The Edge of Uncertainty | Whiteboard

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Insight 20 | November 11, 2016

The Edge of Uncertainty

by Kody Dahl
"It's really easy to fill the uncertainty of starting with a potentially shallow, generic answer."

What does it take to move a bus? An engine. Wheels. Tires, with air in them. A driver. Fuel. Oil in that engine. Coolant of some kind, maybe. Pneumatic hoses that don’t leak too badly, for the airbrakes and steering. There are thousands and thousands of pragmatic, complex mechanical pieces that have to function the way they were expected to to move that bus even twenty feet.

Structure, order, predictability, definition. No system can exist without these, at least to some degree. The larger and more complex the machine, the more systems and definition it takes to keep the whole thing running.

This — this is the Bagger 293. It was made by the Germans; it was named by the Germans. It works in a brown coal mine near Hambach, Germany with a crew of 6. Weighing in at 31.3 million pounds, B.G. moves 218,880 tonnes of soil a day. Both enormous and effective. And those six people without this machine? Totally useless. 7.86 tons a day, at best. It would take them 27,847 days to accomplish what Bagger gets done in 8 hours.

The benefits of predictability & repeatability are really clear if you stare down those numbers. The scale! Think of the scale of that thing. Every single part in the system doing the same thing so the part after it can do the same thing too, for hours on end. A deeply complex system performing an inanely shallow task: digging dirt.

Or — well, it was shallow when the digging started.


If you’ll walk a little further into this idea with me — many of the networks and tools that we spend our days with and our days building on the internet are also incredibly complex. And it often seems they’re performing shallow tasks: things like receiving, storing and displaying 3.2 billion ‘Likes’ a day.  Processing 500 million tweets per day.  Sending 1.5 billion messages a month.

Moving dirt, if you will.

Technically impressive, absolutely. But at such a huge scale.

“You can’t quantify the human impact of each of those exchanges at that scale”, you might argue. “Interaction between people is happening, it’s just too nuanced for these kind of numbers.” And I would agree. A shovel full of dirt gets a bit lost in the face of Bagger 293 — there’s no other option.

“We make our world what it is and we become the kind of people who live in it.”

—Wilson Miner.


Systems inherit the biases of their creators. Creators internalize the biases of their systems, and build what they’ve learned into the next system.

We start by building platforms and interfaces optimized for quick interaction between people; a short nod, a ‘hello’ in passing on the street, a thumbs up on your way out the door. These interactions are easy, and so we become fluent in our passing ‘hello’s’, quicker at slipping out the door, and over time this becomes our language of choice. A sort of ‘essence of interaction’, the endorphins without the investment, the confection without the carrots. What started as a way to fill those slow moments in between has made every other moment too slow. Software is, indeed, eating the world.

Let me be the first to poke a hole here: there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. Many of you in this room are those exceptions: intentional, present, empathetic, thoughtful. The technology we and those around us build is an incredible gift. I’m deeply optimistic about it. The more software in my life, on average, the better it seems to be. It lets me maintain friendships on the other side of the world, and not spend time at banks, and I’m a big fan of that. This is not a witch hunt — it’s a concerned letter.

“Technology runs counter to our personhood; technology is complicated and shallow, but people are simple and deep.”

—Frank Chimero, The Space Between You and Me


“Simple and deep.”

So, then. How do we think about and pursue simplicity and depth — how do we make humane systems of organization, when we’re facing the scale of The Bagger?

I have a theory — I think it has to do with creating and protecting space.


Meet Francis Mallmann. He’s a brilliant chef from Argentina; he spent 3 or 4 years studying under chefs in France (because, as a chef, that’s what you do) before returning to his home landscapes of Patagonia to cook & experiment with the ingredients and methods of his ancestors: found ingredients, open fire, outside.

“My life has been a path at the edge of uncertainty. Today I think we educate kids to be settled in a comfortable chair. You have a job, you have your little car, you have a place to sleep, and the dreams are dead. You don’t grow in a secure path. All of us should conquer something in life. And it needs a lot of work and it needs a lot of risk.”

 — Francis Mallmann, Chef’s Table


I want to conclude today by talking about what I’ve been learning about uncertainty, and depth.

Most of my days here at Whiteboard, and sometimes my nights too, my job is to make some thing more certain. That is, on some level, the job of a designer: to start with ambiguity & uncertainty and make it clear and useful. That seems like the whole story at first gasp — clarify the problem, don’t complicate it, get there as quickly as you can, because this is business and time is money.

But the thing that Frank & Francis are challenging me on is that last piece of my response. It’s really easy for me to have an allergy to uncertainty in my design process — and to fill that vacuum with one of the two possible web sites, maybe, or at least just my first idea. To fill the uncertainty of starting with a potentially shallow, generic answer. It’s just as easy to respond with that in my daily life; to fill time with things that are less worth doing, simply because nature abhors a vacuum—my human nature abhors a vacuum—and those things are available. But time is a finite resource, and we have a choice in the matter. We can shape that narrative.

To roughly paraphrase Churchill, “Those who do not take the time to understand the present will repeat the past.”

Or, “Those who do not take the risk of protecting uncertainty will copy the past, because it worked the last time.”

Repeating the past works—for a while. Filling up those moments in between works — for a while.

At the risk of exhausting my supply of metaphors, this is, however, the same thing that happens with homemade yogurt. You start with a culture and some milk, and if you do the thing right, voila! You have delicious, fresh yogurt to do with what you will. But every subsequent time, the yogurt gets thinner, the flavor of it gets weaker, and eventually all you have is cold chunky milk. Right? Disgusting.

So my call to you (and, I suppose to myself) is to find that place of uncertainty in the process of the things that you make, and in your life. That uncomfortable state of not having the right answers yet. Sit with it. Consider it. When you have an instinctive response — hold off. Resist the urge to already know the answer. Wait. Go for a walk.

Then go for it. Go conquer something. We all need you to.

Thank you.




When We Build
Wilson Miner

Wilson Miner's talk from Build in 2011 is a challenging deep look into the influence our created artifacts have on us.

The whole episode is excellent (you can find it on Netflix). Francis is a very articulate proponent of his craft and thinking.

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