Livable Media: Four Ideas for Better Human Systems

Those who design our human systems — who design our businesses, our social networks, our cities, our economies — are limited by their worldviews. In particular, they are limited by what they think people are capable of, and what they think people need.

Here are four ideas that combine new technical solutions with new answers to this question of what humans need: soft automation, respectful metrics, meaning-making menus, and growth networking.

Our social and work lives are ever-more mediated by software, and this creates problems: Software’s expectations for how we should interact are overly rigid, overly mediated, and difficult to modify. Automation also takes away our authority over our own lives. When automation happens via messaging and notifications, yet more problems emerge: we struggle to get an overview of what is happening, we’re forced to check our devices constantly to advance even small projects, and covert power dynamics form between mediated people.

These problems stem from an approach to automation — and to software more generally — that puts process above people. Soft automation redefines software in terms of editable social scripts which make only soft suggestions. The software is never in charge. The user is always free to submit some other data, to send it to some other person, or to rewrite the script and change roles and rules completely.

Respectful Metrics

Quantitative metrics determine much of our lives — what’s successful in business, what’s successful in media, and what we’re shown by algorithms as we navigate through our days.

But currently those metrics are about *our engagement—*about the business/app/video’s ability to manipulate us and keep us watching or downloading. When the success or appropriateness of a business or video is judged this way, it means people are being viewed as objects to affect the behavior of, rather than as agents with their own values, goals, and reasons.

Instead, apps can be scored by how well they support the daily expression of our values. This can move us away from an exploitative attention economy and towards an economy which helps us to live the lives we want.

Meaning-Making Menus

We make choices throughout our daily lives. Whether we are deciding which email to respond to, what to order at a restaurant, which stores to visit on a street or in a mall, what job listings to investigate — we navigate our lives by scanning lists of options.

We can ask, then, what kinds of menus work best for us? The upshot: menus that remind us why we came, and that organize information by what’s important to us—these encourage us to make thoughtful and decisive choices. Menus that ignore what’s important to us leave us scrolling along thoughtlessly, towards views/purchases/clicks we later regret.

One function of our social relations is to give us space to be ourselves, or to grow into who we want to be. To protect us. To give us refuge while we explore something of value. We could be exploring a kind of creativity, a kind of vulnerability, a sensory awareness, or a field of interest, etc.

Our social platforms and social media systems aren’t designed with this in mind. They often leave us unsupported, occupied with busywork, sensorily isolated, and socially exposed. Neither newsfeeds nor comment threads — our most popular structured/asynchronous media — have the right characteristics for growth. Unstructured/synchronous forms — like text and video chat — have other problems. Broadcast media — including books and films — are better in some ways, but still isolating.

I hope these ideas, and others like them, will become part of the common wisdom for designing human systems. Before that can happen, designers need to learn a vision of society, and of individuals, where these ideas make sense. Designers need to think differently about people, if they are to design a better world.

To make this happen we need to do two things: (a) we need to build technical prototypes that show what’s possible, and how good it feels; (b) we need to make experiences for designers that help them grow their ideas of what it is to be human.

It will take a vast community—of inventors, experience-designers, and philosophers—all of us working towards articulating a vision of livable human systems. That includes livable media, livable technology, livable cities, and economic structures around lives well-lived and time well spent.

A vision that’s not just about what we should build, but about who we *are, *what we need, and what we can be.

The first step is to find people who are already doing this work—making technical prototypes and vision-changing experiences—the inventors, experience-designers, and philosophers. We need to bring them together and find ways to support and connect them and create a common audience. Please join this google group or reach out to me if you think you can help!

And in any case, join the livable media tinyletter to stay in the loop.