Dr. Aditya Dev Sood


Biography

Dr. Aditya Dev Sood is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Knowledge Societies, where he directs design and innovation projects involving peer-to-peer networks, interactive services and interface design, as well as product design, including usability, form, color, material and finish. CKS is a full-service user-centered innovation consulting firm that works end-to-end, from understanding consumers to developing product prototypes to enhancing their usability and appeal for end-users. CKS has worked with the world's leading corporations in different sectors, including telecommunications, interactive services, aviation, automobiles, security, and home and workspace décor. With CKS, he has authored the CKS Guide to ICTs for Development (2402), curated the exhibition Used in India (2405), written the Mobile Development Report (2407) and directed research for the Emerging Economy Report (2408), the lattermost being a comprehensive survey of technology, visual and material culture and societal change spanning seven countries around the world. He is currently directing on a major international research project on the future of data services in emerging markets. Dr. Sood frequently speaks and writes on technology, design and society in academic, industry and public forums. With foundational training in Architecture and Critical Theory from the University of Michigan, he is a former Fulbright Scholar with doctorates in Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Sanskrit Philology from the University of Chicago.

11 December 2008, New Delhi

When early this century the Doors of Perception conference moved to India during the Indian dot com hype in Bangalore, it was Aditya Dev Sood who was our host. Being one of the promising young entrepreneurs in town with an impressive network and high performance standards, he managed to connect industry, social science and practice and design in both a profound and frivolous way. Sood moves as easily between philosophers and businessmen as that he raves with the young in the hottest place in town. His eloquent language and precise thinking is matched by a sincere need to contribute to social, ecological and economic change. The Center for Knowledge Societies, which he founded, was one of the first companies to seriously introduce ethnographic research as part of industrial innovative processes. With over a decade of experience in this field, his insight in the choices and arguments that are accepted in those innovation processes is an inspiration for this study. We meet this time at the seminar on Media, Culture and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia, university in Delhi. The interview was held at the end of the day, with other participants to the seminar being around which caused quite some noise in the background sound for which we apologize. All fragments are also transcribed.

Summary

Dr. Sood argues that a user is someone who is aware of the instrumentality of his or her actions with objects and systems with which he or she interacts. This is distinct from interactions with other natural and intelligent life forms for which there is communion, there is the possibility of a shared meaning.

Although understanding perception can be confusing, people are never confused in their perception of whether they interact with systems or beings. Also when interacting with a system that pretends to be a human being, the illusion will not able to be sustained indefinitely and will certainly fail the next time around. People seem to have a pretty clear boundary in their vocabulary when they think about things and systems versus beings. People do not expect a system to have intentions, but rather that the master of the system or the shareholder of the makers of the system have good or bad or capitalist or other kinds of intentions. People attribute intentionality to corporate players while expressing anger or interest or joy of the design or usability of the system. People have feelings about a lot of things and about objects as well. But that is not being in communion; it is not generating a shared meaning.

The technological systems that humans have developed in the last 80,000 years have been possible by space-time and the material properties of the chemicals compounds on planet earth. People have interacted with the natural world in various ways and their bodies have evolved and interacted over time and all the social-technical phenomena observed are already always the potential expressions of our mind and there are no others that we see. Designers and engineers deal with systems that exist in space-time, in which their own body also exists. They have intuitions and there is that kind of inter-subjective empathy that guides their work. Unlike in art, where there is a uniqueness to signature and life experience that can be read and understood, socio-technical system designs are never unique designs. They evolve, slowly or rapidly; infrastructures as well as human beings change and adapt. When handling technology or other artefacts, users need to be aware that their actions will have a determinative set of consequences.

This is guided by a kind of presupposition of a stable physical universe. Laws of physical reality don't change; In any functional system, however it is generated, the user generates ideas about what works in the system and what does not work. What its capabilities, attributes and functionalities are. He looks for features and cues and then he makes decisions based on their appearance, assuming the system to be regular and if not entirely rational, at least approaching regularity. Users become habituated to systems, acquire competences in specifying need, become capable in using and manipulating them. Healthy organizations ensure that user-centred thinking exists within the community of engineers, within the sales group, within the strategy group and not just in one part of the organization. The intention is to design for the people who are actually going to use the artefact, and the intention is make it beautiful in an inter-subjective way, such that the designer and the user can agree that it is beautiful.

Designers and engineers have to develop the appropriate levels of empathy with the user to be able know and understand what the end user will want to relate to or will be attracted to. Ultimately, Sood argues, the designer should want to achieve a certain attitude that can be reflected in his or her work, which will cause the user to achieve a state of indirectly knowing that this product was particularly designed for him or her: "We would like you to see, not only the existence of another mind and other minds behind this artifact, but we would like you to know that we have been in communion with you when we designed this. You have to achieve that kind of empathy. If you don't, you will be obviously putting too much of yourself into the product you design, too much self and not enough collective truth, or truth specific to the target user group."

Transcript

The following is an edited transcription of the conversation. Film fragments of the conversation are included to illustrate parts of the transcribed text.

Sequence 1

CN: Over the last 10 years you have been deeply involved with innovative design processes and focused on end-user design. May I first ask you, what is a user?

ADS: Nice place to start. A user is someone who is aware of the instrumentality of their actions in the extent to which the objects that they are using are instruments and not necessarily other sentient or intelligent life forms. So users interact with a world that is necessarily less intelligent than they are and that they need to operate or transform or interact with to achieve their ends and objectives. In the work that I do this is what we mean with user research.

CN: Why do you exclude sentient beings or intelligence in machines?

ADS: It seems to me that when we interact with sentient or conscious beings -- and even those that are marginally or liminally so like dogs, chimpanzees or dolphins -- what is happening in those forms of interactions is not use. What is implicit in those forms of interaction, is communion, and a presupposition of the possibility of shared meaning. Not even necessarily shared presumptions, but the possibility of shared meaning. We do not speak the same language, we do not wash our ass the same way, but we believe that we can achieve communion if we have the interest and time and put work into it. One should have similar expectations when interacting even with different life forms with which this full communion may not be possible but another kind of communion may be possible. This may not be completely relevant, but I suspect this may be linked to biophilia. One can even imagine some kind of communion with vegetal matter, with flowers, with trees, this may not be an everyday occurrence, but it is perhaps possible that with canyons, mountains and rivers some communion is imagined to be possible. But that is not usage.

Sequence 2

CN: Can you imagine communion can be possible with machines?

ADS: I have not thought about it. Why is it important to ask? I would ask alternatively if systems can enter into the everyday experience of people, sufficiently and effectively and we have learned to be part of the environment and perhaps that is apt and if one gets used to an archiving system, or gets used to an interface for surfing television than one has an expectation it is possible to do so. That has made a medium or mediascape part of the everyday life of the user. Therefore the question ceases to be pressing. The user has become habituated to the system, and is capable of using it and manipulating it. The user has obtained a level of competence in specifying need, state and so habits have been generated and preserved, so all is in place. I have yet to encounter scenarios where that is not enough for me to be motivated to think about the question seriously. So much for preamble.

It is possible for people to feel ennui of déjà vu or pathos about, for example, the metro rail system. The system, people have emotional ties to it. They use it to navigate their place in the city. So in trivial sense a certain kind of communion may be conflated or confused with citizenship, or pride in locality or a people's ghetto region within the city. But people have feelings about a lot of things and about objects as well.

Sequence 3

CN: Maybe we go back to the awareness. You said a user has an awareness of usage? What is such an awareness and why do we need such an awareness?

ADS: I think users need to be aware that their actions will have a determinative set of consequences. This is guided by a kind of presupposition of a stable physical universe. Laws of physical reality don't change; glass does not become liquid spontaneously. So our experience of the past guides actions in the future. That kind of reasoning on the part of the user in relation to a system has to be preserved in the systems design. But in fact any functional system, however it is generated, through complex algorithms or reinscription or peer-networking and so forth, howsowever it is generated, in an engineered fashion or a connective coding fashion, if it perdures and if usage continues, the user generates ideas about what works in the system and what does not work. What its capabilities, attributes and functionalities are. He looks for cues and than he makes decisions based on their appearance, assuming the system to be regular if not entirely rational, at least approaching regularity.

I have not thought about it too much again, but I wonder if that is how people interact with other people. I think people have a sense that some people are bitches and some people are assholes, Or there are idiots and assholes and the world is full of idiots and assholes but it is very difficult to find an idiot-asshole and when you find an idiot-asshole that is just a freak of nature; very hard to find. These are crude typologies of other people's minds and personalities. There can be very sophisticated ones, psychological literature, theological religious, yoga literature, have very sophisticated typologies. Most typologies are not about how we make decisions on how we interact with other people. I believe that in interacting with other humans we bring something more than system thinking to our interaction. I tried to describe that as the possibility of shared meaning. I think that is as far as one can get in a social-scientific discourse. But beyond those kind of discourses it could possibly described as well.

CN: Two people tune their presence. That happens on many levels of consciousness. Biologically there are other possibilities for tuning than a machine has. Is tuning part of the experience of the user, is it part of interaction?

ADS: I'll use a case-study to answer this. I was attending a performance with a multimedia installation with 6 TV sets and large screen projection. I was seduced by the colours etc., but only at the end of the 1,5 hour, it became clear what was going on. It was live DJ- ing and VJ-ing, between three artists. The understanding that these guys were playing live against each other I had not been aware of at all. Here my knowledge succeeded my experience. I was not thinking about the fact whether this was live. I thought it was recorded. It could have been recorded and shown in another city, three other guys could have come on stage and said hi... Witnessing comes in here. With the knowledge that this performance was live all my memories and perceptions were reformatted. The experience was no longer available to me apart from the flush of excitement. Now one can do the whole Turing machine routine. One can make humans believe that they talk to humans or that they believe that they talk to something that is just like a human. And humans can be deceived, just like computers can be like humans. I think when the cat is out of the bag, something will be lost and you will not be capable of pulling it off again. The illusion will not able to be sustained the next time.

CN: Also in live performance, your presence will have influenced their performance. The witnessing of the audience of the artist changes the performance?

ADS: I buy that. There may be some passive knowledge. I did not have the sense of generating feedback because I was in an auditorium.

CN: Do you feel witnessed in the online world? You write for an online journal?

ADS: It certainly does. One knows not only about the audience but also about the editorial team and the other writing staff. One knows something of the standard of discourse and the possible politics, the range of views that are discussed. One knows all these things before one even decides to choose a topic to write upon. This also governs how much effort I take to gather evidence so as to have it right, or to write about something that could not be published in India, for example.

CN: So you actually argue that part of the awareness of being witnessed in the online world has to do with the judging and being judged on intentions?

ADS: Going back to the framework I introduced earlier, the user does not expect the system to have intentions. He expects the masters of the system to have intentions, the shareholder, and the board of Yahoo, good or bad or capitalist intentions. People do not want EBay to buy Skype because it will change Skype. What I have heard people saying is that Skype is a tool, a platform, an architecture. New management could change what is good about it. These were the anxieties that people have had. People attribute intentionality to corporate players while expressing anger or interest or joy about the design or usability of the system. They can be annoyed when it does not work or angry, but they are never confused about when they are talking about people and when they are talking about the system.

CN: What about surveillance and identifications systems?

ADS: People have different opinions about whether they are good or whether they are bad. But people are not confused in any case whether they are systems or beings. People seem to have a pretty clear boundary in their vocabulary when they think about these things. I watch a fair amount of television and I like to watch air crash investigation. Those guys have a very important usability challenge to keep their planes in the sky and make sure that people in the cockpit know what is going on. People in the cockpit need to know when they are feeling the plane and when they are feeling some kind of guidance system interpreting some information about the plane and telling them what to do. These things get confused. Actually, planes fall out of the sky. In these extreme moments it is possible to have multiple kinds of feedback, mechanical, electromechanical, some digital, some is processed digital and there are people on the ground and completely other systems as well. The conclusion these guys have reached is that the pilots have to know what is the plane and what is the secondary level of analysis about how the plane should be flight. Whatever they can do to give direct and immediate feedback about the actual state of the machine to the pilots is good. They want to give them that data as cleanly and directly as possible with as little interpretation of the system. So in that case users should not be confused.

CN: Senses are also easily confused. How do we use senses in these designs?

ADS: The least explored sense is smell, at least the least designed, while it is a great indicator for danger. It speaks when anything else fails. In Indian philosophy we have the sixth sense. The mind is the sixth sense. There are many arguments why it is considered a sense but more on that another time.

CN: Could we include the sixth sense in design?

ADS: We always already do. The assumption that you are rather focused on one thing while receiving peripheral information about other things, it is the nature of the mind to have focused and peripheral knowledge. These fundamental assumptions are made by most designers, architects or new media designers. They have these intuitions internally and project them onto the world and there is that kind of inter-subjective empathy that guides their work.

CN: Is this different for engineers, do they not have this quality?

ADS: We all have different constraints. Wherever you begin or end up, you are always responding to external pressures: organizational, economic, time based. So I would not want to say something too bad about engineers. They obviously deal with systems that exist in space-time, in which their own body also exists. So liminally, they are also dealing with the same kinds of issues. Differences between engineers and designers in the real world are not important. A healthy organization ensures that user centered thinking exists within the community of engineers, within the sales group, within the strategy group and not just in one part of the organization.

Sequence 4

CN: After 10 years of being involved in user centred thinking, how does social engineering inform design and what is its impact?

ADS: I think when one anticipates, one can have a bit of a god-complex. One can imagine that things are engineered by this mind or this team cross-functionally and in a cross-disciplinary way, with client and consulting team together. But over time one realizes that that is not how it actually plays out. Nobody designs anything uniquely and the things we end up designing were waiting for us to design them and if we had not designed them someone else would have designed them.

Two substantial extensions: the socio-technical world is distinct from the art and aesthetic world in so far as, if you had not made those paintings, someone else would not have come along and made them necessarily. There are uniquenesses to signature and life experience, which we can read and understand. The socio-technical world is not precisely like that. Even the role of culture is not quite as powerful as one maybe thought earlier. Under the pressure of new demands as well as under the weight of new opportunities, the attraction and the power of new opportunities, culture will change, reform and become suddenly capable -- societies allow certain forms, patterns of culture go and create new ones, and then they do all this astonishing re-wrapping. The very problems we think of unsolvable today are the ones that will be solved in this decade. The ones that will not be solved are the ones we are not thinking about.

CN: So why a new culture arises?

ADS: No culture arises. Even culture does not generate specificity to socio-technical systems. There can be a drag or a latency

CN: So you mean to say that there are first socio-technical systems and from that culture arrives?

ADS: No no, you can do the narrative either way. For instance you can have a culture that did not have a particular socio-technical system. The power in potential of that new or alternative socio-technical system begins to become evident to the society and its culture and they are like "screw the culture, screw whatever else we have here, lets go and participate in that socio-technical system and lets build a new culture that is compatible with that socio- technical system!" And this can happen very rapidly.

CN: I agree. So please explain, what is a socio-technical system? What is the dynamic of that?

ADS: A socio-technical system is an object, a network, and a set of relationships that we have chosen to analyze in social technical terms. It could refer to pottery, it could refer to broadcast media; it could refer to array of communications of everyday life transactions, print media, even architecture.

CN: You present it as there is no intention in a socio-technical system?

ADS: So I have. Is that a problem?

Sequence 5

CN: No I am interested. If we have a community of people and systems, it will create its own culture as well?

ADS: That is a hard thought experiment to participate in. Lets go back to your earlier observation. I presented social technical systems as if they just happen. I think it is possible to discuss them that way and it is possible fruitful to discuss them that way. We have to see the breakdown. The technological systems that we have developed in the last 80,000 years have been possible by space-time and the material properties of the chemicals compounds on planet earth. We have interacted with the natural world in various ways and our bodies have evolved and interacted over time and all the social technical phenomena observed are already always the potential expressions of our mind and there are no others that we see. We do not see things that either cannot exist or that we cannot comprehend. We have to be able to comprehend them and they have to be able to exist. Those are the things we manipulate our world out of. So therefore culture, a very unfortunate and problematic term, arrives and disappears in those dynamics. There is change, what exactly are we seeking? It is not entirely clear that we are always seeking the same things, or that everybody in the world always wanted a money economy. So in the short term, the 400-year clip, there might be forms that did not need to have arisen. For example languages that did not have to have arisen... But they did happen and then they fell out.

CN: Not one social technical system is the same as another. Power relations, perceptions, hierarchies and paradigms are shaped and presented. Can you design these?

ADS: We continuously design and redesign these. We obviously have been doing that. There always have been councils; the very negotiation of power has also to do with the negotiation of directionality of tribute and the array of mechanisms that are allowed. Every election is a kind of negotiation. Every attempt to focus public attention incrementally transforms all these parallels and various social and social technical systems. And yes, we have seen some improvements in our collective understanding of the fact that we have created these networks and these dynamics and that they are not properties of the people that inhabit them, but rather that they are amenable to engineering. That is what developmental aid has always been about for the last 60 years. To build the infrastructure that would allow people to be such as people are when they have that infrastructure. That is to say people do not believe in the inherent slothfulness of the people that live in societies, which are not economically productive. The belief is that what is happening is happening because the system has not been configured correctly.

CN: And that one system will take over another system?

ADS: Why does one have to take over the other system? We are all in continuous flux. As I have been outside of academia, outside of the libraries at least, it is pretty clear that we are all changing at the same time. It is not so much that one system is imprinting itself upon another system, but that there is very rapid viral growth and once someone has figured out how to talk on the mobile phone for instance, everybody else wants to do it as well. We have always wanted to do it, but we have only recently been able to do it.

CN: May I ask you a last question? Being involved in design in social technological systems, as a designer and paying attention to art and aesthetics and senses as well, what is the hardest hurdle you have to take in designing things?

ADS: Always it is about achieving appropriate levels of empathy with the end user. And you cannot achieve that level of empathy if you do not know enough about the use. There is a threshold at which point you know enough about the user to have empathy and to be able to predict for example whether their business is going to fail or their marriage is going to die. You can easily achieve that in the space of a half-day of live interaction. That kind of experience compressed into a one hour aggregation of knowledge if your research is good and if you pay attention to your data, you can achieve empathetic insight.

CN: Why is it necessary to achieve this empathy?

ADS: Simple answer is that the mind does not work otherwise. You have to achieve that kind of empathy and it is very very draining and time consuming and difficult to achieve that levels of empathy. Because if your in searches with one user with a sufficient array of potential users for the system , interface or product you design and If you don't, you will be obviously putting too much of yourself into the product you design, it would be too much self and not enough collective truth, or truth specific to the target user group. If you want to design for yourself, well you should have taken up knitting. The intention is to design for the people who are actually going to use this thing, and the intention is to make it beautiful in an inter-subjective way that we can both agree that it is beautiful. And we want to achieve that through our knowledge of what you would be especially attracted to and to be able to relate to it and to desire. In fact, even further, we would like to achieve a state in which you can achieve a state of indirectly knowing that we designed this for you. We would like you to see, not only the existence of another mind and other minds behind this artifact, but we would like you to know that we have been in communion with you, when we designed this.

CN: So now you actually argue that between human beings and the systems they use, there is a communion because I could feel the moment of communion of the designer or the engineer through the technology.

ADS: I agreed with that earlier as well in positive and negative ways. One can experience through the experience with Flickr the sensibility and even the humor of the designers of the system. I think I would agree with that.

CN: Yes I agree. Do you want to add anything?

ADS: No I am done.

CN: Thank you.

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