Modes for toads

Nice DE-veining of ‘design thinking’ in the CHE:

Despite his enthusiasm, Miller struggles to define design thinking. “It’s an approach to problem-solving based on a few easy-to-grasp principles that sound obvious: ‘Show Don’t Tell,’ ‘Focus on Human Values,’ ‘Craft Clarity,’ ‘Embrace Experimentation,’ ‘Mindful of Process,’ ‘Bias Toward Action,’ and ‘Radical Collaboration.’” He explains further that these seven points can be reduced to what are known as the five “modes”: “Empathize,” “Define,” “Ideate,” “Prototype,” and “Test.” He seems particularly impressed with “Empathize”: “Human-centered design redescribes the classical aim of education as the care and tending of the soul.”
Beautiful. Compelling. But what does it mean? According to the’s An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE, “The Empathize Mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.” We can dress things up with language about the “soul,” but this is Business 101: Listen to your client and find out what he or she wants.

Miller calls the Empathize Mode “ethnography,” which is uncharitable  to cultural anthropologists who spend their entire lives learning how to observe other people. Few anthropologists would sign on to the idea that amateurs at a boot camp strolling around Stanford and gawking at strangers constitutes “ethnography.” The Empathize Mode of design thinking is roughly as ethnographic as a marketing focus group or a crew of consultants trying to suss out their clients’ desires.

Design thinking, in other words, is just a fancy way of talking about consulting. What Miller, Kelly, and Hennessy are asking us to imagine is that design consulting is a model for retooling all of education. They believe that we should use design thinking to reform education by treating students as clients. And they assert that design thinking should be a central part of what students learn, a lens through which graduates come to approach social reality. In other words, we should view all of society as if we are in the design-consulting business.

Okay maybe not so nice. But still, the designification of arts and any other kind of education is a wagon train that should stopped, frisked, emptied of its contents, its wheels broken and used for firewood and little shacks built from the wagon bodies to shield the shysters pioneers from the winter cold because THAT’s empathy and we’re not barbarians. The business-minded think everywhere they look is a frontier – that’s where all this consulting jargon comes from – when most of it is just the old world, with a deep culture you can share and learn something from, and even use for helpful, positive purposes that, yes, might even earn you a living. But no. Instead, it’s space travel. Deep tunnels. The hyperloop. Self-driving cars. Personal pods, juicer-toasters or whatever. And now some of the design thinkers want to change higher ed so their ‘IDEAS, man!’ make more sense. Just stop.

Liberal Myths about Climate Change

CorsoThis is pretty right on, and not in a good way:

But before moving on, one more point about liberal and conservative denial: Naomi Klein has suggested that conservative denial may have its roots, it will surprise many liberals, in some pretty clear thinking. [i] At some level, she has observed, conservatives climate deniers understand that addressing climate change will, in fact, change our way of life, a way of life which conservatives often view as sacred. This sort of change is so terrifying and unthinkable to them, she argues, that they cut the very possibility of climate change off at its knees: fighting climate change would force us to change our way of life; our way of life is sacred and cannot be questioned; ergo, climate change cannot be happening.

We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life. Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created. And so do Democrats and Republicans stay together in this unhappy and unproductive place of emotional self-protection and planetary ruin.

If one of our strengths is the ability to be honest with ourselves, then we need to go the Fully Monty. It means not being afraid to go there, if ‘there’ is about substantial changes to our way of life in order to stave off planetary ruin. Sure, the extent to which you already live close to work, take alternative transportation, do not own one car per-driving-age person in your household will make you more open and amenable to solutions that are simply out of the question to other people. But that’s the point above. maybe we need to start with ‘out of the question’ and try to work forward.

Get around the anger and soft-pedaled pedantry about climate change by blasting straight through it. It won’t make the tough decisions go away, but maybe we could get face-to-face with them sooner rather than later.

Image: The Corso, Rome, author photo from June 2014


Far be it for me or anybody to tell you that you must take the train, walk to work, know or care anything about the food you buy and feed your kids. I mean, what’s the difference between a choice and a mandate? I can’t get you to consider spirituality when you insist on being religious; we’re talking past each other. The same goes for precious arguments about whether or not the climate is changing – more immediate concerns are either much more important or hardly matter at all. We can’t see rising oceans, after all – wait.

Nonetheless, just because something doesn’t look the same way to you as it does to me does not mean we are not seeing the same thing. The idea of parallax, where an object’s changed appearance is actually due to a change in perspective, is perhaps instructive. As we move through time, embracing or putting off measures to insure (either way) certain outcomes, our relation to, and hence our view of, the world we live in likely will change. Indeed this is the basis, for some, of waiting until conditions are sufficiently dire and all doubt is erased that we are &^%*ed before any remedies are attempted. I’ll leave this absurd fear of doubt for another time. But how to engender changes of perspective, if that is agreed to be one of the keys to planetary-preservation?

In the parallax, example

objects in the foreground appear to move very quickly, while those in the background much less so.  In the case of how our lifestyles impact the planet, what would be some of the objects in the foreground? The methods we use to move about, keep warm or cool, eat, for amusement; when we visualize our lives in a mind’s eye, is it about sitting in a car on a crowded road? Walking up to a school in the morning with your child? A lot of people would be appalled with a mere confrontation with how much time they have spent sitting at a drive through window, without ever considering what they were even buying there. Just that image, and a subtotal of minutes, and its reflection of the priority and our acceptance of it might be enough to create a pause.

Because that, a pause – any pause – seems to be what we strive to avoid. You don’t have to get dystopian about it to see the relation. When we take the time to prepare a meal, for example, we become concerned about ingredients, kitchen implements, the preference of those we’re feeding… the list goes on. Whether see this as a pleasure or a hassle, and the faster you condense the overall activity, the less you need to think about the different elements. Until you skip cooking altogether – and here we are again, sitting in the drive through.

So there’s no reason to demonize ordering a number 4 (again), in order to see it as another object between us and the background of the world we live. It moves quickly, alleviating us of certain concerns maybe, meanwhile our ideas about whether the world is changing seem to move so slowly as to not affect us. But creating pause, with the danger of a change in perspective, is perhaps the only way we ever become concerned about any of the ingredients to our lives, the ones that determine our perspective, the only ones we can change.

Have You Seen The Bridge, part XXI

People wonder what is happening. I certainly do, and it’s a natural curiosity. If only we were free to pursue any and everything we wanted, things would be so much better. In more ways than we care to imagine, we remain quite free to do as we please. There are some limits to be acknowledged. But there always were.

This new Gallup poll, via, points up some reluctance to embrace either these limits or to remain free to do as we please, sort of one or the other but not both. It is a squinting sort of acknowledgment where, if you strain or blur yours eyes, everything looks the same. Note the wording of the question:

Even if? That’s quite a hypothetical, knowing what we know. The indulgence to qualify what we might be willing to do in the event that what is going on is actually going on trails off from some deep shallowness, an allowance, a remove, a disconnect, however we want to identify it. The present is not sinking in. Maybe our quintessential optimism had to spring from somewhere – and this abrupt denial of the choices before us, based on the ones we’ve taken off the table, is it.

It brings to mind a conversation with a friend last night, a painter on his way back to his studio in Kansas. He had been in New England and related a dinner conversation there where people, otherwise sympathetic to environmental causes, were lamenting the prospect of wind turbines proposed for the Nantucket Sound. It would ruin their views, he said in disbelief, adding that the sentiment ran much the same in the Flint Hills, where similar proposals were being greeted with similar opposition, based on the same reluctance to deform the spectacular views of rolling hills with those God-awful renewable energy sources.

I personally have a deep affinity for magnificent vistas. Should we wait until they become directly encroached upon by burning coal for power to have a clearer choice, to make a choice that wouldn’t have been so bad after all? The choice doesn’t seem so clear at this point. There’s a time gap in which, one suspects, a belief in the power to return to just before the tipping point prevails. If and when we sufficiently win ourselves over on the wisdom of making the right decisions (and it’s not inevitable), we’ll go back and do just that.

I appreciate this kind of reporting, even if it confirms what we already know, that describes, in fact, the engine which has transported us to this point in the first place. But, in terms of the twin fantasies of time travel and an ability to reconcile ourselves with needed measures, we need to figure out a way to get there from here.

Photograph: Natural Bridge, La Prele Canyon. Converse County, Wyoming, 1870. courtesy USGS


If we were truly the musical people that we think we are, there would be a growing discography based on the notion of a people who gorge themselves endlessly, yet are profoundly undernourished. But invariably, time from time someone leaves a door unlatched and a few bars or whole measure drifts out that is recognizable – how we have conditioned ourselves to think that we’re open to different ideas when that isn’t actually the case at all; that we’re already overtaxed with things to do and think about when we actually ask quite little of ourselves; how ‘the whole thing’ (whatever it is) is just too complicated when it’s often quite simple and only the onus of our choices which we find too troublesome to delve into.

The column this week touched on this idea in a very indirect way, via a coincidental example of an eco-themed art show. It’s greatly true that if you just keep in mind what it is that you’re doing, most situations tend to be navigable, that one included. In a timely NYT follow up (kidding), this article presents much the same take on a coincidental example, a review of a show by the recipient of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize.

When an artist uses her art to advance a political cause, how are we to judge the result? Should we evaluate the project by applying artistic standards or on the basis of its political or moral argument?

Consider Emily Jacir, who employs conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art to call attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.

This particular example of her work has a tertiary component that makes it even more suspect, but the point holds that even and especially with sympathetic subject matter, the basic premise of ‘art as means’ remains problematic.

However tragic and deplorable Mr. Zuaiter’s story may be, Ms. Jacir’s exhibition does not bring him to life sufficiently enough to elicit a strong emotional response. You may agree or disagree with her political goals and her use of the art exhibition system to further them. But the problem is with her unexceptional artistry, not her politics.

Just so.

It takes place every day

Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear any how.” The primary force of the vague tautology that we must be able to do certain things (simply because of the inherent need to do them), weighed against the true probability of any outcome, helps us get a handle on the most current odds-making on the question of global climate change. In addition, we might ask as we often do, what is the smart money doing?

This is what we usually can see first – the motion of resources – when the top of the chain begins to move, if not thrash about. The impetus to go green remains at its fashion stage, though many venture capitalists have started to put their money into some interesting niche ideas. But the popular uprising remains in its gesture phase. We may prefer this because everything else would seem like panic, and no one really wants that.

Perhaps this fear of panic is holding back the phenomenon from becoming the full blown existential crisis that it portends, on which its sunnier moments are truly based if the full scenario is to make any sense whatsoever. Mr. Gore’s movie terrified many people, but again, our ability to tell ourselves certain things permitted us to move on. There is a dissonance about conditions being severe enough to act, though not just yet. It seems a sort of patrician patience in the service of good form, prudence based on perception in a kind of “Just so, old chap,” way.

We have been here before, however, though in the heights of the Cold War we were also yet able to foster that remove from ever-encroaching oblivion. It didn’t prevent us from lining up for nuclear bomb drills in school (!), but we went on making long term plans just the same, maybe factoring in the odds of annihilation, maybe not, but living with the specter all the same. Maybe we just haven’t gotten comfortable with the idea yet; I even have trouble writing about it because everything sounds like such dooms-saying when all we’re really talking about are big, big changes.

Yet even these are simply about returning to more sensible dimensions in the way we live. When we talk about green this or sustainable that, these are just transitional codes for simple things that used to be common place like knowing where your food comes from or walking to work. To the extent we don’t want or care to do these things, well, they’re that much easier to shroud in Greenery.

I’ve always loved how Camus in L’Homme Revolte explained that Communism was a sickness, a system predicated on the elimination of absurdity in our daily lives. He knew that wasn’t possible and in so many ways, we’ve returned there, struggling to explain and justify some of the absurdities we’ve been living with and on. We can change what we call them, tweak the edges and continue to tell ourselves certain things. But they can’t just be explained away. They are there. And we simply must change them.