Skip to Content

Medium Design

To design effectively with a medium, knowledge and solutions to a system are less effective than understanding the relationships within the system, and how to manipulate and adjust those systems to move towards a set of outcomes.

… cul­ture, in the broad­est sense of the word, is good at point­ing to things and nam­ing them, but not so good at de­scrib­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween things. It priv­i­leges de­c­la­ra­tions, right an­swers, uni­ver­sals, and el­e­men­tary par­ti­cles. It is cap­ti­vated by cir­cu­lar log­ics and mod­ernist scripts that cel­e­brate free­dom and tran­scen­dent new­ness—nar­ra­tive arcs that bend to­ward a utopian or dystopian ul­ti­mate.

Oof. Out the gate we’re com­ing out strong with a hard-eyed look at one of the ma­jor flaws of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture — this in­cludes pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics as well as tech and de­sign. This should be in­ci­sive.

Easterling sketches a mode of think­ing where Favoring suc­ces­sion rather than co­ex­is­tence, the new right an­swer must kill the old right an­swer.” Our broader cul­ture — and out in­di­vid­ual out­look — is un­able to hold two con­tra­dic­tory ideas at the same time as correct”. Like the Highlander, there can only be one. We want to know the one right an­swer.

This mode of think­ing and gath­er­ing knowl­edge — this one sin­gle idea of what progress” en­tails — cre­ates sit­u­a­tions where we ratchet our­selves tighter and tighter into un­ten­able sit­u­a­tions.

Since the world’s big bul­lies and bul­let­proof forms of power—su­per­bugs like Trump, Kim, Putin, and Bibi, or free-zone ag­glom­er­a­tions of cor­po­rate power—thrive on this os­cil­la­tion be­tween loop and bi­nary, it is as if there is noth­ing to counter them—only more ways of fight­ing and be­ing right and pro­vid­ing the ran­cor that nour­ishes their vi­o­lence. Is it pos­si­ble to drop through a trap­door and exit these log­ics?

… A rad­i­cal pro­posal has no trac­tion, be­cause noth­ing is new and noth­ing is right.

Holy shi­i­iit. Easterling is re­ject­ing the core premise of so many TED talks and thought lead­ers. There is no new way. There is no right an­swer. The only way for­ward lies in am­bi­gu­ity. This im­me­di­ately calls to mind Nim Wunnans Theory of Conceptual Labor, where he iden­ti­fies that the core lo­ca­tion of doing good work” is nec­es­sary de­fined by and sit­u­ated within am­bi­gu­ity.

There is no end or mod­ernist suc­ces­sion or mo­ment af­ter cul­ture.

This makes me re­call some of the es­says in the White Chapel col­lec­tion of writ­ing Time” about the mean­ing and func­tion of con­tem­po­rary art — how we ex­ist now in a space of the post-con­tem­po­rary, and work cre­ated now can in­ter­act with and change the mean­ing of work cre­ated in the past. Cut loose from any sense of lin­ear suc­ces­sion, all art­works can in­flect each other and grow from each other freely.

Clear of as­so­ci­a­tions with com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies, medium, in this con­text, re­turns to its root, medius, mean­ing middle” or milieu.”

Easterling starts to tran­si­tion here to the meat of the es­say.

Beyond de­clared ide­olo­gies, here is a ma­trix or medium of ac­tiv­i­ties and la­tent po­ten­tials—the un­de­clared dis­po­si­tions that are some­thing like cul­ture’s mus­cle mem­ory.

This re­minds me of what Hal Foster was at­tempt­ing to do in Design and Crime, cre­ate a running room” for cul­ture thats less bounded by what Easterling calls loops and bi­na­ries”.

you see things with names and hear hu­mans speak­ing words but those things can­not be com­pre­hended in the ab­sence of a thou­sand other af­fec­tive cues and rel­a­tive po­si­tions be­tween things in con­text

Context, a broad gestalt un­der­stand­ing, be­comes the key to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gat­ing and ma­nip­u­lat­ing the medium. The com­plex tan­gle of ob­jects re­la­tion­ships and af­for­dances cre­ate a map of the pos­si­ble, one that’s as broad as a col­or­space and — lack­ing any de­fined set of in­struc­tions — just as open and pos­si­ble.

This way of think­ing is shock­ing to me — it so clearly de­scribes my own way of work­ing that the recog­ni­tion is deeply sur­pris­ing. Familiar and new — it’s in­ter­est­ing to see my own way of think­ing de­scribed in such a clear way.

Turning the sound down on those de­c­la­ra­tions, it is also eas­ier to de­tect the dif­fer­ence be­tween what an or­ga­ni­za­tion is say­ing and what it is do­ing, and how or­ga­ni­za­tions de­cou­ple their mes­sages and ide­olo­gies from their real ac­tiv­i­ties, un­der­ly­ing mo­ti­va­tions, and struc­tur­ing log­ics.

Meaning is cre­ated and di­vined by com­pre­hend­ing or be­ing re­cep­tive to the whole. Everything — and every­thing con­nec­tions be­tween — be­comes se­man­tic. Language and marked de­c­la­ra­tions of mean­ing are quite pos­si­ble un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors of this type of ex­pe­ri­ence.

The dis­po­si­tion of any or­ga­ni­za­tion makes some things pos­si­ble and some things im­pos­si­ble.

God damn Easterling! Just go out there and say it. This is deeply re­lated to my cri­tique of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The struc­ture and gestalt of an or­ga­ni­za­tion is the pri­mary defin­ing fac­tor of dys­func­tion and suc­cess, rather than any in­di­vid­ual ac­tor.

For in­stance, be­ing right is a re­ally bad idea on the other side. It is too weak. It does not work against gu­rus and to­tal­i­tar­ian bul­lies. Maybe cul­ture’s spec­tac­u­lar fail­ures, to­gether with the un­der­ex­ploited pow­ers of the medium, could in­spire al­ter­na­tive ways to reg­is­ter the imag­i­na­tion—other ap­proaches to form-mak­ing and de­sign in any dis­ci­pline.

Focus on right-ness is a core value of our sys­tem, and look at the re­sults of that sys­tem. Sheesh.

Entanglements are more pro­duc­tive than so­lu­tions.

This is just … such an ar­tic­u­la­tion against every­thing that sil­i­con val­ley tech-fetishism es­pouses. This is so com­pelling.

Design in the medium is less like mak­ing a thing and more like hav­ing your hands on the faders and tog­gles of or­ga­ni­za­tion.

This is deeply re­lated to the the­sis I out­lined in How to Design While Developing.

It is the de­sign of in­ter­de­pen­den­cies, chemistries, chain re­ac­tions. It ben­e­fits from an artis­tic cu­rios­ity about spa­tial wiring or reagents in spa­tial mix­tures. You are de­sign­ing not only a sin­gle ob­ject but a plat­form for in­flect­ing pop­u­la­tions of ob­jects or set­ting up rel­a­tive po­ten­tials within them. You are com­fort­able with dy­namic mark­ers and un­fin­ished processes.

This is per­haps the sin­gle best de­f­i­n­i­tion of web de­sign I have very seen.

And maybe the ex­is­tence or con­tent of a prob­lem is less im­por­tant than the in­ter­play be­tween prob­lems. Failure is a lim­it­less wilder­ness for de­sign ecolo­gies.

Welcome to … the Internet. This is ex­actly how we gen­er­ate suc­cess­ful work in the medium of the in­ter­net.

If an un­safe fac­tory col­lapses or burns, there is an event to mark the vi­o­lence, but in count­less fac­to­ries or in­dus­trial parks that do not buckle un­der the weight of their own de­nial, there is no event, no drawn sword. There is only la­tent tem­pera­ment—the con­stant ag­gres­sion of bla­tantly im­bal­anced power dy­nam­ics. The po­ten­tial for ei­ther con­cen­trat­ing or dis­trib­ut­ing power; the po­ten­tial for es­ca­lat­ing or re­duc­ing vi­o­lence.

Easterling here de­fines the strug­gle with the mod­ern web. Is there a con­nec­tion here to what it would mean to prac­tice an eth­i­cal web de­sign? Not to have an­swers or so­lu­tions, but to nav­i­gate the tan­gled web of se­man­tics in ways that re­duce the po­ten­tial for vi­o­lence, that ratchet slowly to­wards an eth­i­cal stance

But if it has any hope of ef­fect­ing change, it ma­nip­u­lates the or­ga­ni­za­tion as well as the in­stru­men­tal nar­ra­tive that at­tends it with moves that are po­ten­tially sneakier or more po­lit­i­cally ag­ile.

A key take­away here is that in or­der to pro­duce ef­fec­tive work in the world part of the work needs to be done to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Changing the or­ga­ni­za­tion and struc­ture around the work is the only way to pro­duce work that is dif­fer­ent or more ef­fec­tive.