What I Talk About When I Talk About User Outcomes #5 – Productivity vs. Performativity

Ant Party

Productivity, to my mind, is about doing more of what of what you enjoy doing and doing less of that which you don’t. It’s highly context-dependent, although there are some things that work in most situations – as I outline in #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity.

What I’m concerned about is a condition just shy of Digital Taylorism, that twisted notion of productivity that Jean-François Lyotard calls ‘performativity’. It’s a cancer in the knowledge economy:

According to Lyotard, postmodernity is characterised by the end of metanarratives. So what legitimates science now? Lyotard’s answer is – performativity. This is what Lyotard calls the “technological criterion” – the most efficient input/output ratio. The technical and technological changes over the last few decades – as well as the development of capitalism – have caused the production of knowledge to become increasingly influenced by a technological model. It was during the industrial revolution, Lyotard suggests, that knowledge entered into the economic equation and became a force for production, but it is in postmodernity that knowledge is becoming the central force for production. Lyotard believes that knowledge is becoming so important an economic factor, in fact, that he suggests that one day wars will be waged over the control of information.

Lyotard calls the change that has taken place in the status of knowledge due to the rise of the performativity criterion the mercantilization of knowledge. In postmodernity, knowledge has become primarily a saleable commodity. Knowledge is produced in order to be sold, and is consumed in order to fuel a new production. According to Lyotard knowledge in postmodernity has largely lost its truth-value, or rather, the production of knowledge is no longer an aspiration to produce truth. Today students no longer ask if something is true, but what use it is to them. (Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy)

The reason that performativity is dangerous is because it strips out all of the enjoyment and self-actualisation that work can bring and reduces it to a commodity. Instead, as Seth Godin often gets across in his books and his blog, work should be hard but a fundamentally creative endeavour. Talented people leave jobs if they’re overly- constrained:

Whoever says artists can’t deal with corporate pressures because they have frail minds, is missing out on the potential the artistic mind has to boost company morale and increase productivity. Most artists would just as soon quit once they become conscious of their exploitation and that is a sign of strength not weakness. (Martin Dansky)

Our working lives, even if we are self-employed, involve both physical contracts (I will do X amount of work for £Y) and unspoken, tacit contracts. The latter can sometimes be pre-judged on a visit to a potential future workplace, but certainly understood in the first few weeks on the job. It’s the old “that’s the way we do things around here” chestnut.

Whether you’re a manager or not, make sure you’re focusing on productivity rather than performativity. Sometimes the internalisation of such rhetoric ends up having more of an effect that external factors. Focus on truth. Focus on creativity. Focus on happiness. Our time here is short.

Image CC BY-NC tarotastic


If you’re looking for help improving user outcomes, head over to Synechism Ltd.

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What I talk about when I talk about ‘user outcomes’ #4

Milan Kundera - The Book of Laughter and ForgettingI re-read Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting last week. It’s not a straightforward read but it’s certainly a challenging and rewarding one. Kundera describes it as “a novel in the form of variations” and “like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme”.

To my mind, that theme is the importance not only of History, but celebrating it in its multiple forms and from a variety of perspectives. In terms of user outcomes, therefore, I think that there’s a delicate line to be drawn between influence and obliteration:

The future is an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and it’s countenance is irritating, repellant, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past. We fight for access to the labs where we can retouch photos and rewrite biographies and history. (p.30-31)

“You begin to liquidate a people,” Hübl said, “by taking away it’s memory. You destroy it’s books, it’s culture, it’s history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it still faster.” (p.218)

History is a series of ephemeral changes, while eternal values are immutable, perpetuated outside history, and have no need of memory. (p.257)

During the last two hundred years the blackbird has abandoned the woods to become a city bird. First in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr Valley. Throughout the nineteenth century it conquered the cities of Europe one after another. It settled in Vienna and Prague around 1900, then spread eatward to Budapest, Belgrade, Istanbul.

From the planet’s point of view, the blackbird’s invasion of the human world is certainly more important than the Spanish invasion of South America or the return to Palestine of the Jews. A shift in the relationship among the various kinds of creation (fish, birds, humans, plants) is a shift of a higher order than changes in relations among various groups of the same kind. Whether Celts or Slavs inhabit Bohemia, whether Romanians or Russians conquer Bessarabia, is more or less the same to the earth. But when the blackbird betrayed nature to follow humans into their artificial, unnatural world, something changed in the organic structure of the planet.” (p.267-8)

This idea of one of the most important changes from our planet’s point of view taking place without us noticing really made me sit up and think. But it was this last quotation which was the clincher for me writing this post:

The best possible progressive ideas are those that include a strong enough dose of provocation to make it’s supporters feel proud of being original, but at the same time attract so many adherents that the risk of being an isolated exception is immediately averted by the noisy approval of a triumphant crowd.” (p.273)

In other words, if you want to change things for the better and achieve improved user outcomes, you need to build a constituency. You need to make an idea powerful enough that people are attracted into its orbit.

What I talk about when I talk about ‘user outcomes’ #3

This ongoing series is a way of explaining the focus of this blog. In previous posts I’ve discussed Douglas Adams on metaphor and Borges and embodied cognition whilst below I discuss symbolic action and the importance of stories.


freedom or not:across the city

Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories. Through television, film, novels and video games, we may be more thoroughly bombarded with narrative material than any people that ever lived. What is peculiar, however, is the carelessness with which these stories are channelled at us — as entertainment, a distraction from daily life, something to hold our attention to the other side of the ad break. There is little sense that these things make up the equipment by which we navigate reality. On the other hand, there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders. These are not presented as stories at all, but as direct accounts of how the world is. Choose between competing versions, then fight with those who chose differently. (The Dark Mountain Project manifesto, p.13)

Everything we say and do has at least two elements: the connotative and the denotative. That is to say, there is a symbolic element to everything we see, say and do. The problem is that the interpretation of those symbols can be tricky.

  • A film you watch with a friend may have had religious and positive undertones for you, but meanwhile reinforced your friend’s belief in the futility of life.
  • What one person sees as ‘sharing good practice’ is someone else’s definition of self-promotion.
  • A look across a crowded bar is a search for a friend to the looker but a flirtatious advance to another.

Open up Heat magazine (or any other low-budget weekly) and what do you find? The surface (denotative level) celebrity gossip could also easily be interpreted on a connotative level as telling a story to keep the herd in line. This diet is good, this skirt is bad, this is how you should treat others, and so on. For celebrity (and other) magazines they’re cultivating a tribe for the sake of advertising and profit. Organizations such as Purpos/ed do so for the sake of social change.

That’s why it’s all about the story – both the story you witness and interpret, and the one you tell. They don’t have to be one and the same. And remember, you tell yourself a story when you say you can and cannot do this or that. Don’t internalise other people’s stories; tell your own.

Image CC BY visualpanic

What I Talk About When I Talk About ‘User Outcomes’: #1 – Douglas Adams, Feng Shui & controlling behaviours.

This is the first in the series of a series of occasional posts in which I attempt to explain, either through my own words or those of others, what I mean by my ongoing project of ‘improving user outcomes’. The title of this series is inspired by Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, itself inspired by Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In September 1998 the late, great, Douglas Adams gave an off-the-cuff speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge. Whilst I’d recommend reading the whole thing, what I find fascinating about the following extract is the nuance in his approach. It’s a fantastic example of why our relationship with others and our environment is so complex – and why we often require metaphor as a lens:

I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense – there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live – and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’

What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

I’d argue that there’s many such metaphors at work in our everyday life and that, in fact, almost everything we do is predicated upon cultural norms that colour our perception. This is known as the ‘theory-ladeness’ of observation and, taken to one extreme, would mean that we do, in fact, encounter the world entirely through metaphor.

What does this mean for user outcomes? Controlling metaphors means controlling behaviours.

Image CC-BY-SA Aditya Grandhi

User outcomes: bona fides.

Some small but important updates:

  • Reader outcomes: things you may be looking for gives quick access from the sidebar.
  • Contributor outcomes: new guest post policy should lead to other, relevant voices.
  • Commenter outcomes: new comments policy deals with terms of engagement.

I’m going to start appending my Top 10 Links I Shared This Week posts to my Weeknotes. The latter should hit the site or your RSS reader/inbox on Saturday morning (GMT). 🙂

Greplin: potential solver of a huge problem?

I’m not Stephen Fry. Nor Ashton Kutcher.

What I mean is that I don’t have enough followers on Twitter for each of them to realise that I can’t keep up with them all. At the time of writing this post, I’ve 3,615 Twitter followers – 3,465 more than Dunbar’s number. In other words, people expect me to be able to remember my conversations with them when I can’t even remember who they are.

This is potentially embarrassing within the increasingly business-focused world I’m operating. I need a quick way to find out if I’ve spoken/tweeted/emailed/shared a doc with someone very quickly.

Enter Greplin. When I read about it on TechCrunch yesterday, it was a bit of a eureka moment:

It’s a personal search engine for all that data you keep locked away in the cloud. If you’ve used desktop search like spotlight, you’ll get Greplin right away. It’s like spotlight for your cloud data.

After you use it for the first time you’ll understand that you’ll never not use it again. And there are nice touches like showing real time results as you type. And Greplin only uses OAuth and other APIs for authorization, so they never see your third party site credentials.

I’ve signed up and added the services (GMail, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Google Calendar, Google Docs) that I want Greplin to index. If it’s as good as it look in the video below, I may just drop the $45/year required to ‘go Pro’ and unlock indexing of Evernote and email attachments…

In terms of user outcomes, this is awesome. It provides ‘just-in-time’ data to allow you to make decisions, have meaningful conversations, and (perhaps most importantly) prevent social awkwardness. 😀