Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Whole Systems Thinking

The candy bar was delicious, but now I've got this wrapper to deal with. Easiest thing would be to chuck it here on the street. I'm optimizing for my own convenience.

But what about the whole system? What impact does my action have? Well, just this one candy wrapper doesn't make much difference. But what if everyone dumped their trash wherever they happened to be standing? We'd be wading through it, right? Doesn't sound good. On the other hand, maybe we could hire a small army of folks to collect our trash for us, and solve our unemployment problem! Of course, if we could afford to hire all those people, is there something better we could be doing with their time? And anyway, who's going to pay for those jobs? Maybe a sales tax increase? Is it worth a few extra pennies per candy bar for us all to be able to drop our wrappers wherever we want and still not end up drowning in seas of trash?

Maybe so, maybe not, but at least you're thinking the whole thing through.

Of course, if we thought through every decision that thoroughly, we'd never get anything done! It's a useful skill to have, though, especially when thinking about shaping the institutions that surround us. Every one of us has an impact on those institutions (your neighborhood, your job, the government, etc.) on a regular basis, whether you think of it or not. The more we all learn how to think at the system level, the better off we'll all be.

So how does one get better at thinking in systems? Practice, of course! Learn about systems, build systems, experiment with them.

Believe it or not, playing games helps… games are often little systems (small enough to wrap your head around), and figuring out the dynamics of the system increases your skill at the game. Next up is modifying games (say, change some of the rules to Uno, which itself is just a modified form of Crazy Eights), and then creating new games.

Systems are all around us; you just need to keep your eyes open. How do things fit together? What actions lead to what reactions? What happens when single actions become many? Ask yourself questions like, “What if everyone on the planet did this?” or, “What if we continue doing this for the next thousand years?” or, “What changes in behavior would this incite?”

I don't know, what other ways can we help strengthen our systems thinking muscles?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Red Pen

I'm an incurable proofreader. I grew up in a household that published a magazine, and now it's second nature to spot typos, improper homonyms, punctuation issues, etc., wherever they may be. Even when I find a typo on someone's website, sometimes I'm compelled to let them know. I figure it's the virtual equivalent of telling someone they've got broccoli in their teeth… a little embarrassing perhaps, but it saves them from greater embarrassment down the road.

What I (and all the other incurable proofreaders of the world) need is an easy way to inform the website owner, so bit by bit we can collectively clean up the writing on the Web!

Here's one possible design: A “red pen” bookmarklet sits in your browser, awaiting the moment you find some text that needs fixing. When that moment arrives, as it inevitably will, you select the offending text and hit the bookmarklet. Up pops a dialog box with the text, an opportunity for you to describe the correction, and a big friendly “send” button. Hitting the button e-mails your note, along with the URL of the page, to the best address we can find (if nothing else, the technical contact listed for that domain's WHOIS record). If this thing becomes popular enough, people will even register their websites with the service, to streamline the process.

What do you think? Is this the gadget you've been waiting for, or should we all just keep our writing critiques to ourselves?