Sunday, 8 September 2013

Why Americans Can’t Die with Dignity

  • “It’s certainly possible that I could have a terrible car accident and become so badly brain damaged that I don’t care about the burden that I’m placing on other people, but I don’t want that brain-damaged self to be the decision maker. I want the person that I am now making those legal decisions.”
  • “We don’t aggressively pursue things that help people have a better quality of life in their last five years. What we do aggressively pursue are extremely profitable, money-making interventions that have the potential of creating enormous suffering at the end of life.”
  • “I want to break the taboo against questioning this drive for maximum longevity no matter what the cost—to the family member, the society, the person in their 90s who’s not necessarily delighted to live another year.”

These quotes come from a recent interview with writer Katy Butler, whose recent book, Knocking on Heaven’s Doorexplores how technology continues to keep us alive in the face of a “good death.” Many of these themes have been part of conversations that I’ve had with a number of friends recently, and myself quite often, as I’ve lost a number of close friends at points in their lives when no one was ready to make decisions for them and no plans had been laid.

Although I don’t have parents that are particularly old (both are in their 50’s), we have already had conversations about what “end of life” care should look like in different situations. It isn’t an easy conversation to have because few people are willing to talk about death openly, but that is something that needs to change. I am interested to read Butler’s book, though I feel that many people, and American’s in particular, do a pretty poor job of understanding and making intentional decisions towards a better quality of life on a regular basis. I understand that some people don’t have the knowledge or the means, or are prevented from doing so by situational constraints, but the fact that we simply try to “save” ourselves at the end of life by having doctors do all they can seems so backwards, and sadly very indicative of how many people live normally.

We don’t need miracle drugs; we need to start a conversation about what living well looks like on a daily basis, what “preventative” care is actually meant to prevent, and how to embrace transitioning from one stage of life to the next.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Design as a Literacy

“The journey is more important than the end or the start.” 

I first heard these words when I was 13, but the message has become increasingly more valuable as I’ve grown up: focus on process, not just the product.

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in my own schooling, as well as in the American education system, is that the emphasis is reversed. Too often students are focused on (and encouraged to focus on) having the right answer, regardless of how they get there. In reality, life has few “right answers” and many unsolved problems.

I can’t fix the American education system with a simple idea, a set of lessons, or a whole new set of curriculum, and I’m not trying to. But I do believe that students, schools, and, ultimately, society would benefit from teaching and practicing the design process as a way of thinking as it encourages intentionality, dialogue, and reflection. In fact, for most schools, this wouldn’t even be a massive shift, as many schools already teach the writing process, which is the design process as practiced within a specific domain.

Although the “design process” differs depending on who you talk to, there are a few key elements:

  • Ideation
  • Creation
  • Iteration
  • Reflection
  • Production

The writing process, as it is commonly taught, involves similar elements:

  • Brainstorming
  • Prewriting
  • Drafting
  • Editing
  • Publishing

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that neither of these processes are linear. They are both messy, cyclical, and have feedback as well as iteration based on that reflection as a key part of the process’ success. Furthermore, this is 
not a suggestion to teach the design process instead of the writing process, it is a suggestion to teach the design process before the writing process, and continue to help students integrate it into their way of thinking.

In both of these processes, the first step often involves identifying the constraints of the object to be produced (e.g. “Who is my audience?” “What type of object am I creating?” “What resources do I have to work with?”). From there, a basic artifact is produced that roughly addresses the goals, though perhaps not in the best way. Then, the object and its producers (and hopefully peers) undergo an iterative process of evaluating the designed object, identifying elements that are successful about the object (in hopes of keeping them in subsequent iterations), and identifying elements that are less successful (in hopes of improving upon them). This part off the process is perhaps the most important, as the ability for an individual to step aside from their work and embrace other perspectives (whether self-imposed or brought on by others) is crucial to the development of the work. This cycle of evaluation and evolution is often repeated until either the timeline for the project ends or a object is declared “finished” by the creators, and thus is produced.

While there are many benefits that the design process has over the writing process, some of the most important are that the design process can be applied to any situation, because it asks for the individual to make intentional decisions about a desired outcome based on a set of constraints (e.g. “What do I cook for dinner?”, “What do I wear today?”, “How do I talk to one of my colleagues about an obstacle that we’ve come across on this project?”). Although the writing process does much of this, it does it only in one context, and rarely, if ever, do schools have a conversation about how this process can be abstracted and applied to more broadly.

Everything in the world we experience is designed in some way. Some things are well-designed. Some things are under-designed. Some things are poorly-designed. But at some point, individuals made decisions that resulted in the products and experiences that all of us have. By teaching the design process and the practice of reflection and iteration, we are encouraging individuals to identify in what situations, and how, they have agency or control over an outcome, and to exercise that agency in an intentional way.

Good design is not necessarily about making “beautiful” things. Good design is about creating value within a set of constraints.

As a final note, I do want to acknowledge that I see the design process as a foundational way of thinking, because design is neither a spice you can add in at the end of a project, nor is it a “cookbook to guarantee a given outcome at a certain date.”

Monday, 29 April 2013

Sunday, 28 April 2013

“How not to die”

“Unwanted treatment is American medicine’s dark continent. No one knows its extent, and few people want to talk about it. The U.S. medical system was built to treat anything that might be treatable, at any stage of life—even near the end, when there is no hope of a cure, and when the patient, if fully informed, might prefer quality time and relative normalcy to all-out intervention.”

There is so much to say about this article, and I will definitely return to this post and add more thoughts, but in my mind, unwanted treatment is perhaps the single most disgusting example of capitalism there is, where ridiculous costs and treatments are heaped upon dying individuals and their families even when trained professionals know that these treatments will have so little of an effect they are useless.

I would wish that we may all die surrounded by our loved ones, floating away in the warmth of their presence, rather than the cold, dry air of a hospital, though I am not so naive.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

There is no “perfect” tweet

Earlier today on Twitter, the brilliant (and comical) Faris Yakob tweeted about a piece from Marketing Chap titled “Why blueprints for the perfect tweet are perfectly absurd”. Even before reading the article, I was in complete agreement, but found his jovial commentary enlightening.

The notion that there is a formula for how to make a perfect tweet epitomizes the thinking that defined the age of push-marketing, where messages were sent to customers regardless of who they were. While today’s marketing departments can geo-target messages, there still is no objectively perfect tweet for your audience, because your audience is not homogenous. The “perfect” tweet will connect you and your audience, and in fact, the best tweet often comes from your audience TO you.

Marketing Chap’s post was commenting on PR Daily, who released a graphic earlier in an article titled “A blueprint for the perfect tweet”. They claimed that the perfect tweet should include:

1. Message:
– Call to action: Tell readers what you want them to do.
– Hashtags: Include one or two to increase your reach among people who don’t follow you.
– Tone: Use your own voice, but in a professional way.
– Format: Use a mix of headlines, questions and statistics to drive clicks and retweets.
2. Link:
– Shortened URLs: links earn the most retweets.
3. Blank space:
– Leave room for at least 20 characters at the end of your tweet so retweeters can add comments.

As Marketing Chap eloquently points out: “This is a style of tweet for pushing a message, pure and simple, and I am firmly in the camp that says that social media is not at its best when it is merely foisting content on followers.” He goes on to explore the Twitter account of the author and finds that this individual (Gerry Moran) indeed follows his own guidelines, but that does not make any of the tweets “perfect”. Marketing Chap’s comment mid-way through the piece identifies perhaps the most direct issue with the type of tweeting Moran prescribes:

“To my mind, the key word in the term ‘social media’ is ‘social,’ and the sort of tweets Mr. Moran advocates are decidedly asocial. What I mean to say is, there is no social interaction whatsoever. The @SAPNorthAmerica account is really just a cleverly packaged RSS feed hosted on a social media platform.”

He instead suggests the following guidelines, acknowledging that he doesn’t enjoy being prescriptive in general:

  • Be generous. Besides being a splendid way to learn, being generous with other chaps’ content is an unbeatable way to cement a connection.
  • Be unpredictable. If one tweets about the same thing again and again then why should a chap bother to stay tuned?
  • Be interesting. Tweets that are humorous, clever or memorable will get chaps to pay attention to the next tweet and the tweet after that.

When we look at some recently well-received tweets, many of them include few of the above elements, but much more closely follow Marketing Chaps’ guidelines. Example 1: Audi’s tweet during the Superbowl:
Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 2.05.10 PM

Example 2: Rowan Singh asking “what to do if your child is being eaten by a camel?”
Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 2.17.23 PM

Both of these examples received a number of responses and spread far beyond the original poster, which may or may not have been their goal.

Which brings me to the conclusion: The perfect tweet is one that achieves your goal. As with most things in life, making intentional decisions most often leads to your desired outcome. So, when wondering “what should I tweet?”, ask yourself “Who am I communicating with?” and “What do I want them to get from this tweet?” I bet it will yield much more success than arbitrary links and hashtags.