The wonderful and terrible thing about technology

I’ve been semi-obsessed with The Expanse lately.

For those who aren’t aware, The Expanse is a show on SyFy based on the books series by James A Corey. The series focuses on the conflicts between Mars (colonized by idealistic settlers looking to terraform the planet and create a second home for mankind), Earth (the home world we all know, but way more crowded and desperate) and the asteroid belt (where raw materials are mined at great risk, kind of like Deadliest Catch with spaceships.) The class parallels are pretty plain. Earthlings are the aging patriarchs, Martians are the upstart kids, and the Belters are the ditch diggers working with both of the others’ boots on their necks.

Right in the middle of the show’s second season, there is an episode called “Paradigm Shift.” Set about 150 years in the show’s past, it focuses on a Martian named Solomon Epstein. Mars was a new colony trying to make their way in the world, but everything they did ended up being owned by Earth and shipped back there. It was a troubled relationship.

Epstein was a drive engineer, and having just bought a new space yacht decided to start tinkering with the engine. To his own shock, he created a new type of drive that burned exponentially more efficiently with exponentially less fuel. As the ship raced out at 20g burn, it flattened him against his seat, unable to move, unable to turn the drive off, waiting for a blood vessel to burst in his brain and cause the stroke that would kill him.

“Lying there on my death bed, all I could think about was what happens next? I’d never give Katie a child but she had the plans for my drive. They’d make her rich for the rest of her life, because with my drive Mars would be able to move outwards. Mine the asteroids, colonize the belt, and remake the solar system. My drive would give us the edge we needed to finally break free from Earth and build a new world for ourselves.

That’s the wonderful … and terrible … thing about technology.

It changes everything.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Technology absolutely does change everything, there is no doubt about it. In this chill-inducing episode you can see the whole framework of the show set into motion. The Epstein Drive had a cataclysmic impact on the show’s universe, and to see that moment in time happen is absolutely thrilling.

The thing is, the change Epstein saw in his head was … not at all what happened. Mars did indeed reach out and mine the belt, but instead of being the key to their freedom, it simply made Earth even more desperate to control them. Earth threatened Mars with war if they didn’t pass on most of what they mined, and put off Mars’ terraforming project for 50 years.  (This situation repeated itself 50 years later.) In the meantime, Mars and Earth collaborated to create what was close to a slave class in the asteroid belt.

On top of all that, the Epstein drive was not only put into every ship known to man, but every atomic missile known to man as well, extending Earth’s hold even farther than anyone had ever imagined possible.

This is a common problem with technologists. For all of our smarts we are woefully naive. I remember the first time I started creating apps on the web in, like,  1995 (you know, the stone ages). I remember thinking to myself how this would revolutionize everything and save the world. I was right about the first part, but the second part? Not so much.

I’ve been “joking” a lot lately that the internet is no longer positive ROI, but really much of what has happened should have been woefully obvious. Any tool that makes global organizing much easier  is going to be used to organize for evil. Any tool that democratizes content and selling will be leveraged tenfold by corporate interests. Why was this so shocking to me and so many others? Are we really that stupid?

The problem is we understand technology, but we don’t understand people. Humanity in all its sheer beautiful strangeness and horror.

We need to do better. We need to think much more carefully about how our tools will be used, and we need to prioritize the people who use them and the communities they impact. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build them, it means we need to be ready when things happen. Seeing the possible futures allows us to adapt and pivot, to react and move to the next thing before it becomes too late. We owe this to ourselves and our future.

Because in the end, the the wonderful and terrible thing about technology is that, when it comes to human nature, it changes nothing at all.

The Misspelled Portfolio

It was a simple question: “When reviewing a portfolio of a designer, researcher, or content candidate, what things trigger a red flag or concern for you?”

I got pushback from Rachael straight away.

So let me explain my thinking around misspellings.

Text editors nowadays have spell check built in. Even Adobe Illustrator has a spell check now. In modern times, it’s really hard to get the spelling of a word off. (Of course, we also have to deal with auto-correct, whose predictive power is akin to a bad carnival fortune teller.)

When I see misspelled words in a portfolio, I start thinking about the designer’s attention to detail, and all the other portfolio details start magnifying in my head. Is their information architecture complete, or is it missing key details? Did they include identifying information and clear notes on their wireframes? Is their communication effective?

Now, I readily acknowledge, as an American English speaker, I learned spelling is a clear sign of quality in American English. We are the country that popularized the spelling bee, after all. Is it really the best measure of quality? Absolutely not. It’s merely a tell, not a demonstration. I’ve seen plenty of illogical and indecipherable written pieces over the years that have perfect spelling.

I’m also a grammar nut… but I care less about grammar in portfolios than I do about spelling. Non-native speakers bring their native language structures along with the quirks of their local English vernacular into their portfolios, making for what are perfectly sensible descriptions that read clumsy in American English.When I read it, though, I don’t judge. I ask: Do I understand what they’re saying? Are they communicating their thoughts and intents well, explaining why they made the decisions they made in a way that makes sense? Almost always, they are. I can understand their intent, and I think a stakeholder can to (and can engage in the conversation).

Not every person handing in a portfolio has a perfect grasp of my Middle American vernacular, and I can neither presume that nor expect it from applicants. In fact, in a design field that has gone truly global, we can’t rely completely on written and spoken language as a common unifier no matter how much English is the “language of global business.” Design’s language is… design. And those who grasp the concepts and can demonstrate their abilities to think and learn and grow will always be welcome in a field with those values.

Being able to write and speak more clearly is a practice, one learned through review, critique, and iteration — just like design. If someone’s portfolio shows they understand review, critique, and iteration, I don’t doubt they can also improve their communication skills as well. Where you start from matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as where you want to go and how much work you’ll put in to getting there. And that’s what I hire for, not for a low misspelling count or perfectly turned phrases.

That said, please proofread your portfolio copy before you hit the publish button. Spelling and grammar errors in your portfolio are distractions from the good work you do. A simple proofread will help you find and fix many little problems.