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Your Mind Changes to Fit Your Tools for Thought
And your multiplayer Tools-for-Thought change your relationships.
There is a theme amongst the best software thinkers I know, and it goes like this: Architecture is everything. I don’t mean how the code is structured. The architecture of how the software fits, limits, and affords the human mind.
What’s especially important is the software we use to talk to each other. Your ideas are born, live, and die in your information flow: Who knows what when, how, and why? The architecture of the social spaces we inhabit are almost entirely digital. The networks we use to communicate afford what we communicate. People say vastly different things on 4chan than they do on Facebook or twitter. Your colleagues will say different things in Slack than they will in Email. They will interact differently in Slack than they will in Email.
Mitch Kapor popularized it in the 1990's:
The structure of the network, and the way we talk to each other and communicate, determines the kinds of things we can and cannot do.
John Lilly spoke about this at Code for America summit 2014 . It’s not an accident he was talking at a civic event. It’s a good talk, and concise.
Communication mediums are how we talk to each other. They influence or outright define the kinds of conversations we have. They often dictate what we can and cannot say. You cannot talk to a pundit on CNN, you can tweet to Barack Obama.
Mediums and Politics
Remember that quote from Mitch Kapor earlier? I removed the first sentence. I’ll add it back in, and the focus will change:
Architecture is Politics. The structure of the network, and the way we talk to each other and communicate, determines the kinds of things we can and cannot do.
There are huge societal implications here.Look at #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. We are having a conversation in the US about police brutality and Black oppression that I’m not sure we would have without a democratizing medium, a multicast (not broadcast) medium. The work of advocates is important and necessary, but the conversation changed when the medium did, giving new kinds of activists a platform.
These new activists are the ones you never heard from before precisely because they were marginalized. They didn’t own or have access to the broadcast of ABC/NBC/CBS — the few that controlled the message to the masses.I think we’re seeing the first generation of activists who grew up in the world of social media start to influence the conversation.
Bring it Back to Your Daily Life
So if communications mediums are so important, why do we just default to email all the time?
Email is a great medium. It has a few strengths, but the biggest is ubiquity. It’s common because it’s common. Email makes sense when talking with the wider world (customers, consultants, and others outside your work). But what about internally? what about with the people you work with, day-in and day-out?
It’s a damn shame if you default to email without thinking. Email might be the right answer, but if you haven’t even thought about it, how would you know? You are a professional, the default answer is not good enough.
How do you communicate who is working on what? When do they expect to finish? Who will follow up? How do you know what people are doing each day, week, or month? If you just send email for all of this, you are forcing everyone to remember all this stuff or put it in spreadsheets that get forgotten. What a waste.
What do you need from your communication?
Timeliness? Use realtime chat like IRC or Slack.
Polish? Use great in-document tools like Quip.
Records and Estimates? Use CRM if in sales, task-tracking like Pivotal or Trello.
The medium dictates the kinds of interactions you can and cannot have with your peers, and peer interactions increasingly define the work you can and cannot do
Google, a pretty good company, understood this enough to just build a better communications medium on their own. GMail was such an amazing step forward. You don’t want to know what email was like before, unless you enjoy scams.
Appendix: So Why So Much Email?
Communication mediums devolve to the level of people with the most power, a sort of Peter Principle inversion. In other words, you have to use email because your boss uses email.
More broadly, whoever holds more power in the relationship dictates the medium. If you want to meet with your friend more than they want to meet you, you’ll pick a spot near them. If you want to talk with your boss, you’ll use whatever they do, which is probably email. It probably shouldn’t be.
Lest we dehumanize, this is probably true for your boss, too. They have to talk to customers wherever their customers are. There’s a reason successful marketing doesn’t consist of internal memos, but external mediums like email marketing, billboards, etc.
Email is the default, and that can be great. So many people can talk to each other, it’s so broad and useful. But for your day to day professional job, it’s not good enough.
If you have the power to pick your team’s medium, give it some real thought. If you have the power but don’t have the time, let your team decide, and crucially, you have to use it, too.