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Auld Sang Syne

"I once overheard two botanists arguing over a Damned Thing that had blasphemously sprouted in a college yard. One claimed that the Damned Thing was a tree and the other claimed that it was a shrub. They each had good scholary arguments, and they were still debating when I left them. The world is forever spawning Damned Things- things that are neither tree nor shrub, fish nor fowl, black nor white- and the categorical thinker can only regard the spiky and buzzing world of sensory fact as a profound insult to his card-index system of classifications." -Hagbard Celine, "Never Whistle While You're Pissing"

image
I stole this pic from Sang's Facebook page. Sorry about the presumption, Sang.

I know this interactive creative director person. No really. I know a good many people what might fit that description actually. But this one person I’m thinking of is named Sang Han. None of the others I know are named that. I’ve never had the pleasure of working with him, but we’ve had some few interactions here and there, and I’ve seen a lot of his work. It’s really a lot beautiful stuff I think. Well, I mean, go look at it. He has that certain something, yes?

I recently wrote a post that discusses the way in which the specialists that meet at the intersection of creativity and technology are often carping about how others “don’t get it,” and how the different specialists mean different things when they say it. Yesterday, my friend Skye sent me a link to a post on the St. Louis Egotist featuring Sang’s work. In the comments, this “you don’t get it” theme presented itself. (To be honest, some of the commentary is merely inside baseball soap opera stuff which is not a lot germane to my post, but it’s there to read if you’re into that kind of stuff.) The point is that this kind of intellectual siloing is rather a lot a common thing and you don’t have to go looking very far to find it.

Anyway, here’s John Nance in the comments:

“This is the very personification of clueless adverting people bastardizing the Web. They didn’t get it ten years ago, and they don’t get it now. Sang, you get an A in art, and an F in producing anything that anyone cares about.”

I don’t know John, so, let’s ignore the inflamed rhetorical manoeuvres because he’s also trying to make a point here. He’s saying Sang doesn’t “get it.” And to be fair, Sang wields the “you don’t get it” theme as well (he’s talking to a particular anonymous commenter, but it speaks to what would appear to be his bias regarding UX as well):

“you just gave up on being an art director cause you suck at design and now are preaching the ux; usability angle”

It turns out that in their social networks, people generally have high homophily bias. This is to say the people that most people know, all tend to know each other. This would appear to be especially strong among experts (or aspirants) within a given domain. What this creates are clusters of people that all know and regularly interact with one another. Generally, this also means that they’re not, for the most part, regularly interacting with people from other clusters. In this way, homophily also means that these people all tend to hold much of the same knowledge and presuppositions. Again, specialization (reductionism) would seem to encourage homophily.

There’s this rather a lot smart guy named Ronald Burt who is Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago. He wrote a book called “Brokerage and Closure” in which he points out that the people that make the most money, get most promotions, and have the best performance reviews, have the lowest homophily bias in their networks. Put another way, brokers create value.

One might think that only, well, brokers can be brokers. As in, the salespeople. But anyone can be a broker. At the ictus of creativity and technology, brokers are needed. As I said to Skye, everyone’s work is important. Sang is an exemplar of a set of understandings and abilities that comprise a significant potential value. This is equally true of the understandings that inform and attend the discipline of user experience.

There are important conversations to be had. There is knowledge to be brokered. The importance of this is derived from the fact that there are decisions to be made, some of which are rational, and some to which no formula can be applied. And in essence, the power to affect outcomes is a function of the willingness to be a broker. So, y’know, be powerful.

Update 11:13 AM, 5/21/10: The perspicacious Brad Nunnally has, as usual, a link that is apropos. This time it’s “The Psychologist’s View of UX Design” by Susan Weinschenk at UX Magazine. To wit:

“A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.”

But yeah, go read the whole thing.

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  • http://twitter.com/JohnNance JohnNance

    This is an interesting take on the conversation. I will need to download that book you mention this weekend.

    The one thing that I didn't reveal in my criticisms is that Sang has influenced some of my design work. My portfolio is here http://www.behance.net/johnnance, and in my blog you can see the Rawlings design that does take some of the conventions he uses, http://johnnance01.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/cut….

    I value Sang's design skills. But, I took from them what I thought worked and mixed that with my own understandings.

  • http://www.bradgutting.com Brad Gutting

    “everyone’s work is important.”

    Oddly enough, I said the exact same thing in my response to the essay about TOKY Design (who, might I add, consistently does great work–I was just taking exception to the periodic superiority outbursts). I was actually quoting my brother by way of Jenny Holzer, but either way, it's a great sentiment and I'm glad to see it emphasized here.

    As for as “de-homogenizing,” you have to be amazing conscious and aware in order to move outside of your immediate network. It takes genuine effort, not the appearance of it. One of my favorite things about St. Louis is how non-homogenous it truly is, despite the flack given it by people who…well, all tend to know each other already. You can drive 15 minutes in any direction here and find yourself in a completely different world. Just try driving north on Broadway from Washington Ave some time, or heading down 55, or even traversing portions of west county. I suppose the same goes for just about any city, though I've found in the more expensive areas like New York and San Francisco that you see a lot of the same stuff and same mentalities frequently. (In fact, I often think that one of the sellingpoints of St. Louis in the ongoing effort to “make it cool” is to point out and celebrate a lot of the goofy dysfunction of this town, which often manifests in more eclecticism than you might think, something which has often been reduced in other towns with skyrocketing expenses).

    The thing is, it's not that hard to learn new things or challenge your own assumptions or experience something foreign. You just do it. You don't have to fly across an ocean. You just take the time to look at things in (literally) another light. It's less a physical geography thing and more of a mentality. Whit Stillman captured this idea nicely through characters in The Last Days of Disco, who lamented the effects of “vicious pairing off” behavior by their friends who settled into serious relationships. Different thing to a degree, sure, but the notion that you make something cooler somehow by excluding others is silly. All you achieve by separating from those who different is limit the possibility of surprising connections. Far better to “gel,” because in the worst case scenario, you get a new “_______, _________, and a ________ walk into a bar” joke.

    I read years ago about a conference that Hans Ulrich Obrist put together in which there were no formal speakers, just all the filler-material between (what would have been) more formally scheduled events. It bred unexpected frictions, and was probably great fun.

  • http://twitter.com/eliotfrick Eliot Frick

    Thanks for commenting, John! I appreciate your thoughts. Wherever there is this kind of tension, I think there is the opportunity for edification. Things have to be at least a little painful to be useful or something like that.

  • http://twitter.com/eliotfrick Eliot Frick

    Thanks much for your thoughts, Brad. Your suggestion that it's a lot difficult to see from outside your weltanschauung is spot on I think. I think it was Nietzsche what said, “we don't learn anything we don't already know.” Which, I think the point is just that things make sense only when they can be fit into the order already established in our brains. And the order already established is the one what has been defined by our social interactions.

    Also like the St. Louis is unintentionally diverse. Which, that's how real diversity works I think. A lot of contrivance passes for diversity these days. I'm more interested in the natural way in which things grow interdependent without any fiat solutions where putatively smart people step in and “make things diverse”. So yeah, score one for provincial St. Louis!

    Come back whenever you like, sir. Your comments are always welcome.

  • http://www.goelastic.com Brian Cross

    There is an unverified story that goes like this:

    If you put a bunch of ants in a bucket, they will work together to form a chain and get all the ants out of the bucket and they will survive.

    If you put a bunch of lobsters in a bucket, as each one gets close to getting out of the bucket, another lobster will invariably pull it down from the top so that it may have a better chance at escaping. Eventually, the lobsters all end up dying in the bucket.

    Little did we all know that outside of Maine, St. Louis has the second largest lobster crop.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnNance JohnNance

    This is an interesting take on the conversation. I will need to download that book you mention this weekend.

    The one thing that I didn't reveal in my criticisms is that Sang has influenced some of my design work. My portfolio is here http://www.behance.net/johnnance, and in my blog you can see the Rawlings design that does take some of the conventions he uses, http://johnnance01.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/cut….

    I value Sang's design skills. But, I took from them what I thought worked and mixed that with my own understandings.

  • http://www.bradgutting.com Brad Gutting

    “everyone’s work is important.”

    Oddly enough, I said the exact same thing in my response to the essay about TOKY Design (who, might I add, consistently does great work–I was just taking exception to the periodic superiority outbursts). I was actually quoting my brother by way of Jenny Holzer, but either way, it's a great sentiment and I'm glad to see it emphasized here.

    As for as “de-homogenizing,” you have to be amazing conscious and aware in order to move outside of your immediate network. It takes genuine effort, not the appearance of it. One of my favorite things about St. Louis is how non-homogenous it truly is, despite the flack given it by people who…well, all tend to know each other already. You can drive 15 minutes in any direction here and find yourself in a completely different world. Just try driving north on Broadway from Washington Ave some time, or heading down 55, or even traversing portions of west county. I suppose the same goes for just about any city, though I've found in the more expensive areas like New York and San Francisco that you see a lot of the same stuff and same mentalities frequently. (In fact, I often think that one of the sellingpoints of St. Louis in the ongoing effort to “make it cool” is to point out and celebrate a lot of the goofy dysfunction of this town, which often manifests in more eclecticism than you might think, something which has often been reduced in other towns with skyrocketing expenses).

    The thing is, it's not that hard to learn new things or challenge your own assumptions or experience something foreign. You just do it. You don't have to fly across an ocean. You just take the time to look at things in (literally) another light. It's less a physical geography thing and more of a mentality. Whit Stillman captured this idea nicely through characters in The Last Days of Disco, who lamented the effects of “vicious pairing off” behavior by their friends who settled into serious relationships. Different thing to a degree, sure, but the notion that you make something cooler somehow by excluding others is silly. All you achieve by separating from those who different is limit the possibility of surprising connections. Far better to “gel,” because in the worst case scenario, you get a new “_______, _________, and a ________ walk into a bar” joke.

    I read years ago about a conference that Hans Ulrich Obrist put together in which there were no formal speakers, just all the filler-material between (what would have been) more formally scheduled events. It bred unexpected frictions, and was probably great fun.

  • http://twitter.com/eliotfrick Eliot Frick

    Thanks for commenting, John! I appreciate your thoughts. Wherever there is this kind of tension, I think there is the opportunity for edification. Things have to be at least a little painful to be useful or something like that.

  • http://twitter.com/eliotfrick Eliot Frick

    Thanks much for your thoughts, Brad. Your suggestion that it's a lot difficult to see from outside your weltanschauung is spot on I think. I think it was Nietzsche what said, “we don't learn anything we don't already know.” Which, I think the point is just that things make sense only when they can be fit into the order already established in our brains. And the order already established is the one what has been defined by our social interactions.

    Also like the St. Louis is unintentionally diverse. Which, that's how real diversity works I think. A lot of contrivance passes for diversity these days. I'm more interested in the natural way in which things grow interdependent without any fiat solutions where putatively smart people step in and “make things diverse”. So yeah, score one for provincial St. Louis!

    Come back whenever you like, sir. Your comments are always welcome.

  • http://www.goelastic.com Brian Cross

    There is an unverified story that goes like this:

    If you put a bunch of ants in a bucket, they will work together to form a chain and get all the ants out of the bucket and they will survive.

    If you put a bunch of lobsters in a bucket, as each one gets close to getting out of the bucket, another lobster will invariably pull it down from the top so that it may have a better chance at escaping. Eventually, the lobsters all end up dying in the bucket.

    Little did we all know that outside of Maine, St. Louis has the second largest lobster crop.