Product Land (Part 3)

14 September 2015

This is the 3rd and final part of an essay about design and possibilities.

The first part - You can’t build what you can’t think of in the first place - was about the process of design being too linear, taking inspiration from evolution and the concept of hyper-volumes of ‘potential products’; the second part - Tools for exploring the margins - listed some approaches for thinking harder about the things that are possible in product design.

This final part is about power and about the obligations you now have if you make digital services in the 21st century.

Sampson diagram from The New Anatomy of Britain (1972) - largest bubbles are Civil Service, Industry, Parliament ans Conservatives

The image above is from The New Anatomy of Britain by writer and journalist Anthony Sampson. He wrote a series of books on the subject on political power in Britain, published approximately every 10 years from 1962. Each included a diagram of what he considered the current state of play. The one above is from 1971, the one below is from the final book in the series Who Runs This Place, published just before his death in 2004:

Sampson diagram from Who Runs This Place (2004) - largest bubbles are Media, Prime Minister and The Rich

I’ve always loved these diagrams (back at OpenTech in 2009 myself and Rob McKinnon used them to map civic tech projects).

Just like the biomorphs or ‘History of the World’ from part 1 of this essay, Sampson’s drawings are attempts to help us think about a subject that is inherently multi-dimensional. They are a tool for thinking about a problem - in this case how power is distributed and, taken together over the years, how it can change.

What might Sampson have drawn today, in 2015?

Well, politics is about the distribution of power in society, and in the early 21st century digital products are exerting influence on how power is distributed among us.

Redrawn 11 years later it seems clear to me a Sampson diagram would have large bubbles for the big digital services.

Politics in the 21st century will, in part, be about control over the digital services we now rely on, and which hold an ever growing concentration of our personal and household data, from how often we move (fitbit, jawbone), where to (Google Play Services), what we tell people (WhatsApp, Facebook) and to how often we burn our toast (Nest).

The same tight orbit that digital product design seems to be stuck in at the functional level (again, see part 1 of this essay) also exists at the organisational level: in the design of the organisations that run them.

The meme: ‘The only way to solve a given problem is to create a private company, provide a free service to users and mine their data’ is strong, but is also the equivalent in genetics of ‘the only animal that could possible exist is a hyena’.

And frankly, that’s getting a bit scary. As everything from household appliances to the most basic transport infrastructure gain an IP address and become fonts of data, at the same time as the democratic organisations of the last century seem unable to keep up, it is only going to get more so.

Software is politics now.

This was a subject that Vitalik Buterin, founder of the Etherium (a distributed, auditable computer) talked about at Nesta’s FutureFest event back in March.

There is a PDF of his slides here, but to try and summarise: the core utilities of the 19th and 20th centuries (roads, water transport, electricity system) were eventually run or regulated by governments, but the core utilities of the digital age (identity, communications, payment, sharing) are currently run by the first private company that happens to make its way to a near-monopoly. Etherium, a distributed auditable computer, is an alternative to unaccountable monopolies.

Just like water was in 19th Century London, where the adhoc organisations, with little accountability when things went wrong, were replaced with the first the Metropolitan Board of Works, and then a wider municipal democracy in the form of London County Council.

The story of the industrial revolution too often reads like that of entrepreneurs taking personal risk to weave the future against the odds. Now, granted that is a history, but not the interesting one in my opinion.

The interesting history is the one of the building of institutions that had the concept of accountability to the public baked into them - not an evolution of one thing to another, but active choice of a more accountable method of providing a service the public rely on.

Whether something like Etherium, which binds services to behave in a certain way via immutable code, is the right answer, or whether we need organisations that account for themselves in more traditional ways - membership, voting, but built for and of the digital age, are not the important things.

The first thing is recognising that the accountability mechanisms for a digital service are just another set of axes in product space - another thing that should be thought about and chosen.

Finding alternative models to run something like Uber, Google Now or Homekit that are viable is going to be hard (much as municipal democracy had a spluttering start and there were many failed attempts at finding a viable models for co-ops before the Rochdale Pioneers ended up with one that worked), but that’s no reason not to try.

The second, I think, is recognising the risk of designing services that are superficially the height of simplicity, but can never be understood. To steal a phase from Matt Jones’ brilliant talk on design fiction and the understanding of systems - “magic is a power relationship”.

If a user can never understand how something works, where is the opportunity for recourse? To pick an obvious example: what does it mean when you can’t view source on an ever more powerful Google Now.

To address this problem, I think the accountability model for a service needs to be an intrinsic part of the design of that service. Accountability needs to be embraced as part of the service design rather than abstracted away.

This creates some interesting design constraints: it means there is a delicate balance between designing something that people can use without having to understand how it works without totally obfuscating the underlying workings of the service.

The third is that the private sector does not have a monopoly on good digital product design, but equally more accountable digital products should not just be clones with a democratic overhead.

New technologies bring new possibilities for accountability. So design patterns like accountability at the point of use become relevant in a way they never would in a commercial context.

The final thing though, is recognising that if you build or design digital products in 2015 you have a new responsibility.

You are not just building the best, simplest, user experience, or the most elegant code. You need to be as vigilant against creating concentrations of power as you are in creating efficiency.

The image of power flowing from one part of a Sampson diagram should be ever-present in your head.

The reason? If you accept the argument that software is politics, you are by definition also designing a power structure, and that is an important responsibility.

Or to put it another way, sometimes the user need is ‘because democracy’.

Written between March and September 2015 - Brixton, Broadstairs and West Norwood.