LF07 - Seamful Futures
Hi. Brian here. Welcome to Little Futures season 2 - a series of six emails, alternating between myself and Tom. Thanks for joining.
At a Whole Foods last weekend, I pull into a parking space marked “#3 Reserved For Pickup” and wait, windows up and trunk open, for the attendant to wheel my order to the car, point to my name while we both nod enthusiastically through the glass, and load my groceries. She shuts the trunk forcefully, tapping twice to say “all set,” and I thumbs up, yelling “thank you” through the glass, trying to be heard.
Much has been written about liminal spaces - the in-between space we’ve each, in our own way, been pandemically sequestered to - but I’m much more interested in this other thing. This is the space where two parts of a complex system are joined. This is a seam, reopened.
Software eats the seams
The dominant arc of technology and business in the last half century has bent towards connecting disparate information and activities, and smoothing them. Jagged negotiations become streamlined tradeoffs. Variable nuance becomes standardized flow. These connections start out seamful, and become seamless.
But what is lost when we remove the seams?
Here is Tina He in a recent edition of her magnificent newsletter, Fakepixels:
The accelerating upgrading of tools that aims to automate our labor has a noble intention: to liberate us from the “annoying work” to focus on “what matters”. Most of us are well aware of this speed of change, but we don’t have enough energy or time to discuss the velocity of change, the direction that we rush towards. When we’re all so afraid to get left behind, can we really think about “what matters”?
We live in a seamful economy presented as an effortless interface. We consume a seamful supply chain, displayed as a seamless inventory. When software eats the world, it starts with the seams.
All of this is to say that what seamless systems gain, they gain by reduction.
They reduce information.
They reduce complexity.
They reduce optionality.
They reduce agency.
Seamless systems reduce.
Seamful systems expand.
We’re seeing a reemergence of the seams in our systems.
College students are revolting against the product of the university for the lack of it’s seams. The value is in the seams.
Seamful business models are emerging across media and communities of practice. The value is in the seams.
The next wave of early-stage hype is being built seam-first. The value is in the seams.
Seams aren’t just connection points, they are the space where the connections are made. Not every connection needs a seam, but, where seams exist, meaning, memory, and “what matters” can as well.
Seams are the holding points for systems. They give legibility to the exchanges being made. The Japanese craft of Kintsugi is an art of repairing ceramics by using gold in the cracks, to make the seams visible, and beautiful. Kintsugi is literally “golden joinery.”
Seamful systems use friction for cultivation. They invest in over-resourcing the development of the needs within the seam, in lieu of reducing it.
Where are the seams in your business? When your business goes through a transition - what seams are exposed? What would it look like to invest less in reducing them, and more in expanding them?
This week’s links are bursting at the seams... 😑
I wrote above mostly about seams emerging out in the world, between companies and their customers, but seams are vital inside of companies as well.
Friend-of-Little-Futures Noah Brier’s Variance Spectrum is a framework for mapping automated to collaborative processes within a business, but can also be used to identify internal seam-spaces.
Going a level deeper, another way to cut the left and right sides of the spectrum is based on the most appropriate way to solve the problem. For the routine tasks you want to have a single way of doing things in an attempt to push down the variance of the output while on the high variance side you have much more freedom to try different approaches. In software terms this can be expressed as automation and collaboration respectively.
Noah’s new company Variance is a great example of a seamful business. It takes a transition point for many companies - the onboarding and implementation of new operating software, and cultivates the needs within the new seams this creates - employees’ ability to use it. (ps. we highly recommend Noah’s ensemble “Why Is This Interesting? newsletter).
Questions as seam-finders
Rob Haisfeld, a behavioral product strategy and gamification consultant, creates a series of situational ‘lenses’ for seam-finding:
My favorite way to go up and down the ladder of abstraction is by making Lenses of behavioral science and game design principles for myself. Whenever I find (or come up with my own) frameworks, theories, or findings that I think could be abstracted beyond the present context, I turn them into "lenses." Each lens is a series of questions to ask myself in order to look at a problem through the lens of that concept.
VGR uses a similar process with 20 Questions to uncover the state of play in a business.
The rise of distinct communities-of-practice online, and the evolution of co-ownership/co-operative communities begins to hint at the future of seamful communities.
From the strategy and research group Other Internet, on Squad Wealth:
Group identity. Shared space. Vibes. These not only enable the creation of social capital, but strengthen the squad's capacity to organize, minimizing transaction costs and leading to greater productive capacities and resilience; this is "the nature of the squad." But while squads can be viewed as a "nexus of contracts", unlike the Coasean firm, they are without legal structure. Social contracts are instead effected through the unspoken bonds of mutual respect and ingroup norms.
Some believe new software can liberate "individual creators." But this kind of thinking inevitably leads to Uberized platform-mediated wage labor. We want to liberate squads. The group is the basic user class for the tools we need today as a society, yet few pieces of software allow the squad as a whole to produce cooperatively and generate wealth together. To fully realize SQUAD CULTURE this must change.
If the group is the basic user class for the tools we need today, seams are the basic space for compounding relationships.
Another seam-space is what John Willshire of Smithery calls Assemblage Space:
Assemblage space, or A-Space, is my way of making people think about the research and ideas they gather in a wider way. Assemblage Space is no more real than the Futures Cone, it’s just a device to help tease out information and connect it in different ways.
Assemblage is a term I’m pulling in from the philosophical definition – “Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities through entities and their connectivity.” – without trying to get pulled too far into that particular rabbit hole.
The stream is not the seam
Finally, via a 2008 post from Nicolas Nova of the Near Future Laboratory, from a paper on seamful design in wearable computing:
By revealing such seams, users can better understand when and where to use digital resources such as network connectivity—and when not to—as they go about their work and use our systems in their ways. We see this as appropriate to ubiquitous computing which, as Weiser suggested, aims to let people select from and combine both digital and traditional media in ways that suit their changing priorities of everyday life.
As computing saturates and recedes from view in our lived world, individuals' ability to personalize, prefer, and act with variety will come from our ability to work in the seams.
Before the Big Future, endless little futures…