In this series of vignettes, I explore how we can design software that shapes our environments, which then shape ourselves. I discuss the foundational importance of human attention and its relationship to compassion, and I suggest some ways to design software that would foster physical environments to nourish attention. It is useful, in envisioning such environments, to focus on how they make us feel. It is useful, in other words, to pay special attention to beauty.
– Sep Kamvar, August 1, 2015
I was talking, the other day, to an acupuncturist friend of mine, and I asked him how he heals people. He told me that he doesn’t heal people. He introduces small interventions that change the flow of energy in the body, allowing the body to heal itself.
In software, we think about user flows rather than energy flows. We know that if we make something easier to do, more people will do it. This alone sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how sensitive this relationship is. Small changes in design can create big changes in behavior. I remember, when I was working at Google, we would make a button just a little bit more visible, and millions more people would click on it. It felt like magic.
Or perhaps I should say that it felt like acupuncture.
Sensors for Life
In the vineyards in Northern California, the vintners plant roses at the end of each row of vines. The roses are beautiful, of course, but that’s not why they plant them. They plant them because Northern California is home to a fungus called powdery mildew. This fungus kills grapes, but it kills roses first. Blooming roses, then, are a signal that the environment will sustain grapes. They are sensors for life.
Once you see the roses in the vineyards, it’s hard not to see them everywhere.
In the year before I left San Francisco, food trucks started sprouting up all over the city. It was a curious phenomenon and I started asking around about it. As it turns out, this food truck renaissance was powered by Twitter.
It was difficult, at the time, to get a food truck licensed in San Francisco. But with Twitter, unlicensed food trucks could thrive. They would park in a different spot each day and tweet out where they were.
The legal food trucks, at a certain point, caught wind of this. They started following the followers of the illegal food trucks, who, in turn, followed them back, and a community was born. This community worked to change the regulations, and when they did, even more food trucks came onto the streets.
In other words, software was shaping the city.
Food trucks are cheap and easy, relative to most changes in the city. We should expect them to appear first. But their presence indicates something deeper. It indicates an environment that can sustain informal networks of small, independent producers.
This all suggests a new way to engage in urban design. If we have a vision for the city, we might start by creating a single instance of what we would like to see — a single public microgarden, a single shopfront school, a single parking-lot plaza. We can then design a social process that helps other people recreate that instance, maintain it, and make it their own. And finally, we can write software to make that social process easier. I imagine that, in this way, we will see lots of small things start blooming in our cities.
The food trucks are the roses in the vineyards.
I have been thinking, of late, about the Mayan temples.
These temples, along with the aqueducts and reservoirs of the Mayan golden age, are wonderful feats of technology. They are a testament to the human capacity to make great things. They are also, equally, a testament to the availability of trees. To heat one square meter of the limestone plaster used to make these temples, the Mayans needed to burn 20 trees.
Today we live in a golden age of software. On the backs of our software frameworks we have created a highly connected and communicative global society. I may now, without thinking much of it, access the biggest encyclopedia in history from my bedroom, and hail a private car with a supercomputer that lives in my pocket.
As the Mayan temples were fueled by trees, our software is fueled by another natural resource: attention. Through software, we have remarkable reach into the attention of others. A single website can reach billions of people; a mobile app can notify me when I’m in my car. Attention is a powerful force, and collective attention is one of the most powerful forces we have. We may harness this force to create great things.
But we must take care. The flipside to being able to easily access the attention of others, of course, is that others can easily access ours.
There is a beautiful short story by Kurt Vonnegut, called Harrison Bergeron, in which intelligent people are required to wear an earpiece that is always interrupting them with a distracting sound, not allowing them to complete any thought that takes more than a few minutes to formulate.
I am reminded of this story each time my phone buzzes.
The psychologists, of course, have looked into this, well before my devices started giving me pause. The fragmentation of our attention, they tell us, leads to a decline in thoughtfulness, in deliberation, and, most prominently, in compassion. We are less kind when we are distracted.
Perhaps this is why we have seen a rise, in recent years, of things like meditation and Montessori. They are conservation practices for our attention. Meditation reserves a time of day (like the early morning) to cultivate concentration. Montessori reserves a time of life (early childhood) to do the same; Maria Montessori referred to the development of concentration as “the most important single result of our whole work.”
These practices are not so different, in spirit, than the Mayan practice of cultivating sacred groves. One reserves time to conserve attention, the other reserves space to conserve trees.
But there is more, here, than metaphor.
I remember reading, a few years back, a wonderful book by the psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, in which they developed a theory they called Attention Restoration Theory. In this book, they introduced something they called soft fascination. As opposed to hard fascination, which refers to patterns that grab our attention — a billboard in Times Square, an incoming text message, an iPad game — soft fascination refers to patterns that readily hold the attention, but in a serene way that permits a more reflective mode — a butterfly on a wildflower, the song of a nightingale, the movement of leaves on a tree. Soft fascination, they showed, is a powerful restorative measure for attention.
This suggests a path for us as makers of space.
It suggests a path for makers because, while it’s always possible for people to make individual choices, the default choices are most powerful.
It is possible, individually, to create an practice where we each take some time each day and go into nature, but it would be easier if nature was present on our walk to work. It is possible, individually, to limit our children’s use of tablets, but it would be easier if our early-childhood environments were peaceful spaces where children could work with beautiful materials that gently hold their attention.
So perhaps the best way to cultivate our collective attention — and with it, our collective compassion — is through the design of our environments. We can work to create our environments to foster soft fascination, so that we experience small sacred moments scattered throughout the day. To begin, we don’t need grand gestures. Even a single tree on a barren street has a noticeable effect.
If we keep at it, and if we get the process right, we might find ourselves reshaping the city.
And in turn, we might find the city helping to reshape ourselves.
Artifice and Intelligence
We are constantly surprising ourselves with what we discover in science. We think we have something figured out, and then, suddenly, we see something that changes everything: an electron goes through two slits at the same time, or an acquired trait is inherited. The whole business keeps us on our toes.
We surprise ourselves in the social sciences as well, which is itself surprising. We have, collectively, thousands of years of experience with one another. You’d think we would know ourselves pretty well by now. But we keep going along, surprising ourselves at each corner.
Take, for example, how we make decisions.
For a long time, the great Western thinkers — from Plato to Descartes — thought that decision-making is, or at least should be, a rational process. The very word decide comes from the Latin root decidere, which means to cut off, suggesting a mental process by which a range of options are cut off to settle on a final one. Our emotions, said the great thinkers, have no place in reasonable decision-making.
We thought we had this all figured out when, in 1848, a young man named Phineas Gage sustained a head injury that made him lose his ability to feel emotions. Surprisingly, he also lost his ability to make decisions.
We’ve seen this natural experiment repeated, again and again, in modern patients who have had damage to their prefrontal cortex. Losing our capacity to feel makes us unable to decide. Without emotion, reason flails.
I imagine we are just beginning to scratch the surface of this whole decision-making thing, and there are other experiments that give us room for wonder. In one study, humans with serious heart disease expressed less emotion than those with healthy hearts. In another, changing the bacteria in the stomach of a mouse was shown to change its decisions.
We have, as it turns out, brain cells all over our body. Our heart and gut, in particular, are little satellite brains; there are 100 million neurons in our gut alone. They communicate with a little part of the brain in the front that is responsible for integrating our emotions into our decision-making processes. Our ability to make decisions — and more generally, our intelligence — depends on our emotions, which in turn, depends on our bodies.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. These truths are reflected in our language. We are told, when we are making a big decision, to listen to our heart, or to go with our gut feeling.
Nevertheless, I think it will take us some time to fully wrap our heads around this — or should I say wrap our bodies around this. Once we do, I think it will change the way we think about artificial intelligence.
The roots of artificial intelligence are based in the tradition of rational decision-making. If making a decision just involved looking objectively through a space of options and choosing the best one, then our computers could do that quite well. And in fact they do, when we restrict the domain to tasks suited to this sort of intelligence, like playing chess or classifying an image. All we need to do is give the computer an objective function.
But deciding the objective in the first place, that requires a deeper intelligence; one that, for now, seems inseparable from our ability to have emotions. And perhaps this holds a key to what truly makes us human. The computers, they can think — in some cases better than we can — but, for the foreseeable future at least, they will need us to feel.
Make Space for Beauty
Students of computer science get taught, at places like Stanford and MIT, how to make things. But they don’t get taught — at least not in a traditional computer science curriculum — how to decide what to make. This is because, in the industrial model of work, they would not graduate into a world where they had much of a choice. They would work for a company that would tell them what to make.
But as software has gotten less expensive to make, so, too, has it become more entrepreneurial. We find ourselves responsible not only for building things, but for deciding what to build. And in doing so we face a question that we were not taught to answer in school: how do we decide?
I was thinking about this question the other day when I heard a story on the radio about birdsong. The guest, an ecologist who studies sound, noted that humans have a bandwidth of super-sensitive hearing between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz. This is surprising, he said, because the normal human voice is much lower — between 500 hertz and 2 kilohertz. So human hearing is not matched to the human voice.
But there is, he said, a perfect match in nature: birdsong. Our hearing evolved to hear even the faintest birdsong. And why? Because birdsong is a primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.
This is a fairly recent conversation in the quantitative sciences; it was started less than 100 years ago. But we were able to act for thousands of years without yet knowing the science. Our ancestors followed birdsong to flourishing habitats, because birdsong is beautiful.
So how do we decide what to make? It is tempting to apply our quantitative skills to this question, to analyze the data and decide based on the numbers. There is a place for that, of course, but I wouldn’t begin there.
I would begin, instead, by tapping into our well of feelings to see what makes us feel peaceful, feel sublime, feel alive, to see what fills us with wonder and hope. I would begin, on other words, by tapping into what is beautiful.
If we create, inside of ourselves, a respect for beauty, then we will create beauty outside of ourselves. And in doing so, we might find that beauty is not entirely subjective. We might find that cultivating a keen awareness of our own feelings is not so different from understanding the feelings of others. We might find that what makes us feel peaceful makes others feel peaceful, that what makes us feel sublime makes others feel sublime, that what makes us feel alive makes others feel alive. We might find that what fills us with wonder and hope fills others with wonder and hope. We might find that what is beautiful to us is beautiful to others.
And we might find that in that beauty there are truths that science has not yet discovered.
Make space for beauty.