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'.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

The garden and the gardener

nationcrafting: the garden and the gardener

Let's start this essay by considering various types of garden design.

If you look at European gardens, and at Italian and French formal garden designs of the Enlightenment period in particular, the position of the gardener in relation to the garden is clear: the gardener is a force competing against nature, taming nature and forcing his geometric designs upon the garden. The gardens of Europe's palaces look like small cities made of grass, plants and trees.

In Japanese gardens, on the other hand, the gardener sees himself as a part of nature. He is, as it were, another plant, albeit one with no roots in the ground, and with the intelligence to influence the balance of the garden as a whole. His culture is not distinct from nature, it is a part of nature, just as the ability to grow flowers and live out a symbiotic relationship with bees is part of nature.

As a result of this difference in outlook, many Japanese gardens are naturally harmonious, created with a deep knowledge of how plants grow naturally, and working with this natural growth, rather than against it. Over the long term, they're not trying to break out of the shape they've been designed in, because the shape already took their growth into consideration.

Just as it is easier for a woodcutter to cut a piece of wood going along the grain than against it, so it is easier for a gardener who understands each plant's growth pattern to bring out the emergent harmony of the garden.

Japanese gardens make gardening look easy: they look as if they just grow themselves. Some Japanese gardens designed during the Edo period are still growing today in the way they were designed to grow, with garden maintenance seen as a complementary action, for example, to plant seeds being blown by the wind.

This difference in relationship between garden and gardener is fundamental when considering the vast ecology that is a nation. The "European garden" type of state assumes that the nation itself is a chaotic entity that must be tamed and subjected to various forms of pressure in order to ressemble anything like an 'ordered' garden. The "Japanese garden" type of nation design, on the other hand, works with the nation's intrinsic growth properties.

It's interesting to see that many of our ideas around the nation state originated roughly at the time of the Enlightenment, the age when our gardens started taking on the shape of cities, straight and square. Many of our constitutions have changed only superficially since then.

The central and all-encompassing role of the state in France, for example, hasn't been questioned much since the days of the Enlightenment, which is why we still constantly see politicians of all parties behaving like dictatorial gardeners hectoring their gardens into shape.

What they seem not to realise is that - in our nation/garden metaphor - it's the plants themselves we're supposed to be designing our gardens for.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

From dotcom to dotgov

nationcrafting: from dotcom to dotgov

Every designer, from architect to automobile designer, is supposed to design with an eye towards the humans who are going to use the product, and yet it is only with the advent of the web that the terms "usability" and "user-centric" became common currency among designers.

So, if there's one thing the web has taught designers, it's the idea of "used form": form that is measured and evaluated as it is being used, as the user jumps from one conceptual space to another with, hopefully, as little frustration as possible.

Question: how is the user's engagement - or frustration - measured?

Answer: by the number of users simply clicking away to another website.

For example, the measure which some interaction designers call "site drop": the percentage of people visiting an online shop who add items in their online shopping cart but just don't bother completing their transaction.

Under these circumstances, different qualities start emerging from form, such as usability and user flow, the quality of user satisfaction and general happiness to continue with the current interaction or information flow.

These are some of the qualities that interest us, as aspiring nation designers, because much of the interaction with the nation (represented by its institutions) is an interaction with entities that are not objects but forms. To go back to the metaphor of the knot: when you interact with a nation's institution, you interact with a knot, a form through which humans pass, more of an idea-thing than an actual thing.

So, let's compare the quality of our current interaction with the state and the quality of our interaction with the web. Let's look for a way to express a nation design's measure of user engagement or frustration, the way it is expressed in interactive design in terms of users simply clicking away and using another website instead. It'll quickly become clear that this ability to click away, to go somewhere else, which has ensured the rapid evolution of the web as a whole, is extremely primitive in the current system of interaction between citizens and nations.

The nation's users, the citizens, effectively get to "click" only once every five years or so, during elections. Even then, the options available are not actually options to "click away" to another nation. Users can, of course, "click away" by physically going away, "voting with their feet", moving their person and belongings to another nation.

However, this is a costly exercise for most of them: selling their house, gathering objective information about other nations, learning another language, dropping their social network of friends, leaving their families, quitting their job, getting a visa or work permit to work somewhere else, etc.

These factors are just some of the reasons why so many humans remain attached, like mussels to a rock, to the same state throughout their lives. They partly explain why, despite the fact that both websites and nations are forms rather than objects, the former are evolving in terms of usability at a very rapid rate, whereas the latter remain mostly stagnant.

Until we get to a point where the users of our nations have the option to get out with the same ease they currently have when clicking away to another website, this difference in evolution rate will remain. As a result, of course, the difference between the quality of our online services and the quality of our nations' services will keep on growing. The former will outshine the latter until the point, sometime in the future, when technology enables users to move their person and belongings to another nation at significantly lower cost, both personal and financial. Perhaps, at that point, the relationship between nation and individual will be such that they will not even need to move anything physical, just their data.

Any bad nation service providers will then quickly become like a knot without a rope, a ghost of the shape that once was.

As nation designers, therefore, our measure of comparison, our Litmus test, will be that of the web, always keeping in mind the option our users will have, in the future, of simply "clicking away" to another nation.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Tying knots in a rope

nationcrafting: tying knots in a rope

What can a designer bring to the business of governing a nation?

Let's start our journey with a relatively abstract, simple visual idea: a knot in a string.

We look at the knot and see it as something distinct from the string. In other words, we look at it as a thing, much in the same way that we look at other things: apples, hats and houses.

However, a knot is, essentially, form. It's a shape within a string. It's just a bunch of string going a particular way so as to look like a separate thing, or separate enough that we should have a separate name for it.

The difference becomes clearer when you move the knot up and down a piece of string. Some simple knots can be moved along a string quite easily: you put your finger in one of the hoops, and you pull to the side, gently so the knot doesn't get too tight, and the knot itself will move down the string. Depending on the grip of the string, this movement can be more or less fluid.

As the knot moves up and down the string, see how the stuff it's made from - the string itself - just passes through it.

See also how the knot may move left and right on the string, but no stuff actually moves left and right, only the form of the knot.

The metaphor is this: human institutions are just knots, 'forms' moving up and down the stuff that is human beings. The idea of the nation as an actual thing or object is an illusion. The nation is form, just like all other human associations are form.

One of the upshots of this is that - aside from the level of grip and of flexibility within the string itself (levels which actually depend on the individual particles that connect to each other to make up the string) - the shape of the knot is largely independent of the string itself.

Similarly, the shape of our institutions is largely independent of the people running them. It is a myth that all you have to do to turn bad state institutions into good ones is to put good people in them. It's not just a case of 'our guys' versus 'their guys' running the show: if the knot itself is the wrong shape, if its shape is unfit for its purpose, then whether the string is made of silk or cotton doesn't change the fact that the same knot needs to be unpicked and redone, or that a new knot needs to be created alongside it.

To do that, we need designers. Specifically, we need interaction-aware designers, designers who understand and actively study the interaction between humans and the systems they design.

After all, the only really important measure of any design is how people interact with it.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

What is nationcrafting?

nationcrafting: looking at the nation as a designed product

What does nationcrafting - crafting a nation - mean?

It means taking the political out of politics and looking at government as a designed product instead: something which can be designed, created, modified, re-modified, discontinued, re-launched with new features, etc.

Some products come with a panoply of different features, others will focus on just one, but aim to be the best in category. Some products are very empowering and customisable, but complicated to use, others just do everything in the background and are extremely user-friendly and pleasant to interact with.

In the product design sector, this constant re-thinking and improvement on the design of a product is done in response not just to user feedback but, just as importantly, in response to competition from other brands with new, improved, or just different offerings.

The same holds true for nationcrafting: the nation's design responds to user feedback as much as it responds to other brands - i.e. other nations - on what is, effectively, a "market of nation providers".

I use the word "product" in a very broad sense of the word, not just what comes under the usual category of "product design" in design school. So, we're not just comparing government to cars, cellphones, hats and soft drinks, but also to price comparison websites, rent-a-car services, phone service providers, online music stores, etc.

I also use the word "nation" rather than, say, "state", because the state and the institutions we associate with it are just one of the ways one could go about providing the services people expect from a nation provider. The point is not to look within the framework of what already exists - the state - but about identifying better alternatives to the way things have been done until now i.e. alternatives to the very idea of state itself.