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The limits of logic

Johan Jessen
September 11th, 2020 · 8 min read

Limits of logic

Technology is becoming more advanced, more intimate, and more real. But are we limiting ourselves by being trapped in the prism of logic? In this essay I’ll explore how logic is limiting our thinking, how designers should consider designing for the mind, and offer paths to imagine the possible and build better future technology.

Technology implies logic. Programming, engineering, and manufacturing all require precision. The math has to add up. The code has to compute. Writing code requires you to be explicit down to the comma, otherwise the whole thing fails. This can be a steep hill to learn on and the individuals who succeed tend to thrive in this environment. Logic is absolutely important and necessary for creating advanced technology – but it’s not enough.

Logic is limiting our world to known constructs and precise reductions. Life rarely throws you boolean decisions, yet computers require them. The writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton once wrote, ”You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.” The limits of logic is our inability to see beyond logic and embrace the richness and contradictory wonder of the real.

“You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”

In 2009, Marissa Mayer, employee number 20 at Google, gave an interview highlighting her commitment to design and data driven decisions. The product and design teams on Google Search couldn’t agree on which hue of blue to use for the tool bar so she asked them to test 41 gradations to see which ones consumers might prefer. This is very rational. It’s a clever hack to avoid discussion and just let the data decide. Yet, it’s also devoid of imagination. It’s side-stepping the, at times uncomfortable, process of committing to a risky and untried idea for the sake of vision. Google has come a long way since then but the seeds of this thinking is spread all over Silicon Valley. Logic alone is not enough if we want people committed to solve the hardest problems out there.

There’s a popular saying ”you are what you measure” which is the business version of “you are what you eat.” The problem is that you can only measure what you are able to isolate and observe. But life is messy. The most important things are often the hardest to measure. Think about happiness or love. Can you really reduce love to a numerical value or a logical statement? By focusing on the narrow, we risk sacrificing our understanding of the whole. We’re all products of our environment and we would be wise to question it.

A more pointedly example of the limits of logic is how most social media has been singularly optimized for “engagement”. How long do you spend on the platform? How many clicks, likes, shares, and (ad) impressions? Engagement is a precise metric offering a one-dimensional perspective of the experience; is the user hooked or not? This is dangerous because it doesn’t actually capture why we’re engaged. Engagement is only a proxy for human activity. Engagement metrics don’t measure the quality of the information or credibility – and they definitely don’t capture human well-being. Paradoxically, it seems as our precision increases, the value of the measurement deteriorates.

Humans seek belonging through connection. A desire ready to be tapped by social media firms. It’s not logical but emotional. We crave connection and meaning. We helplessly direct our attention to the flashing Likes. But as any news veteran can attest, humans are easily drawn to catastrophe despite our better judgement (“if it bleeds it leads”). This digital optimization has real world costs. Fear, anxiety, and loneliness are the silent epidemics among America’s youth.

I worry this metrics-driven focus on engagement is making us sick. The precision-engineered simulacrum of social interaction has robbed us from the richness and messiness of real life. Hyper-targeted short videos and algorithmic feeds chocked full of ads, enthralls our minds and saturates our desire to think critically. All addictive substances, no matter how useful or fun, have consequences.

Distractions.
We pay with our attention and how we design for attention matters. Photo by Hugo Jehanne.

On top of this we’re making very real world trade-offs. In the last 50 years our digital worlds have blossomed while our physical world have stagnated. Our gaming worlds are nearing realism while the US infrastructure is crumbling. In our excitement for the virtual, we’ve lost sight of the real. There’s a subtle but perverse interplay. We’ve come to tolerate real world dysfunction because we can numb it with our digital delights. Endless commute times tranquilized by unboxing videos on YouTube. Quiet bureaucracy perpetuated by loud online rage. We don’t live in a mean world but a ”meme world“.

Technology use often predates understanding. We enthusiastically use new technology before we understand how it works. Rightfully so. This is how innovation progresses. For example, we didn’t know how heavier-than-air flight actually worked until years after the Wright Brothers demonstrated a working airplane. Today, we all use social media platforms but few of us truly understand how they work and how they impact our minds and our societies.

This is not just a technology problem. And it’s not just in Silicon Valley. The limits of logic is a global challenge. It’s the focus on logic above all else that has blinded us from the uncomfortable truths. Complex problems need not require complex solutions – but real problems require real commitment. A lot of smart people dismiss things they don’t understand. We design models that fit our understanding and then we view the world through those models. The issue is that the world is not always logical. As philosopher and logician Carveth Read once wrote, ”it’s better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.”

“We design models that fit our understanding and then we view the world through those models.”

On the design team at X (the R&D arm of Alphabet) we had a saying: ”10x impact means 10x consequences.” Product designers should think deeply about what 10x consequences their work might entail. What can go wrong if this takes off? Not a question often asked in design sprints – but maybe it should be.

This is the house we’ve built and now live in. Digital designers everywhere have a real responsibility and a massive opportunity to improve the next generation of tools. We shape the tools and the tools shape us. Design is how it works, and if it doesn’t work we need to fix it. As our technology becomes more advanced, more real, and more intimate – we must take this responsibility seriously. Designers and builders everywhere have a duty to shape the future for the better. And it starts by understanding how our minds work.

Pay attention to attention

Digital platforms trade in attention. The “free” is made possible by the “cost” of our attention. My friend Howard Rheingold stated the importance of attention succinctly, ”Attention is the fundamental building block for how individuals think, how humans create tools and teach each other to use them, how groups socialize, and how people transform civilizations.” Our ability to focus, reason, problem-solve, and emphasize with others are all predicated on our ability to direct our attention. It governs how we perceive the world and ultimately how we think.

Our attention is limited. It’s a finite resource. We only have so many hours in a day and only so many days in our lives. And we can’t split our attention. The late and great Cliff Nass demonstrated with several studies that we are in fact really bad at multitasking. Multitasking leads to cognitive overload, poorer task performance, and lowered creativity. Attention is zero sum; if you wish to focus on one thing, you have to give up another. Simply put, we pay with our attention. Including the essay you’re reading right now. So thank you for paying attention.

How we design for attention matters. The interfaces, the notifications, the animations, the triggers, and the hooks – they all govern how we interact with technology and each other. Attention is scarce and valuable. We need to acknowledge that designed technology is all too often wasting it with confusing layouts, flashing pop-ups, bloated workflows, sloppy copy, and irrelevant ads. It undermines our cognitive ability to focus and think critically.

Media companies have always competed for our attention with grabbing headlines and breaking news. The internet and software just kicked this dynamic into overdrive. The internet is the greatest distribution machine we’ve ever invented. Create once, distribute everywhere. The power of frictionless distribution created massive shifts in the media landscape. As costs went down, digital usage went up. We take this for granted today, but the old editorial gate and costly distribution business created built-in friction that slowed and limited the spread of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and online mob mentality. But it’s not just the lack of friction that drives this. Software and permissionless publishing also allows for infinite individualized media. There’s not “one YouTube” or “one Facebook.” There are millions of individual channels and feeds all tailored by algorithms to specific tastes and attention spans. Algorithms can do the work of millions of editors in seconds resulting in filter bubbles everywhere. And importantly, designers shape the interfaces and interactions that in turn train the algorithms.

“Designers shape the interfaces and interactions that in turn train the algorithms.”

Today, designers hold extreme leverage. One small design change can have a massive impact on what society sees and how we behave. Default settings rule our world. A tiny tweak to the Feed can mean the difference between a forgotten startup and Facebook. The trinity of auto-play; what to play, when to play it, and to whom, governs our media diet. Netflix, for instance, is constantly testing what artwork captures most attention. These choices are not random. Aggregating attention is a uniquely modern and very powerful shift. Designers and product makers everywhere must understand what material they’re molding. Just like Industrial Designers should know the tensile strength of steel, so must Digital Designers know the behavior mechanics of virality and the limits of attention.

Imagine the possible

The comfort of logic is so pervasive in our society that we need to work hard to escape it. Niels Bohr once said to a zealous colleague, ”No, no, you’re not thinking – you’re just being logical.” Limiting our view of the world to precise logic robs us of its paradoxical wonders and our chance to think outside the box. Don’t constrain yourself to “what makes sense.” Instead, embrace imagination and consider the possible. Imagination is a powerful force exactly because it hints at what could be and not just what is. Imagination is an expression of possibility while logic is an expression of reduction.

Bohr's model of the Radium atom.
Bohr's model of the Radium atom. From The Atom and the Bohr Theory of its Structure.

Imagine what is possible. It’s essential in all endeavors of life; science, art, technology, business, and everything in between. Imagination is the fluid dynamic to logic’s rigid structure. It’s the beginner’s mind unshackled from the burden of tradition. It’s how art influences science and science influences art. Designers find themselves in this environment all the time. Good design is the successful compromise between platonic ideals and real world constraints.

Animated dots.
Art imitating science or science imitating art. Unknown artist.

To strengthen your imagination you must be bold. Go where others can’t or won’t go. When Claus Meyer and René Redzepi opened their restaurant Noma in Denmark in 2004, it was by no means obvious that it’d be a gastronomic success. Let alone change the national identity through food and elevate Denmark as a destination of fine dining. Against conventional wisdom, the team picked local Nordic ingredients and elevated the traditional fermentation processes. They did something never done before. They stood out and made, not just the food, but the food culture significant. Boldness requires risk. It’s impossible to stand out if you fit in.

“Imagination is an expression of possibility while logic is an expression of limitation.”

Another way to imagine the possible is to avoid averages. There is no average person. Sam Farber, the founder of the successful kitchen utensil company OXO, initially aimed to make tools that were easier and less painful to use for his wife who suffered from mild arthritis. This isn’t an average use case. But ergonomically designed kitchen utensils proved to be popular with a lot more customers than just sufferers of arthritis. Or take Pixar. During the construction of the Pixar campus, Steve Jobs made the illogical but wise choice of placing the bathrooms in the middle of the atrium, instead of off to the sides with easier access. This deliberate friction meant employees often had to walk further and wait to use the limited facilities. But it also meant they would bump into each other more often. Sparking random conversation led to creative inspiration. Pixar launched the computer animated film industry and is still the most award-winning animation studio today. It pays to imagine the possible.

Our world is designed. Design governs how we understand the world and each other. Design directly dictates how we develop advanced technology including how we train our algorithms. Ultimately, design shapes how we think. And if we’re trapped in logic, we’re tragically limiting ourselves and our potential. Design is never done and our opportunity is right in front of us. Designing a better future requires us to break the mold of conventional wisdom and imagine the possible.

Title photo by Lucas Benjamin.

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