10 min read

38. Fluke

Against determinism (and for acknowledging complex adaptive systems), going upstream and remixing HCI
38. Fluke
Photo by Nika Benedictova / Unsplash

My interest in other ways to write about history continues. One notable book that I read this month lends its title to this newsletter. Brian Klass’s Fluke talks to how so many solutions are based on just random things happening, and how therefore we need to be careful about over-determinism when measuring success as we live in complex adaptive systems were one little change can have huge con (which is also spoken about in Marianne Bellotti's Kill It With Fire). I also like how it shows how events are shaped by people and their histories, with some events having repercussions years if not decades later (the most remarkable one being US general Henry Stimson visiting Kyoto with his wife in the 1920s and later stopped the city being a target for nuclear bombs in World War II).

A couple of other books I have read this month have played to this theme.Upstream by Dan Heath looks at how we can better consider prevention rather than cure (with one key example being regular forecasting activities — something that made me think of Jane McGonigal’s Imaginable). It does also talk about the challenge of scale in that the bigger any experiment is, the harder it is to replicate. And I am part-way through HCI Remixed. It’s a collection of essays about what inspired people to get into HCI (the fact that the book is also from 2008 also makes it from a different time). It's also a start reminder of flukes for getting into tech (one stumbling on it via music) but also that things that seem inevitable now often did not seem so at the time. For example, I was familiar with Doug Englebart's famed 1968 "The Mother of All Demos" (which showed using a keyboard, mouse and recognisable GUI), but not that even with that demo that Englebart struggled to get funding—it’s a reminder (also discussed later in the book) that the diffusion of innovation requires multiple passes and just a bit of luck.

(A few more) books

  • I’ve finished The Student by Michael S Roth. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University, and while his book focuses on US universities in the modern age, he goes right back to Confucian and Greek teaching. The book is admirable in talking about privilege and access (is a university about freedom, being a good citizen, or getting a good job?), particularly the challenges of WED Du Bois getting to university in the US (to have a moment of race-free bliss in Germany before having to return)
  • I also finished the book Experts in Government — it’s a brisk read at only 60 pages, but similar to The Student spans the early Chinese and Roman era to current day (admittedly more to the US). It notes the fundamental tension between expertise in policy and loyalty to the executive of the day, with a memorable comment from one past president that actually government staff should merely be competent as the ‘best and brightest’ should be in the private sector making money rather than doling it out(!)
  • AI and Other Stories by Anna and Penny Pendergast is a collection of essays about AI. I picked up some good terms from the series such as a reminder for maintenance and care as well as trust and relationships, ‘frontier-thinking’ (often used in tech) and its related ‘digital colonialism’ (offshoring of cheap tasks) which then is countered with ‘decolonising data’.

I did a lot of clearing down of links this month, hence the chunky list.