Eichmann Design

So, what's the deal with Bruce Sterling anyway?

He certainly seems to have his hyperlinks in a lot of Internet pies.

I suppose if your credit in many projects is labeled as "____-visionary", then that sort of thing just spawns new links to things.

Also, he would appear to be just a good old-fashioned interesting guy (sort of a Man of Letters for the media age).

The point: here I am, again, posting about something he posted. (Though, let's just say it straight out--his blog is by far one of the best sources for "original" content posts. That is, I find many things from him first, and then see it re-posted other places. Sort of like the re-posting I'm committing right now.) A lot of hyperlinks--a lot of pies.

Anyway, the something is this thing - http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000228.php

I'm not going to give it a cleverly-named hyperlink. Frankly, I would rather not post about it at all. I even instituted my new "24-hour" policy, saving the link and waiting 24 hours (about a week in Internet time) to make sure I really had something worth saying before I posted.

And that asshole's picture on the linked page is still pissing me off.

Alright: so I don't know if he is an asshole. He could be a great guy. But because the content of the page is driving me crazy, I'm going to pretend he is a jerk, (and not say his name). Because that's what we do with "Little Eichmann's" right?

Whoa! Easy there, tiger! Why don't you just stick to insulting the guy personality?

Because this is micro-fascism, pure and simple.

I have nothing against product design, or information architecture. I am huge fans of both as disciplines, and am constantly amazed by the people who do this sort of work.

It is just this simple fact: the concepts that he proposes in outlining the conjunction of product design and information architecture, what he calls "experience design", go against everything I know about believe about theory and philosophy.

I'm not saying he's incorrect. I'm not saying he's inaccurate. He may describe the current field of design and information architecture better than anyone ever has. But what he is describing is against just about everything I know and believe.

Philosophy and modern critical theory, though often giving credit for bringing the relativism and anti-moralism of the post-modern age to the mainstream, are not laissez-faire disciplines. It is precisely the prescriptive nature of theory that rejects such dogmatic world-views as idealism and moralism. Of course, after the philosopher finishes his tirade about the errors of the world, if you ask him/her "so what do you actually believe?" you will probably get a good deal of specious circumambulation and general backpedalling. This does not mean s/he does not have an answer to the question, it simply means the answer is impossible without a lot of well-practiced specious circumambulation and general backpedalling.

The goal of thought is to understand and organize our consciousness of the material world, and by doing so, seek to improve it. Philosophers and theorists are working at it, and anyone can take a look at the world around them and see the need is dire. However, this doesn't make the work of thought any less difficult and time-consuming. Luckily, we've developed some good tools over the years. Philosophers have a pretty decent "means of production" at their disposal, and some of the best "thought designers" in history have contributed to our material work on thought and theory.

But this fellow ignores all of that. Rather than implementing a single feature of responsible "thought design" in his notions, the twenty "deliverables" mentioned are antithetical to any sort of critical thinking, most simply because they reject the actual "critical" element of thought and replace it with jargon, slogans, icons, and hype. This is the philosophy of capitalism at its best/worst--rather than use any means of thought, he has done an end-run around theory and formed himself twenty easily identifiable products, i.e. deliverables. He hasn't built these ideas in the time-tested practice of thought--he's simply gone out to the streets and picked some ideas that sounded like they would be popular. What part of design is designing popularity? Isn't the goal to design new things and improve upon old ones, thereby improving user experience? What in design theory says it is a good idea to take a product and repackage it into another product? The art of USB dongles? It's surplus-value at its least productive. These "deliverables" are the branding of thought into a product. Thought (TM): in easily consumable packages, ready to be bought and thrown away. And naturally, the folks in his comments section eat it up.

It would be one thing if he created these "deliverables" from nothing. But he committed the worst fallacy of ethical philosophy in designing these products, making them actually harmful, rather than benignly un-caloric. He starts with assumptions, and works backwards. (Milk is white/this milk is not white enough/let's add melamine.) It's worse than a fallacy actually, because after his flawed premise that "anything the use will buy is good design", he doesn't even work backward with logic. (Milk is white/this milk is not white enough/let's add lead.) These concepts don't rely so much on flawed logic, so much as no logic at all. They are, in a way, deductive paralogisms: he takes particular examples, which may or may not be true, and then falsely derrives inferences from them. Not so much an error as a complete lack of method entirely. They're not sound; they're not logical; all they seem to be is his particular view of the world--a world in which thought only exists in its ability to be sold to a consumer.

This could very well be a new stage of capitalism, rearing its head. Surplus-value, classically an abstraction of material circumstances used to siphon material production, has now leeched its way into the super-super-structure: our thought itself. It is wrecking the material logic of thought! It's siphoning off intellectual production! It is a contradiction of the material fundamentals of reason itself! And unlike some other materialists, I have no confidence that such contradictions will subsume themselves.

But enough of this abstraction. Let's look at the "deliverables" themselves, and try to figure out how he thought this might be a good way to think.

1. Stories. "A good story about a user's experience can help people to see the problem (or opportunity), motivate people to take action, and stick in people's memories long after we're gone." And a good joke can make you hungry. What the hell is this supposed to mean? Narratives are important to people, sure. But narratives sell wars! Narratives put people in camps! How about rather than tell people a story about how good a product is, we ask them to tell us a story about their ideal product? Then we can analyze the story, and see what their stories tell us about their needs and goals. Oh, but that might mean I have to listen, rather than just speak.

2. Proverbs. " High-concept pitches, generative analogies, and experience strategies invoke existing schemas to put the world in a wardrobe." Oh yes, for example: Arbeit Macht Frei. That was a brilliant proverb. Just take a look at his own sentence: it can mean whatever the hell you want. "We're all in this together", or "we need more lebensraum". What was it Bush said? "Fool me once..." yeah, exactly. Proverbs--the unequivocable enemies of logical thought.

3. Personas. "Portraits and profiles of user types (and their goals and behaviors) remind us all that "you are not the user" and serve as an invaluable compass for design and development." I think we normally call these stereotypes. Remember, the customer doesn't think like you--he is stupid, likes small form factors, and eats babies.

4. Scenarios. "Positioning personas in natural contexts gets us thinking about how a system fits the lives of real people." Because this obviously makes more sense than asking real people about their lives. I do most of my sociology through reality television now. Have you heard? Most of them are real people!

5. Content Inventories. "Reviewing and describing documents and objects is a prerequisite to effective structure and organization. The artifact (often a spreadsheet) is a sign of due diligence." Ask anybody in production how useful they find inventories to be. It wastes time to collect, wastes time to correct, and it even if its right, it tells you what is sitting right in front of you. And due diligence? I would think if this Year of Our Finacial Apocalypse taught us anything, it is that due diligence doesn't mean shit if you don't know how to count.

6. Analytics. "We learn by wallowing in interaction, search, and navigation data. And, we teach by uncovering and charting the most pivotal landmarks, portals, paths, and patterns." Isn't the proverb: 'we learn by doing'? Remember: economists don't make the economy, they just try to understand it six months later. Now, analysis would be something: critical investigation of method and process. If you don't use the right metric, data is nothing. (See above comment about due diligence).

7. User Surveys. "Asking the same questions of many users across multiple audiences can reveal existing gaps and common needs, and show how they map to customer satisfaction." This is a deliverable? Really? A Survey? Well, it worked great for No Child Left Behind. Bring on the standardization!

8. Concept Maps. "In the territory of concepts, a good map can help us see where we are and decide what to do by establishing landmarks, clarifying relationships, and identifying true north." This makes me want to vomit. While its not overt fascism, the marketing-consultant schmaltz of it is still killing me inside. How about instead, "what is a good map?" That would be an actual, interesting concept. This guy's amazing theoretical mind is telling me what a map is for. Is he getting paid for this?

9. System Maps. "A visual representation of objects and relationships within a system can aid understanding and finding for both stakeholders and users. Shift gears from "as-is" to "to-be" and you have a blueprint for structural redesign." Wait a minute, he just copied #8! But seriously: one of the biggest swindles of the last Bush administration was the re-designed concept maps of DHS after Katrina. Look it up. They gutted the organization with a rusty, bureaucratic sword. You couldn't even find an email address, a PO box, or a web page by the time they were done with their system maps. This is a literally recipe for disaster.

10. Process Flows. "How do users move through a system? How can we improve these flows? A symbolic depiction can enlighten desire lines and show the benefits of (less) chosen paths." Three deliverables in a row have told me to draw a picture. Next he'll be telling me to make a Powerpoint. First Chekoslovakia, then Poland!

11. Wireframes. "Sketches of pages and screens can focus us on structure, organization, navigation, and interaction before investing time and attention in color, typography, and image."
Is this a sketch, a flow, a diagram, or a map? What's the difference? Those would be actually thought-provoking questions.

12. Storyboards. "A series of sketches with narrative displayed in sequence can tell a story and paint a picture by showing interaction between users and systems in context over time." See what he did here? He combined "stories" with "pictures"! Next stop, rhyming lyrics, and cats in hats!

13. Concept Designs. "Interface designs and composite art invoke an emotional response and capture people's attention by presenting a high-fidelity image of how the product could look." He seems to have made good use of this one with his own "receivables". Too bad most concepts never make it to production. I wonder why?

14. Prototypes. "From paper prototypes to pre-alpha software and hardware, working models drive rapid iteration and emotional engagement by showing how a product will look and feel."
Doesn't this refute the previous? What good is a concept if you can't get it to work? Also: it seems that he stopped short of a prototype for his own receivables. I can tell from the concept that it wouldn't work.

15. Narrative Reports. "Writing is a great tool for thinking and organizing. And, it's hard to beat a written report for presenting detailed results and analysis or formal recommendations. Reports can serve as a container for most other deliverables." Well said. Too bad he didn't follow his own advice. But wait: he never specified that the writing be good, or make sense! All style, no substance. No wonder they call it "Intelligent Design"!

16. Presentations. "As the lingua franca of business, slideshows (and videos) can be great for telling a story or painting a picture. They can also be dead boring, unless you present in person, hit the highlights, and beware the bullets. Presentations can serve as a container for most other deliverables." Thank goodness! I thought we'd miss Powerpoint! Powerpoint: your most boring ideas, presented in a font and color of your choice. Now, with Clip Art!

17. Plans. "Project plans, roadmaps, and schedules guide design and development activity by clarifying roles and responsibilities." Could have used one of these for the Iraq Occupation. Note to self: come up with one for the Economic Bailout. Point: even bad plans are plans. Furthermore: even terribly destructive plans are plans.

18. Specifications. "An explicit set of requirements describing the behavior or function of a system is often a necessary element in the transition from design to development." Fuck! Enough of these sorts of "deliverables", and I'll drive my car off a bridge! Sure, this one is meaningless jargon, but it's also the exactly backwards to how design should work! Should you be developing function FIRST? Great product! Now: what should we make it do? WHO THINKS THIS WAY?

19. Style Guides. "A manual that defines a set of standards for identity, design, and writing can promote clarity and consistency." Yeah, it was the consistent font and margins that really pulled this set of deliverables together. Maybe what it needs next is a good logo, or a symbol. Maybe on a flag? Then we can have people salute that flag! If they don't we'll shoot them! Clear, and consistent!

20. Design Patterns. "A pattern library that shows repeatable solutions to common problems can describe best practices, encourage sharing and reuse, and promote consistency." Much of these ideas, in the most generous of terms, seem loosely organized by the principle of designing a product for a particular situation and audience. Now, he's telling us to to the reverse. he told us to use stereotypes, then he told us to do surveys. He told us to sell the idea, then he told us to listen to the customer. This is the idiotic championing of the contradictory schemas, which you may remember from such wonderful methodologies as State Communism and Conservatism. Give them a couple of ideas, and don't worry if they contradict each other. Just yell them over and over, and the whole crowd will yell with you. Repetition is the key--substance is meaningless.

Okay, so perhaps I was a little harsh: not every one of these ideas is fascist. But none of them are smart, well-described, or planned in any sort of theory that could be termed "progressive, useful, rational thought". And, well, some of them are sort fascist--particularly 1-4, and maybe 6 and 19. This is the point of the "little-Eichmann", you don't have to wave the flag, you just enable the people who do. If design, especially information design, doesn't think that enabling harmful thought processes is its problem, it has another thing coming. Even if your goal is to make money, which I totally understand, debilititating the customers, misunderstanding their needs, and designing useless crap as a result is hardly a sustainable way of doing it. Think about any time-tested champion of design. Now, think about how many of them focused on idiotic and illogical "receivables" like these. Maybe they used parts of these concepts, somewhere, somehow (with such broad, nebulously defined ideas it would be tough to avoid resembling some element of it), but the core of their design principles involved actual creative thought. Don't just take it from me, the materialist philosopher. Ask an actual designer.

There is a reason that philosophy is still around. It's in the business of designing ideas--and this is as self-referential a design process if ever there was. Philosophy knows that good thought is not going to please the customer all the time. But eventually, good results trumps any number of stories, presentation and stylesheets.

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