Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A few thoughts on Design for the Next Guy

In his TED talk, Lawrence Lessig talks about creating a read-write culture-- one in which people are free to mash up content they have to make new content. The internet is a primary example of this, though Lessig also quotes John Philip Sousa appearing before congress making the same example with rural choirs and their sheet music. The idea of a read-write culture is sort of fascinating to me. I have always pegged myself as a creator, if anything. But I have not technically "created" anything! --only taken others creations and mashed them up in a way to call my own, from legos to websites. Everything I do is a mix of what others have enabled me to do. But even so, I have found this creation invaluable.

The read-write culture is very deeply tied into Design for the Next Guy. Read-write culture allows for people to make changes to a project or institution, to "edit" it in a way they would like, and have full permission to do so. In a lot of ways, designing for the next guy is similar-- you must design now so as to account for the decisions of the future. And what better way to account for the decisions of the future than to have a very liberal criteria for what decisions are allowed!

If that sets you on edge, you're not alone. I feel as though that's only one half of design for the next guy. The other half is the more conservative side, the type we typically see (I think) in institutions. Whereas open-source projects allow for many writers to write in different ways how they want (to the point of taking the entire project and then going from there in a different direction), institutional design for change, especially when it involves economics (or, I don't know, say, education) must be more wary about these directions.

Institutional DftNG, like the kind we see at Olin, is governed by a few key rules, some of which President Miller explained beautifully: have everything expire, recognize the role of institutional values, etc. In Olin, all things are set to expire at some point, and main segments of the CORe constitution show how to abolish it or the honor code, meaning this extends from the institutional level to the students' level. Institutional values are another interesting story. The MET school in Rhode Island prides itself on its core institutional values, which means that the teacher turnover after four years is well over 10% (maybe higher than 20? I can't remember), simply because every teacher is reviewed, and if they aren't exceeding these values, they're out. Olin could do much the same thing if it wanted or needed, but our institutional values are slightly /less so/. The need to be a continual test-bed for engineering education is tempered by conservative professors wanting to build up resumes that would do them well at any other institution in the US-- and not that we can blame them, but Olin is what it is because of it.

But let's go back to the more liberal, open-source type of DftNG. Here we see particular emphasis placed on lack of ownership. With many internet memes (a great example of read-write culture in action), losing ownership is just what needs to happen to make something skyrocket. The intellectual owners of so many things mashed up into internet memes could have kept their work solely in the original context, but have probably attracted more attnetion to themselves and their work by letting it go. It brings to mind the adage, "if you love something, set it free".

Recall that this would hardly work in institutional DftNG. Olin can't just be "set free"! It must be closely managed, and not everyone who wants to come in and make something of it can just walk off with it. Instead, there are much more tempered methods of changing it for the future. At the same time, it's important to recognize that Olin is also fundamentally built for the next guy. President Miller, somewhat akin to the organizations that let their property go to the internet, knows that Olin will not be in his hands forever. He, unlike the aforementioned, will take much care to make sure it at least goes into the hands of someone extremely capable with it.

One aspect of DftNG that I really wished we had discussed more is modularity. In programming, in which DftNG is often a huge concern, modularity reaches ridiculous levels. Code is often super-easy to implement, and classes are specifically designed to be versatile for any situations one might want them to apply to. At the same time, they're well-commented and completely open-- the owners don't care if you make them a little bit more your own. So, for the next poster, if he or she so chooses, is the question of modularity. How does making something break down into chunks affect how the next user will shape it?

No comments: