Welcome to Episode 80 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hey, Jon. Well, congratulations. Today, when the show drops, you’ll be a published, once again, a published author with your book being released.
Yeah, I’m very excited about this book which O’Reilly Media is publishing on Thursday, December 4th, is the day it hits the shelves as well as all of the online outlets like Amazon and the O’Reilly site. The book is “Designing for Emerging Technologies.” It’s something that I’ve been very excited about, passionate about for the duration of the project which has been, if you can believe it, it’s been 16 months in gestation and we’re ready to release the baby into the world.
Let me tell you, I mean I have a lot of passion and vigor around this topic, but I was extremely lucky in that I got to work with people who are much smarter than me doing some really groundbreaking research at places like MIT Media Lab in material science. We got guys working at Intel in their research on gestural interaction. We’ve got guys, people over at Autodesk working on connected buildings and sensors. That’s just a couple of the chapters that are being featured on the book, but it was really a fantastic group of designers, innovators, researchers, scientists, engineers who agreed to work with me on this and take a snapshot, really, of designing user experience for emerging technologies.
We’ve talked a lot of the design and tech stuff before. What I’m interested in is more of the writing side. At what point did you decide, “Hey, I want to be the editor of something that a lot of people are contributing to as opposed to the author.” Was that right at the beginning or did that evolve at some point and why did you go in that direction?
Yeah, I think part of that decision comes from who I am as a person. I like bringing groups of smart people together and working with them because fundamentally, I mean, I know very well that there is no way I could be an expert on all of these topics, whether it’s additive fabrication or synthetic biology or collaborative robotics. What I really wanted to do was to assemble almost a cutting-edge design conference but in a book. Bringing together all these people who would understand the framework of the conversation and then once they understood what the “call of the theme” of the conference was, provide their own perspective on it. Really, I thought having all those different perspectives even though they would not be unified by a single author … I suppose I could have gone through and interviewed all those people, might have been another way to do it.
I felt at the time that having those unique voices much like a conference would was probably a way to approach that, that people would appreciate. Now, during the process of doing that, there were definitely times where I said, “Wow, I didn’t realize how much work it was to put something like this together.” I’ll be honest about it. I thought it would be easier than writing some of the books that I have in the past or even contributing to a book like this. I just did not appreciate the level of involvement that the editor has in shaping a book like this.
The O’Reilly folks were fantastic. I worked with three different editors on the project while it was going through development at different times. Each one of them brought their unique take on it whether it was the beginning where we were recruiting people, the middle where we were honing the writing and getting the chapters to relate to each other a little bit, and then finally, when we got to the end of it, pushing everything out the door. There was another editor to do that. There were definitely different stages, different personalities, and task for the editorial team over at O’Reilly and then just me being naïve and thinking, “Oh, this will be less difficult than writing a book on my own,” which I was shocked. I’m one of those people that tends to dig in and hold on, so that’s what I did.
There were so many rewarding moments throughout that I think it was a good decision. Maybe my next writing project will … Maybe I’ll just try writing the whole thing myself and then not pursue one of these massive undertakings, again for, at least, a little bit.
Let me ask the question in a different way because I think what you said was interesting , but I guess, what I’m wondering is why in the first place did you decide to pursue a project that was you as editor as opposed to you as author. Like I get that given the topic that this is encompassing, you wanted to have the experts on all of these really complicated and diverse fields contribute, but why did you start down a path where that would be the right solution in the first place?
Yeah, that’s a good question. You’re asking more about the different kinds of roles like why would I pursue something that where I was shaping it as opposed to creating it myself? Is that …?
That’s right. That’s exactly right because you answered it very well from the standpoint of, “Well, given this topic, it made more sense to bring together all of these experts and I’m good at bringing people together too, so it was just a nice fit.” I’m trying to understand why you started on the path of a topic that manifested that way in the first place? It’s a perfectly good way to do it but it’s probably not the way most people think of themselves as authoring a book. What drew you to that type of a project?
I think originally, it was even a bigger project at its conception. I originally had thought that I would get like a hundred experts all submitting a couple of pages.
I think I was drawn to the idea of like a crowd-sourced book on taking the temperature of a time in history where we have all these great technologies coming together and what was the wisdom of crowd is going to tell us about it and about design and UX in particular in relation to these technologies.
Well, that’s interesting. What happened with that idea?
I think over the course of developing the idea, we realized that some of the topics were going to just require a much more in-depth look. Therefore, just a couple of pages wouldn’t suffice. From that, there is an O’Reilly book type where roughly 20 contributors write essays under a particular umbrella topic. It morphed in that direction and since we weren’t going to do a whole bunch of authors doing a small piece, it was appropriate then to pursue this idea of having 20 people contributing, which, by the way, I didn’t think this is going to be as big as it is, it’s 500 pages.
I mean this thing is big.
That’s in doorstop territory.
Yes, hopefully not too many doorstops.
Hopefully, fireside reading during your vacation or something like that, but yeah, that’s funny. I don’t think it was a conscious thing in its entirety, Dirk, like from the get-go because the idea evolved and went through a couple different formats. I knew that I wanted to curate and to be a part of a project and to help shape it. The final manifestation, I don’t think was immediately obvious to me when I put together the first words of the proposal.
I love the idea of those little nuggets. That was a really clever thought.
Yeah. I think it would have been a much different thing if that have been the case, and certainly, if I were to pursue this kind of thing again, given that there’s much more visibility to this topic and to this project that O’Reilly is publishing, I think that if there’s another volume, that might be an interesting thing way to take a cut at it, because this first one, the longer form essays have their strengths but I wonder what we would do if we only had, I don’t know, 800 words to do it in. Like if you could approach UX for emerging technologies from the mat standpoint, what it would engender. I don’t know, but that’s certainly an avenue that might be worth going down.
Yeah, I mean just thinking about innovating in the publishing and the reading experience. I mean as a reader, I’d love to be able to invest five minutes or less and get this really nice, smart, finished bite of perspective from someone. I don’t know, is there even a good resource for that on the web? Does that even exist in the context of design/emerging technology?
I don’t know that it does and part of that is probably because these technologies that fall into the umbrella of emerging technologies are obviously all still very nascent and still going through development both on the technology side and especially on the design side. I can’t tell you the potential of synthetic biology is huge, but our understanding of it both from the science side and from the design side is, I think, somewhat still in its formative stages. I would be surprised if there were … It almost requires that there be a little bit more practice there before you could generate worthwhile nuggets of wisdom based on that practice. It’s probably almost easier to create the longer form essay because you can explore a bunch of different avenues as opposed to honing down to, for lack of a better term, a best practice.
As an author, I mean you’ve been through this process before, but I think most authors, they assume that once the final manuscript gets pushed out, their job is done, but when the book drops, your work is just going to be restarting in a big way, right?
Yeah. I’m excited about this too. There is going to be a number of other media pieces associated with the book starting with a series of interviews that I’m working with O’Reilly’s Radar podcast. I’m interviewing the contributing authors about their chapters, about the topics they covered and about their design practice around user experience for emerging technologies. I don’t know if all 20 authors who contributed are going to be able to participate in that podcast series, but that’s certainly one of the things we’re going to be doing.
Additionally, I’m going to get out and do some speaking around the country on this topic and, frankly, try to raise some awareness around it because I think it’s so important that we understand what technologies are coming and what the possibilities are really for the benefit of humanity, I mean for people. I think we sometimes step into technologies with this naïve assumption that everything is just going to turn out all right as long as we keep pushing forward. I think there is opportunity there but I also think that we have to learn from the last set of technological revolutions, especially the industrial revolution where we’re pursuing a lot of great technology, but there were a lot of unintended consequences.
I think that’s a discussion that we really need to have both in the design and technology communities and generally as a country around any number of these topics.
Yeah, I mean those are conversations we’ve had in the show but I haven’t seen them raised anywhere else. I guess I haven’t been looking super hard either, but why isn’t there more talk about that?
I think there is some talk that bubbles up. 3D printing is obviously an emerging technology that has captured people’s imagination and you can see some of the … maybe not unintended consequences but the consequences of 3D printing can include 3D printing your own guns. The news cycle picked that up for a while and we did see some conversation around that, but that’s the tip of the iceberg and it’s very sensational and it draws people in because they can imagine someone who they don’t want to have a gun surreptitiously printing a gun in their basement. There’s that fear angle that generates it.
On the synthetic biology side, I think there’s not a lot of accessibility right now. There’s no master product that is drawing people in. If you look at mass adoption of technologies, there’s usually a couple of products right at the mass adoption phase, in the bell curve that drives everybody to pay attention. An obvious example of that, in the United States, it really took the iPhone for mobile to take off and there is just not that access point for people right now.
Unfortunately, I think when we get to that point, it’s probably going to be a little bit late for having any of these discussions because it’s one thing to be able to access all of the knowledge that’s on the Internet via your mobile computer. It might be another thing entirely to be able to reshape your genetic code to create the perfect offspring that seems to be in order of magnitude, greater consequence to me and something we might want to consider before that horse leaves the barn. Although I must say that some folks believe the horse has already left the barn.
Yup, absolutely. Good. Anything else about the book you want to share with the audience?
Yes. On Thursday, December 4, please check out “Designing for Emerging Technologies.” As I said, there’s 20 inspiring essays on robotics, the Internet of things, synthetic biology and 3D printing that if you’re a user experience designer and you’re interested in the practice of the future, this is the book for you for the holidays.
Listeners, remember, while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com; that’s just one “L” in the “digitalife” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Or email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for Episode 80 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.