Seeing Through Lenses

Raw, unfiltered sense experience is a crushing torrent of stimulus. In the same way that a machine learning algorithm extracts relevant features from its inputs, the human mind seeks patterns in the mess of activity passing through it.

To “make sense” of anything, we are always relying on some Way of Seeing. You can think of it as a “lens” through which the stimulus hitting our senses gets interpreted.

A lens highlights some parts of experience, while inevitably hiding others. What gets highlighted constrains which actions feel relevant or possible.

Many people that are drawn to doing design work enjoy looking at the world through a lens of usability and human interaction. A button on a remote control is interpreted from the perspective of how humans might interact with it — what they expect the button to do or how easy it is to press. A public park is perceived in terms of where people might be able to sit or what kinds of activities might occur in the open spaces.

There is a different, although related, lens that is often used by artists. They like to view the world in terms of aesthetics. Rather than concern over convenience or ease of interaction, they perceive in terms of beauty and emotional impact.

Combining these two can be difficult. You have to synthesize different perspectives — use different lenses. The results can be impressive when done well.

And yet, there is no “one true lens” to rule them all.

There is no single optimal or “correct” way to interpret the world. It depends on what you care about or want to accomplish. The relevance of a lens is a function of the context within which it is used. Any lens comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.

The iPhone is a good example of a synthesis of several lenses, but there are inevitable trade-offs. Usability must be sacrificed for aesthetic appeal, and vice versa. Which is more important, which is correct? There is no objective truth here.

Most people can access many lenses but inevitably find some more rewarding, or easier to use, than others. The lenses they practice more end up being their strong suits and become even more relied upon. It can be easy to forget how different lenses impact people.

The different ways of seeing of a Democrat and a Republican can sometimes make communication all but impossible.

When someone’s views seem incomprehensible, consider that they may be using a different lens than you. What might yours be missing that theirs can see?

Three Stonecutters Inverted

Do we justly elevate those with sweeping visions and grand aspirations?

The parable of the three stone cutters, as popularized by Peter Drucker:

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Drucker is not indifferent between these motivations. He sees the second stonecutter’s drive and thirst for excellence as meritorious — capturing the American spirit. Even better is the third stonecutter, however, perhaps because of his grand scale and desire for impact. Drucker suggests that it’s his broader vision and contribution to a structure that unites past and future. The other stonecutters lack awareness of this big picture.

Consider an alternative perspective.

The first seems to be “just” working for a living. What does that mean in practice? Likely, he is inspired by love for his family and those closest to him. He is motivated by the practical necessity of quelling hunger. He is aware that his family depends on him for survival. By materially providing for the lives of others, his labors serve a greater purpose. Communities and nations are built up out of tight circles of families and friendships, not generic people or citizens.

The second is merely doing the “best job” he can. This seems individualistic and perhaps even self-indulgent. Why bother perfecting stonecutting? However, his drive to constantly improve can serve as an inspiration to others. By highlighting the beauty that is everywhere hidden in plain sight, others can find fresh appreciation for the everyday. His obsession with his craft can even elevate it to an art.

The third is inspired by doing big things. He wants to make a lasting impact and turn man towards “higher” ideals. He highlights his desire to toil for the common good — a cathedral that all can benefit from. He serves an amorphous, anonymous peopledom — pure altruism. Or, at least, that is what he wants everyone to think. It’s certainly a good story and captures our attention — just see how Drucker elevates this man.

Any yet, they all engage in fundamentally the same activity. Some just have a more flattering story.

I’m increasingly skeptical of the consequences of elevating the third stonecutter at the expense of the others. If I met these three men on the street, I am tempted to reverse the ordering: I am more likely to want to trust the first over the second, and the second over the third.