The president communicates via Tweet. Artificial intelligence rates our outfits. We talk to our devices like they’re children. Today’s reality is stranger than anything fiction could have imagined–and the vast political, economic, and technological upheavals of the past year don’t exactly lend themselves to clarity.
Here at Co.Design, we’ve watched as these shifts have rippled across the design world. In cities, citizens are debating affordable housing, their right to privacy in the connected city, and the rise of privatized infrastructure. In the product design world, the conversation revolves around changing notions of intellectual property, worker rights, and–again–the rights of the user. Meanwhile, the tech industry and privacy advocates are grappling with the role of machine learning and the ubiquity of algorithms in our world.
In short, we’re living in a moment when design and technology sit at the crux of a society-wide paradigm shift. Luckily, there are plenty of public intellectuals, technologists, data scientists, and writers tackling these topics already. Here are several recent titles that lend coherence to an incoherent time.
The Algorithms Are In Charge–And We Put Them There
Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy came out almost exactly two months before Donald Trump surprised the world last November, igniting a global debate about fake news and the role of algorithms and big data in our lives. Yet it can be tough to get a grip on this issue if you don’t have a background in it, and O’Neil’s writing is compelling and essential reading today.
Over the course of each chapter, O’Neil–who is also known as Mathbabe through her eponymous blog–shows how complex and opaque mathematical models had already colonized our world, from the models that are used to judge public school teachers, to algorithms that are used to establish sentencing in criminal cases, to Facebook itself. WMDs, as she calls these models, are “churning away in every conceivable industry, exacerbating inequality and punishing the poor.”
This is what is sometimes missing from the debate around algorithms in our lives: A voice that speaks with clarity about how faulty algorithms are worsening inequality in our world. In addition to explaining the math, she makes an impassioned argument against the growing over-reliance on totally opaque models that are often biased and downright incorrect.
A bonus? Her vivid description of working at the leading hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis, and how the crisis unfolded. Here’s hoping O’Neil keeps explaining the complex math that governs our society.
Populism, Inequality, And The Paradox Of Creative Cities
In Richard Florida’s latest book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class–and What We Can Do About It, he grapples with his theories about “the rise of the creative class,” which described how cities that focused on technology, talent, and tolerance could see great economic gains.
Florida’s ideas drove many progressive urban agendas over the past two decades. But in The New Urban Crisis, published in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, he looks at the “dark side” of the creative city phenomenon: The fact that even in these progressive cities, the poor get poorer, equality is worsening, and the benefits are seen mainly by the well-off. “So which is it,” he asks early on in the book, as much to himself as to us, “Are cities the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress, that the optimists celebrate, or are they the zones of gaping inequality and class divisions that the pessimists decry?”
According to Florida, they’re both. The book paints a detailed picture of the urban crisis he sees in cities, and sets up a framework for “urbanism for all” in its final chapter, with policy suggestions ranging from reforming land use regulation to changing the way housing subsidies are designed to encourage suburban, not urban, growth. But maybe most vividly, it’s a portrait of a society in flux, and a vivid portrayal of the socioeconomic forces driving populism–not just on the national or international stage, but in our cities, too.
A Guide To Seeing The Future In The Present
Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, the new book by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, begins with a series of hair-raisingly embarrassing anecdotes–all concerning tech pioneers who utterly failed to see the impact of transformative technology. From the Lumière brothers (who pioneered film and then called it “an invention without a future”) to Steve Ballmer (who said the iPhone would have”no chance” at any “significant market share”). Ouch. The point, as Ito puts it? “Our technologies have outpaced our ability, as a society, to understand them.”
Ito’s book is about trying to step back from your own time and see the broader, macro-scale implications of the technology that populates it. It’s not an easy task, but over the course of this short, vivid tome, he lays out nine principles that serve as tools. The principles themselves sound esoteric out of context, but Ito and Howe explain them using everything from synthetic biology to the 2012 tsunami and nuclear disaster. Even if you don’t come out the other side a seer, you’ll have learned how Ito thinks about the future.
What Is Fun, Anyway? And How Do You Create It?
As its name suggests, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, the 2016 book by the game designer Ian Bogost, is about playing–but this isn’t a book about “gamification” in design.
Really, it’s about how we as a culture have totally misunderstood what play and fun really are. Bogost explains that fun comes from restrictions, rules, and tensions, not freedom.”Fun isn’t pleasure, it turns out,” he writes. “Fun is the feeling of finding something new in a familiar situation. Fun almost demands boredom: you need the sense that nothing good could possibly arise from an experience in order for the experience there to smolder with the hot pleasure of surprise.”
While it’s an anomaly in this list since it could be read as a philosophical meditation on modern life, Play Anything is a fascinating perspective on a time when many feel uncomfortable without some form of digital stimulation in front of us. It’s a worthy read for anyone working in UX or design, touching on the psychology of boredom, delight, and pleasure in daily life.
The Privacy Crisis Is Here, And It’s Worse Than You Imagine
In theory, most of us know that our digital lives are an open book, and that–again, in theory–our privacy is being constantly and subtly violated and our data leveraged and sold. In fact, most of us have already given up on trying to protect our privacy. Who hasn’t thought “eh, so be it” when accepting an app’s invasive Terms of Service?
In Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, the privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier explains why we should all care–and how mass surveillance, which Schneier terms a “public-private surveillance partnership” between the government and corporations, makes us “less safe… and less free.” Over the course of the tome, Schneier decodes this often-opaque and jargon-filled world, and explains how “anonymous” data is rarely anything of the sort.
It’s a fascinating (and, frankly, kind of horrifying) exposition of surveillance, and for designers and anyone working with products or technology, it’s an eye-opening glimpse into the way a seemingly innocuous stream of data–say, from a fitness tracker, a drone’s camera, or an app–can be used, sold, and contextualized with startling ends.