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Wicked Ambiguity: Solving the World's Hardest Problems
 

Wicked Ambiguity: Solving the World's Hardest Problems

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How do you solve the world's hardest problems? And what do you do when they're unsolvable? ...

How do you solve the world's hardest problems? And what do you do when they're unsolvable?

How are user experience designers, developers, marketers, information architects, content strategists and writers more alike than they think?

Much of our work is focused on solving problems for real people with defined needs and contexts who live and work in the here and now. We take a holistic approach, break down silos within our organizations, and iteratively create real value for the people who use our products and services.

But how does our work change—and how must we adapt our approaches and strategies—when we’re planning for projects that last for not one year, or even 10 years, but for 10,000 years or more? Wicked Problems introduce massive complexity, uncertainty, and interdependencies into our work as communicators.

Using real-world examples from NASA’s Voyager program, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, and other long-term projects, we'll talk about the challenges of creating information that degrades elegantly over space and time—information that’s still useful, usable, accessible, and meaningful for people whom we’ll never know in our lifetimes.

The answers to these problems give us a new perspective on our work, on the natures of clarity and simplicity, and on our common challenge: ambiguity.

Originally presented at the Society for Technical Communication (STC) Summit in Phoenix, Arizona on May 18, 2014. #stc14

You can learn more about Jonathon Colman at http://www.jonathoncolman.org/ and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jcolman

Also see a curated list of 200+ free Content Strategy resources at http://www.jonathoncolman.org/2013/02/04/content-strategy-resources/

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    Wicked Ambiguity: Solving the World's Hardest Problems Wicked Ambiguity: Solving the World's Hardest Problems Presentation Transcript

    • Welcome to Wicked Ambiguity. Ambiguity wicked NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    • I’m Jonathon Colman from Facebook. Content Strategy Facebook Colman Jonathon NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    • You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook at “jcolman” Colman Jonathon NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons @jcolman
    • And I’ve just posted a link to these slides! But if you’re not following along, you can download them at http://bit.ly/stc14 Note: you need to use all lower-case letters or it won’t work. I know, I know – please send your complaints to Bitly.  Colman Jonathon NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Bit.ly/stc14 Download these slides:
    • Do you remember those moments when you were a child and your parents would tell you, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right”? Well don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right. When Chris Hester – oh, excuse me – new STC Fellow Chris Hester (yeah, come on, give it up for her, she’s great!) asked me to be your keynote speaker, I was excited, but more than a little scared. She told me, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right.” I didn’t believe her. She said, “Look, there’s just two things you need to do as the keynote speaker: 1. Show up on time. 2. Be AMAZING.” Well, one out of two ain’t bad. NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    • “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right” is the sort of thing parents say because we want to project confidence and security. But we live in a world filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, so sometimes that confidence is false or unwarranted. This symbol is taken from one of the Pioneer satellites. It would later be re-used, in part, on the Voyager satellites. Among other things, they are the furthest objects from the earth created by Man. NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    • We’ll also be talking about what the symbol is meant to do: communicate a complex idea in a manner that’s simple, clear, and understandable. And who is it meant for and how might they respond to it? That will be part of this talk, too. We’ll be covering a lot of science, a bit of math, but almost no science fiction, even though the ideas we’re discussing are fantastical. But other than some light quoting of “Doctor Who” and some minor references to books and movies, everything you’re about to see is REAL.
    • Stephen King, in his “Night Shift” collection of short stories, wrote about a concept he calls “The shape beneath the sheet”. He says that when you’re alone at night, lying awake in bed, and it’s cold, and the wind is blowing, and the house is creaking, the shape you see at the foot of your bed, the shape under the sheet, could be just about anything. Anything at all. Except that we know it’s our body that’s making the shape. But we don’t. Because for a moment, there’s ambiguity as to what is real and what is not.
    • But let’s shift to talk about real problems. What’s the biggest problem you can think of in technical communication today? Well, I certainly know the one that we talk about the most… Big problem What’s the In content strategy today?
    • Yeah, everyone thinks we’re just a bunch of writers. Writers They only think of us as
    • Oh, but there’s so much more you can do! ._______! But I’m really a
    • You’re really a designer, creating new experiences and removing the suck from others! ._______! But I’m really a Designer
    • Or an information architect, creating knowledge spaces and structuring data and content for people and systems! ._______! But I’m really a Developer
    • Or a researcher, discovering how people live and work! ._______! But I’m really a Marketer
    • Or an information architect, creating knowledge spaces and structuring data and content for people and systems! ._______! But I’m really a Information Architect
    • Or a content strategist like me! And let me pause for a second here. I want to ask you something: this sounds like a made-up title, doesn’t it? And it’s so jargony! What sort of person who believes in making information simple, straightforward, and human would ever call themselves this? Just look at all those syllables! And there’s like 5 “t”s in just two words! Listen: there’s something that you must understand. If you take nothing else away from this talk. If you value your audiences. If you value your work. If you value the art and science of communication, then you must understand this one thing: I am most definitely a man with a made-up title. ._______! But I’m really a Content Strategist
    • OK, moving on. Or maybe you really are a writer and you love language and use it to create experiences. That’s OK, too! ._______! But I’m really a Writer {cough}
    • I know this is a problem. And I know it’s something we spend a lot of time talking about. But I don’t think that our differences matter all that much. Our differences Don’t matter
    • We’re bound together by something else, a greater force, a strong alliance. We stand united against ambiguity. That’s really what we all do, what we all have in common. We “make the complex clear,” as Abby Covert, President of the Information Architecture Institute, likes to say. And it’s not just what we do. It’s who we are. We dive into technical problems and solve them, making them simpler for others. Ambiguity We’re united against
    • Let me introduce you to Claude Shannon, who also wasn’t just a writer. He was a mid-20th century mathematician, engineer, and cryptographer. In some circles, he’s known as the “Father of Information Theory.” Claude Shannon Thierry Ehrmann (home_of_chaos) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/7609870922
    • In his landmark 1948 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, Shannon introduced this conceptual model of how communication works. In the paper itself, he dives into the math to explain these concepts, but I think that the beauty of this model is in it’s visual simplicity and intuitiveness. In related news: I am bad at math. So we have an information source that uses a transmitter device to produce a signal. This signal is disrupted by noise along its path to a receiving device at its destination. Voila, that’s the sum of all communication in a nutshell. Shannon figured this out in the ‘40s and we’ve all been using it ever since. Shannon, C. (1948) “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Bell System Technical Journal 27 (3): 379–423. User:Wanderingstan, User:Stannered (en:Image:Shannon communication system.png) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shannon_communication_system.svg
    • Remember when I asked you what the big problems were in tech comm? Shannon was asking this question, too. He broke down the problem space into four areas. The first was “technical”. He was concerned with the technology used to produce, transmit, and receive signals, as well as avoiding disruption by noise and the processes of encoding and decoding signals. Our problemsTechnical
    • The second problem area was “Semantic”. Shannon was concerned about the meaning of messages, the semiotics of signals. You know this for yourself – things are not always as they seem; people often produce and interpret messages poorly, even when using simple systems. As technical communicators, we all work on this problem to some extant. Our problemsTechnical Semantic
    • Now how do people create their messages in the first place? And what is the context in which they receive them that causes them to take some action, such as formulating a response? Shannon was also interested in the problem of “Influence,” or how we affect messages and how they affect us. Our problemsTechnical Semantic Influential
    • Finally, Shannon was very interested in entropy, the breakdown of our communication en route between sender and receiver. Noise, time, space, technology, and other factors all increase entropy, which can destroy not just individual messages, but entire archives of information. In our universe, things break down. They fall apart. But regardless, we still need to communicate. You can’t stop the signal, man! (Firefly quote) Our problemsTechnical Semantic Influential Entropic
    • So: Claude Shannon described the math that engineers and systems designers would need to solve these problems. OMG We can totes Solve these problems Thierry Ehrmann (home_of_chaos) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/7609870922
    • Thus, this model. But what it – and I know this is crazy – but what if we were in a communications scenario that this model couldn’t predict? Shannon, C. (1948) “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Bell System Technical Journal 27 (3): 379–423. User:Wanderingstan, User:Stannered (en:Image:Shannon communication system.png) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shannon_communication_system.svg
    • What if we send a message without knowledge or hope of it ever being received? What is we encoded a signal with no idea as to who would decode it? Or how? Shannon, C. (1948) “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Bell System Technical Journal 27 (3): 379–423. User:Wanderingstan, User:Stannered (en:Image:Shannon communication system.png) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shannon_communication_system.svg
    • The problems of noise and entropy would be greatly increased, possibly to the point of skewing or entirely destroying the message’s original semantic value. Think this is just a flight of fancy? We’ll be talking about two such scenarios tonight. You’ll see how the lack of a receiver causes us to rethink the meaning of our messages as well as the ways in which we transmit them. Shannon, C. (1948) “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Bell System Technical Journal 27 (3): 379–423. User:Wanderingstan, User:Stannered (en:Image:Shannon communication system.png) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shannon_communication_system.svg
    • Shannon’s model can’t help us anymore. We need to solve our own problems now. BRB, gotta go #notmyproblem Thierry Ehrmann (home_of_chaos) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/7609870922
    • Thus we come back to the shape beneath the sheet. What is it? What do we do when we’re faced by unsolvable problems?
    • Here we face a different sort of challenge. They’re called “Wicked Problems”. Problems Wicked
    • In 1973, Horst Rittel, whose picture you see here, and Melvin Webber coined the term “Wicked Problem.” They were social scientists trying to describe a special class of problem that both has massive interdependencies while resisting any sort of resolution. Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber René Spitz (renespitz) [CC-BY-ND-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/renespitz/3383405574/
    • Let’s look at an example in the field of public health. Have you ever seen this map before? It shows London in 1854 during the deadly cholera outbreak. Hundreds of people were dying and no one could figure out why. Public Health John Snow/C.F. Cheffins (Rewardiv at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snow-cholera-map-1.jpg
    • Let’s zoom in a bit here just to the neighborhood where the outbreak occurred. Those black squares represent incidences of cholera cases. But these yellow circles show all of the public water pumps. A doctor named – and this is true – John Snow (I know, I know, lotta fans of “Game of Thrones” here tonight) was able to link the cholera to contamination of the water by using statistics. He used math to determine that the disease was spreading at the pump sites. They were the disease vectors. Once he made that link, increased sanitation measures (soap!) were implemented and the disease died out. That’s how John Snow saved London and invented the field of epidemiology at the same time. John Snow/C.F. Cheffins (Rewardiv at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snow-cholera-map-1.jpg Public Health
    • This is what Horst and Rittel call a “tame problem”. Sure, it was hard to figure out, but it has isolatable factors and a clear solution that, once implemented, solved the problem. But when it comes to truly wicked problems, we’re talking about something entirely different.Naw, That’s a tame problem René Spitz (renespitz) [CC-BY-ND-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/renespitz/3383405574/
    • Take the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There have been hundreds of deaths and a 68% mortality rate for the people infected. In this case, simple sanitation isn’t enough. As population increases, as wars break out, as resources become scarce, people keep intruding into and developing lands that were once wild. When this happens, there are unintended consequences: disease outbreaks being one, but also the removal of natural resources and wildlife habitats. I saw this for myself when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. It was as if the desert was swallowing up villages while I watched. But what should we do? Population is going to increase. How do we keep it in control? Those people need resources, food, shelter, fuel, and so on. How do we stop wars and dictatorships that exacerbate these problems? Should we invest in peace- keeping forces? Then what about all the people who need medical attention? What about the education needs to prevent the spread of the disease and to council the population on family planning? Where does that money come from? US Federal Agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [Public domain], from Wikimedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Guinea_Sierra_Leone_Ebola_Map_April_14_2014.jpg Public Health
    • This is the basis of wicked problems. They aren’t just hard to solve, they have no final solutions. They don‘t just present links to other issues, but they have massive interdependencies. Cheers to the folks who are here from the Northeast, by the way. You’re welcome. This is the basis of wicked problems. They aren’t just hard to solve, they have no final solutions. They don‘t just present links to other issues, but they have massive interdependencies. Cheers to the folks who are here from the Northeast, by the way. You’re welcome.What a Wicked pissah René Spitz (renespitz) [CC-BY-ND-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/renespitz/3383405574/
    • We can find wicked problems everywhere. And they’ve been around for a long time. And by their very nature, they tend to stay. They’re present in urban planning, including this old plan for a sanitarium in Philadelphia. Where should the mentally ill be housed? Note that in this plan, they put the insane asylum right next to the “home for inebriates”. That’s not going to end well. By Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Garden_City_Concept_by_Howard.jpg Urban planning
    • Urban planning still presents us with wicked problems today, such as this shantytown at the limits of Cape Town. I witnessed this myself while visiting in 2012. When people who work in cities can no longer afford to live there, we see these communities in the periphery. What’s to be done to make sure that all people earn a living wage and have proper housing? By No Lands Too Foreign (Flickr: Khayelitsha) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Townships_of_Cape_Town.jpg Urban planning
    • Wicked problems are present in our ongoing “War on Drugs”. Here’s a newspaper clipping from 1912 talking about the raiding of an “opium joint” where Dude Calvin and Ida Fisher were caught smoking something called “Hop.” “An Opium Raid”, The Daily Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana – February 24, 1912 [Public Domain] via The Olden Times - http://theoldentimes.com/raid.html Drugs
    • Since 1912, we’ve made little progress on curtailing drug trade and use while spending billions if not trillions of dollars. These seized bricks of cocaine represent just an infinitesimal portion of the drug’s manufacture, trade, distribution, and use. US Federal Agency Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drugpackscorpion.png Drugs
    • War is a wicked problem, too. Although they’re relics today, these howitzers were used in Europe during World War I. John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_artillery_in_action,_World_War_I.JPEG War
    • Wars over politics, religion, and resources continue to this day, of course. These soldiers in the Ukraine wear no national flag, but were part of Russia’s recent annexation effort. By Elizabeth Arrott / VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOA-Crimea-Simferopol-airport.jpg War
    • The affairs of Man affect our planet as well. A recent report determined that our glaciers are now melting at such a fast rate that we have absolutely no hope of stopping or reversing the damage. Tim J. Keegan (suburbanbloke) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/49333819@N00/381634787 Climate Change
    • Because of this, our sea levels will rise, our planet will warm, and man, plants, and animals a like will all have to adapt. Or we won’t, as we haven’t been thus far. This map of expected temperature increases doesn’t feel relevant during a rain storm or the recent polar vortex. But the same mathematics that helped John Snow determine the points of cholera outbreak tell us that our planet is warming. NASA images by Robert Simmon, based on data from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GISS_temperature_2000-09_lrg.png Climate Change
    • We pull at these problems. But for every strand we grasp, another slips through our fingers. We implement some solution and tie it off with a bow, only to see it unraveled by other problems. You see, these problems pull at us, too. They pull at our strings. And they evoke a response. Often one of fatalism and hopelessness. HiveHarbinger (HiveHarbingerCOM) [GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2; CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SuperMacro_Rope.JPG
    • Because when we encounter the shape beneath the sheet, we know it’s us. We know the shape of the problem. Except for when we don’t.
    • Let’s talk about wicked problems more clearly using Rittel’s and Weber’s definition. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • Wicked problems cannot be clearly defined. As much as we think we understand them, there are layers upon layers, all interconnected. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are You can’t define them Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • We can’t solve them, at least not permanently. We may solve symptoms, but not the disease itself. Nor the vector of the disease. Nor the creation or use of the vector. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are You can’t Finish fixingthem Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • When we can’t define a problem space, it’s hard to define a solution, if there even is one. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are The Solutions are ambiguous Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • Furthermore, we can’t even test out our solutions or do pilots of them because an impartial solution only affects part of the problem and may even make it worse. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are The Solutions can’t be tested Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • Any attempt at solving them is expensive because you have to solve a nearly infinite amount of problems as a massive scale. So the solutions hurt in terms of cost; they’re prohibitively expensive. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are The solutions are expensive Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • They may be solvable, but they may not be. And you can’t tell the solvable ones apart from the ones that aren’t. Assuming you can even figure out what the problem is in the first place. Which, of course, you can’t.The solution set is infinite Or may not exist at all Wicked 10 signs of problems that are Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • Learnings from one wicked problem do not necessarily help you out with another, even if they seem related. They are each brand new. And their factors and interdependencies are constantly in flux. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are Each wicked problem is Essentially unique Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • Which makes each problem a link to another. Trying to tackle on wicked problem will have upstream, downstream, and cross-stream impacts on other wicked problems. Each one is a symptom Of Another wicked problem Wicked 10 signs of problems that are Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • They are so complex that they exist at a nearly quantum level of society, defying all logic of causality, if not time and space itself. rying to reason your way through a wicked problem is like trying to swim in jello. I’ll let that “sink in” for a moment. Wicked 10 signs of problems that are They defy logic and reason Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • But even so, even with all of these confounding factors, wicked problems pose a moral imperative. We must solve them. We must solve climate change. We must solve poverty. We must solve disease. And planning. And population. Because to not do anything makes the problems even worse. And we must solve them no matter what Wicked 10 signs of problems that are Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • So we must solve them no matter what. no matter what Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences 4: 155–169. Retrieved from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf
    • I believe that technical communication ahs wicked problems, too. Tonight we’re going to look at two of them. Technical Communication wicked problems in
    • The first is how we should communicate with extraterrestrials. Settle down, settle down. I told you there was going to be a few fantastical moments, didn’t I? And yet we won’t be talking about any science fiction – only science. Technical Communication wicked problems in
    • In the nineteenth century there were many books and articles about the possible inhabitants of other planets. Many people believed that intelligent beings might live on the Moon, Mars, and Venus. But since travel to other planets was not yet possible, some people suggested ways to signal the extraterrestrials even before radio was discovered. Unknown, cut and additions by Ulamm 12:25, 18 April 2008 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siberia_topo144.png
    • Carl Friedrich Gauss, a German Mathematician, suggested that a giant triangle and three squares, the Pythagoras, could be drawn on the Siberian tundra. The outlines of the shapes would have been ten-mile wide strips of pine forest, the interiors could be rye or wheat. This is the first of many such theories – that we use the principles of mathematics to communicate with higher intelligences. Paulo Ordoveza (brownpau) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/6558302343 Pythagoras inspired by Wapcaplet [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pythagorean.svg
    • Joseph Johann Littrow, an Austrian astronomer , proposed using the Sahara as a blackboard. By NASA (Cropped from Image:Africa satellite plane.jpg.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_satellite_hires.jpg
    • Giant trenches several hundred yards wide could delineate twenty-mile wide shapes. Then the trenches would be filled with water, and then enough kerosene could be poured on top of the water to burn for six hours. By NASA (Cropped from Image:Africa satellite plane.jpg.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_satellite_hires.jpg
    • Using this method, a different signal could be sent every night. By NASA (Cropped from Image:Africa satellite plane.jpg.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_satellite_hires.jpg
    • The construction of the message might even serve as an advertisement for the Earth’s domestic inhabitants. By NASA (Cropped from Image:Africa satellite plane.jpg.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_satellite_hires.jpg
    • But why stop with setting our own planet on fire? The inventor Charles Cros was convinced that pinpoints of light observed on Mars and Venus were the lights of large cities. He spent years of his life trying to get funding for a giant mirror with which to signal the Martians. signalmirror [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/signalmirror/8329443696/
    • The mirror would be focused on the Martian desert, where the intense reflected sunlight could be used to burn figures into the Martian sand. NASA/JPL [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mars_atmosphere.jpg
    • Now instead of using our planet as a canvas for our messages, we could use other planets – perhaps the messages would be reflected back at us. I mean, come on -- what owners of a planet wouldn’t want us to set their landscapes on fire?! NASA/JPL [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mars_atmosphere.jpg
    • Later, scientists paused from setting things on fire long enough to ask whether there were actually any alien beings to communicate with. In 1961, Frank Drake, an astronomer and physicist, came up with this equation dealing in probabilities as a way of estimating the number of advanced civilizations in the universe with whom we could communicate. While it’s imprecise and full of holes, the Drake Equation served as a catalyst to get scientists talking about the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrials. It’s impact is not in solving, but in sparking contemplation and creativity. Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation 𝑁 = 𝑅∗ ∙ 𝑓𝑝 ∙ 𝑛 𝑒 ∙ 𝑓𝑙 ∙ 𝑓𝑖 ∙ 𝑓𝑐 ∙ 𝐿 The Drake Equation
    • Even so, if you try plugging in the lowest possible numbers for the variables, you’ll find that the lower bound for the number of advanced civilizations is very low, indeed: * times 10 to the negative 20. As you know, that’s a zero followed by a decimal point, which is then followed by 19 more zeroes and then an 8. This essentially means that we’re all alone in the Universe. Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation 𝑁 = 𝑅∗ ∙ 𝑓𝑝 ∙ 𝑛 𝑒 ∙ 𝑓𝑙 ∙ 𝑓𝑖 ∙ 𝑓𝑐 ∙ 𝐿 The Drake Equation Lower bound: 8 x 10-20 we’re all alone. 
    • But if you’re feeling optimistic and try plugging in the highest possible numbers for the variables, you’ll find that our Universe is rich with life and advanced civilizations. There are over 36 millions such societies scattered throughout the galaxies. What lies between those two figures? Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation Lower bound: 8 x 10-20 we’re all alone.  Upper bound: 36.4 M Paaaarty! ( B.Y.O.B. ) 𝑁 = 𝑅∗ ∙ 𝑓𝑝 ∙ 𝑛 𝑒 ∙ 𝑓𝑙 ∙ 𝑓𝑖 ∙ 𝑓𝑐 ∙ 𝐿 The Drake Equation
    • This image is taken from the plaques on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft. The plaques show the nude figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft. IT was designed by a young scientist named Carl Sagan, who turned out to be one of the greatest technical communicators who ever lived. The symbols depict: - The transition of hydrogen - The appearance of our species - The position of our star relative to 14 pulsars - The makeup of our solar system - The look of the Pioneer spacecraft and its origin - If we look deeper, there’s also binary math that shows more precise location information. All in all, it’s a rich, layered pictorial message. Oona Räisänen; designed by Carl Sagan & Frank Drake; artwork by Linda Salzman Sagan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pioneer_plaque.svg
    • Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Nitriensis,_f.20r_(Luke_9,22-33).jpg
    • Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Nitriensis,_f.20r_(Syriac_text).jpg
    • This use of binary math and layers would be re-used later on in a message broadcast by the Arecibo radio telescope in Peru in 1974. I’ve placed the binary figures from that message horizontally. If you squint, you might be able to see shapes emerge from the 1s set amidst the background of 0s. Let me help with that. NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arecibo_message.svg
    • There, that’s better. This message, made up of just 1,679 digits with a footprint of just 210 bytes, was transmitted in just three minutes. Drake and Sagan worked on this. The message is meant to convey: - The numbers one (1) to ten (10) - The atomic numbers of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) - The formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA - The number of nucleotides in DNA, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA - A graphic figure of a human, the physical height of an average man, and the human population of Earth - A graphic of the Solar System indicating which of the planets the message is coming from - A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish By Arne Nordmann [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arecibo_message.svg
    • Later, in 1977, came the two Voyager probes with their golden records. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. The Voyager 1 and 2 probes are currently the farthest human made objects from Earth. The scientists who built them solved the tame problems of engineering so well that we’re still in contact with them and they’re still sending us data. NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sounds_of_Earth_-_GPN-2000-001976.jpg
    • The records contain 116 images both in black- and0white and color versions, a variety of natural sounds, music from numerous cultures and periods of history, as well as instructions for playback, which are etched on the surface of the record. You can also see the repletion of the symbol showing our star’s relative position along with the transition of hydrogen. Now the palimpsest is more complete: the layers are deeper, involve quite a bit of data and multimedia. But will an alien civilization that stumbles across this be able to replay the messages? Will they be wholly intact, in their original form? Will they have any meaning? And what action will they take in response? NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sounds_of_Earth_Record_Cover_-_GPN-2000-001978.jpg
    • NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Voyager_Golden_Record_Cover_Explanation.svg
    • By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mumbai_Guy_on_phone_November_2011_-2-5_Closeup.jpg
    • As technology and radio communications have advanced, we’ve created a variety of messages and message architectures and targeted different star systems. One of the first to arrive at its intended destination will be a series of crowd-sourced messages encoded in binary. These are being aimed at a star in the Bootes constellation as part of the Lone Signal project. The message will arrive in the year 2031. 2031 The Year We Make Contact
    • Assuming that an advanced civilization is present, listening, is able to receive and decode our message, they could respond back to us as early as 2049. 2049 The Year theycall us, maybe
    • But that’s a lot of “IF”s, isn’t it? And so we’re faced with Shannon’s four problems again: technical, semantic, influential, and entropic. What’s the probability that an alien civilization will succeed at solving these problems? And so we’re challenged by ambiguity and uncertainty. The shape beneath the sheet is the shape beyond the stars. Forging a simple connection turns out to be far more difficult than you might think at first. And while we might laugh at the earlier efforts to create that link, those technical communicators answered the call of duty: to stand united against ambiguity, to make the complex clear, to make meaning from messages.
    • So! We’ve looked more than 200 years into the past and 35 years into the future. Technical Communication wicked problems in
    • No let’s leap ahead more than 10,000 years into the future. Here we’ll be taking a look at how technical communicators are trying to solve the wicked problem of how to communicate to future generations the problems inherent with long-term nuclear waste storage. Technical Communication wicked problems in
    • First of all, here’s the obligatory photo of a nuclear test explosion. Ok, moving on. Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001.jpg
    • Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sedan_Plowshare_Crater.jpg
    • Now, whether they’re used as weapons or as fuel to create energy, nuclear materials leave behind waste products. This nuclear waste is dangerous and life- threatening. And yet it’s inherent to the generation of otherwise clean energy. JJanos Korom Dr. from Wien, Austria (Bécs 219 Uploaded by darkweasel94) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B%C3%A9cs_219_(8135332496).jpg
    • See? Even the barrel itself is feeling conflicted. JJanos Korom Dr. from Wien, Austria (Bécs 219 Uploaded by darkweasel94) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B%C3%A9cs_219_(8135332496).jpg
    • What should we do about nuclear waste and how should we communicate its dangers to future generations? JJanos Korom Dr. from Wien, Austria (Bécs 219 Uploaded by darkweasel94) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B%C3%A9cs_219_(8135332496).jpg
    • This is the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. It was intended to serve as a storage site for nuclear waste after a 2002 act of congress. However, it’s since been shuttered and research continues to find and develop a new site for waste storage. SPOILER ALERT: Movie fans will note that Yucca Mountain serves as a crucial plot point in the new “Godzilla” movie. Wow, we have/don’t have a lot of Godzilla fans here tonight. Yes, yes, I like monsters, too. User:Fastfission [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yucca_Mountain_crest_south.jpg
    • Moving on. Now this nuclear waste is so dangerous to life that it must be stored securely in a remote, underground location with a lot of shielding and other safety mechanisms. This schematic shows the plan for the Yucca Mountain repository and its three bays where waste was to be stored. By U.S. Department of Energy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yucca_Mountain_emplacement_drifts.jpg
    • But for how long would that waste need to remain undisturbed so as to be safe? Plutonium-239 is a common radioactive element used as a nuclear fuel. It has a half- live of just over 24,000 years. This essentially means that it burns off half of its radioactivity over the course of every 24,000 years. In order to be rendered as even remotely safe, it needs to pass through at least four of these half-life cycles, meaning 96,400 years, give or take. Via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-235 Half-life: 24,100 years 239 PU
    • But Uranium-235, another common element in fuel and weaponry, has a far greater half-life: over 700 million years. That means it takes 2.8 trillion years to become remotely “safe”. 2.8 trillion years. That’s a long time. If you think this keynote is dragging on, well that’s nothing compared to 2.8 trillion years, my friends.  Half-life: 24,100 years Via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-235 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium-239 239 PU 235 U
    • But Uranium-235, another common element in fuel and weaponry, has a far greater half-life: over 700 million years. That means it takes 2.8 trillion years to become remotely “safe”. 2.8 trillion years. That’s a long time. If you think this keynote is dragging on, well that’s nothing compared to 2.8 trillion years, my friends.  Half-life: 24,100 years Half-life: 703,800,000 years Via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-235 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium-239 239 PU 235 U
    • The common toolbelt of the technical communicator doesn’t, at first, have much to offer here. Our usual approach of using language, colors, and symbols can’t hope to last long enough to be relevant to future generations living hundreds of thousands of years in the future. If we look 24,100 years into our own past, languages and symbols fade away quickly. Who’s to say what might happen in the future? Thus the field of nuclear semiotics was born to tackle what’s commonly referred to as “The Forever Problem”. The US government, recognizing this wicked problem in technical communication, convened the “Human Interference Task Force” to come up with solutions to this challenge. The group was made up of researchers, historians, futurists, social scientists, and even science fiction writers, such as Stanislaw Lem. You know him as the guy who wrote the book that was made into a George Clooney movie. By Ed Siasoco (Flickr: Trinity 007) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trinity_007.jpg Languageand symbols
    • The task force was charged with creating a message to stop people in the future from coming into contact with nuclear waste. Objective Stop people from coming into contact with nuclear waste
    • Their approach was to try to create some form of message, as well as the underlying transmission and receiving systems, that would last for at least 10,000 years, if not longer. Strategy Create a message that lasts for 10,000+years
    • They were charged with three outcomes for this message. The first was to convey to any future recipients that this was, indeed, a message from the past. Messaging Goals Must convey “this is a message”
    • The second was to make sure that the future recipients understood that this is a dangerous place. Messaging Goals Must convey “this area is dangerous”
    • And the third was the tricky one: they had to communicate “WHY” in a way that future civilizations would understand. A very, very wicked problem indeed. Let’s see what they came up with. WHY Messaging Goals Must convey
    • The linguist Thomas Sebeok was member of the Bechtel working group. He proposed that we create a religion, known as – and this is true – the atomic priesthood. It would be similar to the Catholic Church, which has sustained a message clearly for over 2,000 years. It would be charged with communicating the dangers of the radioactive waste sites over the millennia. Sure, it sound funny, but beyond language and symbols, what has shown more power to endure over time than belief and faith? The science fiction author Frank Herbert recognized this as well. It’s reflected in his “Dune” series of books, where a religious organization called the Bene Gesserit seed the galaxy with myths in order to pave the way for an advanced civilization to build an imperium. Publishers of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holman_Priest_High_Priest_Levite.jpg The Atomic Priesthood
    • Stanislaw Lem’s idea was to create a global network of satellites that would constantly communicate messages about the locations and compositions of the nuclear waste sites. NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GPS_Satellite_NASA_art-iif.jpg Satellites
    • Lem also proposed that we alter the genes and DNA of plants so as to encode message within them. He called these “information plants”. They would only grow near waste sites in the presence of radiation and would serve as a perpetual warning system made of natural, renewable materials. Their DNA, once decoded, would contain messages about each waste site’s composition and other important information. Plants as a medium for technical communication. Not too shabby. Certainly beats HTML. Yeah, that’s right – HTML Slam! By Jon Sullivan (PdPhoto) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leaf_1_web.jpg Information Plants
    • French authors Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri proposed the breeding of so called "radiation cats" or "ray cats". They would – and this is true – glow in the presence of radiation, serving to warn humans that they were in a dangerous area. Yes, you’re laughing, but humans have a long association with cats. We’ve domesticated them over tens of thousands of years. And we created the Internet to immortalize them. So it makes sense that future generations would also keep cats… or be kept by them, from the cat’s perspective. Russell Bernice (russellbernice) [CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/russellbernice/2558386173/ Ray Cats
    • A fundamental component in the task force’s output was the notion of communication via inaccessible design. Here we see an artist’s depiction of a hellscape of giant thorns that would be built and grown in the dangerous area around a waste disposal site. The message here seems clear: stay out, this place is dangerous and useless for living or cultivation. Incidentally, this illustration and all of the following graphics all come from a single government report created by Sandia Labs. Over 200 pages long, I’d say that it’s one of the most interesting and fantastical documents ever produced by or for a government on Earth. I’ve included a link to the PDF at the bottom of these slides. When you download the deck, take a look if you want to have your mind blown. Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf Inaccessibility
    • The task force looked at constructing giant spikes that could be seen from miles away, or possibly from space. Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf Inaccessibility
    • Part of what they were trying to achieve was to make the waste repository site as dangerous- looking and menacing as possible. Spiky shapes with sharp angles help accomplish that. Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf Inaccessibility
    • Another approach would be to make the site look as unnatural as possible. Here we see a huge man-made square of black granite or painted concrete. An extra bonus would be that the sun would cause the black square to become so hot that it would burn skin when touched. Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf Inaccessibility
    • But perhaps a flat black square wouldn’t be enough. What about raised square pillars to block access and use? Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf Inaccessibility
    • Another approach was to encode messages in a variety of languages and symbols using layers of concentricity as one gets closer to the danger zone. It’s the same sort of palimpsest that we saw earlier with our efforts to communicate with alien civilizations. Here we see one such communication station placed above ground near the waste site.Palimpsest Approach Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf
    • Further down underground, much close to the waste itself, but still at a safe distance, would be an interpretation room, much like a museum exhibit. It would include all sorts of messages around date, time, composition, and safety. Palimpsest Approach Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf
    • Comics and other simple illustrations were also developed to tell the story of the dangers inherent in the area. Comics Sandia National Laboratories, “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (1993) - http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/921382.pdf
    • But we have no real way of knowing the impact of this work. Some of these plans might sound good, and others might sound loony. But good and bad alike, the people living today have no way of knowing their impact on their intended audience: people living hundreds of thousands of years from now. Each of these scenarios has weak points. Each has flaws which, if exploited by man or nature, would fail to achieve its goals. And yet we must try to solve this problem nonetheless. Because bowing to inevitability is surely worse than planning for some positive outcome. Or is it? And so we return to the shape under the sheet.
    • Over the course of this talk, we’ve looked at two wicked problems in technical communication. And I’ve shown how each of them pulls at us even as we pull back at them. That’s because they are rife with ambiguity, with uncertainty, with the unknown. And while I’ve turned to fantastical scenarios to illustrate this point, our lives are filled with ambiguity every day. It greets us in the morning, sits with us at meals, and is ever present in our relationships and work. ambiguity On the Nature of
    • This is the “Pale Blue Dot” photo taken by Voyager on its journey from Earth into the solar system. And later, beyond it. NASA/JPL, Voyager 1 (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=601) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pale_Blue_Dot.png
    • Everyone you’ve ever known or will ever know lives here on this speck of dust suspended in a sun beam. (Carl Sagan quote) We all live and die here, do all our work here, love each other here. NASA/JPL, Voyager 1 (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=601) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pale_Blue_Dot.png YOU ARE HERE
    • All the messages we encode, transmit, receive, and decode are all created here. Each one a cry into an indifferent universe, full of sound of fury, signifying nothing. NASA/JPL, Voyager 1 (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=601) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pale_Blue_Dot.png
    • Or does it? While I’ve talked about huge efforts and fantastical-seeming notions, we all know that we deal with uncertainty every day. Our problems – and our approaches and solutions to them – need not last throughout the ages to be significant. That’s not what makes them meaningful. Our problems aren’t meaningful because they last forever
    • What makes them truly significant is that they’re ephemeral. Most of them don’t endure, don’t last. Partially because we’re so good at solving them, at making the complex clear. But also because that’s their very nature. If a problem and its solution are meaningful enough to you and your organization to merit a journey toward solution, then the problem, by definition, is important. It matters. As does your attempts to solve it. As do you. Because you’re part of this world. Our problems are meaningful because They don’t
    • We have all of these labels we use to describe ourselves, to classify our approaches and tools and the value we bring to solving these big problems. And so of course we take offense, we take umbrage, when someone fails to recognize the clarity we bring, the meaning we make.
    • We have all of these labels we use to describe ourselves, to classify our approaches and tools and the value we bring to solving these big problems. And so of course we take offense, we take umbrage, when someone fails to recognize the clarity we bring, the meaning we make.
    • We have all of these labels we use to describe ourselves, to classify our approaches and tools and the value we bring to solving these big problems. And so of course we take offense, we take umbrage, when someone fails to recognize the clarity we bring, the meaning we make.
    • Our minor differences pale in comparison with the shape under the sheet.
    • Because what unites us will always be far more important than what drives us apart. And as the shape becomes clear, so do our connections with each other.
    • We are warriors against ambiguity. It’s what we do every day. More importantly, it’s who we are. Whether we write documentation, create interfaces, structure content and data, design experiences, or research people and places and uses doesn’t matter… we stand united in finding truth, in uncovering fact, and in making messages with meaning that matter.
    • Because wicked problems are everywhere. We see them at all levels of society, even if we’re not directly working on them. Who isn’t affected by urban planning, crime, war, public health, growing population, climate change, or scarcity of natural resources? Everywhere Wicked problems are
    • These problems touch all our lives. They impact us at every step. They are democratized. Democratized Wicked problems are
    • And so we own them. They’re not just part of the background; they are the background in which we operate. Part of life Wicked problems are
    • All of our individual ambiguity is linked to the greater whole. And our ability to deal with ambiguity and to work in its presence is often what makes or breaks our relationships, our careers, and our impact. Part of life Wicked problems are And so is ambiguity
    • This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle rendered as mathematics. It tells us a story of how we can never know a moving object’s position in the universe with any real precision. We know from quantum mechanics that this principle is built into the fabric of our universe. We can’t divorce ourselves from uncertainty, from ambiguity. It doesn’t just surround us; it’s within us. Wikipedia: “Uncertainty Principle” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle ∆𝑥 ∙ ∆𝑝 𝑥 ≥ ℏ 2 Because we live in an uncertain universe
    • We pull at wicked problems, we pull at ambiguity. But it also pulls back at us. As we adapt to them, they also adapt and change. Listen: we’re in one corner of one country in one continent on one planet that's a corner of a galaxy that's a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond. And there is so much, so much to see and to do. Because it changes so fast. Because we change in response to it. (Doctor Who quote) HiveHarbinger (HiveHarbingerCOM) [GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2; CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SuperMacro_Rope.JPG
    • And that’s the key – wicked problems change us surely as we try to fight them. They spark our creativity. “Ray cats”? “Information plants”? Inventing pictures out of binary languages? Communicating chemistry in code? Wicked problems are
    • And that’s the key – wicked problems change us surely as we try to fight them. They spark our creativity. “Ray cats”? “Information plants”? Inventing pictures out of binary languages? Communicating chemistry in code? catalysts Wicked problems are
    • Such creative responses. Because so much is on the line. It turns out that we need wicked problems to solve. Because the ignite our creativity. Creativity Wicked problems ignite our
    • The force us to shift, to adapt, to evolve. They pull us forward by asking us to think beyond impossible constraints. Forward Wicked problems pull us
    • And so when you find yourself innovating, creating something out of nothing, grappling with ambiguity to make messages meaningful, you too are tackling a significant problem. You, too, are part of a greater whole. We’re all stories in the end. Make yours a good one. (Doctor Who quote) Innovate Wicked problems help us
    • Other people without your talents, without your skills, would take one look at the ambiguity you take on and run away screaming. No, for reals! Your ability to take the complex and make it clear has an impact on people – you make their lives easier by helping them get along with less ambiguity. And that’s what makes you different. When you encounter ambiguity, you don’t run away from it. (Doctor Who quote) You run toward it. Josiah Mackenzie (josiahmackenzie) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/josiahmackenzie/3414064391/
    • So I want to leave you with five ideas. Five ways you can respond to – if not solve – wicked problems and the gray areas of ambiguity that they represent. Wicked Problems We can’t solve
    • It’d helpful to be open and direct. When you can acknowledge the presence of ambiguity in your work, you help others deal with it as well. But we can acknowledge them Wicked Problems We can’t solve
    • One of the things we do best is to ask questions. Our stakeholders and SMEs, however, often offer indirect answers, when we can get their time at all. So we need to be forceful in asking the hard questions as well as the follow-ups, otherwise we pass that ambiguity and complexity onto our customers and users. But we can ask hard questions Wicked Problems We can’t solve
    • Building shared understanding requires shared experiences. And our teams are nothing without strong, honest relationships. Collaboration and cooperation are two of the strongest – and only! – tools we have that help us take on wicked problems. But we can cooperate Wicked Problems We can’t solve
    • We’re bound to fail, especially as we take on more and bigger chunks of ambiguity in our work. The point, however, isn’t to succeed at all costs. It’s to fail as often and as quickly as possible so that we can increase our knowledge and understanding. But we can learn as we go Wicked Problems We can’t solve
    • What I love about our work is not the finished product. Not the completed puzzle. I love the journey; the fitting together of all the pieces into a greater whole. We can’t solve every problem, we can’t even, perhaps, solve the hardest problems. Or sometimes the problems that matter the most. But we can try. But we can Try Wicked Problems We can’t solve
    • We can try. And that effort, that journey, that process… it’s what we do best. It’s who we are. It matters. But we can Try
    • But for now, we’ve reached a way-station on that road. Our time here tonight is almost complete. Over the next few days, you’ll attend great sessions from leaders in the industry, folks like Andrea Ames, Ann Rockley, Scott Abel, Jack Molisani, Laura Creekmore, Alyssa Fox, Joe Gollner, Kai Weber, Kelsey Ruger, Kit Brown- Hoekstra, Marcia Riefer-Johnston, Marlowe Beckley, and several more. They’re gonna knock your socks off. And your clocks? They will be cleaned. So as you take notes and learn great new ideas and techniques and tools, I want you to keep something in mind. Coda
    • Yes, we have problems. And there are issues and challenges that seek to divide us. But they don’t really matter. Our differences Don’t Matter
    • We’re all working on the same problems. And those challenges matter so much more to the people we serve than the trivial things that divide us. Our problems Do
    • We’re united in our recognition of one problem. It’s the biggest problem there is. And the oldest. We stand United
    • And so when we’re faced with ambiguity, we’re not afraid. We don’t run away from it. Run away We Don’t From ambiguity
    • We Run toward it
    • And that, my friends, is our story. It ends not with a bang, nor a whimper, but a click. (Maxx quote) Ambiguity wicked NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    • Content Strategy Facebook Colman Jonathon NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    • Colman Jonathon NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons @jcolman
    • And you can download these slides directly at bit.ly/stc14 And I have one last message for you tonight. One last stream into the surrounding stars, one final signal that can’t be stopped. Colman Jonathon NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Bit.ly/stc14 Download these slides: