Bridging epistemic divides

Worldviews

In user experience we talk about personas and mental models a lot. We need to understand worldviews – or epistemes as Foucault called them – of the people we design products for, and with. I’ve not come across a critical look at the influence of digital workers’ worldviews – from within our community – on the products we make. Considering the state of (some) digital products unleashed on unsuspecting users, this is something I’d argue needs attention. Alain de Botton puts it succinctly:

Never underestimate people’s dexterity at seeing things from their own point of view. 1

Going into projects, our own points of view need scrutiny first; we need awareness of the impact that our points of view have on the work we do, and be prepared to shift.

Boundaries

Worldviews meet at boundaries, and they are important. Etienne Wenger 2 writes that boundaries:

connect communities and they offer learning opportunities in their own right.

and:

a boundary interaction is usually an experience of being exposed to a foreign competence.

Boundaries are alive with learning possibility, but they can be challenging places to negotiate, which is why we employ, what Wenger calls, boundary objects. From a UX perspective these include, but are not restricted to, deliverables, and we employ them as understanding traps 3. But the existence of these objects present challenges of their own – Wenger writes that:

Boundary objects do not necessarily bridge across boundaries because they may be misinterpreted or interpreted blindly.

And this has implications for design quality, which is why critical awareness of our interactions at boundaries are important.

Unbridgeable chasms

In The World that was Ours, Hilda Bernstein describes the clash of worldviews at the Rivonia Trial:

On one side was the State with its deep Calvinist roots asserting the unchanging nature of man and race, of man created immediately and in his present form, rejecting evolution, adhering to belief in the rigid and unalterable patterns of human behaviour; fixed laws, the virtues of obedience, attainment as related to hereditary not environment. On the other side: the vision of man as endowed with creative and developing gifts, the ability to learn and change; free-developing, self-fulfilling man, black and non-black.

Whenever I reach an apparent unbridgeable chasm of divergent stakeholder worldviews this paragraph comes to mind. The question is how do we move forward at boundaries where both sides operate from entrenched positions? 4

What we need is language to bridge epistemic divides, where opposing sides of the divide re-write themselves when building bridges to the other side. And in doing so, both sides learn and grow.


  1. From Alain de Botton’s Twitter stream

  2. Etienne Wenger (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Sage Publications. 

  3. Understanding traps: as designers we work toward achieving shared understanding between people with different points of view. When we achieve shared understanding, it could be viewed as ‘certainty’, but it is a space we need to engage with critically. 

  4. The Web has brought outlying worldviews in close proximity – speeding up the emergence of systems concepts such as complexity and messy situations

Design Thinking as experiential learning

David Kolb describes the process of experiential learning as:

The process of learning starts with the immersion of the learner in a concrete experience from which as many observations as possible are gathered and perceptions recorded. This stage of information gathering is then followed by a phase of thinking, during which attempts are made to understand what has been experienced – and sense is made out of what has been sensed! This stage is followed, in turn, with plans for action based on the understanding achieved. Finally, the planned action is taken and as this changes the situation, the whole process is repeated, and more knowledge created.1

I’m exited when I read something that reminds me of something that I know from somewhere else. And it seems to be happening more frequently – processes that we use as digital workers sometimes have deeper hidden histories and discovering them is a learning process in itself.

In this case the quote reminds me of the processes of design thinking. Following Kolb, it may be helpful to describe design thinking, explicitly, as a learning process where ‘learning is the creation of knowledge through the transformation of experience’. He goes on to argue that the ‘complete experiential learning process’ involves the learner in four basic activities:

  • divergence – concrete experiences to reflective observations
  • assimilation – reflective observations to abstract conceptualisation
  • convergence – abstract conceptualisation to active experimentation
  • accommodation – active experimentation to concrete experiences

It reminds me (loosely) of the ideation phase of design thinking – shown here in a diagram I created some time ago to visualise the process of design thinking2:

Design process

The point I wish to make is that, based on Kolb’s ideas, to learn we have to sometimes actively seek experience. And in a ‘professional context’ this can be harder than it sounds.


  1. David Kolb (1984). PDF: Experiential learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 

  2. The neologism ‘operacy’ is borrowed from Edward de Bono, who writes: ‘Operacy covers the broad skills of action, of making things happen’. Concerning de Bono, Brandon Robshaw writing in The Independent says it best. 

The end of stable states

I’ve been reading Donald Schön and I find his idea of the end of ‘the stable state’1 provocative. He is writing in the context of state as government. But I am reading it to also encompass government of the self. He argues for the need that governments acquire new behaviours to enable it to act as learning systems – learning for society as a whole. But to do this it must:

discard the structure and mechanisms grown up around old problems.

My guess it that on the level of governments it won’t be hard to find examples of this not happening, which is why old problems and behaviours persist. But how can these ideas be applied to how we ‘govern’ our internal states? We can’t take on the challenge of new problems if we don’t clear out, or transform, old structures – structures that can be ‘particularly cumbersome’ to change.2 New learning needs to be accompanied by new unlearning – Schön writes that we need to design processes through which:

new problems can continually be confronted and old structures continually discarded.

Peter Senge 3 also writes about structure:

Structure produces behaviour, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behaviour.

Like Schön, Senge writes from an organisational perspective, but what if we consider the external structures that we create as somehow a reflection of structures within us. Senge continues that:

redesigning our own decision making redesigns the system structure.

But does it not also bring about the redesign of ourselves?

I’ve grappled with similar ideas in Relearn to unlearn to learn again – how do we unlearn? Schön hints at an answer by writing that we need to design:

systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.

Schön’s focus is on institutions; I find his ideas useful when seen in the context of the individual, family, group, and society as a whole.

What I take from Schön is that walking out of a situation may not do you much good – the only way out, is to learn your way out.


  1. Donald Schön (1973). Beyound the stable state. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton & Company INC, New York. 

  2. Is psychoanalysis an attempt to clear out old structures that are cumbersome? 

  3. Peter M. Senge (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. Currency. 

The Gadget Lover

Google caused a stir by demoing Google Glass at work. Since then I’ve been thinking about it more than I should, and I want to find out why.

I’m interested in debates surrounding security concerns of wearable augmented reality technology – dystopian visions of misuse are easy to envision; on the flip side, the possibilities of AR technology used for good are equally far reaching. I’m reluctant to take sides in the ‘is AR good or bad’ debate.

Instead, when confronted by new technology – following Marshall McLuhan – I ask: what parts of ourselves do we replace by inventing new technology?

McLuhan provides a useful framework1 for thinking about technological newness. He argues that the invention of new technology is our nervous system’s attempt to ‘amputate’ parts of our bodies experiencing stress:

In the physical stress of super stimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function. Thus, the stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load.

We invented the wheel as a ‘kind of autoamputation’ of our feet when pace in relation to load became unbearable. In the context of ‘acceleration of pace and increase of load’ in the information age, what in us are we externalising by inventing the internet? He writes that our physical organs are no longer ‘protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism’.

Stepping back and looking at Google Glass again, it becomes an ‘outrageous mechanism’ in itself. An object 2 amputated by, and from, our nervous systems acting as a buffer to an external ‘irritant’ (load of advantage gained by interpreting joined up information in real-time). It becomes an image of ourselves, and by ‘continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms’. In the process we’re not only enslaved but we also become ‘the sex organs of the machine world’ and by the sweat of our labour, and the dedication of our non-reflective service, we allow technology ‘to evolve to ever new forms’.

It’s a lot to take in … but there’s more: human behaviour and the choices we make now enter the frame. McLuhan writes that the ‘machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth’. And the love of technology – love of ourselves – with the promise of wealth, lures us into a state of numbness, we become a closed system, deaf as Narcissus to Echo’s calls.

Stepping back and looking at Google Glass yet again: is it a reciprocation of someone else’s desire? And what does it mean for those – framed in its gaze – whose desire it is not?3


  1. I’m referring here to Chapter 4, The Gadget Lover, Narcissus as Narcosis in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

  2. Google Glass represents a physical object and also a process. I’m reflecting on it here mainly as an object, but the (hidden) processes it forms part of, and enables, suggest other meanings. 

  3. I urge anyone interested in these topics to read Chapter 4, I’ve only scratched the surface of its riches. I use it as a buffer (and reflective space) against the acceleration of pace and increase of load

Revisiting ontology and epistemology … again

As a science student I came across ontology and epistemology. I’m now learning about systems and they’ve cropped up again. I never fully understood them the first time around. After mulling over, and resisting, it dawned on me that understanding them offer practical choices for how I approach, not just work, but life overall.

So for the umpteenth time: what do they mean? But I can’t ask that question without framing it. The question needs contextualising. Reframe. In a systems thinking context, what do they mean?

Ontology

Ontology

Things exist outside of me. They are fully formed and I can study it from a distance. By studying it I am not changing it. I am gathering objective knowledge by identifying, distinguishing and naming it. For example, take the concept of an ‘ecosystem’: the ontological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ exists even if I don’t because it is something that exists fully formed and independent in nature.

Epistemology

Epistemology

I am part of the things that I am aware of – by naming it I am giving existence to it, and I’m using language to learn about it. As my thinking changes, the thing I’m thinking about also changes. Going back to the example of an ‘ecosystem’: the epistemological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ can’t exist if I don’t, because I am the one describing it as an ‘ecosystem’. It is a construct I’m inventing to learn about what I frame as an ‘ecosystem’.

So what?

Well, I think revisiting these concepts are useful when stepping back and asking: how do I see the world? how do I interact with projects? how do I work with other people? how do I choose to frame things? how do I learn? do I see things as fully formed, or do I see myself as co-creator of the situations I’m a part of?

So for me, choosing an epistemological framework means owning up to responsibility. By blaming situations or other people we shy away from the responsibility (and opportunity) to design behaviours that are purposeful1. It’s a tough one, because we are very good at sidestepping responsibility.

Now, when I get back to work, things just can’t be the same anymore.


  1. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World, Ray Ison distinguishes between two forms of behaviour in relation to purpose: purposeful behaviour, that is behaviour that is willed, and purposive behaviour, that is behaviour to which an observer can attribute purpose.