An artifact is a human-designed thing. When I use this word, I can refer to an mobile phone interface or a post office or a church or a law or a car. Artifacts have an intended purpose, even if it’s decorative or the result of a process that was the creator’s actual motivation. Artifacts may also have an incidental purpose dictated by the user and unanticipated by the creator. Usability refers to how seamlessly an artifact allows a user to interact with it, towards the user’s intended goal. Some artifacts are designed to be usable by more than one different type of user, or multiple user groups trying to accomplish different goals. And many artifacts are not designed with general usability in mind at all.
This post is mostly about how things that are patched together can become corrosive and dangerous.
The definition of kludge:
The dictionary tells us that a kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes.
Kludge can happen largely for two reasons: because an environment is difficult or because the agents responsible don’t give a damn.
All systems that humans interact with feature affordances or constraints that can nudge users into certain behavior patterns (example).
At the end of my last post, I started to entertain ways that a story can be transferred (ex. orally or on palm-leaf manuscripts) and how these media can influence the kinds of stories that are best able to be communicated. Consider Upworthy’s model, and how they attempt to optimize clicks by testing different headings and pictures for the same content on social networking sites. Their A/B testing model allows them to see what versions of the story best “click” with audiences. (edit: I didn’t even mean to use a pun there. I’m so, so sorry.)
All stories are constrained by social expectations and harder limitations of their medium. Probably, most timeless classics are better described as well-timed, succeeding for whatever reason the environment they’re consumed in has dictated.
In this post, I’ll riff about technology-driven large-scale social change.
I will try to assign Thursday as my release days.
When I saw the 2009 Star Trek reboot, I was conflicted.
Yes, the reboot did revitalize the franchise. Yes, it was decent on its own terms as an action film. Yes, it did feature the familiar symbols and characters. But it was weirdly distant from Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. It had many of the artifacts but almost none of the themes. The benevolent bureaucracy, the pacifism, the Prime Directive, the centrality of the fictional technologies and their workings to the plot, all gone. Instead, I got lens flare, epic space battles, gigantic starships being built in Iowa for storytelling purposes- thoughtless, albeit very enjoyable action.
This post is about something like that.
Last week, I tried to introduce several threads at once. Alongside the idea of a path-dependent, uncertain, impermanent technology tree, I also talked about how we tell stories around these mysterious artifacts that we find hanging around. I spent a few sentences defending the Rapa Nui people as being people and not lesser primates without agency.
This week, I want to stress that although biologically these ancient people are like us, that doesn’t mean that the ways that they saw the world are grokkable to us. We can’t actually understand them as “thinking like us”.
I’m going to start throwing down thoughts on this site, preferably at a rate of one per week. Hopefully it’s coherent enough to follow.
This week, I’m re-appropriating the idea of a technology tree. It’s not what I thought I’d start writing, but it’s what came out.
Also, the red squigglies are hyperlinks, not spelling errors. Maybe I’ll do something about that sometime.
This is a technology tree from Civilization.
Click to zoom
Rhetorically, it makes enough sense. As you progress in the game, you can strategically invest in technological breakthroughs that can help you to accomplish your goals. The past and its technologies are still reproducible, and the technological future is predictable and universal. Knowledge loss from the past doesn’t happen, all breakthroughs towards the future are coordinated, and the buildings you constructed in the early game aren’t viewed with suspicion from your late game units as the possible work of Ancient Aliens.