Doctor’s Note – Issue 12 – Organisational Amnesia

In this issue: Organisational amnesia / Sonos out of tune / The Irishman / Design Politics 2020 / The Linkhole

Welcome to Issue 12 of Doctor’s Note. This issue looks at how organisations need to learn to learn, how Sonos were taught a big lesson, and the importance of self-reflective practice. Plus more goodies.

Organisational amnesia

I’ve noticed a pattern recently. In the last 18 months or so, I have had three client organisations ask me to come and teach and coach their CX, UX or Service Design teams, help them improve their CX offering and the way the various CX-oriented departments work together.

So far, so normal. That’s what I do. The pattern is that all of these companies had already engaged me or companies I used to work for to do this a few years earlier, yet there was barely a trace of institutional memory of this work.

In one case, the client presented us with some earlier customer journey scenarios from a big CX transformation my then colleague and I had worked on four years ago in previous jobs. I even dug up a photo of the wall of Post-It notes with my handwriting on that was the basis of those final scenarios that my colleague had designed. Six years later, here we were again.

Although it was somewhat eye-roll amusing, it also made me quite sad. We had spent a lot of time and effort working on all that only for it to end up in a digital drawer gathering dust. What is going on?

You may be thinking that our work, training and coaching was sub-par, since it didn’t stick. Of course, I’ll argue that this wasn’t the case — we really saw changes in the mindset, ways of working and the assets produced while we were working with those clients. And at other clients the interventions permanently shifted the culture and ways of working for the better.

For some people in the organisations that were coming back to us, the training and mentoring was a career-changing experience. So career-changing that a few of them left to work in more design-led organisations, frustrated they couldn’t work in these new ways in their current one. Or they moved within the company afterwards, either voluntarily or through one of the endless rounds of departmental reshuffles that don’t really tackle underlying structural problems of organisations.

The result is a kind of organisational amnesia. Some of the ways of working and process did remain, but it was living on in the remaining people more than the organisation. When they leave, the organisation will forget.

If you think of people and practices as the neural pathways in the organisational brain, when they’re damaged—through redundancies, attrition or “restructuring trauma”, those pathways are destroyed, blocked or fade. Process is often used as a scaffold to rebuild the pathways. It does help to have an explicit process or methodology that everyone understands and shares the meaning of, but process alone does not preserve understanding and shared meaning.

Actually process can have the opposite effect, because blindly following procedure can be pretty mindless. People aren’t thinking about why they’re doing something, they’re just on autopilot, like when you drive a familiar route and suddenly realise you’re nearly home and can’t remember the last ten minutes of the journey.

Practice—a combination of craft and habit—does reinforce those pathways. Especially reflective practice, which is more than just making. It’s is also intentional consideration of what you are doing before, during and after the act of making.

Practices, rituals and craft skills—what might loosely be termed cultures of doing—deteriorate if there is nobody practicing them or if they’re not valued. Think of languages that die out. Unless a practice becomes a habit and is valued in an organisation, it will fade away. 

When organisations ask us to train and coach their teams, it is essential that they lay the groundwork for those new habits and practices to take root. What happened to those clients I mentioned above is that they often assumed the new practice would just take flight because of the training alone. But the inertia of a large organisation’s existing processes, procedures and value systems can crush those newly forming habits extremely easily. Like seedlings, they need some protection before they can withstand the full organisational elements.

Ill-conceived KPIs, over-bearing management, pressure for growth at the expense of maturity, speed over quality masquerading as pseudo agility, alongside some very banal blockers, such as HR, procurement, finance, and space policies, inadequate tools and crowded calendars, can quickly stifle growth. In fact, they mostly exist for that reason—to preserve the status quo. 

Learning a new practice requires growth, not in the tired economic sense, but in terms of change and maturation. The irony about the business obsession with growth as the metric king of kings is that this lacks maturity. The singular focus is reminiscent of the way adolescents become obsessed with sex. Only as they mature do they become more fully-rounded, considering other aspects of life as equally valuable.

At the risk of making this sickeningly hipster, I’ve learned a lot from yoga teachers about this. My wife is a fine Iyengar yoga teacher, as is our teacher from Australia, Pixie Lillas. Pixie was a practitioner and teacher long before it became trendy and was taught for a long time directly by BKS Iyengar

One of the things Pixie noticed more experienced students do was to keep pushing until they felt the moment of “stretch” they were used to when they first started-out. But, of course, as you become more experienced you don’t need to hit that barrier every time to reach the correct alignment and integrity in the pose. In fact, what happens is you start to over-stretch and hyper-extend because your body is able to do it. That’s practice without intelligence. Instead of reflecting upon the why of what you are doing, you are just doing, pushing, and mindlessly following instruction. 

Really good teachers, like my wife and Pixie, don’t just tell you what to do. Their teaching brings your mind to what you are doing and asks you to examine it. Good students learn to self-reflect. They learn to learn.

The challenge for organisations is that they want the outcomes that self-reflective learners and practitioners can produce, but fail to set up an environment that helps their people learn to learn. Then the organisational amnesia sets in.

The good news is there are quite a few things organisations and managers can do to create fertile grown for growth and learning, but they do take courage and a mix of bottom-up and top-down commitment. My aim isn’t to make organisations dependent on my teaching and mentoring as a crutch. Like any teacher, I seek to make myself superfluous and for the student to become the master.

Sonos out of tune

By now you may have seen Sonos’s misstep about no longer supporting some of their oldest products as of May 2020. Here is part of their original announcement (emphasis mine):

If you choose to participate in the trade up program, your legacy products will be put in Recycle Mode, a state that deletes personally identifiable information and prepares these products for e-recycling. Recycle Mode also protects unsuspecting people from buying legacy products that are approaching the end of their useful life and won’t provide the Sonos experience customers expect today. Recycle Mode will only apply to the legacy products listed above.

We ask that you take your legacy products to a nearby certified e-recycling facility. This is the most environmentally friendly way to recycle. That said, if there isn’t a facility in your area, we are happy to pay for you to ship your products back to Sonos for responsible recycling.

Ideally all our products would last forever, but for now we’re limited by the existing technology. Our responsibility here is threefold: build products that last a long time; continually look for ways to make our products more environmentally friendly through materials, packaging, and our supply chain and take responsibility for helping you through the transition once products near the end of their useful life.

Worse, newer devices connected to legacy devices would also no longer receive updates, leaving your whole network of Sonos devices in legacy mode.

This was quickly picked up by several media and technologysites, setting social media alight with angry customers.

Sonos CEO, Patrick Spence, did a hasty back-pedal on the announcement two days later. It’s a reasonable “we heard you” letter, but short on details. And there are plenty of customers still asking questions and receiving scant response from Sonos. It hasn’t done much good for their stock price, but that’s only a measure of what investors think, not what customers think.

I don’t know the inside story to this, nor do I know anyone at Sonos. I even held off writing about it, because I wanted to see how it developed. There hasn’t been any more news from Sonos since.

I do know that a the bulk of any smart speaker is, of course, air. The rest of it is basically a speaker, amp and motherboard. I also know that in many consumer electronics companies, the software engineering is often siloed from the industrial design and engineering.

Again, I have no idea if this is the case at Sonos. Please let me know if I’m wrong about this. I have no desire to drag Sonos through the mud, but rather to use them as an example of a lack of sustainable and circular economy thinking, most likely driven by the pressure of growth and quick returns to investors.

The dropping of support for legacy products seemed particularly tone deaf in a climate of rising concerns about the need to create products and services with sustainability and circular economics at the heart. We really are at a point of having to re-design pretty much everything. It’s a daunting task, but also a massive opportunity.

Bricking the devices under the guise of protecting “unsuspecting” consumers from not having “the Sonos experience customers expect today” is disingenuous. If people buy older technology, they know it’s not the latest and greatest. Worse, Sonos spent years persuading customers that they should keep adding to their system so they had music in every room in the house.

Yes, processing speeds have increased, but music isn’t like video. It is not caught in the same arms race of ever-increasing resolution (and, therefore, bitrate) year after year. I would wager that audiophiles who do want high resolution audio from services like Qobuz or Tidal are very unlikely to want to hear it streamed through a Sonos speaker.

Sonos could have so easily extended the “useful life” of their speakers and proved their sustainability credentials. Since the actual speaker and amplifier part of any legacy Sonos probably has many years of life left, a switch out of the motherboard or addition of a module would have been an easy thing to offer. 

Back in 2018 Bang & Olufsen partnered with HiFiBerry to create a module that upcycles retro B&O speakers by making them connected and wireless. And because there’s a lot of air in speakers, you have space to put in a circuit board. It also recognises how much love and loyalty B&O customers have for their beautifully designed components

What a missed opportunity for Sonos.

De-ageing in The Irishman

In the previous issue, I mentioned my fascination with the acting skills required to match the de-ageing in The Irishman. It’s worth watching the short documentary above about the technical process.

Editing The Irishman

When I first got interested in filmmaking, I was extremely lucky to see a talk by Thelma Schoonmacher, Martin Scorsese’s long-time Editor, about her collaboration with Scorsese. It was in my local independent cinema that ran a subset of the British Film Institute’s program. Schoonmacher took the intimate audience of about 30 people through the editing process of Raging Bull. It was such a treat and much of what she said stuck with me as I went to study film. Here she is on editing The Irishman:

Design Politics 2020 update

Tickets have now gone on sale for Design Politics 2020, the conference I’m organising with This is HCD’s Gerry Scullion. In a world of fast change and sprint-fuelled delivery, it’s a time to pause and reflect on what we do as designers (see what I did there?).

We’ve nearly confirmed all our speakers. It’s a great line-up of well-known voices and new voices. Marc, Lou and Vimla are also all running workshops on the first day.

We’ve ticketed those separately to make it more affordable for people who can only do either one or the other day. There’s also a student and public services discount.

Super Early-Bird tickets have already sold out and over half the Early Bird ones have gone already. I’d love to see you there and would greatly appreciate you spreading the word amongst your peers.

The linkhole

  • Troll Toll - do not payGreat piece from Morning Brew about how the DoNotPay app has expanded, including a service that cancels subscriptions/memberships after the free trial. “DoNotPay issues users a virtual credit card that approves free trials but declines charges when they kick in.” These kinds of intermediary agents are likely to expand.

  • Under the Sea of Obviousness – excellent three-part series by my friend and ex-colleague Álvaro Carpio Colón about the state of innovation in corporate land. “Obviousness has taken over the world. Innovation design has been reduced to slick formulae, and while the industry prides itself on creating new paradigms, there’s a disappointing lack of novelty, originality and progress.” Yes indeed.

  • Bad habits and biases, a newbie’s observations on design thinking in Japan – also by a friend and ex-colleague, Bekky Bush. She writes about what her experience of working in Japan has taught her about her own cultural biases and norms as a facilitator of design workshops.

  • Big Swinging Brains and fashy trolls: how the world fell into a clickbait death spiralThe Guardian Long Read has been excellent recently. This one is connected to my thoughts on The Californian Ideology in the last issue.

  • Inside Acronym, The Tech Consultancy Behind The Disastrous Iowa-Caucus App – And this explains even more of the above.

  • Collision course - ProPublica’s investigation into how incredibly poor UI and UX designed on touch-screen steering systems on a US Navy warship led to 10 sailers losing their lives. Expect this to be in every other UX conference talks this year.

That’s it for this issue. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. I’d really like to try and double the readership within the next six months and I promise you that will motivate me to write more regularly.

You might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of "zoom," but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me from a broad range of disciplines.



Doctor’s Note – Issue 11 – Ideas from the past may be closer than they appear

In this issue: Silicon Valley’s failure to get real / Revisiting The Californian Ideology / Futurists and the past / Triumph of the Nerds / The Linkhole / Books / Teaching

Welcome to Issue 11 of Doctor’s Note. 2020 seems like such a sci-fi year and I’m feeling nostalgic for a promised future, so this issue takes a look at the past to understand the future.

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

Silicon Valley’s failure to get real

I finally had a chance to read Derek Thompson’s piece in The Atlantic, The Real Trouble With Silicon Valley, in which he laments the fact that “too much American ingenuity is chasing problems that simply don’t matter” and investors are funding massive companies that provide little value to the world. (Side note: the original URL slugline is “Where’s My Flying Car” – whoever changed it did Thomson a favour).

Here’s Thompson quoting economist and aerospace entrepreneur Eli Dourado:

“The internet age has been very underwhelming compared to what the expectations were,” [Dourado] told me. “I’m also worried that it’s sapping talent from other industries that might benefit from more innovation. All these people building apps and software-as-a-service companies, if they applied themselves to challenges in the physical world—especially on energy, housing, health, and transportation—they could make a real difference.”

The obsession with digital, Thomson argues, has prevented the tech industry from playing the role it should in tackling the greatest challenge facing us: climate change. He points out that the Apollo moon program was given more federal funding than the Department of Energy has recently announced for carbon-capture R&D. Ultimately, he admits that the state, that moral enemy of neoliberalism, must play a role in helping Silicon Valley find its soul again:

The idea that Silicon Valley could swoop in and solve all of America’s problems was always an illusion, conjured by technologists seeking to lure capital to California, and by politicians looking to shift responsibility away from Washington. Silicon Valley has a crucial role to play in meeting the challenges of the new century, but it can’t act alone. Transformative advances will require participation from local, state, and federal government, and from the American people, who for too long have bought into the idea that prosperity can be delivered in lines of code.

For the past two decades, we’ve funneled treasure and talent into the ethereal world of software and digital optimization. Imagine what could be accomplished if American ingenuity came back down to Earth.

Thompson is one of many voices upbraiding Silicon Valley at the moment, but he goes beyond the privacy/monopoly criticism. The lack of attention to the physical world is a crucial point of difference. Tech has all-too-frequently viewed meatspace as an annoying inconvenience that will be solved by The Singlularity and Soylent, as if eating food is simply using up valuable productivity time re-fuelling as we work to merge with machines. It’s the same mindset that sees humans as statistics to be sliced and diced by machine learning with all the problems that has brought us. 

Backing those tech companies is a lot of venture capital, of course and the quickest growth is to be had from solving simple problems. When the focus is on a specific job-to-be-done, teams can sprint and iterate at pace, hence the desire to find an untapped niche that could be delivered via a digital experience. But n an over-bountiful society, there are only so many unfulfilled simple needs. In fact, the main problem people living in developed nations have is too much choice. So tech and venture money drift towards ever more frivolous products and services that nobody needs — it’s not for nothing that dog walking apps are the go-to cliché of tech criticism. 

By not paying attention to the physical space and the people living their lives in it, we end up with bike-share graveyards and growing calls for unionisation in the gig and tech economies.

The Californian Ideology

While much of this criticism feels like it has arisen in the past two years after the scandals of companies like Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Uber and WeWork, Thomson’s piece reminded me of The Californian Ideology, an essay written in 1995 by my then lecturers, Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook. 25 years later, The Californian Ideology has turned out to be extremely prescient and it is worth revisiting. 

Broadly—and it is a dense essay—Cameron and Barbrook argue that the leftist counter-culture of Silicon Valley formed a paradoxical alliance with the free-market neoliberalism of the right, underpinned by technological determinism. Here’s their prediction of pretty much where we are now from 25 years ago:

If only for competitive reasons, all major industrial economies will eventually be forced to wire up their populations to obtain the productivity gains of digital working. What is unknown is the social and cultural impact of allowing people to produce and exchange almost unlimited quantities of information on a global scale. Above all, will the advent of hypermedia will realise the utopias of either the New Left or the New Right? As a hybrid faith, the Californian Ideology happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same time - and by not criticising either of them.

We now know that both visions have not only come to pass, but have reinforced each other with huge consequences.

Many of the responses and critiques of The Californian Ideology really haven't stood the test of time, like the vitriolic response of former Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Wired magazine, Louis Rossetto. It’s hard not to view Rossetto’s anger psychoanalytically as his darkest fears exposed. Others, like Jeffrey Kaplan's corrections, are much more considered and rightly critique the closing manifesto.

I encourage you to read the complete essay, but here’s a closing snippet that could have been written yesterday:

In the 1994 election for governor in California, Pete Wilson, the Republican candidate, won through a vicious anti-immigrant campaign. Nationally, the triumph of Gingrich's Republican party in the legislative elections was based on the mobilisation of 'angry white males' against the supposed threat from black welfare scroungers, immigrants from Mexico and other uppity minorities. These politicians have reaped the electoral benefits of the increasing polarisation between the mainly white, affluent suburbanites - most of whom vote - and the largely non-white, poorer inner city dwellers - most of whom don't vote


Whilst we’re exploring the future by examining the past, I can recommend two podcasts from This is HCD

The first is my latest Power of Ten conversation with with futurist and founder of Changeist Scott Smith. I stole the title of his upcoming book, How to Future, for the title of the episode in which he discusses his work as a futurist, guiding large organisations towards better futures by blending foresight, narrative design, and strategic thinking. I felt I barely scratched the surface of Scott’s depth of knowledge. I’ll see if I can grab him for a part two.

The second is Jay Hasbrouck’s Ethnopod with Genevieve Bell. The super-smart and always insightful Genevieve talks about setting up the 3A Institute at ANU and establishing a new branch of engineering to ensure the responsible use of AI at scale. It’s a very good example of why asking the right questions is often more important than trying to have the right answers.

If you enjoyed Genevieve and looking back to look forward, you should go and listen to her and Mark Pesce’s 1968: When the world began. Us folks working in digital should know our history.

The Linkhole

  • Invisible technology everywhere - Tomorrow’s World’s 1998 predictions of 2020 were pretty accurate.

  • Inside the Mind of Dominic Cummings. By now you have probably seen the hiring blog post by Boris Johnson’s Gríma Wormtongue, Dominic Cummings. Much has been made of Cummings circumventing the usual HR channels, but I think this is more of an interesting insight into his theoretical foundations—or at least the image he wishes to project of his intelligence—than an HR faux pas. 

  • The Triumph of the Nerds - all this tech history reminded me of the 1996 documentary by Robert X. Cringley, based on his book Accidental Empires. Most of it is available on YouTube thanks to later nerds. A key idea in Triumph of the Nerds is how the worker engineers who understood the technology flipped the power relationship and became the masters. Neither Boris Johnson nor Donald Trump strike me as particularly intelligent, but they are crafty. Crafty enough to employ people who are smart and who understand the technology—the systems theory behind societal change and the wiring under the circuit board of politics. A similar flip of power may be on its way. This also feels wasted on power scrabbles, because people who understand complexity and systems are exactly those needed to tackle climate change.

  • Life Under the Ice – while Australia was experience the fiery effects of global heating, Ariel Waldman a previous guest on Power of Ten led a five-week expedition to Antarctica for the project. The website is a fun an beautiful way to explore what she found.

  • Now an old-timer virtual artist, Hatsune Miku will be appearing at Coachella. As predicted in the synthetic realities essay, ever more virtual artists are taking the stage. The back story is worth reading about.

  • The Irishman in Conversation. If you haven’t watched Scorsese’s The Irishman on Netflix, subscribe for a month just to do so. Much has been made of the de-ageing technology used to make Joe Pesci, Robert de Niro and Al Pacino look younger in the flashback scenes, but I found their discussion of how they had to remember to act younger—springing spritely out of a chair or skipping down a flight of stairs—fascinating in the In Conversation extra.

  • Along with people and apartments, these feet do not exist.

  • I wasted way too much time reading Fesshole recently. The confessions seem to me to be very English.



Apart from in-person coaching and consulting to design teams, I am planning some online teaching, both live and recorded, and office hours. I plan to sense and respond and change material over time, but I’d love to hear what you content you would find most useful. You can reply to this or drop me a line.

That’s a wrap

That’s it for this issue. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. You might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of "zoom," but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me from a broad range of disciplines.



Doctor’s Note - Issue 10 - Endings and Beginnings

‘Twas the night before Christmas.

Welcome to the last Doctor’s Note of the year.  In this issue: Fjord Trends 2020 / Leaving Fjord / Talking Shop Christmas Special / Design Politics / Virtual Beings

Fjord Trends

For the past few months the main focus of my time has been working on the Fjord 2020 Trends that went live a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been one of the core Trends team in the last two years, synthesising and writing a lot of the content alongside Mark Curtis, Lucia Ciranova, Martha Cotton and the marketing team. 

The overview and the meta-trend are mostly my words, but the rest really are a blend of all our drafts that go through several versions, edits and approvals. A couple of favourites are Digital Doubles and Life-Centred Design that build on Synthetic Realities and The Last Straw? trends from last year.

I’m particularly glad that the phrase of capitalism having a mid-life crisis made it through the edits of the Many Faces of Growth trend. The psychologist, C.G. Jung, wrote and spoke a great deal about the second half of life. The first half, he said, is devoted to forming a healthy ego, building up a career, family, fortune, etc. The second half is about going inward and letting go of it—ego in particular. Robert A. Johnson wrote some excellent books about it.

Our society, particularly Western capitalism, has a great deal of role models for the first half—we idolise material growth, we praise those hustling and working ridiculous hours to launch their start-ups and raise millions in VC funding and IPOs, despite the negative effects on family life and mental health, the environment and society. Yet there is a growing, vocal awareness that this isn’t really working how it should.

We have relatively little respect, role models or time for taking the foot off the gas pedal, letting go and being more reflective in the second half of life. Look at those all those ageing (usually male) blowhard politicans and how refreshing it was to see the opposite in Finland recently. We all have a finite amount of years and the dissonance of knowing that we have fewer ahead of us than behind us and still wanting to inflate ourselves is what causes the mid-life crisis. Sometimes it is a moment of clarity, sometimes a growing discomfort leading to the question of what it is all for. 

Having focused on economic growth for so long, yet seeing the planet start to clog up with waste and burn, both politically and physically, capitalism is truly having a crisis of purpose and meaning. What we’re witnessing in all the disruption—from extreme weather to protests—is that dissonance playing out in society. The more you dive into this, the more the metaphor holds strong. Climate change denial is very similar to ageing denial of the boomer on a motorbike or under the plastic surgeon’s knife. A lack of purpose often leads to a more belligerent view of the young, distorted by the haze of nostalgia for a non-existent golden age.

There is no shortage of commentary about this from some very smart people, so rather than write them all here, I suggest you take a wander through the extensive Trends references

Leaving Fjord

I don’t feel particularly in crisis, but I certainly am moving into the second half of life at 48. And with that comes some self-reflection about what I want to do and what I‘m best at. As you may have already read, I have decided to leave Fjord after four-and-a-half years and return to life as an independent consultant, writer and educator.

I’ve already written a post about it, but the short version is that I will focus on providing design and innovation teaching, coaching and mentoring for clients, whether they’re at the start of setting up their internal design and innovation capabilities or need help with their current ways of working. I will also offer services in forecasting and knowledge synthesis—think this newsletter or my podcast, but tailor made for your organisation or project. I will be teaching students again and, hopefully, writing a book or two.

If this is something that you think I can help you with, drop me a line. I have some other service offerings in mind and I’ll update my website with them in due course.

Talking Shop Christmas Special

While we’re in a reflective mood, Gerry Scullion, Adrienne Tan, John Curran and I recorded a Christmas Special of the Talking Shop podcast, reflecting on our favourite episodes on the This is HCD network over the year, favourite books, as well as a discussion about the ability and limits of design to shape change in the world. We had a lot of fun and quite a bit of banter.

Design Politics Dublin 2020

Another piece of news from This is HCD is that I’m helping Gerry organise the first This is HCD conference in Dublin. It will be on June 16th-17th 2020 with the theme of Design Politics. There’s a blog post and announcement sign-up with more information. The theme is intended to be broadly interpreted and we’re hoping to make it an intimate and engaging event. If it’s successful, we’ll put them on in different locations to try and avoid people flying halfway around the world all the time.

Synthetic Realities Endnotes

Finally, a last few links on synthetic realities and digital doubles:

That’s it for this issue of Doctor’s Note. I wish you all Happy Holidays and I’ll see you, more regularly, in the New Year.

If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. You might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of “zoom,” but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me from a broad range of disciplines.



Doctor's Note - Issue 9 - Malls and Avatars

We seem to be reliving the 90s and 00s in some kind of second life.

Welcome back to Doctor’s Note on the new Substack platform. I don’t know if you’ll notice much difference, but it’s a much nicer ride for me and I’m driving.

Send in the clones

Doctor's Note isn't intended to be solely about synthetic realities, but you reap what you sow. Since I've been writing and talking about the rise of synthetic media, deepfakes and avatars, I keep being sent interesting material and the field is moving very fast indeed.

Deepfakes are steadily becoming an artform in the right hands. Ctrl Shift Face's one of Bill Hader's Tom Cruise impression is so subtle, you really need to look for the eyebrows and teeth, which turn from normal guy teeth to Tom Cruise beamers.

Also impressive is the poem recital from impressionist Jim Meskimen that uses deepfakes to change his face into the person he's doing the impression of. What is much more impressive is the before and after VFX reel, because there you can see just how much he manages to look like different people by virtue of his impression alone.

Voice cloning is also progressing incredibly quickly. Earlier technologies like Lyrebird took quite a bit of training data input, but Corentin Jemine's toolbox can do it in realtime. This, combined with the likes of Descript's system of editing text to edit audio, will change audio production enormously (and Descript just acquired Lyrebird).

Text-based Editing of Talking-head Video

Then, just as I thought that was impressive, text-based editing of talking head video arrived on the scene. This does the same as Descript's tool does with audio, but it also generates the face and mouth movements to go with it. It's worth watching the progression of the video to the end, because you can see what happens as each of those technologies combine. If this is wrapped up in a decent user-interface, I think we'll soon see this kind of tool used in the editing suite very soon. And with it will come all the "what is real?" questions once again.

A second life for avatars?

Avatars have been part of the Internet for a very long time. I once had a book called Avatars! by Bruce Damer that documented many of the early attempts at virtual worlds. Alphaworld was one of the ones I regularly used because my brother was researching them at the time. We were flying around in blocky pixel renderings of avatars, but pretending it was really like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It certainly felt a step up from text-based MUDs and MOOs, until it got a little boring because we didn't know anyone else.

Then came Second Life, a virtual world bandwagon that many brands and educational institutions jumped upon as the future of online communities. At the time I was in academia and I saw an enormous amount of money pumped into Second Life "campuses". They all fell for the common illusion that face-to-face learning could be replicated online by creating 3D versions of lecture theatres and rooms.

Joe Veix's amusing 2018 article Exploring The Digital Ruins Of Second Life (on Digg, of all places, remember Digg?) is full of echoes of today:

It seemed to me that, like a lot of Silicon Valley creations, "Second Life" offered the promise of a revolution, but merely delivered a normative, if slightly recontextualized reality. Another transfer of wealth with good PR. Instead of U.S. dollars, we had Linden Dollars. In a world where everyone could fly, people still built stairs.

Later Veix makes a pointed comparison to abandoned shopping malls:

In both instances, this precarity is inextricably linked to commerce. Malls can serve as spaces for people to meet and hang out, but this is only incidental to their primary purpose, which is to generate wealth for their corporate owners.

This is troublesome, as these social spaces are incredibly fragile. They often fail under the strain caused by true public use. This manifests itself in different ways, some more alarming than others; like "no skateboarding" signs, or rules banning large gatherings (protests are bad for business, after all). The businesses can also suddenly fail — maybe their prices are undercut by a more convenient, monopolistic online retail company — taking the extraneous community spaces down with them. Not that we should weep for dying corporate chains or anything, but in lands of suburban sprawl, they at least offered places for people to go, however bleak.

I wonder if we can think about our digital social spaces in the same way. Many of those that were popular in the '90s and early '00s are now vaporware. The companies went bankrupt or were purchased and mismanaged to death. Users fled. Communities were destroyed. Data was liquidated. We should be concerned that a majority of our online spaces are owned by corporations who do not have our best interests in mind, despite fuzzy PR statements about "building communities." Our digital spaces can suddenly be destroyed or altered in disturbing ways without our consent. Why don't we have control over them? Why can't we? Always remember: Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are malls, not parks.

Yet Facebook announced Facebook Horizon recently, "an ever-expanding VR world where you can explore, play, and create in extraordinary ways. At Horizon, you’re not just discovering a new world, you are part of what makes it great."

Sound familiar?

The chipper Dory-like presenter tells us, "Horizon isn't about rules or limits. It's about getting out there and trying new things, making new friends." All the while their ignored partners are getting on with their lives in real life. It's quite a remarkable piece of media history amnesia absolutely worthy of Dory herself.

I imagine we might be looking in through the dusty windows of an abandoned WeWork space one day, reminiscing about all the people we used to know on The Facebook before it got shut down after its cryptocurrency made the world bankrupt again.

Thankfully the BBC, torch-bearer for publicly-funded media production, soldiers ever on. A documentary released today takes a dive into the world of 3D scanning to create avatars. The tech has moved from high-end visual-effects for film and the VR porn industry—always the early adopters—to companies like DNABlock who are creating them to licence out for fashion shoots, but initially for their blockchain game, Chain Clash.

I had a 3D scan done the other day by Doob. Unfortunately I appear to have dislocated all my limbs in the result.

Where is it all going to end? Well, that's what I've been spending my writing time on in the past weeks. Fjord's 2020 Trends are just around the corner, so you'll have to wait and see.

It's a kind of magic

In the meantime, here's a completely different kind of magic — check out the Chicago Magic Lounge, a place where close-up sleight of hand is being kept alive and well. Now I really need an excuse to visit the Windy City.

That's it for this issue of Doctor's Note. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. And you might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of "zoom," but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me.



Doctor's Note - Issue 8 - Design in the age of synthetic realities

Design in the age of synthetic realities

It's been a while since my last newsletter, mainly because I travelled to UX Australia to run a Storytelling & Pitching workshop and present my new talk, Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities, based on the Synthetic Realities Fjord Trend I wrote. In the past 18 months or so, I've been delving deep into the world of AI-generated media and am convinced we're about to see a creative explosion now that tools like Runway ML are getting into designers' hands. We are at the equivalent stage of Photoshop 1.0 or early 3D rendering as they emerged from computer science labs and quickly became part of our media culture.

I wanted to pull all this material together in one place, as well as make a different argument to the common "the death of truth as we know it" headlines. The shocking thing about synthetic realities is not how easily we might be fooled, but simply how quickly we'll get used to them, as we already have. So I wrote an essay called Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities, available to you lovely Doctor's Note subscribers via this Medium friends link.

I am still a believer in the long read and of unpacking an argument and tracing its historical roots. This will take some time to digest, especially if you watch all the embedded videos. But seeing it all together in one place gives you the moment of realisation that so much is about to change.

Please share far and wide and I would really love to hear some feedback from you.

Since that essay is so long, I think that's probably enough reading. So here are some quick updates:

Switching to Hugo is moving to a different platform, Hugo and Netlify. I still use a RSS feed reader for a lot of my reading, so I always assume everyone else does. They probably don't. However, if you do and you notice the feed doesn't update (the next update will be the Synthetic Realities essay also posted on my blog), then try pointing your reader at this URL:

Power of Ten

The most recent episode of my Power of Ten podcast is an interview with the fascinating Ariel Waldman talking about her work stimulating cross-disciplinary collaboration at NASA. She's got a pretty amazing gig.

There are a whole host of interesting guests coming up now that the summer break is over, so please subscribe in all the usual places you get podcasts. If you like it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes — you know as well as I do that it helps nudge those algorithms and other people to find the show.

That’s it for this issue. As always, I’m very happy to hear feedback and responses (positive and negative). The best place for that is Twitter. The second-best place is LinkedIn. Or you can mail me on

I’d love to grow the readership, so if you like Doctor’s Note, please forward it to people or post your feedback and the sign-up link. It really helps.



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