with listening shots, reaction shots, characters are shown from further away in the beginning and we cut into close-up shots later on, etc. Yet the overall effect is of a smooth, perfectly believable dialogue: the cuts are invisible.

In fact, most of the storytelling tools used in cinematography are fine-tuned to a point of invisibility: the viewers are so enchanted into the story being told that they suspend their awareness that this is a movie, and let the content hijack their own chain of thoughts. People come out of movies having laughed and cried, having liked or even loved certain characters and hated others. Considering their secondary nature, movies are really a very transformative experience, and much of that transformative power comes from the fact that so much effort has been put into making the medium itself disappear, thereby raising the secondary experience to the perceptual and mnemonic status of a first-hand experience.

Another great place to witness invisible design is on the web, perhaps even more so because the viewer is turned into a user, an interaction takes place that puts it in the same design family as product and architecture design. Steve Krug, who wrote the book "Don't make me think", advocates the idea that the best online interaction is the one you just don't notice, the one that is designed in such a way that you interact without having to think about the interaction itself. This can be seen in even the smallest things, for example, when a shopping cart offers you the option to continue along a particular path, or go back to change something: the confirmation has to be on the right, the "going back" on the left, because the former is about taking a step in the future, the latter about correcting something that was done in the past. Similar to the broken aircon system, it's when the online experience frustrates us that we pay attention to its idiosyncracies. Online users mostly just want to do what they want to do, without having to negociate the actual workings of the website. Usability theory is based on this, and usability testing is primarily about getting users to do certain tasks on a website (say, booking a flight, or finding out something) while saying out loud what it is they're doing - or trying to do - during their interaction.

In the context of nationcrafting or nation design, the first two themes - emotional and functional design - are very enlightening.

The first - the emotional approach to design - is particularly important in the field of nation branding, the "big idea" citizens buy into on an emotional level when they feel a connection with their nation. Typically, this is the nation state's attempt - more or less successfully - at identifying its institutions with the smaller communities the citizens were born into, or the ones they were immersed in during their childhood, or the ones they feel a personal connection to because of personal values. Italy is a great case study for this, as many Italians today still feel a closer emotional connection to their city (which would have likely once been a city-state in its own right) than they do to the concept of Italy. I'll get back to this in a separate essay on nation branding. Benedict Anderson defines the nation state as an "Imagined Community", putting forward the idea that a modern nation is different from an actual community because it is not and cannot be based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. The mental, emotional image of the nation state members hold in their minds is the product of broadcast (i.e. one-to-many) secondary experiences, mediated through TV and newspapers as well as constructed events such as international football matches, rather than shared (i.e. many-to-many) cultural experiences. The creation of nation states as imagined communities is made possible by the ascent of the print and broadcast media. It therefore stands to reason that the loss of relevance of the print and broadcast media in comparison to multi-user interaction and shared information will cause an erosion in the relevance of the nation state as we know it, in favour of nation models that are made possible by the ascent of multi-user, interactive and shared mediatic experiences.

The second - the functional approach to design - opens up interesting questions regarding the way we switch the management of state institutions. Consider, for example, the Bauhaus chessboard mentioned earlier. The connection that exists between its form and function is not something that can be improved on by alternating the people in charge and changing the brief, following an election every five years. The essence of the product is such that it cannot be improved by, say, decorating the chess pieces with highly ornate designs: it would be just, well, missing the point... The design can, of course, be improved, but only by taking its approach further, by exploring ways in which form and function are more tightly connected. This applies to nations, too, the difference being that you can always buy another chessboard and choose to play one today and the other tomorrow. The same cannot be said for your nation services provider.

However, it is the third approach to design - the invisible approach to design - which reveals the critical difference between politics on the one hand, and good nation design on the other: politics - the group of services provided by the nation service provider - is today very, very visible. In fact, we are constantly made aware of politicians and of the political, they are the opposite of invisible. This, despite the fact that it is actually a sector with relatively little progress: the pace of acceleration is a fraction of what it is in sectors such as computers and telecoms. Not many new states are created, and the ones that are mostly rely on variations of previously designed constitutions to define the rules of interaction between their citizens.

The point is this: they are visible and audible because they aren't working properly. If they were working properly, we would be as aware of politics as we are of properly functioning aircon systems.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The pretence of knowledge

nationcrafting: the pretence of knowledge

"If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.

He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, "dizzy with success", to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will.

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society - a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals."

from Friedrich Hayek's Nobel Prize lecture, 1974.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Law is code

nationcrafting: law is code

I'll start this essay with a little bit of info about the methods used to make software applications, such as the browser you're using to read this blog or the operating system that runs your computer. I'll then look into the possibility of applying those methods into the applications we use to interact with each other i.e our systems of law.

Software companies regularly go through processes during which an entire application is re-built from the ground up.

Why do they do this?

Well, applications are constantly renewed and improved to keep up with the market, adding new functionalities, simplifying some elements, making features more powerful or just more user-friendly. Software companies have a process for this, which typically involves taking user feedback, compiling bug-reports and inventing new ways of doing things that eventually end up forming the basis of newer versions of the software.

In order to do this, bits of programming code, or code patches, are attached to the main structure of the program.

As more and more code patches are added to the structure, after a while the program ends up looking, well, like a patchwork: a mesh of different things coded up by different programmers in different teams. The whole thing becomes harder and harder to improve: bits of code start conflicting with other bits of code, which then calls for debugging and a near-endless process of amending, correcting and re-writing code. The increasing complexity of this type of process is one of the reasons why software companies are so interested in programs that learn how to program other programs. Code writing code.

Aside from this, sometimes technological evolutions in the wider context (availability of new tools, etc.) become real game-changers, which leads to fundamental changes in the way things are done. At that point, instead of patching and re-patching bugs, the software company will simply decide to rewrite the whole program from the ground up, with all the new functionality as a part of the new technical specification.

This, in itself, would be a sufficient reason to at least evaluate the idea of regularly rebuilding from the ground up the code that we use to interact with each other. After all, what are laws if not simply lines of code copied and pasted from previous versions, amended as and when a new "bug" is discovered in human-to-human interaction?

Now, here's an interesting evolution on the concept: code is essentially "ideas made stuff".

This point is important, so I'll briefly explain an aspect of the ideas world that profoundly affects the nature of code as "ideas made stuff".

The ideas world is different to the material world of apples and cars and hats, in that it obeys very different economic rules. For example, when you and I each have an apple and swap apples, you and I still each have an apple. In the ideas world, when you and I each have an idea and we swap ideas, we each have two ideas! If there were such a thing as currency in the ideas world, we would both be twice as rich as before...

The value of ideas is hard to measure with the usual economic tools, because they are not only infinitely multipliable, so is the potential material wealth behind them. Think about the following scenario: I share a recipe for apple pie with you. You go to your home to make your apple pie, and I still get to go to my home and make my apple pie too. Apple pie is so much nicer than apples and flour and sugar and eggs, so we are definitely both "richer" from using the recipe for apple pie, but so is everyone who shares the recipe! Effortless multiplication leading to increased physical wealth, for everyone...

Finally, the ideas world is also much more "liquid" than the material world. More like water than objects, ideas just flow. Or, better put, if you try to keep them in a contained space, they just leak. Once an idea is out there, it's impossible to return it back to its original owner. Combined with its effortless multiplication, it therefore only needs to be shared between a few more people for it to become impossible to control.

So, going back to code, it'll quick dawn on you, if you put yourself in a software company's position, that you have a choice between two options:

1. You can try to tightly control the flow and multiplication of something whose nature it is to flow and multiply.


2. You can design your business to use the element's intrinsic properties the way a sailboat uses the wind to go forward, letting the wind do the work.

This latter way of thinking about it is the driving force behind open-source programming: opening up the source code of your software to the world, literally letting thousands of programmers into the container to look at the code, to debug it where they can and improve it at breathtaking speed, through the sheer number of brains devoted to creating something new and better.

In this mindset, the software company's production team takes on the role of editor or coordinator, to ensure that the bigger picture is not lost, but each programmer is entirely within his or her own right to take whatever code they find useful and modify it to create something else that is useful to them.

What's interesting about this phenomenon is that it turns a whole variety of tools into a constantly evolving pool of tools, each one having the potential to be very precise and yet each one being also highly malleable. The source code to an encryption system taken from an online shopping cart is re-used to encrypt the anonymous leaking of content to a political site whose own image-sharing tool is then re-used to create a group-edited visual guide that shows you how to do anything from tying a Windsor knot to changing the spark plugs in your car. Ideas, everywhere, made stuff.

What's also interesting about open-source code is that it perfectly follows the laws of the ideas world and yet, unlike other ideas or information, we are much more able to visualise its connection to the material world: many man-made things around you aren't just made better or easier with shared code, an increasing number of them simply wouldn't exist without shared code. You facebook someone to meet up, you Google the place you're going to meet and call them on their cellphone to ask which end of the street they are once you get there.

Code is the perfect example of the enormous potential of shared ideas. Under 'normal' circumstances, you need capital goods to increase production from digging one hole per week with a spade to digging a thousand holes per week with a bulldozer. Code, however, is like a thousand million bulldozers for the price of one. It creates infinite wealth, for everyone, with only a minimal amount of capital required: just enough capital to produce just one. Think about it: you and I are not that different from our ancestors in 50,000 BC, but it took just one person showing another person how to cook, hunt or farm, for the space between us - the space of shared ideas - to create leverage and augment the reach of our brains beyond the space that exists between our ears. Code expands this leverage not just to a higher number, but to a higher gear, i.e. to a different category of higher number. Using our earlier apple pie analogy, this is apple pies squared.

Because of the elusive sharing properties of ideas, and the difficulty in measuring their impact, we tend to forget to attach economic value to them. Ideas are often thought of as somehow inferior to 'real' things like oranges, cars and televisions. This is odd, if you consider that all the wealth you see around you, from oranges to cars and televisions, is the product of shared ideas and knowledge. But it's understandable, given that there is not much to ideas that is physically perceivable. They are only perceived after they are materialised, after they are incarnated, as it were, in the objects we perceive around us.

Margaret Thatcher once said that Japan was living proof that the greatest resource of any nation was its people. She was almost right: the greatest resource of any nation is its people's shared ideas and the ease with which any of its people can partake in the sharing of ideas, thus turning them into material wealth. Economically speaking, this ability to share ideas and knowledge will define the 21st century through and through: we are the first generation of humans to have nearly all of human knowledge available at our finger tips. Everything - from orange growing, to car designing, to television repairing, to mouse cloning and, ultimately, the science to improve our own selves - is all there, entirely free. We can add to it, or take it to create something that is useful to us. It's open-source.

More importantly, over the coming century, we will see a categorical difference in service quality between open source-minded nations and statist nations. This difference will dwarf the difference we would have once seen between fire-making and non-fire-making tribes of the past.

Why will the difference be so great?

Because the one sector in which open-source code will make a substantial difference, is the code that dictates the interaction between people themselves. As mentioned earlier in this essay: what is true for programming code holds at least some truth for the code that systematises human interaction i.e. our constitutions, our laws, our nation's institutions, all the methods we use for the smooth interaction between users and other users, and between users and the nation. Copy and paste the code, edit it, improve it to suit your needs, re-launch it.

We are taught in the press, in our schools and universities, that democracy is the be all and end all of political evolution. But even the most democratic states are just like those software companies that duly take note of users' bug reports and occasionally rewrite whole sections of their programming code to release a new version, unable or unwilling to make the jump towards the open-source way of developing code.

The key difference between software companies and states is the lack of competition among the latter for citizen-customers. States are geographical monopolies, they have no incentive to go open-source, to take the next step. Their institutions are more interested in asserting the superiority of democracy than in exploring the possibility that it might just be a stepping stone, that we might just be one step away from something categorically superior.

Over the coming century, however, the economic impact of software companies - those producers of "ideas made stuff" - will be so big that states as we define them today will simply become irrelevant as units of economic production, trade and consumption. One by one, industrial sectors are being transformed at their core by software companies. Who is the biggest music distributor in the world today? A software company. Who runs the biggest TV channel in the world today? A software company. Who will be tomorrow's biggest health service providers, law providers, housing providers, food providers, civil-security providers, money providers?... Software companies.

At that point, the idea of nations as service providers competing for citizen-customers will just be clear as water. Once we have competing nation-service providers, nations will likely go through the same evolutionary steps that software companies went through over the last 30 years. Just as software companies have increasingly had to make a choice between tightly controlling their code or using the element's intrinsic properties to improve their products and services, nations will increasingly be faced with a choice between tightly controlling the code we use to interact with each other, or using the element's intrinsic properties to improve their products and services.

Law is code, and the best code is open-source code.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The citizen-customer: designing post-democratic interaction systems

nationcrafting: the citizen-customer: designing post-democratic interaction systems

Back in the 70s, Milton Friedman once made an interesting comparison between government and the automobile industry, hypothesising that, if we chose our cars the way we choose our governments, the following scenario would result:

Every 5 years, car companies would send flyers out and be allocated ad space on TV channels to advocate the reason why we should all drive, say, a blue Ford Mondeo saloon car, a red Ferrari 2-seater, a grey Renault people carrier or a green Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle. Representatives of the different car brands would canvas from door to door and organise rallies where, rather than showing actual cars, they would promise all sorts of features to enthusiastic, banner-waving supporters.

Then, we would all vote according to our own strongly held ideological position, following which we would all - young and old, families and single men, green activists and climate-change deniers - have to drive the same car for the next 5 years.

Importantly, it would be an all-or-nothing manifesto that we would vote on, which would coerce the malcontents into 5 years of dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement.

So, now that we've highlighted the absurdity, let's look at how we can make serious improvement in this political process.

Why hold elections every 5 years? Why deny the opportunities for significant citizen feedback for such a long period of time? This, in an age when other organisations rely on near-instant feedback from their customers e.g. software companies, or any other companies that rely on Web 2.0. as a way to sustain constant dialogue with their customers?

The whole concept itself of "taking turns" every 5 years or so is something that inhibits the system's design evolution. This is obvious when you look at other sectors where evolution happens at a much faster rate. You don't see Apple and Microsoft taking turns every 5 years over who gets to run the operating system on your computer. You don't see Google and Bing taking turns every 5 years over who gets to provide you with internet search results.

Looking at it this way, two big questions appear:

1. Could it be that democracy is actually little more than a stepping stone, a simple evolutionary step towards a more citizen-empowering interaction system, rather than the be-all-and-end-all perfect system our institutions claim it to be?

2. Is it possible that our institutions might have turned democracy into a dogma and thereby locked it out of its own evolution course?

Nationcrafting starts with the realisation that there is room not just for some improvement, but for structural change of a similar size and depth as Web 2.0 has effected on the dynamics of many sectors of industry, where it changes not only what is produced and consumed, but how it is produced, how it is consumed, how it is paid for and by whom.

The important point to realise, however, is that change in those sectors was not effected from the inside. It's not as if technological change enabled the already existing players to evolve by their own accord.

Rather, technology enabled new players to enter a sector, offering new products and services in a new, easier, cheaper or better way. The existence of these new players is what triggered the old players to either change or wither away. For example, none of the established providers in the music industry came up with a product like iTunes, Apple did (and the change itself was, of course, triggered by Napster).

Similarly, it isn't the case that the old state institutions will change from the inside. There is no need for "nationcraftism", for an activist political design movement, for a revolution that attempts to change currently existing states from the inside.

Rather, new nation-like institutions will be formed by innovative organisations and entrepreneurs, which will provide nation services in a new, easier, cheaper or better way. Whether they will even ressemble "state" institutions is itself a big question.

It is likely that, in the beginning at least, these new nation-services providers will exist alongside existing states, not even labelling themselves as states, which means they will not enter the existing paradigm of conflict that arises whenever groups of people "declare independence" or otherwise assert their autonomy.

For example, we currently have online companies like Groupon that create a market pressure on providers to lower their prices in exchange for a significant amount of online users who are interested in their particular product. We also currently have price comparison websites like Opodo and Skyscanner that search a variety of airlines' databases for the best price on a ticket. We have all sorts of online entities interfacing between customers and companies, who make it their business to get you and me a better deal.

So, it's not inconceivable that there should soon be an online entity interfacing between citizens and existing states, searching for the best country a customer should be resident in, or domiciled in, what the costs are, what the time-implications are (e.g. how many months you have to live there to benefit from this or that policy), what would be involved in acquiring citizenship or residence and what the costs and benefits would be.

The service could manage customers' identity data and remind them of the things to do in order to get their paperwork sorted in time, or do much of the paperwork itself. It might, for example, be that customers need to have been in the country for a while before they can apply for residence, or that they can't be in the country for longer than a particular amount of time to benefit from a tax break, etc. It might even be the case that the company takes care of all paperwork between the customer and embassies, city councils, tax offices, like a one-stop-shop for everything citizen-related.

This is, after all, just data...

Getting a significant amount of customers would reduce the cost of services which are, today, only accessible to the wealthy few.

Then, when a sufficiently large number of people see that joining these new institutions provides more value for money than the taxes they pay to their state institutions, change will occur by itself: a mixture of competition and cooperation between these new breeds of service providers and the state will trigger the latter to either evolve or wither away.

Once this kind of evolution starts happening, the opportunity will exist for new nation-service providers to form and attract citizen-customers with a better deal.

This will happen in two ways:

1. On new territory being created, for example, by seasteading.

2. On territory leased from existing states to a new provider, in a similar way to the lease that used to exist between the UK and China with respect to Hong Kong before 1997.

Some notes on the former: the interesting thing, here, is that no claim would be made on the sea underneath the seasteads, so the organisational infrastructure is what seasteading customers would buy into (or get out from if they're unhappy with it). The other interesting thing is that seasteading communities could exist perfectly harmoniously alongside existing states, simply by having each individual seastead sail under a different flag of convenience. The 'hive' that is the group of seasteads - along with its organisational infrastructure - would be one thing, but each individual seastead would still be a part of an existing state, choosing whichever is most convenient.

Some notes on the latter: this would probably perform best in a city-nation model to reduce the level of management that would exist between citizen customer and service provider. We will look into this in later essays. Once a city-nation has been developed, as a "working prototype", we could start the replication of this working model in various other locations, both from franchise providers (today, fast food restaurants and coffee shops apply this model of business expansion very well) as well as from competitors studying the prototype and creating their own city-nation systems.

These ways are not exclusive: they could easily both develop at the same time. The aim is to increase choice, to create a better likelihood of matching the desires of each individual customer. There will be mainstream nation-services providers, and more niche ones. Alongside them will be meta-service providers or agencies interfacing between citizens and city-nations as well as existing states.

The conclusion of this essay is that, to generate an improvement in the nation-services sector, it is not useful or even necessary to take a political stand against an existing state system, to be an activist. The most effective way to change a bad company is not "join it and try to change it from the inside". The most effective way is to launch - or promote an existing - competing company providing a better service at a lower price.

The task, therefore, is to:

1. increase citizens' awareness of their state as little more than a service provider in a market of service providers.

2. increase citizens' ability to actually choose between the various existing nation-service providers, the way airline comparison websites have enabled travellers to instantly compare the deals offered by various airlines.

3. actually become a nation-services provider, using an alternative channel to the market in the same way that a software company like Apple became a music distributor with iTunes.

All of these will get a "free market of nations" or "competing governments" system underway, which will then trigger an evolution in citizen-customer interactions and services from the primitive state they are today into something more in line with the interactions and services we are used to in other sectors.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Human sacrifice or ice skating?

nationcrafting: human sacrifice or ice skating

Today is 14 July, Bastille Day in France. Every town and city is getting ready for fireworks and public celebrations.

Interestingly, this year, the day after Bastille Day is tax freedom day in France. No fireworks or public celebrations, but an interesting subject to ponder about while recovering from a hangover.

Tax Freedom Day: the day that separates the income you've earned this year which is confiscated by the tax man, from the income which you get to keep for yourself.

Much has been written about the Aztecs' custom of sacrificing something or someone dear to them to the gods, hoping in return for sufficient crops to last them through the winter season.

Taxes are a sacrifice of similar proportions today, with perhaps equally dubious outcomes: Europeans, every year, sacrifice six months of full-time work to the state, hoping in return for a roof over their head and food in their belly during the winter season of their lives.

As for actual human sacrifice, no Aztec gods ever demanded it in such quantities as the various states of Europe did throughout the twentieth century. Millions of their victims' names cover the monuments of our city squares. The 'morts pour la patrie' - those who 'died for the fatherland' - are actually the lucky ones: the unlucky ones were deported, gassed to death and turned into soap bars.

Let's see if we can improve this depressing picture. Let's re-frame the interaction between the nation and the citizen, by looking at the role of the state as that of a nation-services provider.

The first thing to strike us is fundamental: service providers do not normally kill or threaten to kill their customers, nor do they rely on coercion to get customers to keep on buying their services regardless of the quality of service provided. Customers are not forced to part with their money to purchase anyone's goods or services. There is no "buy this, or else...".

Instead, designers and product developers in competing companies have to make a great deal of effort to offer something different and better to attract customers. The interaction with the customer is done on a voluntary basis, making customers much more powerful than citizens.

Your phone service provider doesn't claim the right to send you to fight a war against other phone providers, killing and maiming their customers - whom you have no personal quarrel with - or being killed by them instead.

Your phone service provider doesn't force you to pay more because your neighbour cannot afford the service. You are free to pay for your neighbour if you feel it is your moral duty to support him using you own, personal set of values and human compassion.

Your phone service provider doesn't send you to jail if you judge the price or service to represent bad value for money and decide to spend your money on other providers, or even other goods and services instead.

The same cannot be said about most state institutions.

Let's consider, as an example, the famous case of Rosa Parks, the American black civil rights heroine who wouldn't sit in the back of the bus.

In a free market, Rosa Parks would simply have been an alternative customer. Bus companies would perhaps have labelled her a "niche market", and if the bus she was on prohibited her to sit anywhere but the back, another bus company would surely have seen the opportunity to cater for her segment of the market and advertised the fact that, on their buses, black people can sit anywhere they like. Problem solved.

Instead, Rosa Parks faced the inflexibility of a state which claimed the rules of interaction to be just fine as they were and, rather than seeking to improve the service it offered to the citizen, was so opposed to the idea of change that it sent policemen and soldiers to stop it from happening.

This is not that surprising: the state is, after all, a monopoly. There is no competition to it within its geographical space. The natural outcome of this state of affairs is that perfectly decent people have to go on hunger strikes, fight the police, be labelled criminals and even die before change can be effected. You see, change always comes from the outside: it arises when an external factor is applied to a balanced system, making it lose its balance and then to find a new equilibrium point that takes the new factor into account. If a geographical monopoly status exists, as it currently does in the nation services sector, then change can only really occur when customers vote with their feet, or when they apply political force. The external factors that would give citizens the power of customers simply do not exist. So, change and improvement cannot happen at anywhere near the pace we are used to seeing in other areas of our lives.

Let me be clear, corporations are by themselves just as keen as the state to maintain a status quo that is favourable to them. It's just that external factors are applied to their balance by other corporations that are just as keen to find new customers. In a free market, you just change providers. Customers who are unhappy with their mobile phone service will just switch over to another provider. Furthermore, where no good provider exists at a particular price, any customer can try to become a provider himself. As a result of this, a new provider will quickly arrive on the market, constantly offering better goods and services at lower prices to the consumer.

The moral case is even stronger: the free market model of competing nation-service providers is the only space today that makes possible, for example, the concept of civil disobedience, Gandhi's theory of individual non-participation with evil. Customers are, by definition, free not to participate in whatever project they consider evil and take their custom to a competitor. Even political change is sometimes effected via consumer mass boycotts.

Outside of the state, every sector of our lives is constantly being designed and re-designed, analysed and modified, rethought and relaunched, sampled and optimised for personal preferences, cultural bias and local prices.

Outside of the state, everything you see around you - from fragrances to furniture, from tableware to technology - has been designed to make you happy. Where it has failed to do so, an opportunity exists for new designers to improve things.

Outside of the state, economics and design are closely intertwined lovers: we give them the freedom to meet and play together, and they glide, pull and dance around each other, more perfectly synchronised than the most elegant pair of ice skaters, and more beautiful to watch than any Bastille Day fireworks.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Designing emergent government

nationcrafting: designing emergent government

John Conway, the mathematician, developed a wonderful mathematical game he called "Game of Life" which is an excellent way to understand the concept of meta-intelligence, or the emergent intelligence I spoke about in my last essay.

On a large grid, a few squares are coloured either black (live) or left white (dead) according to a very simple rule:

1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies.
2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies.
4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell.

The rule is repeated, round after round, ad infinitum, so this is a zero-player game once it starts. In other words, the player sets up the game and has no subsequent input in the game's outcome.

Very soon, we see patterns emerge and larger shapes "moving" across the grid. Of course, just like the knot in the rope we discussed in earlier essays, no cells actually do any of the moving: intricate shapes are just being translated from cell group to cell group, round after round. You get shapes of just 5 black cells, for example, that "bounce off each other" turning on and off, each round translating the whole shape one cell up and one cell to the right. Conway called those shapes "gliders". You also have what he called "guns": shapes that, as the grid redraws itself round after round, appear to emit gliders on a regular basis. The animation above is one of those.

The point is this: all these shapes and patterns exist purely in a kind of meta-reality, that is, a reality that is beyond the one each of the cells inhabits individually. It is worth noting that the individual cells are not wise or enlightened, they do not have any kind of awareness of the collective shapes that are formed. They do not need to be wise or enlightened about the larger shapes in order for the larger shapes to form. The movement we perceive of "glider" shapes passing over the grid, and of "guns" emitting "gliders" into existence, etc. exists on a fundamentally different level.

This relationship between the individual cell's reality and the collective or "hive" reality is something only a handful of economists have properly understood. One of them is Thomas Schelling, who had a flash of inspiration when entering a hall he was about to give a lecture in as he was struck by the odd seating pattern of the audience in front of him:

"There are several reasons we might interest ourselves in what it is that the people in this audience were doing, or thought they were doing, or were trying to do, when they seated themselves in that way.

One is that we may not like the result: we prefer they all be in the first twenty-four rows, not the last twenty-four, or distributed over the whole auditorium. If we want to change the pattern with a minimum of organization, interfering as little as possible with the preferences of the audience, we need to know whether we can subtly change their incentives or their perceptions of the auditorium itself, so that they will 'voluntarily' choose a better seating pattern.

Before we do any such thing we ought to know whether the audience itself likes the seating arrangement that it chose organically, and whether the fact that they chose their seats as they did is evidence that they must be satisfied with the final outcome.

A second reason for interest is that there may be something about this process that reminds us of other situations in which people locate themselves voluntarily in some pattern that does not possess evident advantages even for the people who by their own choices form the pattern."

What nationcrafting is about, then, is a kind of analysis that explores the relation between the behaviour of individuals who comprise a hive, and the characteristics of the hive itself. In another essay, Schelling walks down a similar path, this time coming close to John Conway's model, by describing the scenario of car drivers turning their lights on or off depending on their perception not only of the lightness or darkness of their environment, but of the other drivers who themselves live by the same "rule" or "algorithm" that they live by:

"There are easy cases, of course, in which an aggregate is merely an extrapolation from the individual. For example, if we know that every driver, on his own, turns his car's lights on at sundown, we can guess that, from a helicopter's point of view, we shall see all the car lights in a local area going on at about the same time. We could even get our compass bearings by reflecting that the cascade of lights will flow westward as the dusk settles.

But if most people turn their lights on when some fraction of the oncoming cars already have their lights on, we'll get a different picture from our helicopter. In this case, drivers are responding to each other's behavior and influencing each other's behavior. People are responding to an environment that consists of other people responding to their environment, which consists of people responding to an environment of people's responses.

Sometimes the dynamics are sequential: if your lights induce me to turn mine on, mine may induce someone else but not you. Sometimes the dynamics are reciprocal: hearing your car horn [ anger, or to celebrate something...], I honk mine, thus encouraging you to honk more insistently.

These situations, in which people's behavior or people's choices depend on the behavior or the choices of other people, are the ones that usually don't permit any simple summation or extrapolation to the aggregates. To make that connection, we usually have to look at the system of interaction between individuals and their environment, that is, between individuals and other individuals or between individuals and the collectivity."

The point made by Schelling is sometimes arrived at intuitively by interactive designers, especially those working in multi-user gaming environments and artificial intelligence. Truly, the modes of thinking between "economic thinkers" and "design thinkers" are very similar indeed. The question I keep asking myself is why professionals in each field are so unlikely to be familiar with the work or mindset of professionals in the other field. How many designers are truly aware of the economist's mindset? Many would never be caught dead talking to "boring" economists. And, somehow, it seems many economists have an equal aversion to communicate with designers.

Those intrinsic properties of the individual cells (of persons, in other words) are the cornerstone of the nation, and it is through their interactions with the other cells (Friedrich Hayek might have called them "praxeological" or "catallactic" exchanges), that we bring about the meta-structure, the spontaneous emergent intelligence that is the nation.

The lesson for aspiring nation designers is clear: it is essential to have a deep understanding both of the rules that individual cells on the grid live by and communicate through, and of the odd and unintended consequences that changing interaction rules, or any of the variables, has on the system.

Indeed, nothing can be started without this understanding because, unlike the programmer in John Conway's Game of Life - who at least gets to control the rule that turns each square on or off - the nation designer doesn't actually get to "enforce" the rule that each individual cell, each human being in the system, lives by. Based on the coercive power of the state which has been exercised throughout history, we may feel that we can lay down the law and enforce the rules, but any such system will eventually implode through the sheer pressure of the superorganism's reaction to this misdirected force of coercion. Revolutions and economic collapses are quick to follow, until the nation designer realises that he must work with the grain, with the intrinsic properties of the individual cell. Coercion is not even bad nation design, it's the opposite of nation design.

The good news for designers is that we have started from the right place: it is the individual user's experience we design most of our work for anyway. Be it in product design or architecture, no designer has ever relied on individual user coercion to make a design work, or even to achieve a certain result from the user that would provide a better outcome for all users. Apple already designs its iPhone interface so that the individual user might experience what Csikszentmihalyi called 'flow' (more on this in another essay...). What this approach to interface design has in common with most economic incentive-based models is the fact that users' engagement is always 'voluntary'.

Both economic models and interface designs are essentially user-centric because they have to be so, the individual user never has to do anything that doesn't come naturally to him. Voluntary engagement is the starting point from which to apply our design skills in designing the system of interaction between the individual users and other individual users, and between the individual users and the nation's institutions, in order to arrive at a nation design that is both intelligent and essentially human.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Doing without doing

nationcrafting: doing without doing

For centuries, people in the Far East who are in the business of making things have understood a concept which Taoists call "Wu Wei". This is defined as "working with the way life itself already works", "getting your own self out of the way", "effortless doing" or "doing without doing".

Great musical performers "do without doing": they just play and the music comes out just perfect. Get their thoughts, their self, in the way and the music goes wrong.

There are many things that you, too, "do without doing": you don't think about making your heart beat, for example, or about which enzymes you should produce to digest the small fish you just ate for lunch. You do not need to learn and remember these actions, your body learns and remembers them for you, so you just "get out of the way". The system is too complex to be dealt with at a conscious level.

There are also some actions which you have consciously learned to do, like walking, driving a car or interacting with a properly designed computer interface, which you now "do without doing". The upshot of this is that you can now walk and talk about complex subjects like nationcrafting at the same time. In the words of Nike, you "just do it".

Taoists also have a word for a pattern of design that is so complex as to appear, to the untrained eye, like chaos. They call this "Li".

Li is the organic flow-pattern of water and fire, Li is the process that shapes the texture of your muscles and the grain in a piece of wood. It's the way things in nature "just do it": how they are born, change, grow and die.

You could think of Li as nature's method of "doing without doing".

In a nation, there is Li, too. When Frédéric Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari expressed their wonder at the beauty of the free market, the underlying intelligence through which humans arrive at a natural balance of production and cooperation without any authority telling them to produce or cooperate, they were expressing their wonder at the nation's Li, which leads to economic growth and prosperity for humans just as surely as the free flow of tree sap leads to the shape and structure of the woodgrain that best ensures the growth of our magnificent trees and forests.

The interesting thing about Li is that, while its patterns may appear extremely complex, they're actually the result of emergent properties brought about through the interaction of large groups of cells, each cell following extremely simple rules of interaction with a small amount of neighbouring cells.

The rule governing the behaviour of each individual cell within the organism is really simple, but the product of all the individual cells interacting with each other is of an entirely different category. That product's beauty emerges out of the multiplicity itself.

Not one cell within the organism possesses any kind of power or intellligence to control the organism itself, and yet the outcome appears so surprisingly controlled and balanced that we feel it must hint at some kind of higher intelligence planning the whole thing. That feeling of higher intelligence is the foundation of leadership and government we have had in Europe for the past 2,000 years.

In European culture, there is a cell in the organism to whom we have given the power to control the organism itself, and this leader has traditionally been imbued with properties reserved for some kind of god-like being: the Greek word for church is "basilica", which is the house of the "basilis", the king. In the Christian religion, the image of Christ as a king is very common, and many kings have claimed their powers were given to them from a god above, from a perceived supra-intelligence.

But the higher intelligence is unnecessary, just as the idea of a leader is unnecessary. The real "leader" is simply the set of properties that exists within each of the individual cells, the higher intelligence is simply the product that emerges from the complexity. It is perhaps better defined as a meta-intelligence, rather than a supra-intelligence.

True insight into nationcrafting requires an understanding of this emergent intelligence - call it our Li - to work with the human grain and let the nation grow. Once we get good at that, once we understand it the way a piano player understands the performance so well that his hands remember without his mind having to remind them, then we too can start effortless government, a nation just 'doing without doing'.