Self-obviating Systems

Interview with Bill Tomlinson

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Video transcript: "So one of the concepts that several of my collaborators and I have been thinking about recently is the idea of self-obviating systems. And this idea arises from a challenge that currently exists about much modern technology, where all sort of modern systems, like Facebook, and like cellphones, are explicitly designed to get you to use them more. Facebook's entire business model is based on how much time you can get people to spend on the system. I read a paper the other day that I thought was really interesting, and I'm just paraphrasing a quote from it, that it's hard to have willpower, when there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break your willpower down. I find that I check my phone like a thousand times a day. And I don't want to do that and yet I have a hard time not doing it, because the system has been engineered to push my buttons, to push my dopamine receptors and encourage me to do the same thing over and over again.

So, we have been putting forward this idea of a self-obviating system, which is a computational system that, by design, tries to make itself less and less necessary to the functioning of the system in which it is embedded. In this regard, many educational systems are by nature self-obviating systems. They're systems that are training people to do something, where you don't want them to be continuously reliant on the technology, you would like them to be able to be self-sufficient. If I'm using Duolingo and a year from now, if I'm trying to teach myself Spanish or German, if I still have to have Duolingo handy, in order to be able to speak those languages, Duolingo isn't doing its job very well. Many educational systems are self-obviating systems. We've been looking at self-obviating systems in particular in the context of computational systems and socio-technical structures that allow people to provide for their own welfare. So we have a food system, a backyard gardening infrastructure, and one of the goals is to make this a system that people themselves are able to maintain. So, in the early stages, you might have your hand held by a computational system that is guiding you through the process of planting the plants and how to maintain them effectively. But gradually, this system should encourage you to be able to be more self-sufficient with it, rather than continually relying on it. And so, this notion of self-obviating systems is at odds with the domino paradigm in terms of technological innovation, and yet we think it could be a potentially interesting contributor to the broad space of how to shift to another model of our relationship with technology and our ways of being in the world."

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Related tags: Systems, Design, Innovation, Tactic, Human Computer Interaction,