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Weekend Gems 004

May 24, 2020

The importance of retrospection and reflection in strategic thinking when you are 26, in search of serendipity in the future of work, and a journey to where all the neglected ideas are.

The Psychology of your future self

I have come to believe that the biggest mental asset a strategic thinker has to have is the adamant belief that radical change is possible in a ten years span.

Sounds pretty obvious—if not utterly unremarkable—right?

If you have only spent 26 years on this planet like me—which, roughly translates into just almost two decades as a conscious human being that can properly register information and form retrievable memories—understanding the importance of a decade is, on its own, a complex matter. The changes you have undergone yourself, both physically and mentally, are so profound that, naturally, there is little to no space for truly contemplating the importance of a decade in the context of an entire world in constant flux. Simply put, from your point of view, the world has been changing in the same pace as you have—if not slower—and if we know something today that we did not know 100 years ago is that time is relative. This is why you are more prone or open to change: you have literally spent your life inside it, embodying it but not examining it from afar.

So what do you do? Strategic thinking is a skill you build, whether you are 26 or 46, and, as a 26 year old myself, I have found out there are two ways to go about it.The first one is reading and paying attention to almost anything that comes your way: from scientific papers to youtube videos, from newspaper columns to twitch streams, from books to tweets, it is equally important and imperative to understand both the documented progress and the raw societal change that this progress brings along.

The ability to read patterns requires a deep understanding of how the highlighted and the minuscule belong in the same system and accept that, most of the times, it is the aggregation of those seemingly insignificant moments and events that point to radical and strong futures. Signals are, afterall, everywhere.

The second way is, perhaps, the most important. To empirically understand how those truly significant events can, very palpably, alter the course of one’s actions is to place yourself first in this mental map of big and small nodes through self retrospection.

And, according to Dan Gilbert, this is not just an issue only a 26 year old faces. As he notes in his talk “The psychology of your future self”, we have a fundamental misconception about the power of time. We are driven by an illusion that our personal history has just come to an end, that we are now the person we were always meant to be—he names this illusion “The end of history”. According to Gilbert, people vastly underestimate how much change their personalities will go through in the next decade, regardless of their age, because it is easier to remember than to imagine.

And why does this matter? Well it does because it bedevils our decision-making—the gist, purpose and driving force of strategic foresight. Almost a month ago I was asked whether I had ever applied strategic thinking in my life. My immediate and unfiltered response was that, in order to answer this, I would have to exercise retrospection—a rather bleak answer for somebody claiming that they are practicing foresight, right? I beg to think otherwise; in fact, I believe that foresight begins from the individual’s ability to embody change and then measure it and contextualize it. We are all driven by certain motives and goals, consciously or unconsciously, which are manifested in short plans that get us from A to B: these are tactics that reveal the existence of an underlying strategy (or the lack of one). To pursue these, we are engaging with events’ assessment, signals recording, a bit of red teaming and of course backcasting. Not being able to name those tools does not mean that you have never deployed them in your life—in fact, you almost certainly have. The secret lies in the fact that these motives are subjective yet they are all formed by quite measurable and distinct factors—the most prominent of them being culture.

To look back and delineate the forces and reasons behind those mental models that brought you where you are today allows you to consciously engage and experiment with the fundamentals of strategic foresight while steadily transitioning from remembering to imagining.

Engineering Serendipity

Waking up everyday to news of yet another Big Tech company adopting the Work From Home model (WFH for short because of course we would eventually come up with a convenient abbreviation for this new reality) instigated a series of very interesting discussions with my housemates this past week. Those discussions usually began with praising this model, finding all the good things that came along with it such as us finding ourselves with extra time during the day just because we are not commuting anymore or being freed from all those endless meetings that could easily be short and concise email exchanges. Sure, working from home as an architect is not the same as being a software engineer but surprisingly enough, with tools such as Revit, Slack, Adobe Cloud and Google Drive at our disposal, things have been rolling quite smoothly for the past two months.

Except from when the discussion would shift to serendipity: design is, admittedly, a craft that builds upon the ‘accidental’—be that a random discussion you have with a co-worker or a glimpse of a project being presented in the design review session at the desk behind you. Our everyday life at work was not so much about myopically pursuing the end-product per se but, instead, it was about the process, about growing through a series of mishaps, of slips, of awkward situations and clashes. Opposite to the launch of a buttery app, a sleek brand identity package and a pristine set of Construction Drawings ready for submission, stands presence:

messy, oftentimes ugly and governed by the dogma that ‘things can go wrong at anytime, for any reason.

Fixing them, on the other hand, requires to build upon previous actions, not ‘undos’’. Dead ends, uncomfortable discussions, bursts and long awkward interludes of silence not only contribute to pushing an idea forward but challenge the team to emotionally grow through introspection and projection. Presence is an inherently poly-parametric condition that can create beauty out of the chaos of an unforeseen moment; as Ashley Fetters notes, just ask Shakespeare, F.Scott Fitzgerald, or Edit Wharton.

Way back in 2013, Greg Lindsay wrote about this very issue: apparently, that year, Yahoo had just banned its employees from working from home (!) precisely because the company believed that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings”. In the same colors, Google had just presented the plans for Bay View, its new campus in Mountain View, CA. Noting that the intense presence of communal spaces in the architectural plans would serve as hubs for such impromptu moments of synergy, David Radcliffe, the civil engineer who oversaw the company’s real estate, noted: “You can’t schedule innovation”. Serendipity, in this case, bridges the gaps of ‘structural holes’ within a company—holes where otherwise precious complementary ideas and low-key concepts go to die because of broken communication channels among team members.

The piece closes with Ben Waber’s vision of a sensor-strewn office that reconfigures itself each morning in order to eliminate spaces of ‘structural holes’. “We are still in the very early stages of engineering serendipity” he said. Fast forward seven years later, the only sensors we are considering now are ones that remind people to keep a distance of 6 feet from each other.3.

Writers No One Reads

This is where this Weekend Gems becomes a bit meta: In my search for the Anecdoted Topography of Chance by the Fluxus artist Daniel Spoerri (the beautiful project you can see right above and read about here and here), I came across ‘Writers No One Reads’, a Tumblr blog dedicated to publishing work by ‘forgotten, neglected, abandoned, forsaken, unrecognized, unacknowledged, overshadowed, out-of-fashion, under-translated writers’.

What I found interesting about this blog, beyond the little gems that one may find while wandering around, lies in its very description. Choosing to put the adjectives ’neglected’, ‘unrecognized’ and ‘under translated’ side by side is implicitly referring to the language barriers that media and, by extension, technology itself is restricted by.

I am sure that the biases of language and how they are forming layers of inequality within the domain of New Media is something that has been thoroughly discussed (my bibliography on the matter is not as extensive so if you have any suggestions, by all means, I want to hear them). What this reminded me of, however, was a book recommended to me by Geoff Manaugh almost a year ago: “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads to Physics Astray” is a book written by Sabine Hossenfelder. Throughout its chapters, Sabine explores a great lot of ideas that I could not possibly explore in the limited space of Weekend Gems—ideas so big such as multiverses and string theory which, quite naturally, has brought upon her both positive and negative reviews. However, what is interesting about Sabine’s main thesis is that, oftentimes, the ideas that make it through the final rounds are oftentimes ‘the beautiful ones’, like the equations of supersymmetry. In an email to Giulio Prisco, Sabine says “The conclusion I have drawn from my readings and the interviews it that our sense of beauty (for what the laws of nature are concerned) changes the more we learn. Relying on beauty is putting the cart before the horse”

It is funny to even entertain the idea that, what we have come to praise as technological breakthroughs, let alone the universe itself, is dictated by what our minds and culture are already pre-set to perceive as beautiful or even put into words. It is an issue that falls way beyond the ‘Lost in Translation’ issue—after all, meaning is generated even in the absence of coherency and in slippages of thoughts and words—and extends to the limitations and black spots we self-impose through our means of communication. But upon reading the words ‘neglected’ and ‘under translated’ side by side, I could not help but think that works and thoughts which are not translatable to English will eventually not make it as concepts in the prevailing technologies to come. And there are many concepts that the English language has not found the ways and means to carry yet.

Bonus Round

In last Weekend’s Gems, one of the reads was a Richard Saul Wurman interview which I find brilliant (in fact, it is an interview I oftentimes go back to). However, G brought to my attention this article which goes into depths about Wurman’s personality behind closed doors—more of an insight of who Wurman is as a person. Admittedly, this piece is far from flattering, describing an allegedly egotistical person, if anything else. Finding out that a person whose work you honestly admire might not have an equally inspiring personality can be very, very disturbing.In fact, reading this article brought back memories of when the whole Louis C.K. scandal broke out amidst the Weinstein chronicles and all of the discussions revolving around the question “Should we judge an artwork based on the artist’s life and personal choices?”. Well, after a bit of thinking, my two cents here is that you cannot possibly be so myopically megalomaniac or short minded and at the same time create such beautiful things and concepts that have the power to expand everyone else’s worldview and psyche.If anything else, I guess I feel sad for them as I cannot think of anything more genuinely tragic than missing the essence and very point of your own life’s work while everyone else is deeply and massively benefiting from it.