Diversity Computing, embodiment, and Neurodiversity

I was interviewed for the DesignLab Brew podcast!

“hosts Gemma Ciabattoni and Chiara Poli Reghenzi delve into the fascinating world of industrial design, theories of embodiment and the intersection between physical and digital design, and particularly the development of empowering technologies for neurodiverse users, … philosophical and theoretical connections between embodiment and technology”.

Listen to it here!

What does it mean to be human?

I was interviewed for the Beyond Human Relations podcast. I talk about teaching in the master course Embodied Interaction and on our research into designing assistive products for and with autistic people, how to add meaning to people’s lives, as seen from the perspective of their own lived experience, why this needs participatory- or co-design. ‘Hopefully we’ll learn more about how to design and use technology in ways that enable people, in all their diversity of being, to be most fully themselves.’ Listen to it here!

What would I really need in my life?

The ‘hole’ man in Brazil that just died after having lived for 26 years alone in the jungle made me think. Another part of the thinking came from listening to the latest episode of #TeamHuman by Doug Rushkoff and guest Paris Max, which among other things was about how we don’t need all the things we think we need, just because we got used to them. And worse: we have designed our lives in such ways that we in fact do need all these other things – think about how many people ‘need’ a car, because they live in a place that you can only access with a car, and their work and services and friends live so far away that they could never realistically cycle or walk. Do they really *need* the car? Well only given the goals and the circumstances that make up their lives, right?
So. What do we really need? What would be a good life? What should be in it, and what can we really do without, if we’re honest? Instead of starting with the current world, and thinking how to make it better, I decided, just as an exercise, to start from scratch, and list the basic things that I think I would need in order to live a ‘good life’. (I know this is not a realistic activity. And I know ‘it’s not possible to do this for real’. It is meant as a tool for reflection, if anything. And it’s fun). Make the list for yourself. What goes on first? Survival things, of course. Food. Shelter. But it would be more than pure survival for me. At the same time, so many (many many) things that make up my current life could go right out of the window (including ‘windows’, probably). And yet some of the things in my current modern life should stay (my guitar, for example, and ‘education’ should definitely in it, and social activities, and perhaps ‘light after dark’ too). So I am not saying let’s go back to 4000 years ago. But my list also certainly does not present a modern technology invested fully industrialized person that I am right now. In fact 90% of that can go right out the door (including, ‘door’, probably) and I still could be perfectly happy. So here’s my list, first draft, took me 30 minutes, it can be adapted and refined. I’d be happy to hear about your items on the list! (In fact there is two lists: the list with what I need, and the list with examples of what I certainly do not need. You can comment on both).

What would I need to lead a good life?

  • Enough food and water each day. Does not need to be fancy food, but no hunger.
  • A safe place to live (with my nuclear family if I have one), where we are protected from extreme weather (sun, temperature, rain, wind); dangerous animals (big or small) and other people with bad intentions. Not much is needed in this place. A roof, walls, … what else?
  • Basic medical services. It is a big question on its own to define what belongs to this. Better services than what was available in the 15h century, yes. But some of the current medical services seem over-technologized. Not all that happens to your body needs to be ‘fixed’. And perhaps some diseases are the result of industrialization, and would disappear?
  • A safe local environment in which I am free to move about and should not be afraid to get mugged, killed, abused.
  • Light after dark In the home. Perhaps more a ‘nice to have’ than a must have?
  • Individual freedom to live a life and develop yourself on your own termsVery difficult to define, but in general what we mean here is to not be oppressed or restrained by other people purely because they feel like it. No body has the right to constrain the space for free action of another body (unless the actions of this other body are constraining other bodies’ freedom).
  • Education. A physical place where people come together to learn and develop themselves as human beings. The goal of this is not purely to increase the amount of scientific knowledge but to increase, on the long run, wisdom. (Science can be part of this, but other forms of knowledge generation too).
  • Places that enable people to learn skills, that is, to develop the bodies’ flexibility and adaptivity in dealing with all sorts of circumstances in the local environment. This includes tools, and tools that enable people to create new tools. (With tools I here mean basic handheld physical tools that do not require factories or large infrastructural systems in order to exist.)
  • Cultural activities (and things) that bring people together, and generate joyful experiences. Dance, music, theatre, art, some architecture. Ways to appreciate and experience ‘quality’ as created by humans.
  • The means to express yourself creatively and to develop yourself intellectually. Language. Something to write on. Something to draw on. Materials to create forms with. Could be totally analogous.
  • Nature close by The ability to immerse yourself in, connect to and appreciate the beauty of nature and to resonate with it as being fundamentally part of it.
  • Visit family It would be nice to be able to visit family and friends. Either because they live close by, or because there is a way to travel far in reasonable time.
  • Travel It would be nice to be able visit the entire planet and meet new people all the time. But, I could live without it.
  • Some free time in the week, not being engaged in pure survival all week long, day and night. Time to think, create and have social joyful interactions with others.
  • Not oppressing others My good life would be possible only if my way of life is not only possible (explicitly or implicitly) because other people are oppressed, marginalized, constrained, exploited.
  • Meaningful social interactions which includes interactions with others that function to help each other solve problems (care for each other), grow and develop together, interactions characterized by the outcome being more than the sum of the parts.

Things I don’t necessarily need (but very much present in my current life).

  • Paid job
  • Bureaucracy, forms, procedures.
  • Money
  • Economic growth
  • Factories, industrialisation
  • Computers.
  • Television
  • Cars
  • Cities
  • Espresso machines
  • Couches
  • Robots
  • Internet
  • Ipad
  • Dish washers
  • Microwaves
  • Smartphones
  • Keys
  • Trains
  • Airplanes
  • Concrete
  • Plastic
  • And so much more!

I made the design, and I had my reasons for it.

Designers, if you ever write in academic theses or articles about your work, please write in the first person about your design process. You are the designer. Individual human beings design, not abstract processes. Individual human designers, with their particular skills, intuitions, background knowledge, desires, emotions. Writing as if the design was produced by some rational, dehumanized methodological process (the scientists’ wet dream), is actually less scientific, because that way of writig does not reflect the truth.

Geachte redactie [2] Frans Leijnse en de Universiteit

Geachte redactie,

Frans Leijnse pleit voor meer universiteiten. Ik ben daar voor, als het betekent: meer plekken waar jonge mensen fysiek bij elkaar kunnen komen om in kleine groepen, samen met voor hen inspirerende voorbeeldfiguren meer te leren over dat wat je bezielt. Met hoofd, maar ook met hart, en handen, om met de oude onderwijsvernieuwer Kees Boeke te spreken.

Maar ik ben bang dat het heel anders zal gaan. De universiteit staat namelijk niet zozeer voor de verdere ontwikkeling van de jonge mens als geheel, maar vooral voor het trainen van zuiver intellectuele vaardigheden: theorie begrijpen en toepassen, redeneren, modelvorming, planvorming, methode en beleidsvorming, systeemvorming, hypothesevorming, dataverzameling en dataverwerking. 
Zulke mensen heeft de wereld natuurlijk hard nodig. De vraag is alleen hoevéél.
Of liever: wat voor wereld máken we als er straks alleen nog dataverzamelaars, beleidsmakers en fabrieken vol robots over zijn? 

Het is net als met het verbreden van snelwegen: meer asfalt lost de file niet op, het nodigt uit tot nog meer verkeer en uiteindelijk weer nieuwe files. Terwijl we voor de gezondheid van de planeet eigenlijk juist minder auto’s op de weg willen hebben.
De enorme groei aan studenten in het hoger onderwijs zou op zich gezien kunnen worden als bewijs van menselijke verheffing: We zijn met zijn allen op een steeds ‘hoger niveau’ terecht gekomen. Maar is dat echt zo? En is dit specifieke ‘hoge niveau’, en voor zoveel mensen tegelijk, wat de wereld nodig heeft? Of is het zo dat cognitief, academisch denken ten onrechte als het hoogst haalbare wordt gezien? Zijn er ook andere soorten ‘hoog niveau’, die in de loop der jaren in een slecht daglicht zijn komen te staan, en nu onder de denigrerende noemers ‘vaardigheid’ en ‘praktijk’ aan het uitsterven zijn? 

Waarom wil iedereen een auto, waarom gaat niemand met de trein? Omdat de auto echt superieur is? Of zouden imago en een autovriendelijke infrastructuur er iets mee te maken kunnen hebben?

Dan nog dit. De technologie van vandaag (informatie technologie) zal de beweging naar theorie en abstractie, en weg van goed vakmanschap en praktijkrelevante kennis, enkel maar versterken. Dit zal zich symbolisch en ironisch ook uiten in de vorm van het onderwijs, zo voorspel ik. Wat Leijnse zich als emiritus hoogleraar wellicht niet direct zal voorstellen als hij denkt aan zijn 14 universiteiten, maar wat managers nu feitelijk al aan het doen zijn (met de Covid crisis als catalysator) is een verregaande virtualisering van de universitaire campus. Dit past naadloos in de gedachte dat ‘hoofdwerk’ losgekoppeld kan worden gezien van ‘hart en handen’ (en dus van de fysieke wereld). De nieuwe universiteiten zullen waarschijnlijk grotendeels in de Cloud oprijzen, zonder gebouw, zonder lokalen, zonder Mensa, cultuurcentrum, zonder fysieke plenaire zaal en al helemaal zonder werkplaats of praktijklokaal, alles vanuit de luie stoel bereikbaar met door Zuckerberg gesponsorde VR brillen. Goedkoop, en “OMG”, een walhalla voor het verzamelen van nog meer onderzoeksdata! De docent-onderzoekers bij pedagogiek en onderwijskunde zien de win-win al voor zich. 

Zo raken we steeds verder verwijderd van onszelf, ons hart, ons hoofd, en echte wereld waarop onze voeten nog altijd staan. Zo blijven we geloven dat, op wellicht de auto na, het ‘academisch werk- en denkniveau’ het beste is dat de mens ooit is overkomen.

Jelle van Dijk

Universitair docent mensgericht ontwerpen,
Cognitie wetenschapper.

Geachte Redactie [1]: CoolBlue

Ik word bijna elke dag wakker met een ingezonden brief in mijn hoofd. Soms heb ik die ook daadwerkelijk geschreven en opgestuurd. Maar ik ben er achtergekomen dat het eigenlijk meer de ratels zijn in mijn drukke hoofd die even moeten uitrazen, dan dat ik daar nou echt de redacteuren van de kranten mee moet gaan vermoeien. Maar ik heb natuurlijk wel nog steeds dit weblog. Wie zo gek is dit te lezen, moet het zelf weten, maar dat is aan u, lezer. Ik heb in ieder geval besloten dat ik al mijn ingezonden brieven gewoon op mijn eigen weblog ga publiceren. Het fijne is dat mijn brieven dan ook altijd geplaatst worden!

Hier volgt brief 1. Na aanleiding van dit artikel vandaag in de Volkskrant.

Geachte redactie,
CoolBlue beweert dat het destijds een ‘half miljoen heeft geinvesteerd’ in het optuigen van een webshop voor Sywerts ‘maskerade’. Dat getal zal best ergens zo in de boeken staan. Maar ik weet een beetje hoe je een online webshop maakt. Het ontwikkelproces verloopt ruwweg in drie fasen. 1. Zoek een geschikte bestaande webshop (bijvoorbeeld: CoolBlue). 2. Copy. 3. Paste. Dat software bedrijven daar zonder met hun ogen te knipperen een half miljoen voor durven te vragen is een feit. Dat is ook het ‘leuke’ aan dit type ICT: het schaalt als een dolle. Met een druk op de knop maak je weer een nieuwe webshop, en nog een en nog een. En omdat de klant er geen verstand van heeft (met de overheid als allerdomste jongetje in de klas) verkoop je elk digitale ding alsof je er maandenlang in een stoffige werkplaats met veertig man op hebt moeten zwoegen. Software ontwikkelaars doen dit omdat de markt hen dit toelaat: “blijkbaar” is zo’n gecopieerd product “dus” een half miljoen “waard”. En daarmee kunnen ze woekerwinsten realiseren, want de kosten zijn nihil. In de vrije markt probeer je altijd zoveel mogelijk te verdienen, los van wat werkelijk zou passen bij de waarde van je arbeid — Marx, precies. Dat maakt het woord ‘investering’ ook zo handig nietszeggend: Het verwijst enkel nog naar het ‘marktconforme bedrag’ dat je naar je accountant stuurt, het heeft niets meer te maken met je daadwerkelijke inspanningen. Maar dat die halve miljoen ‘investering’ juist nu, in deze context als ‘geleden schade’ wordt opgevoerd in een rechtszaak tegen van der Linden is belachelijk. Het toont maar weer aan dat het werkelijke probleem niet bij de individuele Sywerts zit maar bij de ethiekloze grenzeloosheid van het kapitalisme.

Cybernetics, planning and situated action

I have been reading this very interesting post on the relation between anarchism and cybernetics. I got sent the article through the Radical AI network. It took me back to my undergraduate years when I was very interested in cybernetics and read a lot about it.

The central concept in cybernetics is “Control – the planning that gives the basic activities a common goal”. I have always had problems with the term control and especially when it is explained using the words ‘planning’ and ‘goal’. Control, planning and goal were of course the key terms that lead cybernetics into classical cognitive science, where a ‘mind’ would be overviewing the body in action in the environment, and all of the action taking place would be ‘planned’ by the mind in advance, in order to lead the body to ‘the goal’, and this together would constitute the mind as having control. Which supposedly was what the mind and cognition were all about.

While cybernetics has many interesting things to say, they never really escaped this frame of the mind and therefore it is no surprise that some of the more fun and exciting things discussed at the first Macy Conference‘s were soon to be replaced by a dry, functional, rational engineering style, effectivity and optimization based idea of the brain as a central planner that has to represent the world accurately in order to maximize profit – oops I mean to ‘attain its goals’.

In the article I was reading now it in fact states clearly that the old cyberneticists had much more interesting and less restricted ideas about ‘control:

“the control at work here is not hierarchical command. It is, in the words of cybernetician Allenna Leonard, “the control of a skier going down a hill.”15 It has more to do with finding collective balance than it does compliance with a higher authority, and could be thought of as the kind of control a group of musicians exert when they improvise.”

But if you want to emphasize that, then why still use the word ‘planning’?

What is wrong with ‘planning’

The word planning seems wholly incompatible with ““the control of a skier going down a hill….finding collective balance … a group of musicians .. when they improvise.” To understand my issues with the term ‘planning’, first consider this. What cybernetics does not take into account (but second order cybernetics is more aware of) is that the very act of the cyberneticist who is becoming aware of the structural principles of cybernetics, immediately makes the holder of that awareness become a potential actor in the control, whereas before, whatever ‘control’ happened, it did so without that awareness – unreflectively. That is: if I become aware of some of the control mechanisms in systems that I am part of I can start to try and *deliberately* exert control over those same systems by making interventions into that system. However, note immediately that while classic models always assume that control becomes *better* (more succesful, more optimal, more goal-directed) with more knowledge and more conscious awareness of ‘what is going on’ – in real systems, this is not at all guaranteed. Try to walk the stairs while being deeply conscious and aware of what your feet are doing: you stumble. So the question is what such awareness is actually going to do in terms of the action, that is already happening regardless of what you think of it.

This moment, where I step back to reflect on what is going on and then consciously decide to intervene into the unfolding events, in the hopes of steering those events into a desired direction, is the moment where the term planning usually comes in. However the term planning is an older word that comes from traditional rational models in which the analysis comes first and the action comes later: in these traditional theories of planning, all action comes from planning: action that does not come from planning is not intelligent or just random and therefore not part of cognition. In this case however we are ‘building the plane while flying it’ – we are already in action and our ‘planning’ that is then ‘executed’ is not the stepwise process that the term is associated with. It is not ‘first think then act’ – it is rather – what can thinking add to the action, if anything at all? How does a skier ‘plan’ a descent? How does a group of musicians ‘plan’ an improvisation? First off, while in the action, they do not plan at all, there is no time. They may have short-lived moments of reflection (reflection-in-action of Donald Schön) where they try to push back the system onto a course that they have a vague idea about as being better than what is currently going on, but there is simply no time to so much else. (A tangential topic relevant here is that of skill: for a beginner, this phenomenon is very different than for an expert, indeed it may be that the expert does have time to think while in action – even so, the action itself is the starting point and any ‘planning’ necessarily has to evolve quickly and respond and adapt in realtime to the events as they are already underway. For example, one cannot make a plan and then simply ‘will’ the interaction with the world to adjust to the plan – plans are very loose suggestions that may ‘fit in’ with the situation – and then be executed – but also just as easily should be dropped in order to attend to what the situation literally needs at that moment. So while skiing one may entertain the idea of wanting to make a nice jump over a ramp ‘if the opportunity presents itself’ but that plan may be immediately dropped in favour of: “avoid that person in front of me – NOW”, and then completely forgotten because other ideas and opportunities arise afterwards and the whole ‘jump ramp’ idea never returns.). In general, every decision is a ‘split second’, gut feeling decision.

However, in our practices, there are also moments when things are less time critical and we can ‘stop to think about what to do and how to do it’, such as when we stand at the top of the hill before the descend, or before we start playing, tuning the instruments, and chatting with our fellow musicians. Lucy Suchman describes exactly this phenomenon (using canoeing instead of skiing). She holds that we do in fact make plans at such quiet moments before we dive into the action again (I emphasise the ‘again’ here: there was always already improvised action before the reflective moment occurred, so the reflection never comes out of nowhere and is never an ultimate zero starting point, it is itself always already a response or effect of previous embodied activity). However the plans that Suchman describe do not prescribe the action that follows, they rather reorient our attention in such way that we may be more likely attend to certain features of the situation, once we are back in the middle of the action, than others. And this ‘lens’ or ‘frame’ through which we approach the action, while in action, may indeed have a controlling effect (any musician or sports person knows that it does have an effect to really consciously focus on something before the action starts, for example by imprinting a certain mantra: “watch the knees, keep weight on the lower leg, watch the knees, keep weight on the lower leg, listen to the horns, prepare for the break, listen to the horns, prepare for the break), but this kind of ‘planned attention bias’ is nothing like the ‘planning’ of an organisation or system in the traditional sense.

Embodiment and materiality

Another thing I miss in cybernetics has to do with the fact that it is essentially a disembodied functionalist theory: anything is a ‘similar’ cybernetic system and therefore the theory has little to say about how actual concrete things relate to one another. That is, it has no tools to describe the way concrete situations and the materiality of affairs has influence on its unfoldings.

Cybernetics effortlessly scales between levels of reality (say: cells, brains, living bodies, groups of people, cities, countries, planets), as if their concrete reality as being one thing and not another thing does not matter — they only differ in terms of scale, not in terms of the underlying principles at work that make them exist in the way they do. There is no material grounding in the cybernetic explanation of why things happen the way they do. So, a brain, a small group of humans, a local community, a state, or a planet, or even a solar system can all be analysed using the same basic principles – thereby suggesting that ‘they all basically work the same way’. Of course it is possible to describe some common principles that would show how all of them contain some form of coordination and control in response to an ‘environment’ – which is what cybernetics does indeed. But if that is the only thing we will say about it it would completely neglect the fact that these systems are also real and in their material reality they relate to one another. People live on planets, and not the other way around. Large societies consist of smaller groups of people and not the other way around. This is by the way NOT to advocate reductionism – smaller groups of people may be influenced by the larger collective that they are part of and so we may very well need a circular causality to describe how parts and wholes interact (and perhaps do away with the words part and whole).

The point to make is rather that each of these phenomena in reality have particular concrete structures and characters that are local, situated and material in their being. While at some level of description we might compare ‘the city’ to ‘the brain’ – in many other very important senses these two systems are completely different and cannot be equated. And so explaining how cities work, even if we wish to take cybernetics as a starting point, would need theory that is specific to cities and has nothing whatsoever to do with brains, simply because these are very different things. Any theory that takes cities seriously for what they are would have to have a story that *cannot* be used also for brains. Furthermore, ultimately there would need to be a story that relates brains to people and people to small social groups and groups to communities and communities and other kinds of smaller structures relate to entire cities – and it needs to explain how this works in particular, so for example how neighbourhoods, community work, schools, the bigger companies in the area, the city government bureaucracy, the city health care, its public transport system, parks, crime, police, food supply and so on, relates concretely to ‘the city’ – and not just in general by saying: systems can collectively form larger systems.