lenses and other ways of seeing

i am an advocate for seeing things in many ways. is there an Impressive Greek Word for that. polytropos, the epithet for my hero Odysseus, is not quite right.

i like anything that you can put on and take off.

i am a sucker for the six thinking hats and other corporate consulting strategies from the 80s. sometimes i fantasize about reimagining those charming but totally out-of-touch rituals with astrology, tarot, sunglasses… whatever the Cool Kids are Into These Days.


when people ask me for resources about product design and architecture, i always recommend The Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses by Jesse Schell. it’s a collection of 113 “lenses,” or ways of looking at your game. for example:

Lens #41: The Lens of Punishment

Punishment must be used delicately, since after all, players are in a game of their own free will. Balanced appropriately, it will give everything in your
game more meaning, and players will have a real sense of pride when they succeed at your game. To examine the punishment in your game, ask yourself these questions:

● What are the punishments in my game?
● Why am I punishing the players? What do I hope to achieve by it?
● Do my punishments seem fair to the players? Why or why not?
● Is there a way to turn these punishments into rewards and get the same, or a better effect?
● Are my strong punishments balanced against commensurately strong rewards?

at Khan Academy we created lenses for our own product work.

the act of creating lenses is very personal and soul-searching. the act of creating lenses is discovering pattern in your behavior.

i have a small fear about lenses. or maybe it’s a big fear. the fear is that we can apply all the lenses we want, but it’s the same eyes looking through them every time, the same visual cortex processing the information, lenses are merely chrome, they do not offer new ways of seeing, only new shades of seeing.

lens dupe.png

what would it look like to see in new ways.

this is of course a Big Question to which i don’t know the Answer. i will say that i’ve gotten a tremendous amount of value out of Rob Burbea’s Seeing That Frees, a book that is at once a deep buddhist meditation on emptiness and a handy guide for non-practitioners navigating everyday life. here’s how Burbea frames the creative role seeing plays in his introduction:

It turns out, though, that whenever there is any experience at all, there is always some fabricating, which is a kind of ‘doing.’ And as an element of this fabricating, there is always a way of looking too. We construct, through our way of looking, what we experience. This is a part of what needs eventually to be recognized and fully comprehended. Sooner or later we come to realize that perhaps the most fundamental, and most fundamentally important, fact about any experience is that it depends on the way of looking. That is to say, it is empty. Other than what we can perceive through different ways of looking, there is no ‘objective reality.’ And as we shall also see, in states of ‘just being’ which we might imagine are devoid of self, a subtle self is actually being constructed anyway… Generally speaking, a full conviction that all this is the case will only be available through the deepening realizations which come mostly as emptiness practices progress. It must be pointed out, however, that all that is needed right now is an acknowledgement that different ways of looking are, at least sometimes, possible…

could Burbea’s (very long) book be condensed into a deck of lenses, the same way Schell’s was? i’m not sure. the agency, the dexterity, the proliferation, just picture it, one hundred thirteen lenses, a fat stack of cards, shuffling, dealing, etc., all this constitutes one way of seeing. a way that is useful, scientific, error-correcting, playful, but clinical, a little impersonal, almost cruel…

the frenetic application of lenses precludes many ways of seeing, in fact the very ways of seeing that are most often missed in product development cultures: soft looking, patient looking, relaxed looking, accepting looking, passive not-looking looking.

Burbea’s approach calls for an inversion of the metaphor. something like realizing you’ve left your contact lenses in and removing them. doing that on repeat. or does it call for a corruption of the metaphor, are we are many-eyed monsters…

seeing monster.png


Now read this

preparing the corpus

i. When grandfather died we cleaned out his place. We found in the closet some shoeboxes. We found in the shoeboxes photos, letters, pressings. They came from a time in his life when none of us knew him. When had he been in Tokyo? Who... Continue →