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.


  1. A Nation is a concept - an abstraction that defines a collection of peoples within a land mass who share a collective history,customs and culture. The Nation State, in theory, has sovereign status and is governed under international and national laws. It consists of various institutions which are ostensibly created to serve the 'State' and it's peoples.

    The suggestion of an elite (which you refer to as 'designers') calling the shots already exists - except they are not called designers...just a bunch of shadowy, self-important and arrogant people who usually set rules and agendas that serve their own class, at the expense of the exploitation of the ordinary people, who are usually not even aware of how or why things are the way they are.

    Elections are simply a clever device that creates the illusion for people to believe that they have a say...the 'designers' are not elected, but they pull the strings that make the (pre-selected) 'elected' marionettes move at their will. Not sure where 'users of nations' can 'get out' a globalised world it's a case of powerful military/financial interests (call them powerful nations if you wish) exploiting militarily weaker ones...however, this model has peaked is is crumbling...due partly to the information revolution. It's difficult to maintain control if you can't keep people perpetually ignorant/misinformed, as had been possible in pre-internet days.

    But it's a nice idea...just click to another reality if the current one you are experiencing doesn't work or serve you needs anymore...

  2. Hello Aka,

    Thank you very much for your comment.

    I think we are more in agreement than you think, albeit that we are using different words to describe what we see, and these different words have the potential to create misunderstandings.

    Nationcrafting - as I described it in my earlier essays - is the opposite of "elites calling the shots". Nation designers no more call the shots than designers of furniture call the shots about which furniture you put in your home. If anything, it's the buyers of furniture who call the shots, given that they can always buy something else, from someone else.

    Nationcrafting is also the opposite of an elections-based system. Again, looking at furniture designers, Ikea and Habitat do not take turns, every 5 years or so, in designing furniture for you. They exist side by side, competing with each other to sell you their furniture. You choose which furniture you prefer with every pound you spend. Most importantly, if you're not happy with the designs Ikea and Habitat propose, you always have the option of starting your own furniture shop and start designing your own chairs and tables.

    Nationcrafting is about designing government under these conditions, which I believe will become a reality sooner than we think, mostly as a result of convergent technologies which will open up opportunities for citizens to "shop around" for what they feel is best for them.

    Under these conditions, just as there is no "best way to design a sofa" or "best way to design a cellphone", there will be no "best way to design a nation", only what works for each individual person.

    Because of this, I am not an activist, and this is not an activist blog: I don't need to sell you my point of view, or convert you to what I think is best. Cars are not designed using an elections process, houses are not designed by activist architects.

    I don't need to be an activist, because nationcrafting will just be the way government services are supplied when the technological landscape evolves for it to be so.