In two recent videos, Jason Silva visits the idea of ontological design—that as we design our tools, so our tools design us in return. We devise and engineer computers and the internet, and now computers and the internet are remaking us.
Silva describes the process as endlessly circular, like the serpent eating its tail.
Why does this matter? Because, according to Silva, as we become aware of these feedback loops, we can design with more intention. Make spaces—homes, museums, skyscrapers, cities—in anticipation of how they’ll influence our brains.
The process Silva describes is clearly evident in our lives. Our smartphones and computers have undeniably changed how we function as humans. But his thoughts on designing spaces with more intention reminded me of something else—the conscious design of spaces, in one form or another, has been engrained in tech culture for decades.
It’s in the uneasy tension between planned and unplanned processes that innovation thrives.
From Intel to Apple and Google, tech firms have long attempted to engineer innovation with open office spaces to encourage the serendipitous collision of ideas. It’s hoped workers crisscrossing campus will bump into one another and make unexpected connections, less like carefully connected circuits on a chip, more like emergent synaptic networks.
Instead of controlling the process itself, the idea is to set the conditions—hire the right people, design a low-friction environment, set it all in motion—and then take our hands off the wheel. See what emerges.
In theory, it’s easy enough to accept the merits of serendipity and unpredictability. In practice, they’re difficult values to adopt. Even in tech cultures that embrace the idea of riotous innovation, there’s a very conscious need to “optimize” the world. But I think we have far less control over innovation than we imagine, and that’s a good thing.
Of course, intention is central to invention. We don’t make something without a thought for how it will work in practice.
The question is how quickly and efficiently our bountiful (and necessary) errors are tried on small scales and discarded and those momentary flashes of brilliance adopted and expanded upon. That process relies on us sometimes letting go of how we thought something ought to work, embracing how it actually does—and letting those feedback loops run.
Image Credit: Landscape House by Universal Architecture