This quarter, I’m taking a design studio class focusing on the dissemination of video interviews of members of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. You might not be familiar with the Rwandan genocide and the ICTR, so here’s some background:

Over three months, starting in April 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans were killed, mostly with machetes, mostly by their neighbours. Despite the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, the international community chose not to intervene, instead arguing over the definition of genocide. To make matters worse, when France eventually sent troops in, they stabilized the country by preventing the army of Rwandan expatriates invading from Uganda from forcing a rapid end to the killings.

If you’re interested, I recommend We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. It’s gripping, disturbing, and difficult to put down.

There’s another book by Romeo Dallaire, the UN general present in Rwanda during the genocide who was repeatedly ordered not to get involved, called Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. In it, he slams both the international community and himself for their conscious decision to just stand by and watch.

The ICTR was established in late 1994 to investigate the genocide and prosecute its leaders. It’s been criticized generally for its cost, its inability to successfully prosecute some genocidaires,and because it is perceived as serving only to salve Western guilt. Whether it was a success or not, the ICTR is scheduled to close in the next year or so, and at that time, its staff will return to their homes around the world. Once this happens, only documents describing its proceedings will remain, and so last year a team from UW went to Tanzania to interview members of the court in an attempt to capture its human side.

In this course, we’re exploring ways of disseminating these interviews, as well as ways of supporting re-use, commentary and annotation by the various groups to whom it is of interest, including Rwandans, UN staff, international legal experts, and the public at large. We’ve got about 70 hours of video in total, comprising interviews with about 40 members of the ICTR, and we want to make it available online in such a way that people can watch it, comment on it, mark it up using tags or other more formal taxonomies, search it, or re-purpose it.

It’s quite a fun problem area – we’ll get to play with folksonomies and crowd-sourcing, and while the content is rather melancholy, it’s also extremely interesting.

Anyway, as part of the class, I’m doing a lot of writing both on the the genocide and about design theory in general. Since I think a lot of this is probably interesting to others, I wanted to re-post snippets of it here; last Saturday’s post on wicked problems was the first example of this.

PS – I’ll get back onto the music appreciation stuff soon, I promise!


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Today I read a paper from 1971 by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber about “wicked problems” – problems that are intrinsically difficult or impossible to solve in the sense that one can solve a crossword or mathematical proof, or win a game of chess. Wicked problems abound in policy questions and design, and it’s interesting to think about what differentiates them from these other “tame problems”.

The paper defines a wicked problem as one with most of the characteristics in the list below. Bear with me, because being able to spot a wicked problem and thus infer the consequences of that fact is quite a powerful tool for thinking about decision making in pretty much any context. Once you’ve got a clear idea of the concept, you can start seeing them everywhere – in policy such as city planning, in international conflict, project management, personal time management, and even in family Christmases. They’re everywhere, and, unlike tame problems, they’re impossible to solve absolutely, though sometimes they can be resolved partially with relative ease.

  1. Wicked problems can’t be definitively formulated. To formulate the problem, we must make decisions about how to conceptualize it, limiting our consideration in some way. Different people will conceptualize the problem differently, and these differences might not be readily apparent. Furthermore, a wicked problem may be partially obscured such that we cannot see its full extent without attempting a solution.
  2. We can’t tell if we’ve completely solved a wicked problem or not. Wicked problems are usually qualitative rather than quantitative and often have fuzzy boundaries. Though we can arbitrarily declare stopping conditions, these conditions are, well, arbitrary.
  3. We can’t easily rank possible solutions to a wicked problem. Different stakeholders want different things for value-oriented and self-specific reasons. Points 1 and 4 also suggest that the problem will only be known incompletely and there is significant uncertainty about the effects of each solution.
  4. We can never assess the full effects of a solution. We don’t know for sure in advance whether our solutions will have the desired effect and, after implementing them, its impossible to predict or observe their full consequences over time due to ripple effects.
  5. Solutions are single-shot. We only get one chance to solve the problem because our solution always changes it, affecting any future solution attempts. This can often make it hard to learn from mistakes.
  6. The solution set is unbounded. We can’t list or exhaustively describe the possible solutions, so we never know whether we’ve got the best solution (even assuming we can rank the solutions them).
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Though two problems may appear fundamentally similar, they are of sufficient complexity such that it is impossible to determine whether apparently minor differences will have any effect. Two cities may be laid out almost identically, but this is not enough for us to conclude that public transport should be laid out exactly the same way.
  8. Wicked problems are linked to other wicked problems. Almost every wicked problem can be thought of as part of another wicked problem and as having several wicked problems as part of it. Inevitably, this leads to cycles of problems that cannot be solved independently. Crime leads to jail time, which leads to abandoned children, which leads to crime.
  9. The effects of a wicked problem and its solutions can be explained in many ways. Not only is it hard to formulate the problem and evaluate its possible solutions, it’s very easy, after the fact, to explain its effects in a variety of ways. For example, FDR’s New Deal and WWII spending is hailed by Keynesian economists and left leaning politicians as having ended the Great Depression, while these same policies are damned by market economists as having prolonged its effects. The problem and its solution can be suborned by multiple conflicting narratives, again making it hard to learn from our actions.
  10. The costs of being wrong are often high. Losing a game of chess doesn’t hurt a lot, but arranging a family get together that goes wrong can be painful. Bad solutions may create problems whose size exceeds the original problem. Given that wicked problems are often policy related, they can adversely affect people’s lives.

This list constitutes a polythetic or cluster definition; that is, problems must have some, but not all of the criteria to be considered wicked. Furthermore, problems possess them to a greater or lesser extent than others, implying the idea of a continuum of problem wickedness. Polythetic definitions are normally used to define complex concepts in philosophy, and the fact that such a definition is required to define wicked problems suggests that they are not a clear or natural category as the paper suggests.

That said, however, the category of tame problems is much clearer. It consists of problems with stopping criteria, clear correctness of outcomes, limited solution action sets with clear results. It seems, then, that wicked problems are perhaps best understood as the set of all problems that are not tame.

One implication of the wickedness continuum is that wicked problems could be made less wicked if we understood the factors that make them wicked. Unfortunately, however, the list of criteria above is primarily descriptive, not explanatory, and so only of use as a starting point. On Tuesday, I’ll be participating in a further discussion on this topic in which I’d like to explore explanations of what makes a problem wicked. This would, I think, give a better definition as well as some ideas for how wickedness might be reduced. Below are some candidate explanations:

  • Problem complexity and chaos; in particular the existence of emergent properties and behaviour
  • Situation of the problem within an unbounded or open system
  • Tight coupling and / or dependence of the components of the problem
  • Visibility or availability of information within the problem context
  • Conflicting definition or identification of the problem

There’s one last point I want to make. Being written in 1973, the paper gives the impression that the difference between wicked and tame problems maps fairly clearly to the difference between abstract, mathematical or game problems and real political and social problems. It’s interesting to note that in recent years, the term wicked problem has been used to describe problems in software engineering and design that exhibit many of the same properties of the social problems outlined in the paper, demonstrating that it is not abstraction itself that makes a problem tame. It would also be interesting, I think, to look at some of the strategies employed by engineering teams to deal with wicked software problems, and work out if they could be applied to wicked problems in a social or political context. Food for thought, anyway.


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I’ve heard of colour affecting mood, but not performance. Interesting paper in last week’s Science on several studies examining performance and creativity in various tasks when using a computer with different background colours. It seems surprising to me that they were able to get significant differences simply by changing the background colour, not the content, or anything else.

Existing research reports inconsistent findings with regard to the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Some research suggests that blue or green leads to better performances than red; other studies record the opposite. Current work reconciles this discrepancy. We demonstrate that red (versus blue) color induces primarily an avoidance (versus approach) motivation (study 1, n = 69) and that red enhances performance on a detail-oriented task, whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task (studies 2 and 3, n = 208 and 118). Further, we replicate these results in the domains of product design (study 4, n = 42) and persuasive message evaluation (study 5, n = 161) and show that these effects occur outside of individuals’ consciousness (study 6, n = 68). We also provide process evidence suggesting that the activation of alternative motivations mediates the effect of color on cognitive task performances.

Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Ravi Mehta and Rui (Juliet) Zhu (5 February 2009) Science [DOI: 10.1126/science.1169144]

Why am I posting this?
I’m interested in pretty much any verifiable means of enhancing human cognitive performance, even if they seem a bit odd. If background colour affects us sufficiently that our performance and mood changes, I have to wonder what would happen if our whole vision was tinted. And, what does my green screen background colour mean? Interesting, if kooky-sounding, idea for augmenting reality. Brings to mind the general idea of using AR as a simple means of interposing image processing between the viewer and the viewed. Could be particularly useful for people with various vision deficiencies and colour blindness.

Also, interesting point about likely variation between North American students (as interviewed in the study) and students of other nationalities.

via Cosmos


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On the TPN blog, Cameron talks a bit about the wholesale acceptance of the ‘it preserved lives’ justification for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He doesn’t accept it at all, and quotes from an article by John Pilger questioning this justification.

I read three main points in what he says and cites:

  • evidence of a desire for ‘demonstrating the weapon’
  • evidence suggesting Japan was willing to surrender before the bomb was dropped
  • that if Japan was unwilling surrender unconditionally, she could have been coerced into doing so through conventional means short of a land invasion (such as strategic bombing).

I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to determine that the US purposefully refrained from accepting a Japanese surrender in order to test their weapon. That said, the evidence does seem to suggest this as a possibility worth considering.

Anyway, here’s what I said:

I think you’re right that there was a desire to demonstrate the new weapon to the world in the decision to drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But, I’m also pretty convinced that there wasn’t another way out that would have resulted in less loss of life, assuming the Japaneses weren’t willing to sue for peace.

I don’t attach any special moral value to the use of a nuclear weapon as opposed to, say, massive loss of life due to strategic bombing or a land invasion. Consequently, it doesn’t seem logical to suffer or cause more deaths than those caused by the bomb in order to avoid it’s use*. I’m not a military expert, but given the casualties caused by strategic bombing and the experience of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, I think both would have resulted in more deaths. I’m not sure you’re arguing that these would have been better choices, though.

I also don’t see it as particularly useful to dwell on the fact that American generals held such gung ho attitudes towards the war – it’s awful, but I’m not convinced any other winning side would be more gracious.

To me, the really interesting part of this is the possibility of Japanese surrender, and the suggestion that these overtures were simply not followed. This is a pretty strange attitude for the American government to have taken, particularly given the losses taken at Okinawa and Iwo Jima – conducting those campaigns in the face of a Japanese desire to surrender (and, given the losses taken on both sides) would be truly twisted.

Have you seen any more evidence of this desire? It would be really interesting to see primary source material for this – particularly on the idea that America was treating the late Pacific campaign as preparation for an eventual confrontation with Russia.

One telling piece of evidence to attitudes at the time was recently mentioned on BoingBoing – a survey of scientists at a US national lab in Chicago taken four days before trinity. The plurality of votes was for ‘a military demonstration in Japan followed by a renewed opportunity for surrender’, suggesting that no such opportunity would exist during the lead up. Even more interestingly, the second most voted option was for a non-military demonstration in front of Japanese delegates – meaning that those who voted for the military demonstration were actively deciding that people needed to die for the ‘demonstration’ to be compelling. Chilling..

Anyway, interesting and provocative post, as always..

* Of course, to honestly play ethical calculus with this, you have to take into account the long term effects of the bomb on the environment and the surviving populace; effects that simply weren’t understood at that time. The risk of these long term effects can’t then have been considered, and it’s pretty reasonable to be appalled by this.


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Just quickly, I wanted to link to this rather awesome animated map of England from 0 -> 1050 CE, drawn by Curzon at Coming Anarchy


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