s2e33: Black Design 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

Wednesday 23 December, 4:15pm. Hands cols. Eaten lunch. Had a Diet Coke. Wrote a lot and thought a lot and talked a lot on phone calls.

Listening to: whatever this pizza place is playing.

1.0 Black Design

Adapated from a series of impromptu tweets[1] today, inspired by this tweet[2] from Daniel Neville and its reply[3] from Pat Armstrong.

the_black_mirror – yes, it’s written in lowercase with underscores, following in the tradition of companies like Yahoo! and flickr – is a new ‘design horror’ studio based in London’s trendy Silicon Roundabout district.

Studio principals Nathan, Tom, Dan and Karla (“there’s got to be a Ben or a Tom, jokes Dan”) say that their work inspired China’s recent Sesame Credit[4] citizen rating system.

“We’ve had a lot of clients coming to us for a fresh take on ‘design fiction,’
Karla, principal at the_black_mirror

Design fiction — and design thinking — have become increasingly in vogue amongst both Silicon Valley style companies like Uber, Google and Facebook, as well as more traditional companies like General Electric and financial firms like Capital One, who acquired design firm Adaptive Path in 2014[5]. Design fiction used to be made fun of in the design industry, its product being glossy corporate videos that showing products and services that promised wonderful things but would never quite work in practice. In more recent years, though, design fiction has been redefined by a series of trend-setting studios as a way to bring ideas to life in a more practical way that’s more accessible.

Karla explains that the principal team at the_black_mirror “ideated – and the result was ‘design horror’,” she says. Her partner Tom – in life, as well as work, the two have a history that goes back to college and their first jobs at IDEO, she reminds me – says that design horror

“embraces the networked, late-capitalist world. Everything is gamified. Everything is tracked”
Tom, principal at the_black_mirror

At this point, Nathan, who’s been sitting back and surveying our conversation, leans forward. “It’s a fresh pivot in the design space,” he says. I try to ask Nathan about his role in the first dot-com boom, where he played a pivotal role in the evolution of journalism to digital media, but he smoothly deflects me.

Instead, Karla jumps back in, with an excitement in her eyes that I’ve seen before in people who’re enthusiastically experimenting with nootropics[6]: “We were just sick and tired of ninja developers, white-hat hackers, user needs and all that.” I nod along; she’s referring to the tendency to tech startups to give themselves outlandish, ‘fun’ job titles, where good developers are called ninjas, where ‘good’ hackers help governments and companies find vulnerabilities in their computer systems instead of exploiting them for profit and a recent trend in design that emphasises conducting a kind of disciplined anthropological research to make sure that software does what people need it to.

“We’re the_black_mirror,” Karla continues, emphasising the name of the studio. “We’re black hat design. Our users are corporations.” It sounds like a cliche, but I can hear where she’s choosing to capitalise certain words.

It’s Nathan’s turn to guide the conversation. There are many corporations, he tells me, that are very, very interested in what the_black_mirror does, and correspondingly willing to pay for it. He reels off products and services that their work has influenced and that the studio has been involved in: Amazon Dash buttons[7]. Palantir[8]. Something called ANPR[9], that I jot down in my notes to look up later.

There’s no pause as Dan continues the thread. He picks up a signed, dedicated copy of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow[10] that displayed in the conference room in a way that is simultaneously understated but also in a place that has a tendency for your eyes to be drawn to it every so often. I can’t help but feel that this is on purpose. “This is our bible,” says Dan. “We hack system 1, we root system 2.”

Kahneman’s book makes the case that our brains – human brains – have two systems for thinking. He calls these System 1 and System 2. System 1 does a lot, more than we think. It’s the one that’s fast acting and instinctual, the one that does everything from let us catch a ball to be able to make quick life-or-death decisions. The problem – which Kahneman showed through experimentation and won a Nobel prize for – is that System 1 cheats. Or, rather, it uses hacks or heuristics: rules of thumb that make sense in most cases, but not all cases. System 2 is instead the intelligence that we *think* we have. System 2is the one that requires slow, conscious effort, the one that helps us plan and do complex procedures like heart surgery.

“Hacking System 1 for the win!” shouts Nathan, in what feels like an uncharacteristic and unwelcome outburst. At the very least, it’s a crass statement that reinforces the negative view people have of Silicon Valley-style startups. I see the first hint of dissent, or at least a fracturing of the confident groupthink that the team have going on, and Karla shoots Nathan a mean side-eye. I don’t think he’s going to do that again.

These heuristics – the rules of thumb that have been experimentally verified as being part of how our brains work – are what Nathan’s talking about hacking. The codes and algorithms in all of us that mean that all of us find it hard to deal sensibly with risk and probability. This is what Nathan’s talking about hacking, “for the win”.

“Look,” says Karla. “Design horror is a real thing. It’s been happening for a long, long time. We just… named it. Put a neat label on it.” She pauses, and then makes deliberate eye contact with me. “Naming things makes them powerful,” she says, “there’s nothing new there. But black design has always been here.”

I look around the studio through the glass of the conference room – it’s hardly the first conference room that I’ve seen that’s helpfully positioned in the middle of an open-plan work area, and the panes are set to transparent. It looks completely normal. Boring, even: full of mostly young, mostly white people, surprisingly gender-equal, but everyone with their heads down, presumably swimming through streams of Slack channels.

“Where’s it all leading?” I ask.

“Control,” says Nathan. He tells me about one of this favourite books, Asimov’s Foundation series, and Hari Seldon’s Prime Radiant, a fictional algorithm and computing device that’s used to predict the rise and fall of civilizations. “the_black_mirror delivers Black Radiants to the highest bidders. There’s unending clients out there, all of whom will happily pay for more, better, complete control.”

Nathan sits back as Tom leans forward in what now feels like a choreographed, optimised movement that’s been run through deep neural network simulations with data from hundreds, maybe thousands of  meetings just like this one. I don’t like thinking about the idea that there’s a simulated me running out on the cloud somewhere. I feel like Tom leans forward in a way designed to play me.

“Remember BERG?” asks Tom. I nod. Who doesn’t?

“We’re the anti-BERG. They were great. But they didn’t go where the market was.”

Now it’s Karla’s turn, and the way that the group is interacting, the way that they’re moving around, starts to unnerve me. I mean: they were unnerving me before, but now there’s almost something atavistic to the way they’re talking to me.

“We are. We’re going there,” she says. She says this with the sort of emphasis, the sort of finality, that a doctor might use with you to disabuse you of the notion that there might be some other way, some research or some trial that might help with your diagnosis. But there isn’t. There’s no question.

I look at them, sitting with barely constrained energy. Karla with that air of nootropics. The four of them, distributed around the bright, glass, utterly normal conference room and I realise: they’ve done this before. The positions they’re sitting in: they’re not random. Ending on Karla’s comment? On purpose.

After I leave, I notice something. I notice that I’m feeling their success is a foregone conclusion. And it’s not just a little feeling, it’s almost a religious feeling. A certainty. A watertight, inescapable position. One where how I feel right now has been designed in.

I think to myself: we can’t win. I finally undesrtand what black design is, what the_black_mirror is all about. And that it’s existed forever.

[1] Dan Hon is typing on Twitter: “”‘the_black_mirror’ – yes, in lowercase, with underscores, is a new ‘design horror’ studio based in London’s trendy Silicon Roundabout.””
[2] Daniel Neville on Twitter: “The Chinese citizen gamification system – Sesame Credit – is worse than you could imagine https://t.co/GNq4n1S4E9”
[3] ✨Pat  Armstrong❄️ on Twitter: “@nevolution black-mirror_s03-e01_1080p.avi”
[4] China Just Launched the Most Frightening Game Ever — and Soon It Will Be Mandatory
[5] Design Firm Adaptive Path Acquired By Capital One | TechCrunch
[6] Your Friendly Guide to Nootropics | Motherboard
[7] Amazon has invented tiny plastic buttons that allow for instant product ordering | The Verge
[8] Palantir: Home
[9] Police-enforced ANPR in the UK – Wikipedia, the free …
[10] Thinking, Fast and Slow – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[11] Foundation series – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[12] Psychohistory (fictional) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[13] BERG

4:58pm. Notes, as ever, welcome.