Trust Centered Design

Among the various pieces of depressing news I heard last week is the extent of the disinformation campaign during the COVID19 outbreak. By now we should be used to right-wing forces aligning to spread misinformation. The epidemic is no exception.

Notice the delicious irony – Hypocrite turned into Hippocrates in a hate tweet about a medical emergency.

Like many other such trends, Trump was on top of the misinformation campaign, calling it the "Chinese Virus," a meme that spread (virally?) across the right-wing twittersphere. Having had their day with Muslims earlier this year, the desi right wing also turned towards China.

Then there’s the straightforward production of falsehood. It turns out that India is a big (biggest?) source of fake videos about the viral outbreak. We were doing quite well at producing fake political news when the viral outbreak gave us an opportunity to expand our repertoire. Once lying becomes a habit of thought in one sphere, it’s only a matter of time before it generalizes to other spheres, especially if the lies are trusted and that trust is monetizable.

As I have written elsewhere, the capture of emotion – both by Surveillance Capital and the Surveillance State – is one of the most important developments of the last thirty years. Trust is an emotion; sometimes keenly felt and sometimes sublimated into institutions and transactions that operate in the background. Is it any wonder that the commoditization of trust is of interest to surveillance capital/state?

Hand in hand with dad
Photographer: Liane Metzler | Source: Unsplash

Trustworthy Institutions

Our need for trustworthy institutions is heightened during a crisis, just when we are worried that the system is breaking down. One lesson we have learned in the last two hundred years is that capitalism left to itself will extract profit where it can and destabilize everything else in its wake. The market cannot be the only institution running our lives. We need other institutions that balance out the power of the market. That's true in every sphere that markets colonize – it was true for work when assembly line work prompted the creation of labor unions and it needs to be true of emotional labor (what else is a like or a retweet or a forward?). In other words, we need institutions that guarantee trust and skills that help us design trustworthy institutions across the varieties of work and play.

Such institutions already exist – the media and the state are primarily institutions of trust aren't they? Newspapers want to be seen as telling the truth and informing us about the everyday course of the epidemic. Just as I was writing this essay, I saw this ad at the bottom of a George Monbiot article I happened to be reading when my focus flagged.

Governments also get it. Elections broker power, but they also broker trust. In a crisis, governments signal trust by showing us they are responding appropriately: imposing lockdowns, passing giant stimulus bills, racing to manufacture ventilators and so on. While important, these are sporadic efforts tied to a specific context.

I don't think these existing institutions are enough, especially in a world that's going to face new challenges of a planetary nature. We need to be able to spin up trustworthy institutions at a moments notice – could be a nationwide drought, another pandemic or, on the positive side, new uses of AI for creating prosperity. These challenges should spur a systematic effort to design trustworthy artifacts and institutions, similar to how human centered design (HCD) became a thing when computing devices spread from the world of geeks to the everyday consumer.

Eye contact.
Photographer: Ani Kolleshi | Source: Unsplash

Designing for Trust


Because trust is the glue of life.

Like good design, it stays in the background and makes the world ‘work’. That’s why I don’t think twice about handing you a dollar for a cup of coffee and you don’t think about accepting it – trust that the monetary system is guaranteed by central banks is one reason why we have nation states. It’s only when the system breaks down that you notice the innards of our trust-making mechanisms.

We are in one of those breakdown situations, where our streets and stores have been emptied because we don’t trust what happens when we come in proximity with others. Even our friends and neighbors. Like any number of other human institutions, trust is grounded in visceral human interactions – shaking hands, giving hugs, etc – all of which are now restricted if not banned. I won't be surprised if these restrictions impact our perception of trust. We don’t know how long this enforced isolation will last, but there’s a good chance some behaviors are going to change forever.

COVID 19 is only the first of many upcoming disruptions; climate change will bring a host of new ones; automation and AI will have their impact and there are always Martians to worry about. We need systems that can rapidly adapt to emergent disruptions. Knowledge of those disruptions will have to be gathered and disseminated in real time. Expertise from a wide range of disciplines will have to be curated, meshed and deployed with speed and scale. Trust is a matter of both facts and values – we need to trust that the world is being represented as it is and those representations are in the service of human and planetary flourishing. In other words, an accurate representation of both material and moral complexity. Further, such systems will have to be public and universal by design, not tied to national, racial or ethnic boundaries.

Trusted Knowledge

I believe if we trace back to its roots, we will eventually hit one of three bedrocks:

  1. Love and care: mother's love, literally.
  2. Power: trust in authority, often backed by fear. State power in particular.
  3. Knowledge: trust in facts, reason, science etc.

Why these three and not others? Why not God? Perhaps I should qualify my claims as saying: the three primary sources of trust in this world.

#2, Power, is more opaque to me than the other two so I am not going to talk about it. As a parent, I have a visceral connection to the first but I don't know how it translates into public institutions. So that leaves the third where I have a direct stake as a scholar. I will end this essay with some thoughts on designing trusted systems of knowledge.

Contestation over knowledge are endemic in the global village, whether companies fighting over patents or scientists who claim priority. Sometimes that contestation veers into outright denial – the well funded campaign against the reality of climate change being the best known. On other occasions the facts are accepted but their origins are questioned. The insistent claims that the Corona virus was created in a Chinese lab are good example.

Of course, some of the viral conspiracies are true: Stuxnet was created in a lab.

These contestations erode trust in knowledge. Scientists don't help their case when many influential studies can't be replicated. To be honest, I am not surprised – to the extent knowledge is a commodity, it too will suffer from boom and bust cycles like copper or real estate.

That's bad news for trust in knowledge is essential in a world of uncertainties. We don't know what the future holds, but we can sleep easy if we know there are good systems for mapping and tracing new developments. If those systems don't work and the world stays turbulent, how can we believe in a stable life?

Which is to say we need to fix the knowledge trust deficit urgently.

The scientific community's response to the Corona virus is quite heartening. We also have excellent resources that can serve as seeds for a knowledge commons: open courseware, wikipedia etc. Can we build an “open wisdom” system on top of these existing trustworthy resources and emerging patterns of rapid scientific collaboration?

I believe so.

A draft picture of what open wisdom might look like is given in the above figure as a way of starting a conversation. Fleshing that picture out will require forays into technology platforms, behavior change, cognitive science, wisdom design…

More next week.



Photographer: Federico Pompei | Source: Unsplash


One of my favorite phrases these days is “adjacent possible,” coined by Stuart Kauffman while exploring the origins of biological complexity. It’s like moving one seat over in a movie theater so that another couple can also sit next to each other. Or Amazon muscling into the movie market after mastering the art of selling books. Or bacteria that used to gobble soap also discovering a taste for bees and causing the end of civilization. In other words, what isn’t real yet but can become so by making a plausible shift.

As they say in Kannada “solpa adjust maadi.”

Photographer: Adam Sherez | Source: Unsplash


Design makes the adjacent possible in the worlds of engineering and commerce and that, over time, leads to substantially new patterns of behavior. Consider how web pages were first designed to replicate the physical page but once scrolling became an accepted and intuitive gesture, designers started creating websites with infinite scrolling. Which can never happen in the physical world.

I find it revealing that the business world supports several professional classes – various types of designers, architects etc – that look for the adjacent possible as a matter of course. In contrast, academia has a very unprofessional approach to the adjacent. Not only is there no academic cadre of professional “knowledge designers,” the people tasked with doing research are rarely taught how to arrive at new research questions and ideas – neither too outlandish to be unacceptable nor too similar to be boring. There’s no knowledge studio in which more experienced researchers critique the creative ideas of students. Consider how research seminars critique the rigor of experimental design and test whether alternative hypotheses might explain a phenomenon. But there’s never a research seminar that subjects the ideas themselves to an evaluation of novelty.

What kind of innovation is it where the innovations aren’t systematically judged for their innovativeness?

Perhaps you think my emphasis on novelty is itself a sign of capitalist indoctrination. Who cares about novelty besides tenure seeking professors? School teachers aren’t expected to be novel, and aren’t they the most common face of knowledge? Yes and No. School teachers are the visible face of the industrial approach to knowledge, but as an institution, the profession of teaching isn’t really geared for the knowledge economy.

Meanwhile, the “higher knowledge” industries still pretend as if they are artisanal traditions. Which is why it’s possible for professors to rail against the evils of capitalism while belonging to organizations that are 75% adjunct, i.e., the profession with the largest percentage of precarious labor. We live in a knowledge society but we don’t have a universal class of knowledge professionals and we certainly lack the further distinction between knowledge designers and knowledge engineers.

Photographer: Sven Mieke | Source: Unsplash


What I am looking for is a new creative profession, comparable to architecture and design.

Every profession deemed universal is represented throughout society. Doctors ply their wares in rural clinics, small town hospitals and the Harvard Medical School. Lawyers occupy the White House every four years. Engineers and architects work for the department of transport, the local real estate contractor and Google. There’s a teacher in every village.

The only knowledge professionals we have are found in universities, where they’re typically called professors. Even there, professors aren’t certified as knowledge professionals but as bearers of some specialized body of knowledge. There’s nothing that makes a professor into a professor; there are only professors of history and chemistry. That’s strange, for lawyers can’t be lawyers without passing the bar, engineers need to be certified and teachers need a degree in education. We mark our respect for a profession by declaring a badge that certifies entry into that profession.

That certificate also universalizes the profession, so that it can take root in every nook and corner of modern society. You might say that a PhD is the certificate for professors. It’s partly true, but most PhD’s aren’t professors and will never be one. Most PhD’s leave the profession of professing, or worse, languish as adjunct faculty. If the certification is a signal of respectable livelihood, then a PhD is a very poor guarantee. Imagine the heartburn that would ensue if 70% of those with a law or medical degree had a position that paid close to minimum wage and no hope of getting a better job.Every startup has a CEO, a CTO and a COO. They don’t have CKOs. The ivory tower has prestige, but intellectually, it’s as much a ghetto as it’s a beacon.

In any case, a PhD is a certification of specialized knowledge, not of knowledge as such. A knowledge bearer should be closer to a philosopher, a practical philosopher, than a possessor of arcane information. Socrates thought his role was to be the midwife of wisdom. I believe that role is far more important today than it was in Athens in 399 BCE. We are deluged by information on the one hand and plagued by uncertainty about the future on the other. The information deluge and uncertainty aren’t unrelated; the world is changing quickly, which leads to more information — both signal and noise — and more uncertainty.

In times of knowledge scarcity, knowledge professions are gate keepers to access — which is why we have priesthoods and ivory towers. We have moved far from those times. Knowledge is no longer about access but about value: what trends are important and what are fads? What’s worth learning and why? In the future, every individual, every company and every society will rise or fall on the basis of its understanding of value. We need a new category of professionals who will act as weather vanes for the new winds that are blowing; people who understand data making and meaning making.

Photographer: Hal Gatewood | Source: Unsplash


Back to the adjacent possible. I have been thinking that what research needs is an adjacent possible I am going to call presearch, a design wing next to the engineering floor. I am inspired by initiatives such as the near future laboratory and the push towards “design fiction,” i.e., the creation of speculative documents and artifacts that don’t exist today but could exist in the near future. In other words, the adjacent possible of design.

I really enjoyed reading “Speculative Everything,” one of the founding documents of the design fiction movement. Its byline: “how to use design as a tool to create not only things but ideas, to speculate about possible futures.” As designers, the authors of Speculative Everything embody their ideas in artifacts, but there’s nothing stopping us from expanding that repertoire to imagine speculative theories and experiments and knowledge traditions, i.e., the full panoply of knowledge production. So let me end with a definition:

Presearch is the use of design as a tool to create ideas, theories and more generally, to prototype instruments of knowledge.

Which brings me to a final question:

What do we need to presearch? What are our most pressing knowledge needs?

Here’s an obvious one for me:

The primary task of presearch in the anthropocene is to figure out how to run the earth. Just as economics (more generally, political economy) arose as the discipline that inquired into the wealth and poverty of nations, we need a new discipline that inquires into the flourishing of the planet as a whole.

Like every good beginning, the governance of the earth starts with naming the task ahead. I have one: Geocracy.


The Emergent Design of Failure

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

I am not letting any secrets slip in saying that the world has become much more authoritarian in the last decade. The largest countries in the world: China, India, the US, Russia, Brazil are all now ruled by authoritarians. The concentration of power in a few hands is not an isolated development; our networked, interconnected world is designed for concentration: of wealth, of fame, of power.

The keyword I want to focus on here is design. I am not a conspiracy theorist — I don’t think there’s a secret cabal of men in tuxedos smoking cigars and dividing up the world according to their interests. Yet, there’s a definite sense in which the world we inhabit today is designed to concentrate power. I am going to call it emergent design.

Consider this wonderful piece by ProPublica about the decreasing powers of the U.S Congress. The article shows how the work of Congress — debating important issues, passing bills — has been hijacked by partisan battle:

“As recently as 2005 and 2006, House committees met 449 times to consider actual legislation, and Senate committees met 252 times; by 2015 and 2016, those numbers plummeted to 254 and 69 times, respectively, according to data compiled by the Policy Agendas Project at the University of Texas.”

There’s much less room for individual dissent — members of Congress have to follow the party line or face primary challenges down the road, fewer fundraising opportunities and other pathways to power. The delegation no longer decides their vote — the leaders do, and lobbyists have much greater access to the leadership than their own rank and file. The only exception is if you’re independently wealthy or famous (or both in the case of Trump), but that means Congress is staffed with two types of people: partisans and oligarchs.

  • Emergent Design Pattern #1: Partisanship has a positive feedback loop with rising campaign costs. Consequence: More power to the party leadership.

But of course, internal fighting within Congress is nested within competition between the three branches of government. So what happens when Congress abdicates its job? The executive steps in; policy is enacted by executive order rather than legislation.

“As heated Senate hearings on a Supreme Court nominee kicked off in early September, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., devoted his opening statement to explaining why the judiciary confirmation wars have become so rancorous. His argument: Presidents fill the void when Congress cannot act, leading to lawsuits and leaving the courts to resolve disputes.”

  • Emergent Design Pattern #2: When the law cannot be enacted, it becomes an instrument of popular contention, with law suits battling with the president and the Supreme Court acting as umpire. Consequence: Supreme Court nominations become a meta-level battleground.

So the executive takes advantage of congressional gridlock to seize more powers. Someone’s got to do the job, right? The executive has another advantage: it has an entire bureaucracy working for it, which means that the expansion of executive powers can be institutionalized by expanding the bureaucracy, opening new branches of the executive and asking for more money to pay for these new salaries, equipment etc. The executive now has more money and patronage to offer, so it can hire better people; plus, why would a talented, ambitious person choose to tie their lot with a losing system, i.e., the legislature?

  • Emergent Design Pattern #3: Executive power and wealth translates into expertise and information asymmetries. Consequence: Smart people don’t become congresswomen and men. Congress is even less likely to house people who can negotiate the complexities of a complex world. The President (perhaps not this one!) has access to top-drawer talent and large, specialized institutions whose job is to crunch the data to suit his mood. How can generalists who spend most of their time fund-raising hope to compete with the executive branch?

Consequence of 1, 2, 3 put together: Congress loses out in each iteration.

Of course, not all of us care about Congress and not all of us are Americans to start with. But this cascading series of negative design patterns is present everywhere — in economic affairs, international trade and in the tussle over climate change. Anyone who’s concerned about the current state of affairs should keep an eye out for these emerging design patterns of global society; at each stage in the game, new patterns emerge that work in the favor of those with power and against the needs of the multitude. What are these patterns? Can we catalog them? Can we devise antidotes to the patterns that work against the people’s interest? How?

Moral of the Story: Design is no longer what you buy at Crate and Barrel or an Apple store. It’s essential to understanding how the world works today and equally importantly, we will have to pay as much attention to the design of failure as to the design of success.


Epistrons: The Design of Knowledge

I love and hate philosophy in equal measure; love it for its sustained engagement with abstract concepts and universal arguments and hate it for its parochialism.

How can something be universal and parochial at the same time?

I too am mystified by the contradiction, but it’s a fact; the parochialism is only increasing. When I think about it, it’s not surprising at all: every discipline that’s matured has broken away from philosophy. Now that we live in a knowledge saturated world, the study of knowledge itself is becoming a domain of its own. What’s left is turning inward; philosophy itself is breaking away from philosophy.

At the other end of the hype spectrum lies the golden age of Artificial Intelligence, where Socrates is being reborn as an AI in a Palo Alto garage. It’s not as if I am immune to the hype — I think we are in the middle of a major shift in which philosophy is developing a new interface (a new API in geek speak) — with design and engineering alongside the older interfaces to science, religion and literature. That interface mirrors the shift toward synthesis from analysis: to know is to make.

However, like any radical shift, the ratio of hype to substance is high, perhaps unacceptably high. That’s where I see an opportunity: to sift through the froth of machinic hype and to reveal what I believe to be a real revolution in human understanding. If you’re in a hurry, you might just want to click away after digesting my main slogan:

Design will be the universal organizing principle of philosophy in the 21st century, replacing logic which performed that function from the late nineteenth century until now.

So let me present the case for design amidst the ruins of wisdom.

We all have to start somewhere. I like to start with the world, or what Indians call samsara. It’s what we take for granted. The world reliably presents itself every time we open our eyes. Rocks are rocks. Trees are trees. There’s no danger of falling into a wormhole by mistake. The world is so reliable that we can forget about it entirely and worry about the devil corrupting our perceptions, as Descartes did, or invent new instruments to probe its contours as scientists have done since antiquity.

Unfortunately for us, when we probe the world it reveals itself as being completely different from the blanket that surrounds us day and night. Both trees and rocks turn out to be mostly empty space. Day and night are themselves by-products of the earth and its inhabitants hurling themselves around the sun.

So what is the real world? Is it the firm earth beneath our feet or the trillions of atoms into which that earth dissolves? Is reality in front of all of us or hidden behind a veil that parts only for the wise? The contradiction is maddening, and it propels humans to invent ever new forms of knowledge to unravel the knot. So much so that our invented knowledge is beginning to cover the world like a second skin.

I believe it was Mark Weiser who coined the term ubiquitous computing, to denote a world in which computing has escaped the confines of the desktop or laptop and spread throughout our physical environment.

Here’s another way of thinking about ubiquity: instead of computing being a special mode of interaction on a keyboard, mouse or screen, imagine that the entire world was a computer that responds appropriately to every move we make?

Isn’t that true already? I mean every object: stones, trees, rabbits, dictators is available to us in its own way and in doing so, it is an object with which we can compute. Perhaps we didn’t need to invent mainframe and desktop computers first and then work really hard at unboxing the desktop in order to turn information loose in the world; the geeks who made the world (in seven days? in four billion years?) ensured that it’s a computer that responds to our every need. Human inventions are merely the next layer on an infinite cake of information and knowledge. What do we do with this layer cake?

Should we mine the world for information or simply collect what’s falling from the trees?

The miners have had the upper hand for the last fifty years and their dominance is accelerating. We have always collected information, but the speed and scale at which it’s being done now has no precedent. Some of that information is self-organizing with (more than) a little help from the miners. What happens when the matrix rejects its creators?

We live in increasing fear of our robot overlords, but I believe stupidity is as likely to kill us as cleverness. Let’s imagine a peaceful action gone wrong: suppose a pacifist tech zillionaire commands his favorite robot to steal the nuclear stockpile of every country in the world and bring it back to him.

I am going to call it the android approach to nuclear disarmament

The robot is smart at what he does; much smarter than the grunts who guard nuclear bombs across the world. Plus, it’s not afraid of dying; death for a robot is only a chance to become 2.0. Reincarnation works better for robots than for humans. So our intrepid robot arrives at a secret stockpile somewhere in the mountains of Nevada, a place so secure that mentioning it in this piece will get the NSA knocking down my door. It disarms the guards and the alarms instantly — nonviolently of course.

Having secured access to the nuclear arsenal, the robot dials back to home base — the zillionaire’s penthouse in San Francisco. Z is having his evening snack of kale chips when the call arrives.

R: Phase 1 accomplished.

Z: Excellent. Send them over!

Oops. The robot’s semantic engine isn’t perfect yet and it’s been trained to get things done in the most efficient way possible. R does a quick search for the words “send” and “over” and quickly plots the geodesic from _unknown location_, Nevada to penthouse, SFO. One minute later, the bombs are flying to SFO. And they’re live: the robot was asked to send them over, not disarm them before doing so. The robot’s obsession with efficiency take precedence over causality. Two minutes later: doomsday

How did events reach this pass? Since when did objects created by us to increase our understanding threaten to become our masters? How can we take back the night?

Let’s take a deep breath first.

We don’t have to run for our lives yet. There’s still time to reflect on the history of knowledge and the instruments we have created to extract knowledge from the world. Yes, knowledge has a history. So do knowledge devices: aren’t the carved tablet in Babylon and the swiped tablet in Boston both knowledge devices? I call them Epistrons. Aristotle thought all humans seek to know. Epistrons are artifacts we have built to fulfil that need.

Epistron is the most general term for a knowledge product, device or system that’s been created to satisfy our knowledge desires.

Once we liberate our minds from a specific kind of epistron — robots and AIs — it’s clear that epistrons cover a vast range of artifacts, ranging from the fully physical to the fully mental. Not that physical and mental are fundamentally different — I am just pointing to our experience of these objects. Even a short list of epistrons should include:

  1. Physical devices such as telescopes, microscopes, sensors and cameras. More generally, all kinds of laboratory equipment.
  2. Mental devices such as concepts, principles, axioms, laws, theorems.
  3. Media forms such as articles, journals, books and more recently, websites — here I am including both the physical artifact whose design includes layout and typography as well as the mental artifact whose design includes logical structure and coherence.
  4. Physical institutions such as schools, universities, libraries and courts
  5. Mental institutions — could be better to call them systems rather than institutions — such as theories, constitutions, philosophies as well as symbolic systems such as alphabets, formal and programming languages, mathematical notation, equations and so on.
  6. And finally, the modern computational epistrons that include robots, search engines and machine learning systems.

These synthetic systems are among the most important and robust of all human creations. Universities last longer than nations. Some books have lasted longer than the civilizations in which they were written. Nevertheless, they are artifacts — the earth goes around the sun in an elliptical orbit whether we exist or not, but the equations that describe the earth’s motion vanish when we vanish. How do we understand this bewildering array of knowledge artifacts?

The study of knowledge is one of the oldest of human concerns; with formal history of over two thousand years and a much longer prehistory. Over the years, the study of knowledge artifacts has spread across a bewildering array of disciplines. Philosophy helps us understand the abstract foundations of knowledge. Graphic design helps us make better books and websites. AI and Robotics helps us make intelligent machines. These fields don’t talk to each other at all. How many philosophers are interested in kerning? I believe that’s a real pity, because we live in knowledge saturated societies. We are spewing out data in unimaginable quantities even while couch surfing. How are we going to make sense of it all?

The good news is that as artifacts, epistrons are designed objects; and designed objects can be understood within design systems. In fact, I would argue that the design of knowledge lies at the origins of design, just as logic lies at the origins of reasoning. So let me end this introduction with a question:

Can we encompass all (or much) the forms of knowledge within a comprehensive design system?

Short Answer: No.

Longer Answer: Every system has its fissures, though some are more likely to protect you from hailstorms than others. It’s going to take a long long time to create a design system for knowledge, and chances are we will all die before we get to the destination, but it’s a journey worth taking. Where do we start?

It’s all about text

The history of formal knowledge is closely intertwined with the history of texts. While Socrates didn’t write a word, Plato wrote many and it’s his words that inaugurate the western tradition of knowledge. When we read Aristotle today, we’re reading his lecture notes. Whatever else they might be, philosophy and theoretical science — mathematics, physics, computer science etc — are forms of textuality: mostly prose but with a heavy dose of symbolic representation such as equations, graphs and diagrams.

Until recently, text was a representational tool: a linear script freezing the structure of the world on a two-dimensional surface. What Galileo meant when he said the book of the universe was written in the language of mathematics:

  • there’s the universe
  • here’s the book and:
  • the latter captures the former in mathematical form.

Remember that before Galileo and his colleagues (and to this day) many people believed that the true purpose of text was to record the word of God. That recording was mediated by the church, but certainly not the empirical world outside. Text belonged to the sacred, not the secular. Meanwhile, telescopes were used for spotting ships on the horizon — ships arriving with valuables from distant lands. Galileo pointed the telescope at the heavens, creating a sacred function for a secular object, but in his use of mathematics to study the natural world, he created a secular function for a sacred object.

While Galileo and other scientists brought the sacred and the secular closer together by pointing texts and telescopes in the same direction, it’s only now that we can contemplate the merger of text and telescope. Three new developments are making that merger possible:

  1. Code: programming helps text escape the confines of the book.
  2. The Web makes it possible to blanket the world with knowledge
  3. Intelligent devices help us turn text into things.

In combination, we are entering a historical period in which the primary function of text isn’t to represent the world as much as to grasp it, and in doing so, to cover the world as an invisible layer. Which prompts an obvious question:

If the book of the universe is written in the language of mathematics, then what language should we use to write the ebook of the universe?

I obviously don’t have an answer to that question, but it’s clear to me that the future of knowledge is tied closely to the future of text. There’s enormous churn in the world of “text experiments” — see here and here for a couple of interesting new ideas. I will be tracking those developments closely in my future epistronics. Having said that, let me get back to dead tree books before I quit. I have a short list of must reads for anyone who wants to design knowledge systems.

My reading list.

I am looking for books that serve as a precursor to the idea of epistrons, of creating “knowledge by design.” Books that reveal the various forms of knowledge that fill our world and even better, inspire us to make those forms ourselves. Each book in the list should have a minimum of four out of these five features:

  1. Philosophically astute
  2. Mathematically literate
  3. Keen eye for aesthetics
  4. Literary flair
  5. Reasonably modern

That’s a high bar. Here are nine books that meet that bar. In chronological order:

Note 1: One of these is radically different from the others. Guess which one.

Note 2: I am sure there are books I haven’t read that aren’t in my list as a result, so feel free to write down your suggestions in the comments.


The Design of Philosophy

Many people I know, thoughtful people at that, have a poor opinion about philosophy. They think it’s a has-been discipline: too many words and too little applicability. It’s a pretty short sighted view, but that view is encouraged by philosophers who hew close to the sciences. As long as philosophy is seen as a handmaiden to science, it’s destined to be meta butterfly collecting.

When I think of philosophy as a craft and an art than a science, it reminds me much of design — addressing genuine human needs while alerting us to the fact that these needs are bound to a certain time and place. In fact, I think it will benefit all of us if we subject epistemological and metaphysical ideas to a design analysis. I am sharing some thoughts on how one might go about doing so.


I am not a postmodernist, but I also think the postmodern turn made us aware of the social and material circumstances underlying the creation of knowledge. I do believe that philosophical, mathematical and scientific ideas emerge in response to needs of a particular time.

Human agency plays a role as well. Take the telescope. When invented in the early seventeenth century by Lippershey and others, merchants used it to see further out to sea than before. There was money in sighting a ship loaded with goods from the East. Galileo took this invention, improved it and pointed it toward the stars; the world hasn’t been the same since that 90 degree turn.

A particular time and place — like Italy in the late Renaissance — makes both uses of the telescope possible. Not only does the need for the telescope arise from the merchant culture of that time, glassworkers of that time had the resources to turn an idea into reality.

Design isn’t arbitrary, for it addresses objective needs of a human community. Design also needs creativity and human agency. At the same time, design problems have a history — a problem isn’t a design problem until the time is ripe. This is what the Indian tradition calls Deshakala,the spatiotemporal context for the emergence of a phenomenon. In my opinion, design is the science of Deshakala — it walks the tightrope between objective knowledge and sociohistorical determinism. With that preamble, let me turn toward design challenges in knowledge itself.

The Design of Certainty

What if philosophical ideas are solutions to design problems? What if philosopher’s needs aren’t different from merchants’?

Descartes was almost a contemporary of Galileo; unlike his older peer, he escaped from France to Holland to avoid persecution. Descartes’ great meditation on certainty is the beginning of modern philosophy. Descartes, like many philosophers before and after, was enamored with the certainty of mathematical reasoning. He pointed the eye of reason toward knowledge, somewhat like Galileo pointing the telescope to the heavens.

After a long and rather clever argument that echoes to this day, Descartes arrived at the conclusion that the only thing we are certain about is our own consciousness. To put it in one sentence: you can mistake a rope for a snake, but you can’t mistake your experience of a snake for anything else. Consciousness is transparent to its experiencer.

That emphasis on certainty lead to some of the great discoveries in mathematics and logic all the way to Godel’s theorem and beyond. Mathematics has benefited from this philosophical demand: we have much higher standards of proof from our 17th century counterparts and that rigor has helped us build a much greater edifice than they could have ever imagined.

But, as I said at the beginning, what if certainty was a design solution that arose in response to a specific need? Consider scientific knowledge in the 17th century: scientists were few and far between, data was scarce and expensive and it took months to communicate your results to anyone else. In that situation, certainty was a fantastic design principle for knowledge: the more certain you’re the less you’re dependent on data and less likely that your message will be subject to corruption during its travels. Our needs are different from Descartes’.

The Design of Plausible, Correctible Knowledge

We now live in a different age. There are tons of scientists. Data is cheap. Communication is fast. It’s easier — both technologically and financially — for us to correct errors than to insist on incorruptibility. It’s time to design a new epistemology that doesn’t take certainty to be the utopian ideal of knowledge. In this new design, plausibility is a better design constraint than certainty. Plausibility goes hand in hand with correctibility, i.e., the idea that the premises of knowledge can be changed systematically. Sometimes those premises are modified because they don’t match the data — as often happens in science. On other occasions, you might want to change the premises because the problem has changed. You want a system that can consume apples once it’s weaned off oranges.

Mathematical knowledge is particularly brittle in this regard: we don’t have good theories for replacing an axiom by another one if the first one turns out to be inadequate. Mathematics is good for building edifices; it’s less so for building systems that generalize quickly to new domains. The latter is the hallmark of cognitive systems.

Children can’t understand Fermat’s last theorem but they’re very good at identifying bulldogs as dogs after having seen German Shepherds and nothing else. Our task in the future is to theorize mathematical and cognitive epistemology in one framework.

There’s a larger method at work here: knowledge has to be brought into a world of human or animal needs so that we see the outlines of the design problem and create our ways toward a solution. If done properly, philosophy will be as important to future technology as design is today. Apple made design a buzzword in technology circles. As we enter a new era of technologically mediated higher education, can philosophy play a similar role? It’s time to turn Descartes’ vision of knowledge upside down.


Newsletter #10: Appsolutely

We think of apps as pieces of software; things that help us get things done or avoid getting things done. But they’re also excellent props for story telling. Just as we leaven our conversations with interjections, proverbs and idioms, why not leaven them with apps? Especially apps that do exactly one thing. What UX designers call microinteractions are nothing but an expanded version of what humans beings have been using in dialog and sensorimotor interaction for millennia.

I was on a bus yesterday when it almost hit someone. The bus was turning left into the Harvard bus station. Meanwhile the pedestrian was walking and texting at the same time, oblivious to the fact that he had stepped right into the bus’s path. Fortunately, the bus driver was paying attention. He braked hard to avoid the man. You should have seen the man’s face — nothing like having a ten ton bus screech to a halt inches away from your face.

As it so happens, I had just slipped a book I was reading on microinteractions into my backpack. A microinteraction on a mobile device is a single thing you do in or with an app. More generally, a microinteraction is one action anywhere, like saying uh-oh or OK when someone asks you a question. Opening the door to your car is a microinteraction. Entering your email address in an app is a microinteraction. Avoiding a pedestrian who steps in your way because he wasn’t paying attention is a (failed?) microinteraction.

As Saffer emphasizes throughout his book, good design is as much about the microinteractions as it is about the big features. Some great apps are great precisely because they do one thing supremely well. App design is increasingly getting unbundled; it’s moving toward single use cases. There’s always the danger of going overboard with the focus on microinteractions, but we invariably design a good app when we focus on that one thing that delights the user.

Or save his life.

Don’t we need an app for that? High end cars are equipped with pedestrian detectors, but what about an app for pedestrians to avoid buses, cars and other walkers? I present to you my ticket to app infamy:

The Lifesaver


This week’s links:

  1. Dan Saffer’s book on Microinteractions. I can’t say it saved my life, but it helped me understand how to create an app for doing so.
  2. Yo. Enough said.
  3. Donald Norman on the Design of Everyday Things. Cognitive Science meets Design.
  4. Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. The original source of all these ideas.


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Designing Knowledge II: Books

The Culture of the Book

I have a couple of thousand books in my personal library. Only lack of space and money prevents me from getting more. I have been a bibliophile from the time I was three or four, when my parents bought me my first Amar Chitra Kathas. Books were prized possessions; good books for children were hard to come by in the India of the nineteen-seventies. Fortunately, my parents indulged my hunger for books as much as their wallets permitted.

My father traveled a lot when I was young, which I didn’t like, but he made up for his absence by buying books for me during his travels. Some of my fondest memories are of waking up early in the morning with anticipation — he would often arrive from the airport late at night after I was sleep — for my father to open his travel suitcase and hand me a book or two. The next day or two were bliss as I immersed myself in a new story or a new set of scientific facts and theories. That’s how I read K.M Munshi’s Krishavatara series, Tell Me Why’s and several astronomy and nature books. Even the memory makes me tingle.

The moral of the story: in case it wasn’t obvious, I grew up believing that books are the keystone of all civilization. Much of what we consider important in high culture — religion, literature and science can be viewed through the lens of one human activity, namely, the writing of books. The first books such as the Bible combined the moral, the metaphysical, the factual and the poetic into one package. As societies became more complex, we invented new forms of writing that split the components into their separate parts. Mathematical symbolic writing was invented as a language for science. Galileo claimed the book of the universe being written in the language of mathematics. Meanwhile human experience is explored deeply in the novel, which still remains the fullest representation of the human world.

The End of Books

Having said all this, I believe that we are approaching the end of the book era. I find myself reading books less and less; when I was a child, books were everything from entertainment to time pass to serious reading to enlightenment. I don’t use books for passing time anymore and am increasingly finding entertainment through other media. Of course, I am not the first person to do so; as Steve Jobs said, people don’t read anymore. TV and the movies are the primary entertainment media for most people.

I am not talking about mass entertainment though; I am talking about high culture. Books still rule that roost because movies and TV programs don’t have the same capacity for illuminating our inner lives that novels do. That’s why I find the hypermedia so interesting; the web is different from movies because it combines the qualities of text with the qualities of images and moving pictures. A new art form is waiting to be invented.

Scholarship is behind entertainment. No one gets tenure for composing new academic media. That lack of respectability isn’t the conservatism of department chairs and tenure committees alone. There’s a genuine epistemological puzzle that remains to be understood: what exactly is the new knowledge that’s being produced by these new media forms? The demand for originality is being satisfied most clearly by those who’re building large data repositories and in the use of crowd intelligence to solve problems, neither of which can be done in the old style of scholarship. Still, they haven’t broken through to a new form of knowledge, as Galileo and others did with modern science. Until that happens, books will rule the world of scholarship. I have some ideas — mostly speculation — about the shape of these new forms of knowledge, but that’s for another occasion.


Designing Knowledge I: Circles

I will work extensively with the idea of a design pattern: a reusable, modifiable design element. Knowledge has an element of design, like every other human practice. Unfortunately, the design patterns of knowledge are so old and so universal that we don’t even realize that they are designed elements. It’s not as if the textbook — lecture — course — degree pattern is a god given element of learning. As technology transforms higher education, we should see new design patterns emerge.

Higher education is currently built around the inverse-tree design pattern.This is a linear pattern. A better pattern for knowledge networks, especially local knowledge networks is the circle. A circle is a group of people who’re interested in the same “core.” For local knowledge there are four types of cores that are of interest:

  • People: i.e., a circle around a teacher or a person of interest. An example of the former might be a local car mechanics who teaches a course on automotive repair. An example of the latter is a group of people who read and discuss Plato.
  • Passion: a circle around a common passion, say, a group of people who are all interested in the same topic. Passions can be of several kinds — say, the world series game that took place yesterday, a course that you are all taking on Coursera or a continued engagement with data science.
  • Place: a circle of people who live or work close to each other. If you live close to each other in Bangalore, you can imagine starting a circle on community gardens in Bangalore. If you work in the same law firm in Boston, you can imagine starting a group around a senior partner (that will combine people and place) or a group around a new law that affects you all (combining passion and place).
  • Practice: A circle of people who do one thing together. It could be jogging, it could be a meditation practice whatever, but the group comes together for that reason.

The advantage of the circle is it’s adaptivity; a circle can expand or contract as my interests and passions change. It can also vanish. In other words, the circle design allows us to create communities of varying sizes and duration around a single core. Most importantly, I can aggregate and disaggregate circles around myself as I learn. It’s a modular architecture for continuous life-long learning.


Designing Local Knowledge

Universal knowledge

Let’s start with a triviality — my eyes don’t sense parts of the earth a thousand miles away from me. Instead, they sense the world directly in front of my eyes. Seems obvious isn’t it. Well, not so much if you look at philosophical accounts of knowledge or the design of universities.

Universities are designed to impart universal knowledge, knowledge that’s true independent of your location in space and time. That started with theology; after all the Bible is supposed to be absolute truth. When society secularized, biblical knowledge was replaced by scientific knowledge, with mathematics becoming the paradigm for absolute, universal truth.

The emphasis on universality is also related to the social function of the university. The best universities in the world get people from all over the world even if they are of a relatively similar class. They train people to go anywhere and take on roles at the top of the pyramid. Universality is central to legitimizing their roles — after all, why would anyone in Malaysia or Zanzibar take your claim to the top of the pyramid seriously if you were trained in knowledge local to Cambridge and Stanford? It’s the justifiable universality of western knowledge that underlies the power of elite western institutions.

Fortunately, while such power equations are the norm, most people’s lives are conducted outside the universal light.

Most knowledge is local

Let me start with another triviality. Farming depends on local knowledge: of the soil, of local varieties, of the weather patterns etc. Of course, there’s a globalized version of farming that requires massive irrigation to counter weather fluctuations, massive energy use to pump all that water and other insanities that we now regret. But, the fact remains that the most efficient as well as sustainable methods of farming are local in spirit and execution.

Throughout human history and the history of every other species, knowledge has been mostly local, contextual and intimate. That’s as true of negative as well as positive knowledge. We want to earn more than Johnny next door and pry into his affairs, not some distant person halfway across the world. When seen that way, you could argue that universities are actually a niche institution: they provide the tiny sliver of knowledge that isn’t local and can’t be so. Why is that tiny sliver ruling the roost? Well, that has to do with the history of power, but there’s no reason why these relations have to continue.

Actually, there’s no pragmatic reason for universal knowledge anymore. The top-down view of universality is itself tied to data poor technologies. When it is expensive and time consuming to produce data, universal principles that summarize the data and make them portable (equations, for example) are very useful. But we now live in a data rich economy, where we have the opposite problem: how to get rid of data, not how to collect it. The best means we have of filtering data appropriately are local filters. I can tell you if a news story is biased or wrong because I live here; no amount of New York Times reporting will change that fact. The future of knowledge is in aggregating the local, not in imposing the global.

Aggregating the Local

Consider classical mechanics: it shows that the same equations are valid everywhere in the universe. That’s pretty amazing, until you ask:

How does the equation propagate from one local cell to the next?

I don’t mean that the equation literally moves from earth to the moon and back. Equations are our mode of description, not the world itself. But there’s a problem, nevertheless, for the local descriptions need to be stitched together in order to form global descriptions. That’s what topological theories are for, if you want a mathematical method for doing so. However, these topological theories don’t theorize the very thing that needs theorizing:

Why is it that space is capable of being stitched together?

That may seem like a really stupid question from a geometric perspective: isn’t space just there, i.e., isn’t it an abstract background? But space isn’t geometry. We need to theorize space as a substance, which is what Einstein did with General Relativity, but that’s just one theory in physics. What we need is a general method, a new scientific method that takes local knowledge to be it’s founding insight, where the stitching together of local knowledge is an explicit part of the method rather than being assumed as a given in the background.

Designing Local Knowledge

I will work extensively with the idea of a design object: a reusable, modifiable design element.

The simplest design object for knowledge networks, especially local knowledge networks is the circle:

A circle is group of people who’re interested in the same “core.” For local knowledge there are four types of cores that are of interest:

  1. People: i.e., a circle around a teacher or a person of interest. An example of the former might be a local car mechanics who teaches a course on automotive repair. An example of the latter is a group of people who read and discuss Plato.
  2. Passion: a circle around a common passion, say, a group of people who are all interested in the same topic. Passions can be of several kinds — say, the world series game that took place yesterday, a course that you are all taking on Coursera or a continued engagement with data science.
  3. Place: a circle of people who live or work close to each other. If you live close to each other in Belmont, you can imagine starting a circle on community gardens in Belmont. If you work in the same law firm in Boston, you can imagine starting a group around a senior partner (that will combine people and place) or a group around a new law that affects you all (combining passion and place).
  4. Practice: A circle of people who do one thing together. It could be jogging, it could be a meditation practice whatever, but the group comes together for that reason.

The advantage of the circle is it’s spatiotemporality. A circle can contract and expand with time. It can also intersect with other circles. It can also vanish. In other words, the circle design allows us to create communities of varying sizes and duration around a single core. That’s very useful.