What It Feels Like (Right Now)

Whack-A-Mole Game

I was talking to a friend at lunch today and lamenting how I still hadn’t written anything about Charlottesville, and the general tension that many Americans are feeling right now. Part of my desire to say very little in writing, was related more to feeling like the nuance necessary wasn’t possible via Twitter or perhaps without knowing where I’m coming from.

A tweet from a friend wondering aloud why so many people felt emboldened to share their political beliefs on social media during this time, is what convinced me to speak up. For days, I’ve come close to writing posts talking about growing up in a de facto segregated school district; being born and raised city that was affected (and still is) by the divestment of cities in the 1960s and 70s.

Part of my voracious appetite for American Studies relies on a need to contextualize how things got to this point. For me, the journey began with simple questions about migration, and trying to understand stories that didn’t get explained in depth during my school years.

The best way I can think to explain how I feel is something like this. America has always felt to me, much like a game of Whack-A-Mole. You just can’t be sure who is going to see you as an actual person, versus some kind of caricature, idea or something else entirely. The exhaustion of having to consistently justify your right to exist in certain spaces surely adds to the complexities of whatever thing I’m attempting.

Even with those constraints, I’ve (mostly) not allowed myself to be impeded by whatever barriers other people impose. I can deal with the present and future, knowing that incremental progress happens and perhaps, future generations will deal with these issues less than I’ve had to, much like I deal with totally different challenges than my forebears. Nonetheless, had I realized sooner that I needed to be more realistic about my options in the face of an industry that would not always see me as the ideal they sought, would have saved me a lot of grief.

I just wonder when will enough? At what point do we concede what’s happened in this country and accept that people deserve a fair opportunity to participate fully in our communities? I

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk in Vancouver at a design conference. One of the things I did, was admonish the attendees to go home and start asking better questions, to figure out what our ethical boundaries are and no longer spend our times creating systems that harm simply because someone else told us to do it. What does that mean? There are thousands of policies, projects and systems that get designed by regular people everyday based on faulty research, incomplete understanding of audiences, and aren’t always designed for the people forced to use them.

For every public utility company that charges people extra to pay on the phone versus on the internet, every city website that doesn’t work for ordinary people, and watching people fumble with UIs that weren’t designed for the wild, means that we’re costing people time and money. In private scenarios, not much can be done, but when we’re dealing directly with the public, there’s a responsibility for someone to ask the question — why? — and to track down a solution.

My frustrations aren’t about politics. It’s about policy. Politicians come and go, policies outlive them. I have no illusions that even successfully fixing policy will end the negativity we’ve seen from top to bottom, but it’ll enable a lot more people to get a fairer shake out of life.

What will we leave behind?

If you’ve been following me lately, you know I’ve been on this renaissance of playing skeeball, a bowling-inspired game that’s been around since the early 20th century.

Reading publications from 1909, you get a sense of the way the world thought of itself. We’re not great at seeing far in front of ourselves as humans, we only see what’s in our view. Maybe this is the reason we’re so bad at long-term planning and why future generations are consigned to look back on the past and ask, “what were they thinking when they did this?”

At design & content conference two weeks ago in Vancouver, I challenged the audience to ask themselves what the future would look like for each of us. Not just in our everyday lives, but through the work that we do each day to encourage, enliven and empower others through mission-driven work that doesn’t just pay lip service to the ideals and tenets of positivity, but through demonstrating real, actionable change.

After my talk, someone asked me “what am I supposed to do? I think about this stuff sometimes and I get overwhelmed.” I replied, “when you go home, find some organization that might be able to use your help, tell them what you can do and ask if there’s something they need.” 

By bringing these ideas to light, I’m not implying that I’m somehow above the problem. I’m right here in the muck with everyone else. I’m only trying to highlight what I’m seeing as I move about the world, because it’s clear that not enough people are saying the things that many of us are thinking.

What to do next

I’ve been contemplating my own direction lately. I am very interested in the work at the intersection of where design, policy & code meet. It’s clear in a variety of ways that not enough people understand the underpinnings of what goes into designing the tools of the future. Not enough people are thinking about broader communities and how all people are impacted when we design for the ideal few.

I’ve been thinking about the design of things for a while. But not just the form factor, the actual ways that we build systems. Reading the history and how dark patterns are part of our everyday structures means that we’re all complicit. How do we solve for this? We have to arm ourselves with the knowledge that things are wrong, they’re screwed up and that by not embedding that into the ways that we make things better means we fail.
Working on products is interesting, but focusing on the facets that go overlooked sounds more compelling. What would it look like for designers to work in underserved communities tackling large-scale challenges? Right now, we apply a lens that’s largely focused on business, economics, and growth-oriented thinking. These assumptions apply faulty logic, often ignore history and don’t consider the structural challenges that impede progress at all levels.
Stop burying the lede
For all of the mentoring I do, I’m not so great at communicating my experience. I can do it one-on-one, but because so many people have different things they find “impressive”, I find myself often having to recalibrate my message in dramatic ways to fit whatever needle I’m threading through.
Often, I’ve thought this issue is a consequence of living in a small Midwestern city rather than somewhere much larger where my relationships I’ve cultivated through speaking and the internet writ large would perhaps come into play. I realize you can’t do it all by yourself and I’m at the point where I’m kind of doing everything the hard way.
I’m retrofitting my bios and other websites over the coming weeks to do a better job of communicating my value, what my interests are, and what type of work I’d like to be doing. For instance, I know I don’t want to be a professional speaker. It’s cool if that’s your thing, but for me, I just find speaking incredibly draining. I speak at 5-7 events a year and that’s more than enough.
I enjoy hands on work. I care about the process and distilling big ideas to people whether they have a broad technical knowledge or (more likely) not. Government moves a bit too slowly for me long-term, so it’s clear I need to be in a space where innovation, creativity, and imagination are valued rather than stifled or buried.
This is really the start of a semi-public conversation about my own direction. I feel like a lot of people do a good job of telling you where they are, but not how they got there.
Maybe this will prove useful to someone.