Geopolitical design thinking: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Jeremy Pam, an international relations expert whose career has taken him from Wall Street to Iraq and Afghanistan to MIT to his current position at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. The conversation ranges from sovereign debt relief to New York subcultures to working in a warzone to the Homebrew Computer Club, and they draw parallels between the tech world and geopolitics — and how to reconcile with outcomes your data models never predicted.
Paul Ford [Music ramps down] Hi! I’m Paul Ford and you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Poslight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. And I am joined today by my co-host!
Rich Ziade Rich Ziade!
PF Also my co-founder. Rich, in case people don’t know, what does Postlight do?
RZ We’re a digital products studio; we design, architect, built great experiences and the machines that power them.
PF Meaning that uh you’ve got an app in your hand, that’s a nice app, looks good, beautiful design, you touch it, it goes and it talks to something, and it goes and gets some data for you. You know, maybe you login, or it gives you some recent news, or tells you, you know, it’s an exercise tracker [RZ yeah]. So we build the app part, we make it pretty, and then we also build the part underneath like that runs on the servers that gives you the data.
RZ Not to drag this out but we also work with teams. We should mention that. We’ve had some great success partnering up with your teams uh within your companies. Uh so that’s something— and that can come in many flavors: we help with design, engineering, we help with engineering along with your engineering. So it’s— we’ve found nice success there. So it’s not a black box.
PF Great, so that ends the commercial portion of the podcast.
PF Now we’re gonna get onto the interview portion and, Rich, who do we have in the studio today?
RZ We have Jeremy Pam.
PF I think we should start. Jeremy, hello!
RZ Hello, Jeremy, good morning!
Jeremy Pam Hi!
PF Thank you for coming in.
JP It’s a pleasure.
PF We should talk about how we met, it was unusual meeting.
RZ It was! Correct me if I’m wrong, Jeremy, jump in! We got an email cold. And it had— I think it had an attachment on the email or you said, “Do you mind if I send you—” No, you sent the attachment. Ok. Which immediately made me think that it was coming in from Russia as some sort of virus. But I read it carefully and I turned to Paul and I said, “This looks kinda interesting and I think it’s a human being that wrote the email, let’s see what this is.” And I open it up, and it’s an RFP. Now—
PF Which is a request for proposal, meaning, “Will you write a proposal to do this work?”
RZ Correct! So as a young agency like us— we’re sort of like— you know, you ever see those— it’s a particular strain of dog that walks on top of garbage heaps, looking for food?
PF No, I never saw that.
RZ Maybe that’s not the most flattering description of what we do but if an RFP comes our way, we’re gonna open that PDF!
PF Yeah! We’re looking for— we’re looking for opportunity.
RZ Sure! And we’re young, we’re—
PF [Stammers] The other thing too is we don’t expect to know what the opportunity is gonna look like ahead of time. So this— this came in the door and we were like, [RZ yeah] “Well we gotta give it a go.” And—
RZ So we opened that PDF and it’s weird.
PF Yeah, it was a weird PDF.
RZ Well, let’s— to hand it off to Jeremy: we replied to you and said, “This is kind of interesting but this pretty alien to us. Would you mind telling us more?” And then—
JP Right. Well I should say that— that— that was the one and only time I have uh forwarded an RFP uh to anyone uh with the idea of possibly collaborating on it. So I was freelancing entirely. I’m glad that uh you opened the email and that there wasn’t a virus attached.
RZ Yeah. We’re gonna get into your background, in a second. But like if you say, “Hey! Cocktails! Nice to meet you, Jeremy.” What do you do? What do you say in those one or two sentences?
JP Well, I’m currently a research scholar at a— an institute at Columbia University called the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies which is part of Columbia’s School of International and Public affairs. Um but I’m not really an academic. Uh most of my colleagues at the institute, and this is something that I’ve just been doing for the last few years, most of my colleagues there are longtime political science, international relations professors. And they have been kind enough to let me kind of hang out and act like a political scientist every once in awhile, and do a little bit of teaching, but mostly what I am is a practitioner in international affairs.
PF Ok so wait. So this RFP came in and, I got to admit, we were kind of fascinated and kind of overwhelmed. And you came in kind of with the RFP and started to talk us through it with the idea that we would collaborate. And we didn’t— we couldn’t get our act together around that RFP, to be frank.
RZ I read it. I said like, “Gimme the weekend with this thing.” I read it two or three times and I came away thinking, “We need to make sure that machines don’t get smart enough to kill us.” I don’t want my Roomba locking me out of the house. . . because it has its own plans. And so it was intriguing because, look, we’re technologists, right? We aspire to do things that are outside of our comfort zone because that’s the fun, right? That’s the— like I don’t wanna build the same thing over and over again. So [PF no but!] this thing came in but it was not outside of our comfort zone. It was about [laughing] four exists down the highway away from our comfort zone.
PF Well and there was no easy way to like— for us to get started as a team. But the upshot was: we ended up being really interested and really liking Jeremy.
RZ We had a few meeting— [stammers] well, back up for a second: I read it like four times and I just couldn’t process a lot of what was happening and so I think I pinged you and I said, “Do you mind coming in, so we can talk [laughing] about this a little bit?” And uh I think you brought a colleague at one point, we had a couple of meetings on it, to really take a serious look as to whether we could do this. And we ultimately passed on it. This is the stuff—
JP Probably for the best.
RZ Probably for the best. This is the stuff— who—like who would bid on this thing?
JP My assumption is sort of big um uh defence contractors, you know [right], the Lockheeds, uh—
RZ Right, right, right right. At one point I started to think, “Ok we need to make sure the drones don’t kill us.” That was— if I had to boil down the RFP: “Drones are getting smarter and smarter, and at some point there just gonna make a uturn and they’re like, ‘What the hell is this thing doing here over New Jersey?’” And then, here we are. So we passed on it but we met and had a great conversation. It would be great to hear— give us sort of, you know, as you’d run down your stack of— of engagements that you’ve had through your career. Give us one that I think will give us a nice flavor of what you’ve done professionally.
JP Well, one is hard because uh one of the things about my career is that I have moved from different places that are not obviously connected. I’m not describing that well. But let me— let me sort of give you the three point kind of highlight of my trajectory. Um I’m a New Yorker, I started out—
RZ Grew up in— grew up in New York?
JP Yeah, grew up in Queens, went to high school at Stevenson, downtown [RZ ok]. Uh went away for college, spent a few years as an airforce officer uh after college and a little bit of grad school but ultimately came back to New York to go to law school and my first sort of traditional professional uh experience was as a Wall Street lawyer working for a big, international firm uh on Wall Street. And I ended up doing— having a very interesting practice there, advising countries during financial crises, on restructuring their sovereign debt which was usually a big component of their crises, and restructuring it was a big part of the solution.
PF What is sovereign debt?
JP Sovereign debt is debt issued by countries uh in order to raise money for, you know, governmental purposes.
PF Ok so I’ve gone out, “I’ve raised this money, and then I’ve got— I’m the Republic of Kazoomastan and I’ve gotten into a pickle. I’ve spent it all.”
RZ Well it could just be— it could just be, “I wanna build a bridge,” right?
PF Yeah, or “I built all those playgrounds, they look great, and now I’m in trouble. Jeremy what do I do?”
RZ I think it’s— is that right?
JP Yeah, I think, I mean that’s generally uh, you know, stylized version uh of the facts [RZ laughs].
PF So who comes to you? Is it like a finance minister picks up the phone and says, “Hey, big law firm, can you help me out?” [RZ laughs.]
JP Yeah, you know [stammers]—you know there are only so many countries in the world um most of the time most of them are doing generally ok but there is— are always uh a few countries that are experiencing uh a crisis for one reason or another. Whether it is because of natural disaster, you know, Carribean countries are [PF mm hmm] famously prone to having their finances uh thrown off by a big hurricane or something like that, or it is uh because of international politics, or it’s because of just bad management. But countries get into trouble and the point, I’m still going back to your original question, the point at which my career started to get sort of um— it was always interesting but— but I think unusual was that the last big debt restructuring I did as a lawyer was for the government of Iraq and—
RZ Po— oh wow. Ok. So post-war? Well, I dunno. Are we post-war yet? [Laughs.]
PF Mid— mid-wars, right?
JP At least post-intervention.
JP Um once the government had sovereignty returned to it, in the summer of 2004—
RZ So you’re not at the law firm anymore at this point?
JP No, I was!
RZ Oh you were. Ok.
JP Yeah. And in the summer of 2004 [PF oh ok] the government of Iraq was finally in a position to start thinking about resolving some of its long-term issues and they reached out to us to help them with their nego— international negotiations with uh their creditors.
RZ So you do this for awhile. Um—
JP Right so [stammer]—
PF But I don’t even understand what the job is. So they come to you and they say, “Alright, here we are. We’re in this situation. What could you actually do for them?”
RZ He sets up like Quickbooks.
JP No, it’s not quite [PF laughs boisterously] [RZ laughs under his breath]—not quite like that. It is um and I wanna try to give a— a quicker version of this [RZ ok] because it’s not worth getting into the details, I think. What lawyers— uh legal advisors who specialize in sovereign debt advising do is uh, as you said: the finance minister, the central bank governor, picks up the phone and says, “We are not going to be able to get out of this financial crisis. We are not going to be able to get into a position where we can resume growth, and our economy can recover, with the current uh excessive amount of debt.” And, you know, how the debt reaches an excessive, and how one defines excessive are obviously uh complicated questions. But there comes a time for some countries, and the life of some countries, where they realize that they have no choice but to— but to restructure their debt. And that is an international negotiation because it is a country that has borrowed money from private sector purchasers of its bonds who may come from anywhere in the world.
PF So they combine— or they call and they have this sort of basket of various funds, and they’ve gotten into trouble, and they’re worried about, you know, “The highway project didn’t go right and then there was a hurricane.” Or, “We’re a new country and we haven’t been able to plan well enough. So here’s where we’re are [stammers] where we are and obviously you don’t just set up Quickbooks but do you introduce them to people who can— like how does the actual restructuring happen? “What do I do?”
JP Well, fundamentally, it’s a negotiation between the debtor, in this case the debtor country, and its creditors. And the creditors can be private— can be banks, can be holders of bonds which are dispersed and so—
PF And so we’re all trying to avoid a default here, essentially. Like we’re trying to keep someone from claiming bankruptcy.
JP [Sucks teeth] Well, there is not such thing as bankruptcy for countries [PF sure sure ok] [RZ laughs] and so that is the fundamental condition that makes debt restructuring negotiations uh so interesting. There’s no international court that’s the equivalent of a bankruptcy judge in a particular country that one can go to and say, “I declare bankruptcy! I throw myself upon the mercy of the court! [PF mm hmm] You! Bankruptcy judge, figure out how to equitably distribute the remaining assets that I have.”
PF Because the Germans could’ve done that after Versaille but, of course, they couldn’t have [JP right], and then we end up in World War II. Ok, so it’s a big deal that—- yeah.
JP And, and, you know, because it’s a country, rather than a company [PF mm hmm] uh a country can’t very well just divvy up its assets [PF sure]. Uh, you know, it has uh fundamental sovereignty.
PF “You take the industrial sector, you take my agricultural sector, and we’ll call it even.” That can’t happen.
JP When that’s been tried, it hasn’t turned out well.
PF Sure. So you’re the lawyer and advocate for Iraq at that point who’s driving this process forward. They’ve come to and they’ve said, “We have to talk to all these people and we need a lawyer in the room. Jeremy and your firm, can that be you?”
JP Yeah. And I was— I was, you know, the junior member of the two or three-person team that did this but uh, you know, we should say immediately that the US government um had a very strong interest in uh [RZ laughs] in this negotiation [PF sure!] and so it uh you know, we worked very closely with them and, in many cases, it was the US government that played a driving role.
RZ It’s like— it’s like you pull out of the driveway and you hit the neighbor’s lawn mower. “Look, look, look: this was totally my fault. I will give you the money to get a new lawn mower.” Is that a good analogy?
JP Uh I’m not sure.
RZ Alright, scratch that analogy!
PF But— but frankly I think— I think the—
RZ [Laughs] Forget that analogy.
PF What is the lawnmower? What’s the lawnmower?
RZ We need to— we have a vested interest in seeing Iraq succeed—
PF Sure. Of course.
RZ—is what I was trying to—
PF Sure. Of course, of course.
RZ Maybe the lawn mower didn’t tell the story well. But go ahead.
JP Yes, uh right [RZ and PF laughing] it’s uh and the grass, you know, represented uh, you know, party x. Uh I think [others laughing again], rather— rather than the details of what a sovereign debt restructuring lawyer did, the interesting aspect of this is, I think is where it led next [RZ yeah] which is that after two years, more or less, of working on Iraq’s debt restructuring as one of their lawyers, the US government, the US treasury, asked me to join the government and to be the treasury diplomat in Iraq.
RZ So when you say the government, which government?
JP The US government.
RZ They asked you to join the US govern— represent the US government in this process?
PF So you passed your audition.
JP I guess. I wasn’t aware that it was an audition at the time but I guess so, in effect.
PF They said, “Get us Pam! Pam looks good! Let’s send him over to Iraq!”
JP Yeah. You know, more likely um [PF chuckles], you know, uh I had some relevant uh some knowledge of some relevant things, I knew some of the relevant parties, you know the finance minister and the central bank governor had been my clients and, crucially, I was willing to accept a job that involved me going to live in Baghdad, working out of the US embassy there.
PF So you— you go to the airport, get on a plane, and go to the Green Zone.
JP More or less.
JP More or less and— and you know, it’s worth noting that during the previous years of working as a lawyer on Iraq matters, my law firm had never let me go to Iraq [PF sure]. [Chuckles] So—
PF So you get there and I’m just imagining that they just give you an enormous briefcase filled with cheques and cash . . . and jewels, maybe.
PF Not at all. Ok.
RZ Gift certificates.
JP No, fortunately that— that phase of the effort had passed [RZ laughs under his breath] and my gold, you know, the broadly speaking the US saw its role in Iraq as trying to strengthen the government of Iraq.
PF So um what I’m trying to do is figure out how you get from an office in Iraq, without— you know— working, making sure, essentially being a bank to someone who is actively engaged with the technology industry. Someone who is interested and wants to be— who shows up at our door and is like, “Hey! What do you guys wanna talk about?” Usually people who show up at our door are like, “Can you build me a website?”
RZ A little more than that.
PF A little more than that. Yeah, sure.
RZ But yes.
PF So what happened in between, I’m assuming you left Iraq at some point cuz you’re sitting here in front of us.
JP Sure. Yeah. This is— this all— this chapter ended ten years ago. I mean the short answer is that I spent a period of time kind of a second career after practicing law as a practitioner of international affairs on the government’s side, initially working for treasury in Iraq, uh then working for the state department in Kabul, and doing some other related projects in and around that time. And the common thread to me when I reflected on them was all of the ways in which well intentioned and well funded efforts could go wrong. You know, when you talk for someone for whom Iraq and Afghanistan are big data points, it’s impossible to think about that without wondering, “Where did we miss uh how did we wrongly evaluate the problem set?” And what I came away— the conclusion that I came away from those was that there was a common thread of insufficient appreciation of— or excessive confidence in our ability to predict how complex societies functioned, and were not functioning, and could be repaired. And so I came away from this with an interest in complexity, and uh and chaos theory, generally, as applied to societies and organizations.
RZ Very interesting.
PF So not just warfare, not just like places we invade, but actual— just society in general.
RZ Arguably, post-war it was the hard— it was the harder part. I mean histor— Like if you look back on both of those narratives, you know, we’ve got, you know, the mighty military doing it’s thing in short order and then the really hard work kicked in.
RZ Ok so continue on this path.
JP So it is— what I ended up discovering was that complexity is all around us, um in fact, some of the most interesting writings on how complexity works in societies had been done focusing on cities, focusing at the city-level [RZ mm hmm] uh there was a famous book by the urbanist and political theorist, Jane Jacobs, called The Death and Life of Great American Cities [PF sure] where she is focused on New York and how the fabric of New York maintained itself and all of the interactions between uh storekeepers and parents and school kids that make up a neighborhood fabric, which is itself: the neighborhood fabric is an unintended consequence of the individual motivations of each of those actors [RZ sure]. And she was making an argument against an alternative approach to urban planning at the time, a kind of high modernist approach which says, “We don’t need uh mom and pop dry cleaners and grocery stores and bodegas every three blocks, we can just have a shopping district. And we can just have one mega-dry cleaners and everyone can come to that.” But what Jacobs saw and argued persuasively was that if you just reduced, if you just thought of the city in terms of functionality and the intent of the individual actors, you would lose all of these beneficial unintended consequences which in fact made the city livable and produced all sorts of other benefits.
RZ It’s also— I mean [stammers] and I assume you’re also talking about just the need to connect, just the need to say, “Good morning, how was— how was your trip?” To the storekeeper down the street, “How was your trip back to Greece for a week? Uh it’s good to see you.” And you know I think you see that in how we embrace ethnic foods in this city and how we embrace uh just the— you know the way it’s just sort of this splash of culture in all directions coming at it um. You know I have a friend who boycotts Amazon, she refuses to spend any money on Amazon because she feels that— and this is a classic argument that’s been made, it’s been made against Wal-Mart about how these sort of, you know, monolithic uh call them entities that can drop into, you know, anywhere and within a five-mile radius everything else can die and that’s perfectly ok. But it becomes, you know, you become a lot less connected, uh a lot less reasons to connect. You know? My [stammers] mom, one day she said, “I’m gonna go get you bagels.” She’ll go out and be gone for three hours and it’s noon and I need to eat lunch now uh because she talks to every— every storefront on the way.
PF See I live in a condo and lots of people have young kids and I have young kids. And we’ve now had four or five years to get to know each other [yeah] and so there’s a snow day and we autonomously create two-hour uh childcare windows and the kids just all move from apartment to apartment. And that— that ability to interact at that level of complexity, emerges out of the building as a system [RZ yeah] like and— and most people I know don’t have that sort of optionality around childcare, around— you do, Rich, because you’ve stayed essentially connected to an immigrant community [RZ yeah] and your family so that I’ve seen you say, call your mom, and go like, “Hey, I’m going out to dinner, I forgot to tell you, can you come by?” And she’ll—
RZ Yeah. Which is— my friends envy that.
PF Well, you call her an Uber.
RZ I call her an Uber.
PF And I— I schedule evening childcare at least a full week ahead of time.
RZ Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly.
JP But this is— also ties back what I think was a shared experience— an experience that you and I shared to some extent, Rich, of growing up uh in New York in the eighties [RZ mm hmm] and, Paul, it sounds like you were a keen observer of this um—
PF Well I would pick up the copies of The Village Voice when I was, you know, 14, 15, and be like, “What the hell is happening?!”
JP Right! And so what was— what was distinctive, it’s not— you know, I don’t wanna suggest that this is unique to— to this place or that time but what was distinctive uh about uh New York of that time. To me, what jumps out, is that you had a very large population of people who lived in the greater New York area and you had some sort of more or less neutral spaces like Manhattan or like downtown Manhattan in particular, where people— individuals from this large pool could self-select [RZ mm hmm] and decide that they wanna be part of the post-rock uh scene around uh the Mud Club, or the early hip hop scene where the Bronx and uh Afrika Bambaataa came down town at the Roxy roller skating rink on uh 18th street and Chelsea, and people from various places could come in and be part of fashion, be part of uh various kinds of art: high art, street art, um graffiti. And you had all of these sort of spontaneous cultural or subcultural formations [RZ yeah] which were not the intended plan of any one person.
RZ Oh no! This is not Robert Moses thinkin’ hip hop’s— “I’m gonna set this up for hip hop.” [Laughs.]
JP Right, I mean actually one of the— one of the— one of the very interesting connections to hip hop is that one of the contributing factors to it might have been the destruction of the South Bronx, or parts of the South Bronx, by the creation of the South Bronx Expressway [RZ right]. And so, you know a [stammers] social theorist, I think, said, “You know I woke up one day and went for a walk around the block and realized that the block was no longer there,” [RZ right, yeah] and that unintentionally gave rise to hip hop which ended up, you know, changing New York and ultimately the culture of the world.
RZ Well and I think that’s, you know, at that time it wasn’t cool to live in the Lower East Side. It was— it was a mess. But you gravitated to it. You went there. You hung out there. And then you went home. Right? It was all about sort of— we were like fireflies just coming into that city and [stammers] and just doing our thing and then getting out. It was like, “Do you wanna go to the city?” The ‘city’ was the word. Like, “Do you wanna go to the city?” As someone from Bay Ridge.
PF We still say that. Everybody still says that [RZ yeah]. You know the interesting thing too is like if you look at the history of the technology industry, an enormous amount of personal computing came out of the Homebrew Computer Club in the seventies— which was a meetup [yup] where somebody like Steve Wozniak would show up with this crappy pile of chips glued to a board—
RZ Oh it was like in a school gymnasium!
PF—and be like, “I call it the AppleOne,” and people would be like, “Oh, that’s cool!” And that was about it [RZ chuckles right right], right? And yet the genealogy of the entire industry goes back to that— sorta [yeah]. And they would just put little fliers up [yup]. You know the thing that was key too? And this is to your friend’s point about Amazon, the fliers would be hung up in stores. Like you’d go to buy something that you found interesting, like, you know, like a— maybe you’d buy like a pair of pants that you thought looked cool, and the fliers that were up in the store where you bought the pants were kind of relevant to those pants [RZ laughs right].
JP And the music would be on the radio [PF— and you’d ask the— ], whether it might be a kind of underground radio station or it might be a radio show that starts at three in the morning but it was broadcast for the world and anyone who was interested could learn— could listen to it, learn about it, and, over time, you know, insinuate uh themselves into that community [RZ yeah]. Now [stammers] but this contrast, I think your— your connection to the early personal computing culture is very interesting but the thing that struck me as I was spending this year at MIT and sort of surrounded by a tech world is that that openness to spontaneity and unintended mixtures in the— the tech world co-exists with another hyper-rational view which says, “I am a programmer, I am going to tell these resources precisely what they should do, [RZ right], and I am going to— because I’m a good programmer or I have access to good programming resources, I feel confident that it is going to do what I tell it to do and not something else.” And I think that— the tension between— between that sort of intentionality and the openness to unintended consequences, which can be bad and in the computing world, I guess if they’re bad, that’s called a ‘bug,’ but they can also be good [RZ yeah] uh as in these examples [RZ oh!] from New York culture.
RZ You’re bringing up something— there’s something I tell the product team that’s really doesn’t— it comes more from experience than wisdom which is if you sat down right now, we’re about to launch the product, if you sat down right now and ranked the top ten feedback points we’re gonna get, I assure you you’d get the great majority of them wrong . . . because the human aspect of it, right? [Stammers] And that’s what, that’s what we’re— that’s what we’re grappling with, as a technologist, I wanna cut you outta the picture. I haven’t picked up the phone to order food in five years. Right? Like I’m trying to cut the human chaos out of the picture, in fact, I’m trying to automate it all. Like that’s my— that’s how I— I— I sell it under convenience. Right? And efficiency which means things will get cheaper because instead of 11 people along the chain, I need three, or whatever. But that is my aim. That is my goal. But—
PF Well this is how the tech industry gets itself in trouble over and over because it’s model— it’s mental model of humanity . . . is that humanity is ultimately gonna behave rationally. It expects people to kind of follow the rules that are set forth in the product [RZ yeah exactly] and instead somebody gets a screwdriver and like opens up the iPhone and is like, “Woah! Look at this camera! It’s crazy!” [RZ Exactly] And Apple’s great that way, you can actually see that tension in how they continually find new ways to seal their devices both kind of electronically and physically [RZ yeah] away from prying fingers.
RZ [Stammers] And their care for design and aesthetic is so high, that they’re like, “You know what? I will just lull you. You will just fall in love and just accept.”
PF Well for the vast majority of people, that’s fine. Because this is not the thing— they’re not gonna build a community on top of the technology. They’re gonna just use it and kinda get the experience they— they want and then go from there [RZ yeah] but there’s a minority that wants to actually look inside and understand how it works and— and connect with other people about it [RZ yeah] and they fight back; they get angry.
RZ Does this make you— [stammers] real quick question: does this make you sad, a little bit? Like a little [stammers] or is that just nostalgia?
PF [Sighs] The world of— that— that we—
RZ It’s all feeling— heading towards more and more sterile.
PF [Sighs] You know there’s more points of connection and interaction, and more abilities for individuals to find each other, and create communities than ever before but the sort of serendipity between commerce and culture and walking down the street is lost [RZ yeah]. You guys had more of that as kids growing up in New York City.
JP I think— I think that there is an opportunity to sort of seize some of these concepts and— and— and sort of redefine them in order to— to, perhaps, preserve a little bit of— of the good things of what we’re talking about and I’ll give you a very concrete example: when I was working on Iraq and on Afghanistan and things were not going according to plan, and there were policy reviews and people said, “Ok, we’ve gotta figure out what went wrong, so that we can get it— now we can finally get it right.” One of those suggestions— uh and this was the first time I’d heard this concept was that we could get it all right if we took a design approach, if we used design thinking to develop better strategies for strengthening weak states [PF oh boy] and, you know, that was— [RZ wow!] that was— that was interesting and I thought, “Where does this design thinking come?” And it sort of brought me— it lead in— in various chains to uh to some people at MIT, who had been— who had been at MIT but I think that are sort of two conceptions of design. One conception of design is the kind of Apple one that you are talking about which is, “We are going to create a hermetically sealed environment in which you have exactly the experience we want you to have and you are not authorized, or able, to have any other kind of experience.” [RZ right] And maybe that can work to a certain degree, for a certain amount of time, but I think that there’s another conception of design which acknowledges the inevitability of happy accidents and which uh acknowledges the inherent unpredictability of the results of complex interactions, and which, therefore, kind of embraces uh that uncertainty and uh and teaches us a degree of humility . . . about it. So and if, you know, there’s a kind of one version of design is everything happens as we want it to, and the other version of design is, you know, the— the most fundamental design lesson is that we know we can’t fully design, in the sense dictate, anything [RZ right]. And I think if people who do design work, whether tech-based or otherwise, and people interested in design thinking can put more emphasis on the inherent unpredictability and the necessary humility that comes with that [RZ yeah] then, perhaps, we would be pushed in a different direction.
RZ Well, you know, I’m hearing this and I wish that had a, you know, a name. Right? Like is there a name for that? Like I have not heard this ca— this particular strain of design. I’m inspired by it and I think it’s great and it makes me think of MySpace um but—
PF Well the design thinking movement is a real movement. I mean that’s a—
RZ No but like this— this— this second strain that he’s talking about which is embrace the chaos a bit. Because what we— for what— everything that we do as technologists is driven by getting you to do x. Like, “How am I gonna get you to— and stop going off the rails here. Like, you keep drifting left or right. I need you to just do x.” So I’m obsessed with creating the optimal experience that’s gonna keep you on the rails, right? That’s— that’s really considerate great design, in fact.
JP But isn’t some of what you you do— and I, you know, I am sort of imagining this: some of what you do is providing a set of tools [RZ mm hmm] that users can use in various ways [RZ yeah yeah]. And, you know, each individual tool you want— for each individual tool you want them to have [RZ yeah] a good experience [RZ yeah] but providing people with a set of tools that they can use in various ways—
RZ Sort of more open-ended—
JP Yes, yes.
RZ—you’re saying. Yeah, yeah. This is—you know what this reminds me of? Uh Will Wright and how he affected, he’s a videogame designer and—
PF He made Simcity and Sim Earth and—
RZ Yeah, there’s no ending. They were just these open-ended [PF The Sims] experiences where you built a city and it would just be there. And there was no— there was no moment of like, “Oh, the end! You’ve arrived. You killed the big boss.” There was no big boss and they were massively successful because people— you were right: they were creative tools, in a sense, with, you know, their own constraints and whatnot.
JP And I guess my last question for you guys would be . . . I think earlier you mentioned in passing, Rich, sort of the role that experience uh plays into this. And I couldn’t help but think about that uh during this year that I was at MIT where, you know, you’ve got a large number of young, undergraduates who are uh sort of tackling problems uh with tremendous brain power. But tackling problems pretty fresh because they’re— they just have— [RZ sure] don’t have that much experience and, you know, this impression that I have of the tech world, perhaps more applicable to the west coast than to New York, of, you know, sort of driven by youth, where people are actively discouraged by being burdened by experience and [RZ mm hmm] uh and thinking about the past. And one of the things I appreciate about your podcast— about this podcast, is that you are often— you often have guests and talk uh talk about the history of tech and, you know, going back 20 and 30 years and so uh, you know, maybe part of this— this alternative conception of design would be one that also recognizes the value of experience and [RZ mm hmm] uh and that it’s actually, it’s not always a bad thing to have some people with some uh some history who can say, “You know, we tried that, you know, in— you know, ten years ago and here’s what— what didn’t work about it,” rather [RZ sure] than constantly trying to atta—
PF Well, I think, I mean the history of technology is— is human history, right? But the technology industry itself focuses on the platforms and the sort of specific skills and the frameworks that are available at that moment that are driving the maximum revenue. So everyone’s very excited about machine learning right now not because of its great— it’s not even particularly new, it’s just very effective against the current problems that we have and the data that we have [RZ yeah]. So— so, you know, the prioritization is always off because it’s so revenue driven and— and that lets— makes it very easy to believe that the most new, shiny, exciting stuff is the right stuff, the most important stuff. So, yeah, we’re gonna wrestle with that probably for the rest of our careers.
RZ [Chuckles] Yeah! [Stammers] It’s a good observation, by the way, cuz even though we’ve been doing this for 20 years, we’re still motivated by causing trouble, like that is a big driver around why we do what we do. Like this— this business was not created uh as an end to just make money.
PF If you don’t feel like you’re getting away with something, it’s not worth doing.
RZ [Laughs] That’s our slogan!
PF Yeah. Well, we only really touched on about one to two percent of what makes Jeremy Pam Jeremy Pam. But uh I hope everyone got a little bit of a sense of just how big and weird the world is which, I think, is what always strikes me when we talk.
RZ This was a great conversation. Really enjoyed it.
PF Thank you for coming in.
RZ Thank you.
PF Rich, that— that— there’s a lot goin’ on there!
RZ You know, there is a lot goin’ on, we coulda just kept going but I— I love to stray away from our little bubble here. And this was a great stroll.
PF It’s a big, old world [music fades in] [RZ yeah yeah] and technology’s all over it.
RZ It is.
PF So it’s good— good to think that through and—
RZ And the design discussion was great.
PF I’ll be thinking about that conversation for awhile. Alright. Well, look: this is Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio in New York at 101 5th Avenue. If you need us, if you want anything at all, Rich, what do you do?
RZ If you just wanna talk to us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PF email@example.com. Uh rank us five stars on iTunes if you’re in the mood. And anything you need, let us know. We’ll see you soon.
RZ Have a great week!
PF Bye! [Music ramps up to end.] [Transcript by secondhandscribe.com.]