Sunday, December 23, 2007

Is Creationism Selling God Short?

I've been seeing and reading a lot about Creationism lately. This includes the battle in Dover, PA to teach Creationsism, or rather "Intelligent Design" in school and the new natural history museum based on Creationism's re-interpreted timeline of the World.

The Dover Case is an interesting story in and of itself. There is a key issue that came up in the case that got me thinking that maybe the Creationists are selling God short. The Creationist's case for intellligent design is summed up by the statement that evolution is just a theory and there are enough gaps in the theory to warrant the consideration of other theories (namely Creationism). Of course their argument starts with a misinterpretation of what science means by "theory". But there are gaps in the fossil record and the Creationists have used these to drive their case. One of these gaps was the missing link between fish with scales and land-dwelling reptiles. If reptiles evolved from water-dwelling fish, there should be animals in the fossil record that have overlapping features. For some time, scientists had been unable to find evidence of these animals and during this time, creationists used that missing link as an example when promoting their case. But then fossils of a cross-over animal were found... a reptile with legs and fish-like scales.

Each time evolution science makes a discovery relating to what intelligent design saw as a flaw, it forces the Creationists to re-work their case. None of their arguments for intelligent design have been accepted by mainstream scientific journals. They convert the largely converted of their case almost entirely by pointing to what the bible says about the evolution of life and by pointing to perceived gaps in the prevailing scientific view.

Their self-imposed behavior of re-adjusting their argument each time their previous one is debunked got me thinking. If God is all knowing and almighty why would he spend so much time figuring out how to make an eyball, or a reptile, or monkeys that are so similar and yet evolutionarily separate from humans. Why wouldn't God, as the smartest of smarts, take a smarter approach.

It seems to me that if I were God and I was planning the creation of the universe that my time would be better spent setting certain rules in motion rather than trying to create each atom, organ, and animal individually. Maybe God has much more to worry about than just our own little planet in this little Milky Way Galaxy. Maybe there are even other universes to worry about and maybe he has tried working with different rules in thos universes. If that were true, it would be almost foolish, if not stupid, for God to put so much time into the creation of individual organisms.

It seems to me that the history of man, religion and cosmology is about moving up the food-chain of creation. For cavemen, everything was the work of God... fire, the birth of another person, etc. For the Greeks, it seems the stars were the outlines of gods in the night sky. For aboriginal cultures, the Earth is like the Mother God... the one resposnible for creating all the things we enjoy on Earth.

These myths serve their purposes and help make sense of a mysterious world. The aboriginal culture myths create a culture that is more environmentally friendly than many enlightened environmentalists are today. But even as we still regard the birth of a baby in the family as a "miracle", we also know how babies come to be. We understand the science and biology of reproduction and how it relates to reproduction in other species. When that mystery was solved, we moved onto the next mystery.

So it seems like you could have a belief in science and a belief in God and reconcile the two. All that is requires is a belief that science brings us new understandings of the world around us. Since science builds on previous discoveries, it also means that earlier generations did not know these things and did the best to explain the world around them in terms they understood at the time. This includes the story of the bible. Accepting science requires that you accept the stories of the bible as parables and interpretations of history and creation myths and not as hard facts that can not themsleves be interpreted in light of recent discoveries.

At some point in our human history, everything on Earth was magic and there was no science. Fire and lightening were God's work until we figured out how to make it ourselves. The discovery process continues until we find ourselves where we are today, contemplating the existence of other universes in theoretical physics. These theories are based on rules of science, mathematics and quantum mechanics. So if whole parallel universes are possible and contemplated by our smartest physicists, couldn't an almighty God work by implementing these rules. In this light, we are just slow, dumb organisms taking thousands of years to understand our immediate surroundings let alone the cosmos. If these parallel universes exist, God not only understands them but put the rules in motion while also thinking up the rules that would allow electrons to spin around a nucleus in such a way as to make carbon possible, so as to make organic matter possible and eventually, through the rules of electrical, chemical and physical interactions to make animals that would evolve into Adam & Eve and everything else on this
amazing planet. Isn't it possible? Isn't it amazing enough that whether or not some reptile with scales existed is such a minor issue relative to the grandeur of everything else. Wouldn't believing in all of this only make God more powerful and amazing?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Creativity and Restrictions

This is a quote from last year's TED Conference. It might be
counter-intuitive to young designers but is very true.
"Creativity starts when you cut a zero off the end of your budget. It
gets even better if you cut two zeros."

Friday, December 21, 2007

Design and Product Management

This is a letter I wrote to Jeff Flash after reading a presentation he wrote and posted on his blog about product management.

I downloaded and read your 10 Tips for New Product Managers presentation. Thanks for sharing this.

I have some feedback and a question for you. I was wondering what your ideal stakeholder diagram is. There was one included from someone else (showing product management in the center surrounded by sales, marketing, management and engineering) and then several from you. The last one you show has pretty much everyone being invited to the party but I was wondering what your simplified version is. I'm sure the list would change based on the industry-domain of the product but again, there is probaly a high-level version that would relate well to a majority of products.

I ask as someone who has worked with product managers for about 15 years. As a designer, I've always had close interaction with product management, sales, marketing, engineering, senior management, etc.. But it is rare that design is represented as having a direct relationship
with product management. You'll often see it as an off-shoot of marketing or engineering but rarely as a direct link. I think this is wrong. In my 10 years at Sony, design always reported directly to the CEO. Even though we worked very closely with the product teams and business units, we also had independence. The relationship between Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives (SVP of design) at Apple is legendary but underlying that relationship is a firm belief that design is a core component of what Apple does. This doesn't diminish the importance of marketing or engineering at Apple (also centers of excellence), it just represents an approach to product development that says business and engineering aren't the whole equation.

You make many great points in your presentation like surrounding yourself with experts. Its possible to create great products by including a designer in your expert circle even if that's not the way the company is organized. But I think the best approach is to have it structured into the organization. At Microsoft, design reported to engineering for many years and I think it shows in their products.

There is a ven diagram [see image below] that I have seen that represents a design perspective. There are three overlapping circles, one represents business... looking after what is "viable", the second represents engineering... making things "possible", the last is design which looks after what is "desirable". It may be too simplified or too design-centric but does capture a different point of view from those that over emphasize sales and marketing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I was curious to hear yours on the issue.

This issue has been discussed at many different companies and conferences. Every group likes to see themselves at the center of the universe or at least on the A List. But I think the debate goes on about whether design is or should be on that list.
This is the diagram that designers often show as the major stakeholders for product development. But while simple and clear, it raises as many issues as it addresses. Among them,

  • Is it over simplifying the case to have a single circle representing all business issues? Within this circle are sales, marketing, finance, management, legal, biz dev, etc. How many of those groups deserve their own circle? Is it always the case or dependent on specific types of products?
  • Does design deserve its own circle? Is it over simplifying the case to say that design is responsible for making things desirable? What about useful, usable, simple?
  • Where is the voice of the customer in this diagram? Is each group responsible for knowing what the customer wants relative to their domain or is there a circle missing?
  • Should product management be at the center of the diagram or should the user be there?

I don't know the answers to all these questions. My general perspective is that design provides a key role in the development of projects. We can visualize the end product faster, earlier and more accurately than any other stakeholder. As a function of budget, our circle is usually much smaller than the other two. This is the crux of the value offering. We provide a key role at a relatively low price. The seat at the table is therefore justified by the high value / low cost offering. You can always consider us work for hire and subservient to one of the other circles but then over time, that's exactly what you'll get.