Learning to See

If you had asked me in 2006, the year before the iPhone was unveiled, to design an “iPhone,” I probably would have drawn you something like these. My imagination would have been trapped, stuck in the mindset that portable devices from Apple looked like iPods of the time, and completely unable (or unwilling?) to conceive of what a 2007 iPhone) looked like. But once I saw what the iPhone actually looked like, well, of course it had to look like that. It felt obvious once I saw it. How could it not look like that?

This happens to me all the time. Pretty much any time I see anything from Bret Victor I’m similarly blown away. I had never even considered maybe programming should be visible, or learnable, or that you should create dynamic drawings or animations. I had never considered that the computer should exist in a physical world, not be trapped in a rectangle. But once I saw all these demos, suddenly I could see computing differently.

There’s a well-studied bias in humans called What You See Is All There Is, which, as the name implies, biases us to only consider new things in terms of what we’re already familiar with. I couldn’t see the iPhone in 2006 because I was only familiar with iPods then, and I wasn’t trained to avoid this bias, either.

This is why so much of technology is the same old, year after year. It’s why programming languages are all plain text based, because that’s what programming language designers are familiar with. It’s why every mail app has 3 columns: mailboxes, then messages, then the message. These are almost certainly not the ideal forms, but it’s what we seem to be stuck with.

I still don’t know exactly how to avoid this bias, how to see beyond what I’m already familiar with, but I think I have some clues.

The first is studying design. It seems to me one of the goals of design is to see beyond what’s immediately familiar to push forward into something new. Design tries to get to the heart of needs before it starts looking at solutions, and that seems to be a good mindset for thinking beyond what you currently can see. (See also Igne Druckrey’s Teaching to See)

Another useful mindset for seeing is books. Every book I read reveals to me a new perspective, a new point of view on some aspect of the world. With novels, I feel empathy for characters in different situations; with non-fiction I learn in depth about the topic of the book. (See also “Reading Tip #1” in Bret’s reading list.)

I still don’t really know “how to see” beyond my immediate surrounding, but I feel like with every new mindset and perspective, I get a few more glimpses of what’s out there. But I’m curious, what do you use to see beyond what we’ve currently got?

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