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#32 Mutations, aglets & our (over)complicated world
It’s Design Lobster #32. This week we are tying our shoelaces and venturing forth into an (over)complicated world. Get them boots on. 👢👢
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Question: Just how complicated should things be?
Above: an analog computer in 1964.
In a summer of algorithmic exam chaos, vaccine claims and counter claims and general weird technological entanglement, it can feel at times like the world has become unmanageably complicated. It’s no wonder in some ways, when faced with all this complexity, that some people just check out and decide to believe that the Earth is flat or that Beyoncé is an Illuminati wizard. 🧙🏾♀️
Samuel Arbesman’s 2016 book Overcomplicated tackles this subject, arguing that the world has now become so nested with complexity that no individual could ever hope to understand it all. He believes we should approach the human designed world as technological naturalists, treating it more like a living system than as a technological artefact, expecting weird side-effects and feedback loops to any interventions that we make in it.
“The vast majority of computer programs will never be thoroughly comprehended by any human being.”
It’s an interesting provocation to any designer. Clearly, the designerly tendencies to disentangle and simplify the complicated are an increasingly urgent skill. Humanity’s ability to remain the master of our technological environment might depend on it. However, crucially, we need to go about that work with humility, preparing to be surprised by the consequences of our efforts to make things better.
Design takeaway: What would a technological naturalist think of your design work?
A podcast about complexity with Samuel Arbesman.
Above: a selection of metal aglets, some attached to laces, some not.
If we define great design as something that works without you noticing it, then aglets are surely up there among the best. Shoelaces do a great job of holding our shoes together around our feet, but they would be nothing without the tiny bits of pressed metal or plastic at each end to prevent their woven fabric from coming apart.
Despite some claims, it is reportedly untrue that aglets were invented by the English inventor Harvey Kennedy in the 18th century. Given that there is evidence of laced shoes as early as 3500 BCE it does seem unlikely it took that long for a solution to unravelling laces to be found.
Aglets are an interesting example of design that is both completely essential and utterly unobtrusive. They’re so critical in fact they’re a bit of a vulnerability in the design of a laced shoe. Lose an aglet and before very long you might not be able to tie up and walk in a shoe at all. Nightmare.
Design takeaway: What unnoticed components are critical to the success of your design?
I am obsessed with Professor Shoelace’s website.
Quote: “Designers should become what, in biology, is referred to as a mutagen–an agent that produces mutations in the artificial world. Interaction among disciplines and people is crucial.”
– Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab
I was intrigued by this quote when I read it. It captures something about the way good designers bring together different disciplines to create something unexpected – mutant even. That collision of different perspectives on a problem bringing about a solution that no-one could have come up with individually.
Keep discovering. 🦞
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