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.


Computing Climate Change

Photographer: Markus Spiske | Source: Unsplash

In my previous essay, I arrived at an unoriginal idea: that the computer is a mental telescope through which we can view the world. I didn’t say the universe is a computer because that would be really unoriginal but more importantly, because I am not interested in the universe. I am interested in the world, or more accurately, worlds, the personal and collective realities experienced by humans and other creatures.

To be honest, my love for the world can be traced to the German word for it: umwelt. If you tell someone you are interested in the world, they are likely to look at you funny but if you tell them you’re a weltist, and suddenly you are halfway important. I make worlds for a living, what about you?

Back to the mental telescope: now that I have a hammer, I am looking for nails.

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

I am reading Paul Edwards’ wonderful book on the role of computer models in the creation of climate science. There are many many things to say about the book. If I have the time, I might review the book in detail one day, but for now, let me stick to the main insight I gleaned from reading the tome: all the structures of modern climate science are products of the computer era. Obviously true for the data collected in observatories and sensors across the world and the computer models that crunch that data, but less obviously so for the international organizations created to make sense of that data and the political controversies surrounding the impact of global warming.

Don’t believe me? Consider two pieces of evidence:

  1. The IPCC report.
  2. The main line of criticism: climate change is “only a theory.”

The White Space of Truth

Click on the link to the IPCC report, check out the summary for policy makers and if you’re feeling really masochistic, download the PDF and read it. And then step back and ask yourself: how come I am able to access years of work by a network of scientists across the world with a click of a button? Do you think any of this would have been possible without the internet?

Computing via design has also changed our perception of reliability and truthfulness. This is what the IPCC website used to look like:

IPCC website October 2018

I am not talking about 1995. This is what the website looked like in October 2018 when the IPCC released the blockbuster 1.5° C report. It’s as if the scientists intoned to themselves: “we are in the business of producing the truth and we don’t care how it looks.” When I first downloaded the 1.5° C report, the document was clearly a PDFed word document. Yes, the future of the planet depends on the design sensibilities of Bill Gates.

Here’s how the website looks like today:

IPCC website April 2019

They must have hired a UX consultant: clean layout, lot’s of white space, readable fonts. The new design sensibility is reflected in the report as well; it’ no longer a PDFed word document. Bill Gates has morphed into Steve Jobs.

What’s my point?

The IPCC report is an artifact of the computer era: its manufacture and distribution follows the patterns of knowledge production in the 21st century. Truth needs the facts, but it also needs a feeling: in the age of alternative facts, any vehicle of the truth should feel trustworthy and accessible. White space and clean lines promote trustworthiness and accessibility. The shift in design sensibilities reflects a new awareness of the terrain the report inhabits: that it’s inherently a political document and therefore must seduce its readers as much as it conveys the facts.

It’s Only a Theory

The US right wing pioneered a line of critique that one might call “it’s only a theory,” first to dispute evolution and then to cast doubt on anything that endangered the bottomline of their capitalist masters: smoking, pollution, climate change. The doubters recognize that everyone believes two things:

  1. Math
  2. Facts

If a claim is deductively true (or appears close to being so) everyone believes it. If a claim can be directly verified, everyone believes it. This is not the place to ask about the meaning of “deductively,” “verify” and “belief.” I will pretend as if these are terms that you may not be able to define but you know a case of deduction, verification or belief when you see it.

Magical science happens when 1 and 2 above combine seamlessly. Physics manages to make that happen every once in a while. The General Theory of Relativity is a good example: Einstein himself proposed three tests of the theory that followed directly from his theoretical principles and in 1919 the bending of light was directly verified to Einstein’s everlasting fame. Theoretical physics of the Einsteinian variety is a priestly science: rational magic that dazzles the faithful.

In comparison, climate science is a proletarian discipline, grounded in thousands of data collection efforts and an even larger number of computer models. Unlike General Relativity which sprung unaided from the mind of a genius, climate science exposes its innards to the world. Like other entrails, the sight isn’t pretty. The data sets are noisy. They are in different, incompatible formats. Ocean acidity measurements collect one kind of data. Air temperature readings collect another kind of data. Historical records are full of gaps. Similarly, the computer models have to simplify the real world in order to be tractable. You need higher order models to calculate whether the simplifications of the lower order models omit important parameters. The edifice is laid one brick at a time. Infinite regress looms on the horizon. Both the facts and the models are manufactured with great effort.

Climate Science is an archetype of the late twentieth century-early twenty first century knowledge economy where the widget is manufactured via the labor of thousands (if not millions) of unknown workers, mediated by computing devices and managed by large multinational institutions that not only have a marketing and sales budget, marketing and sales may be as important as manufacture.

It’s not romantic science but it’s eminently useful and eminently political. That’s a big part of what the computer is doing to knowledge.

No different from Google.


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.


Epistry: Fluid Knowledge

Solid and Liquid

I believe we are experiencing a shift in the dominant metaphor for knowledge. In the past we talked about knowledge as a solid, with attendant concerns such as security and certainty. In the future, our dominant metaphor for knowledge will be that of a fluid, supple and adaptive. That shift will have consequences for the architecture of knowledge, from epistemology to pedagogy and policy.

Three ways of knowing

Aristotle thought that human beings are rational animals. After a century of world wars and the Freudian and cognitive revolutions, it’s not clear if we’re all that rational. Yet, we are epistemic creatures. The acquisition and exercise of knowledge is central to most cultures. As societies become complex, they divide our concern for knowledge into specialized streams. Some talk about the nature of knowledge. Others investigate it’s transmission from teacher to student. A third group looks it’s social organization.

First comes epistemology: what is knowledge, where does it come from and to whom does it belong? This is one of the oldest questions in philosophy, both East and West. Then there’s the related question: what is education, what should I teach, how should I teach it and to whom?

Finally, there’s the institutionalization of knowledge in schools, colleges, universities and research laboratories. Our questions about these institutions are often economic: what should society pay for, why and how much?

The three put together form a triumvirate: epistemology, pedagogy and policy. While all three concern themselves with knowledge, the communities surrounding them have distinct cultures. Epistemology lives in philosophy departments and in thoughtful corners of the natural and social sciences. It’s been the concern of some of the greatest philosophers. Pedagogy belongs to schools of education. It is often seen as a pragmatic, career oriented training for future teachers rather than an investigation of knowledge per se. The institutional structure of knowledge belongs to administrators, bureaucrats, planners and grant making agencies.

That settled trichotomy is understandable, for our epistemic practices are thousands of years old. I don’t think they work anymore. I am no fan of disruption as business schools use that term, but I believe we are at the cusp of a massive shift in the nature, production and communication of knowledge.

The Centrality of Knowledge

Information surrounds us. We struggle to make sense and value out of it. Information is useless without structure and organization. No wonder that Google says it’s mission is “to organize the world’s information.” All this information is overwhelming even with the organizational tools we have at our mousetips. In any case, it’s not what we’re looking for. If not, we would be spending our days browsing through Wikipedia.

Information needs to become knowledge and wisdom for it to fruition, unless we want to become mental bulimics. We are running on old intuitions about the nature and function of knowledge, what one might call paper knowledge. It’s knowledge that tacitly assumes print to be it’s primary medium. Paper era intuitions are inadequate for our information era realities.

We are moving away from the age of print to the age of the screen and from text to multimedia. Epistemology, pedagogy and policy need revision. A revision that makes these three streams run down to the same river. That river is what I call epistry, a tapestry of knowledge that is part philosophy, part science, part art and part politics.

As I argued in an earlier piece, design plays a major role in epistry. It helps us merge the formal architecture of knowledge (epistemology) with the interpersonal architecture of knowledge (pedagogy) with the institution architecture of knowledge (policy). We need to design fluid knowledge systems.

Crystalline and Fluid Knowledge

Everyone agrees that learning is -more or less- the same today as it was a thousand years ago. Some of us think that’s a good thing, other’s the opposite. Even our theories of knowledge are about the same today as they were three hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, the world has changed. Classical knowledge was individual, rigid and abstract, much like a crystal. Bertrand Russell captured it’s allure in his view of mathematical beauty:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.

Solid State

Both Russell and Einstein dreamed of a final theory reducing the universe to a few logical or physical principles. I believe that dream is dead. The search for final principles isn’t over, but our understanding is no longer measured against that lack. If there’s one thing that our formal knowledge systems haven’t understood, it’s that the future of knowledge is collaborative, fluid and situated.

We don’t want crystalline knowledge. We should prize fluidity over precision. Further, many of the challenges of the future are systemic challenges. Not for the lone hero tilting against the windmills of the universe. It’s in system creation that current knowledge systems fail dramatically. Even with all the benefits of modern technology, the best we can do is rocket science. What do I mean?

Collective Wisdom

The high point of rocket science was the Apollo mission to the moon. It was a vertically integrated project with a single purpose: sending human beings to Earth’s only satellite. There are other examples, both good and bad: the Manhattan project, the human genome project and so on.

Solid melting away

Houston, we are not rocket scientists anymore. The challenges of the future are multi-faceted. They involve simultaneous engagement along several fronts. Tackling climate change isn’t like sending a man to the moon or Mars. Neither is understanding consciousness or ensuring ecosystem wellbeing. These problems demand a different epistemology. They need a different pedagogy. They will be implemented by an alternate institutional structure. We will need much epistry if we’re to be successful.


If you like this post and want to receive others like this in your email, sign up for the weekly newsletter

Email Address

Sign Up

I take your privacy very seriously. Your email will remain private

Thank you!


Education Digest

An Education Collage

I have been writing here and there about the nature of education and how it should be transformed if we are to meet learners needs in the future. There a few themes that run through my work: equity and quality, technology and design and an orientation towards the future.

However, my larger concern is not with education per se; it is with the nature and production of knowledge. I believe we are undergoing a shift in epistemology that I now beginning to explore.

I hope this collection sparks some thoughts. Comments are welcome.

  1. The Entrepreneurial Mind
  2. Technology in Higher Education
  3. Academic Inequality
  4. MOOCs and Inequality
  5. Designing Knowledge 1: Circles
  6. Designing Knowledge 2: Books
  7. The Real Disruption in Knowledge


If you like this article, sign up with your name and email address to receive a weekly mailing.

Email Address

Sign Up

I take your privacy seriously. Your email ID will remain private.

Thank you!


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.