06 September 2021

Sartre on far right speaking in bad faith

I keep needing this observation from Anti-Semite and Jew. It describes not just antisemitism but the sensibilities of the far right in general, in their attack on the capacity for good faith discussion as part of their method of tearing down the conditions which enable liberal democracy.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

14 August 2021

The subjective experience of ADHD

I have been watching ADHD Twitter for a while and have started capturing useful threads about the subjective experience of the condition here.





Moon-faced Assassin of Joy <@NomeDaBarbarian> wrote this, and while it does not really describe the mechanics of ADHD in the brain properly, for folks who wonder if they have ADHD who have looked at formal diagnostic descriptions but few accounts of the experiences of ADHDers, it can be a useful corrective.


I really don’t love how this test is worded, though, because everything’s from the perspective of a neurotypical baseline. “Overly” talkative? Compared to...? “You do X when it's inappropriate.” According to...?

It's phrasing like that which kept me from diagnosis for my entire life — phrasing that assumes a frame of reference I by definition cannot have. Which means I’m not supposed to notice my disorder. It's instead supposed to be reported on by people in my life.

ADHD, as described, isn’t ADHD as experienced. Instead, it’s just a list of the behaviors which piss off parents and teachers, which they want us to stop. And that’s kind of hot garbage.

Like, here are the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

  1. Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
    Well … no. Obviously not. I pay very close attention to details, and by definition any mistake is a careless mistake. What, are people out here making careful mistakes? What I’m not paying close attention to is what you would like me to pay attention to. What you have failed to make interesting, since there’s so much that’s louder in the room.
  2. Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
    I can play Minecraft for nine hours straight and forget that my body exists. It’s not that I have trouble holding attention — it’s that I’m not in control of my attention. The tasks are, whatever they are.
  3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
    Literally nothing to do with my experience here. What if, instead, you ask “Do people have to say your name to get your attention, or to have to pull you out of your thoughts before they start talking to you?”
  4. Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).
    Okay, that one seems fair enough. Would be great if it wasn’t also the one that was taken as a glaring personality flaw.
  5. Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
    No, that’s hot garbage. I am excellent at organizing tasks and activities. Because my brain cannot do it automatically. So I have to consciously do it. But the DSM isn’t asking about that — it’s ignoring what the actually neurotically experience is, possibly because it’s not an experience they examine all that much.
  6. Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
    Again, ridiculous. I can pour out mental effort like water for days at a time. What I can’t do is spend that energy on something that’s boring, that doesn’t hold my attention, or which has too many different steps. You want time to organize your file cabinet? Give me a podcast, it’s done.
  7. Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephone.)
    Again, the only ones in relatable plain terms are the ones that get called personality flaws.
  8. Is often easily distracted.
    No. If the thing I’m working on is interesting, I can’t be distracted.
  9. Is often forgetful in daily activities.
    If I’m trying to self-report, how exactly would I know?
  10. Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
    Or a thousand other coping mechanisms we use to stim, because you made it clear that what we were doing was inappropriate.
  11. Often leaves seat ins situations when remaining seated is expected.
    Expected.
  12. Often runs about or claims in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).
    “Appropriate.”
  13. Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.
    When, precisely, was “quietly” a word used to describe the platonic ideal of children at play?
  14. Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”
    I sat and focused on books for ten hours straight, forgetting that meals or bathrooms existed. Is that on the go? It’s definitely the behavior you’re trying to ask about, but not what you’re actually asking.
  15. Often talks excessively.
    “Excessively.” Anyone else follow the rules, raise your hand to answer questions, and eventually have teachers tell you to stop raising your hand. Hard to follow a rule you never make explicit, there, champ.
  16. Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
  17. Often has trouble waiting their turn.
  18. Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)
    All more or less the same thing — and none of those are what I experience.

What I experience is either:

  1. The world seems so slow — people pause for so long, and you think they’re done talking. People use so many extra words. People don’t move efficiently! They don’t line up right! They’re all … just so slow, always!
    or,
  2. My brain has, without letting me know, already filled in the last words you were saying, thought of five questions in response to it, sorted those in order of importance, queued up one to ask, and made me start asking it.

And that’s it. This is quoting directly from the CDC, who are in turn quoting the DSM-V. It’s only different for adults in that they require fewer symptoms from each category to be present. Because you’ve probably built some coping mechanisms by then.


Centers For Disease Control and Prevention | Symptoms and Diagnosis of ADHD


The diagnostic criteria are criminally short, criminally flimsy, and based almost entirely on possibly misunderstood signs (as observed by other people) instead of lived experiences of symptoms (as observed by the person actually dealing with them).

@MeatyHD says:

This, to me, embodies a pattern seen in most of the poorly-described symptoms. It’s not “missing” details, it’s seeing to many of them and not being able to properly filter them. Just like the “deficit” of attention. There’s actually an excess, that just not regulated.

Emotions? Excess, unregulated. Energy? Enthusiasm? Thoughts? The entire existence is just. Excess, which leads to implosion and eventually appears to be a deficit

(Side note: gotta love how Twitter reinforces the tendency to jump into conversations with, well, too much.)

Perfectly said — so much of what is read by others as “deficit” is in fact “surplus” which we’re unable to regulated. I’m paying attention to everything, always, and I have no goddam choice in the matter.

It's that disconnect that makes me so thankful for #NeurodiverseSquad / #ADHDTwitter. If it weren’t for y’all, I’d never have recognized myself. The adults the world was apparently counting on to recognize it called me by turns “Lazy” or “Gifted.” “Talented” but “Unmotivated”.

It's why I try to pass that favor on, too, because fuck — It is so much better, knowing myself. With that in mind, here's what it feels like for me to live inside an #ADHD brain.

@_wordsfromspace says:

First question in an ADHD assessment should be “so what exactly did it take for you to make to this appointment here today?” The discrepancy in sheer effort between my success and the assumed NT success is exhausting. (Same goes for my failures.)

Jesus Christ a thousand times this

“How long was it between you thinking you needed this appointment, and taking your first steps to make it?”

“What were your steps?”

Additionally, if you're part of Twitter (and even more so, part of TTRPG twitter), and find a lot of this ringing true ... I maybe have some extra news for you:

As someone with #ADHD who’s Extremely Online™, Twitter is specifically like a drug for me. It specifically feeds my dopamine deficits. It occurs to me that a reason why so many folks #onhere find ADHD content relatable, Is that Twitter might artificially select for ADHD folks.

Just like how #ADHD folks are overrepresented in, say, Computer Science. Because it’s an environment that plays to our strengths and feeds our specific hungers. It’s a problem-solving, results-driven career where you don’t need to read social cues and are allowed to be weird.

So of course the social media site which ...

  1. Requires short bursts of information
  2. Alerts us when a conversation is ongoing
  3. Gives us those good good dopamine hits with simple interactions
  4. Rapid-fires interesting things at us
... is sifting the #ADHD folks outta the genpop.

You know how, when you see the solution to a problem, you immediately recognize it? You knew what shape it was going to be, so as soon as you have the solution idea, it just clicks? Y’all it just clicked for me. If I want to find #ADHD folks online, I'll come to Twitter.


An update:

I’ve had some folks defending the DSM and its definitions, or suggesting that I’m quoting it in a different way than it’s intended, or saying that psychologists/psychiatrists use other tools. I’d like to address that a bit.

The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. It is the principal authority for psychiatric diagnoses, and the definitions it uses are often used to determine things like “will my insurance cover this?” It's a diagnostic manual.

To the folks saying that it has to rely on (external) signs instead of (internal or self-reported) symptoms, I don’t think that’s true. ADHD and OCD and SPD and ASD might all present with certain identical signs, rooted in very different symptoms. They may also be comorbid.

If the only diagnostic criteria are signs as noticed by parents and brought to a health care professional, then you are assuming

  1. Children's signs will be noticed by parents, who
  2. Recognize them as indicative of a disorder, instead of just calling the kid dumb/lazy/bad, and
  3. Have the resources to bring that child to a mental health provider, because
  4. There is a pediatric psychologist in their area who
  5. Will recognize the kid’s behaviors and
  6. Accurately diagnose the kid.

And y’all? I wish you could see my mentions.

Because that process does not work. It assumes that the kid won’t invent any coping or masking behaviors on their own: spoiler alert, most of us do. We’re problem solvers.

It assumes a stable household with parents who give a shit. It assumes doctors who won’t ignore or discount the kid’s behaviors. And even once you get past all of that, It assumes that the behaviors listed will match the ones in the DSM.

@q_aurelius says:

Given the likelihood of one or both parents of an undiagnosed ADHD child having undiagnosed ADHD themselves ... I don’t feel great about our chances of recognizing it in our children.

And — fuck, I didn’t even consider — given that this disorder has a documented genetic / inherited component, It assumes a likely undiagnosed parent will have the ability to navigate the multi-headed hydra of our medical system in the US to do so.

And it’s thought to evaporate in boys from the same generation as well, since at one point they’ll marry a woman who’ll take on the emotional work of [everything the ADHD brain is bad at]. Given that we're being raised by the generation where it was thought of as a disorder that only male children got, and grew out of? (Because, surprise, sexism?)

There isn’t a seperate DSM section for Adults. These are the criteria.

So.

We’re left with in all likelihood tens of millions of undiagnosed Americans,
Who almost certainly don’t have access to Mental Health Care,
Who have to first suspect something fixable is up with them.

Instead of just internalizing the voices of every authority figure in our lives, and deciding that we’re clearly just pieces of shit, full of wasted potential.

So, when we as adults finally decide, based on hearing something from someone about maybe this being something, to check The Book, You know, the one that’s available to us, the one that doesn't require us spending money we don’t have to go to a doctor? We get the DSM.

And we take one look at the diagnostic criteria, and go, “Well this clearly isn’t me.”

Or maybe we decide to do it right, and we got to a doctor we can’t afford, and they’re not a specialist in ADHD, so they also go to The Book, And ask us the questions out of it, And we say “No, that’s not me.” So they tell us we don't have ADHD.

We can’t go directly to the specialist after all, because we have to be referred to a specialist by our GP, and if they have something in their head like “ADHD doesn't happen in girls” or “ADHD goes away when you grow up” or — fuck — “You can't have ADHD if you did well in School.”

Then that care is walled off from us. And we’re already prone to think of ourselves as failures, somehow. So a doctor said, “No, you definitely don’t have it,” And what are we supposed to do, say we’re smarter than them?

Having diagnostic criteria that relied on the honest self-reported experience of the patient, as informed by the signs reported by others in their life, would save this trouble. Hell, even just phrasing the questions that way. “Have people said to you that you [x,y,z]?”

You know, since we have a disorder that’s often characterized by answering the exact question asked, without understanding the context of the question? By not understanding rhetorical questions to not be wanting an answer? You know, we natural and accidental pedants?

“Psychiatrists are using other tools than this.” Great. Good. Glad to hear it. I didn’t see a psychiatrist until I was thirty, and that was only after doing the groundwork myself. So unless you’re pushing for a system of universal mental health care, including screening?

Well, until that day, I stand the fuck by what I the fuck said.





Another thread about the relation between the external and subjective experience of ADHD, this time from iza <@plant_homo>:


ADHD might be easier for neurotypicals to understand if you know that ADHD means that our baseline dopamine is lower than a neurotypical’s.

A thread on understanding ADHD a little bit more.

The most obvious result of this is depression, but not like clinical depression. It looks similar though. Boredom, nothing seems exciting anymore, and even surface level things like not getting out of bed and bad personal hygiene are there. Because as you can imagine, low dopamine sucks. In its basis, it causes underexcitement. Someone with ADHD will take any opportunity for a shot of extra dopamine.

To an outsider, this looks like intense and always changing interests, inability to focus on mundane tasks, recklessness with money, overeating and snacking, always doing multiple things at once, inability to sit still, etc etc. And that’s what ADHD was named for: what it looks like from an outsider’s perspective. The hyperactivity. The symptoms that are inconvenient for neurotypicals.

ADHD is a disability. It causes us to be impaired or unable to function in a neurotypical world. It impacts our schooling, socialization, work etc.

But that’s not how it’s known to the outside world. People don’t know about how it feels for us to be understimulated, to have a brain that just. will. not. do what you need it to, to be marked as lazy because our symptoms are misunderstood. The biggest thing of which is the inability to start and focus on mundane tasks. When a brain is at low dopamine, it does not want to do something that will lower that even more. It'll always be looking for something to increase it. And that’s why you’ll often see us on our phones. They’re a handheld dopamine machine. Social media, games, music, all the information about our special interests is at our fingertips. That’s extremely interesting and tempting.

And before anyone compares this to addiction: stop it. Right now. All we want is the normal amount of dopamine. Compare it to being thirsty all the time instead.

So, please, before you judge someone with ADHD for something you don’t know a lot about, consider researching a little bit or asking that person if they can describe what’s happening inside their brain. We’re not lazy, just always looking for a normal dopamine level.





Another thread, this time from Rene Brooks <@blkgirllostkeys>, who has a website with great ADHD resources.


Can we talk about the curse of being a “gifted" kid while having undiagnosed ADHD? Has anyone else survived this specially crafted hell?

Beyond the torment of ADHD symptoms, add the additional criticisms of “we know you’re smart” “you’re way too intelligent for this” and “why aren’t you working up to your full potential?” Then turn those internal and they are your internal diaglouge forever. So there’s your gift.

When I got to high school we changed school districts and they gave me the option to not be a gifted kid. And I took that option. I took that option like a shot. Unfortunately, they still discovered I was “capable of more” if I would “apply” myself.

Which brings the eternal “why won’t you try” chorus from your parents.

And you sit there in shame because you know you’re better than your performance too. But you don’t know why you can’t perform. So you just assume you’re awful and lazy and say goodbye to your self-esteem.

In elementary school the rule was that I had to sit on the couch until my homework was done. I would be on that couch for hours because I couldn’t pay attention long enough to just finish. As an adult I pointed out that they should have taken this plus the diagnosis seriously.

So TLDR I was tormented by my family about my performance in school but they knew I had ADHD and rejected the diagnosis but of course now that I’ve grown up and got myself treatment of course they can see the difference but I’m still kinda miffed about the whole thing.

29 July 2021

Leverage blog

Leverage is perfect popcorn TV: a clever, absurd trifle about a group of modern-day Robin Hoods: con artists and theives working to steal back the ill-gotten gains of rich white-collar criminals.

I am interested in screenwriters and TV showrunners, and Leverage’s showrunner John Rodgers has been marvelously forthcoming about his process. During the run of Leverage he blogged at length, with at least one post about the making of every episode. An enterprising nerd has created a helpful index of all of them.

Street action resources

I am too old now for much street political action except when it helps to have a lot of bodies on the street, but I realized that I keep coming across resources and losing track of them, so I'm collecting them here. Just one thing for the moment:

A good office

At the moment, after a long season of Pandemic Work-From-Home, I wonder if I will ever return to an office. If I do, I hope it will be one as well-considered as Joel “Bionic Office”, rather than an open-office monstrosity.

Most software managers know what good office space would be like, and they know they don’t have it, and can’t have it. Office space seems to be the one thing that nobody can get right and nobody can do anything about. There’s a ten year lease, and whenever the company moves the last person anybody asks about how to design the space is the manager of the software team, who finds out what his new veal-fattening pens, uh, cubicle farm is going to be like for the first time on the Monday after the move-in.

Well, it’s my own damn company and I can do something about it, so I did.

24 July 2021

American “freedom”

David Bentley Hart's artricle for Commonweal Three Cheers for Socialism: Christian Love & Political Practice has become an instant classic because of this passage ...

Is this freedom? From what, exactly? Certainly not from the state. The heavy hand of centralized government is no lighter—its proprietary power over its citizens is no smaller—here than anywhere else in the developed world. Quite the reverse. Certainly, where taxes are concerned, no government in the developed world is any more rapacious and no legal authority any more draconian. Here, moreover, no less than anywhere else, the state governs trade, makes war, passes laws, delivers mail, does all the most basic things the modern state does; but here also, to a greater degree than in any other advanced economy, the government raises its revenues for the express purpose of transferring as much wealth as possible from the working and middle classes to corporations and plutocrats. It really would be hard to imagine a democracy whose state wields greater power over the lives of average persons. To me, at least, it seems obvious that, where health care in particular is concerned, Americans are slaves thrice-bound: wholly at the mercy of a government that despoils them for the sake of the rich, as well as of employers from whom they will receive only such benefits as the law absolutely requires, as well as of insurance companies that can rob them of the care for which they have paid.

All this being true, the classical social democrat or democratic socialist might be forgiven for thinking that Americans are curiously deluded regarding their own supposed inalienable liberties. He or she might contend, at any rate, that a state that uses its power chiefly to dilute consumer and environmental protections in the interests of large corporations and private investors, while withholding even the most basic civil goods that taxpayers have a right to expect (such as a well-maintained infrastructure or decent public transport), is no smaller—and certainly no less invasive and dictatorial—than one that is actually obliged by the popular will and the social contract to deliver services in exchange for the taxes it collects. He or she might think that a government whose engorged military budget is squandered on wasteful (because profitable) redundancy, but whose public services are minimal at best, presides over a far more controlled economy—and a far more coercive redistribution of wealth—than does a government forced to return public funds to its citizens in the forms of substantial civic benefits. He or she might even have the temerity to see social democracy, properly practiced, not as an enlargement of the state’s prerogatives, but quite the opposite: a democratic seizure of power from both state and corporate entities, as well as a greater democratic control over public policy, taxation, production, and trade.

... but really the whole thing is worth the time.

08 June 2021

Esoteric cultural appropriation

Where I am coming from

Forgive me a lot of throat-clearing; the cultural politics make it necessary. You can skip ahead to the next section, Kabballah & qabala if you want to get right to the meat of what I am here to say.

I dread resting too much of the legitimacy of this kind of commentary on identity categories, ratification by authority, or scholarship pissing contests. I would rather have this comment read on the merits. But situating myself does inform what I say, so: I am an assimilated American Ashkenazi Jew. I am not practicing, though I have thrown a kickass ritually-correct seder every year for decades. I am also a practicing, though lazy, Hermeticist with modest formal investments from a lodge in the Golden Dawn current. I am a modern Pagan who counts Ha’Shem among the gods of my personal pantheon, as the “god of my people”. Ha’Shem has a place but not an icon on my personal altar, physically above the places of all of the other gods; I hold this to be consistent with Ha’Shem’s first mitzvah, לא יהיה־לך אלהים אחרים על־פני.

I consider myself unqualified to study Jewish kabballah as a practice, though I am an enthusiastic amateur scholar in an academic sense. I have some Hebrew & Torah scholarship under my belt, but not enough. And I am not living a life of Jewish practice.

Hermetic qabalah is integral to my spiritual practice and outlook. My practice is modest and I do not want to overstate my scholarship. But neither is trivial, and after decades of engagement they run deep into my bones.

I also need to articulate my cultural politics. I am committed to the pursuit of social justice. Advocacy is not one of my core personal projects, but I believe I have given it at least the attention which every person should. I admit to some reservations about the particular school of social justice praxis which dominates the culture of social justice advocacy at the moment ... and I count myself allied with it, because social justice advocacy is more important than my quibbles, and that school is much more right than wrong on the merits.

That said, among those reservations about common social justice praxis there is a chunk of the discourse around cultural appropriation. Sometimes it is plain wrong about how culture works. Ownership language — “that does not belong to you” — serves us poorly. And I am mortified by the implications of some discourse about cultural appropriation. The implication that each ethnic people must hew only to the cultural forms of their ancestors courts the worst possible Blut und Boden Cultural Purity “traditionalist” bedfellows.

That does not mean that I dismiss concerns about cultural appropriation. They are vitally important. I believe that we see countless examples of appropriation which we have an obligation to combat.

White people need to stop wearing warbonnets, right?

Modern Pagan culture has a lot to answer for here. Western occultists have a lot to answer for here.

Kabballah & qabala

This post was born as a pair of Twitter threads, the first inspired by a short conversation with another Jewish occultist unhappy with gentiles’ use of kabballah. I said to them:

I have complex ambivalence about all this because I am both Jewish and invested in Hermetic qabalah, but I have no ambivalence in saying that you are 100% right in finding antisemitism woven deep into the history and structure of those magical systems.

Is Pagan & occultist qabalah cultural appropriation of a closed Jewish tradition? This essay is long because the question is complicated. The history is appropriative and the practice easily can be appropriative, but I believe that there is a lot of space for thoughtful gentiles to engage with it responsibly.

First, one need to introduce a distinction between kabballah, cabala, and qabalah; esotericists use these different spellings to reflect the distinctions between these related systems.

Kabballah is a body of Jewish practice & ideas crystallized in the 16th century, grounded in writings from the 13th century, drawing directly on ideas and practices at least a couple of centuries older, with many much earlier antecedents ... including a mythic lineage attributed to Moses. I lack the scholarship to judge arguments about stuff like neoplatonism and other gentiles’ thought & practice influencing proto-kabbalist thought & practice, but it would be naïve to imagine that an esoteric school created by a diaspora people is entirely novel and unique.

Cabala is a little out of scope here, and my expertise on it is weak, but I must mention it to round out the picture. Renaissance-era Christian occultists built symbolism for their own use drawing directly on kabballah, modifying the source significantly to suit their own purposes.

Qabalah comes to us through a clearly-identifiable, narrow door. The Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, a nominally Christian late 19th century English quasi-Masonic organization of occultists invented it. The HO G∴D∴ were like the Velvet Underground of esoteric groups: innovative, strongly informed by past practices, and hugely influential, much like how Brian Eno famously said of the Velvet Underground that “their first album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”.

The HO G∴D∴ had a “magical system” that was a stew of esoteric ideas from all over: Renaissance magic, alchemy, the classical proto-sciences (most significantly astrology), confused thirdhand accounts of Hinduism and Buddhism, neoplatonist theurgy, cabala, Kabballah, and more. Plus the HO G∴D∴ just made a bunch of stuff up, claiming legitimacy for it by attributing it to a mix of “secret traditions” and well-known cultural sources.

They held this mess together using symbolism they called “qabalah”, which drew directly on cabala and kabballah.

I am deliberately describing the HO G∴D∴ system of symbols, ideas, and practices a little flippantly here. It is bonkers. It is a mess. It is full of lies. But I love it. It is awesome. It has been massively influential for a reason. It works.

It should also be apparent from this thumbnail history of the HO G∴D∴ system that it is in many ways as culturally appropriative as anything can be. The HO G∴D∴ deracinated the culture of oppressed people, taking a lot of symbols with rich cultural context and then ignoring or crudely misinterpreting that context, using weighty symbols just because they looked and sounded cool. This is minstrelsy of the culture of oppressed people: not just twisting the source ideas but misrepresenting those alterations as an authentic presentation of the original. This includes when the HO G∴D∴ made stuff up, then claimed it had value and legitimacy because it was sourced from the culture of oppressed people whom they did not actually understand. The HO G∴D∴ constructing their qabalah using the bits and bobs of kabballah which suited them was both reflective of and exercise of antisemitism.

The HO G∴D∴ in London were literally at the seat of a Christian supremacist white supremacist colonialist empire at its apex, playing with the cultures of religious & cultural minorities who had been crushed under that empire’s boot.

Any esotericist who engages with qabalah must reckon with the appropriativeness and bullshittiness of this history. And understand that the influence of the HO G∴D∴ system is everywhere in anglophone esotericism. Bits and bobs of it show up in Wicca and almost all other modern Pagan practices, in New Age culture, in the banal astrology column in your local newspaper.

But one cannot accuse the qabalah of the HO G∴D∴ of being nothing other than the closed tradition of Jewish kabballah. It is not, it is just different stuff, precisely because it is such a mix of different sources and misunderstandings and misrepresentations and outright inventions.

As a Jew who does some of the practices from the HO G∴D∴, I have deep unease with elements of those practices. There is a core HO G∴D∴ ritual which involves pronouncing the divine name יהוה, which violates one of the few Jewish practices I am rigorous about! (I found myself a lodge which substitutes another name.)

So while I am not in the same place they are, it should be evident why I have boundless love & respect for my Jewish cousins who are disgusted by qabalah and gentile esotericists’ use of it. All esotericists who engage with qabalah need to grapple with the knowledge that there are Jews who have a legitimate disgust at these practices.

All of which is laying track for the opinion I came here to offer.


I personally am a Jew who is okay with qabalah. It does not bother me. If you are a gentile, it is cool with me if you work with qabalah.

Which is not to say that all qabalah is okay, or even okay with me. There sure are ways of working with qabalah which are offensively appropriative. If you are not Jewish and pitch your teaching as The True Secrets Of The Jewish Mystics, that is very bad. (It is also pretty bad if you are Jewish, though a different bad, with different cultural politics.)

This places me in respectful disagreement with Jews who say that gentiles need to step away from qabalah — emphasis on respectful. This is an ongoing conversation. I might well be wrong. They might be right. I am presenting a case to a candid world.

I disrespectfully disagree with anyone who claims that qabalah is nothing other than an appropriation of the closed tradition of Jewish kabballah. That is a crock of shit. Qabalah has a bunch of stuff cribbed from kabballah in there, but it is a different thing.

Jazz begat blues. Blues begat rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll begat rock. Rock begat heavy metal. But that does not make Iron Maiden a jazz band. Rock is full of cultural appropriation. White artists and listeners often need to do a lot better at recognizing and avoiding engaging in appropriative moves. But it would be absurd to say we should stop listening to Iron Maiden because of the distant echo of the Bo Diddley beat. In the same way, qabalah is part synthesis, part novel creation. It is living culture. Suggesting that it is just repackaged kabballah is like saying Star Wars is just repackaged Kurosawa. Yeah, there is a ton of Kurosawa in there, but it is also planetary romance and space opera and a western and a flying ace story and and and …

I cannot see an argument that the cultural appropriation in the history of qabalah makes qabalah itself illegitimate which does not ultimately make practically all of culture illegitimate. Noting is created in a vacuum.

That line drawn, I hold that this space contains hard questions.

I ask my fraters, sorors, and nonbinary siblings in the body of Golden Dawn practice to face the aforementioned problem that practicing Jews cannot do the core ritual of the G∴D∴ tradition as written.

Though I am okay with gentiles engaging with qabalah, in my opinion gentiles should keep your goyish hands off of Jewish kabballah. “The rabbi said it was okay” is not okay with me, even though there are plenty of Jews who disagree and find it acceptable. Ten Jews, eleven opinions, which stacks on top of a a whole intra-Jewish conversation to be had about who among us is qualified to work with kabballah (ahem, sexism, ahem) but that is yet another question.

I use the Hebrew names of the sephiroth of qabalah as useful terms of art. Those are the same words used in kabballah to mean things which are similar but not the same. I am cool with that. One word can mean different related things. But we must at least note the distinction.

I do not want people to recruit my words to say that the appropriativeness of qabalah is all in the past, nothing to worry about now. We still need to step carefully in talking about its relationship with Jewish ideas, tradition, and practice. I do not want people to shrug and say “Jonathan Korman said qabalah is A-OK”, or to point to anything I say here as the final word. I am one person with a considered opinion, no more, no less.

Tarot

A while back, an internet acquaintance used some tarot imagery in a game they were working on, and were confronted with a critic who said that this was irresponsible because “tarot itself is a closed practice from Roma people”. I found that surprising and not credible.

I did not see a way to reconcile that with the history I know for the Coleman-Smith deck, the most famous tarot images in the world, which were pictured in the illustration which inspired that comment. That deck is based on deliberate alterations to the secret deck designs invented by the white Brits of the HO G∴D∴, making it a creative obfuscation of a thing they largely invented for their system rather than drew from other existing tarot decks — which itself was indeed appropriative of a number of cultural sources but not, so far as I know, of any real practices of the Romani people aside from the idea that they used tarot cards with different designs for a different method of fortune-telling.

Tarot cards themselves can be traced to card games played in Italy circa 1500. The cards & designs from that era map only sloppily to the “canonical” 78 card deck defined by the HO G∴D∴ based on their numerological and other symbolism. Whether the use of Tarot cards for fortune-telling originates from Roma practices at all remains a hotly debated topic among scholars. Documentation of the practice is tangled up in romantic nonsense invented by non-Roma occultists in the 18th & 19th century.

Some time after that exchange about using tarot imagery, the Romani members of Seems Like Your Spirituality Is Just Cultural Appropriation: The Religion™ circulated an open letter: Your Tarot Card Practice is Romani Cultural Appropriation.

The argument offered by that letter that Roma people need justice and deserve reparations is ironclad. But its claims about the relationship between Jewish kabballah, Hermetic qabalah, and tarot described in that claim of tarot as a “closed practice” is thoroughly confused about the history and the mechanics of those, which I outlined above.

This presents a serious and tricky question. Even if we accept its uncertain claim that tarot fortune-telling was a Roma invention, I don’t know how to think about how irresponsibly appropriative it is to engage in the use of different fortune-telling methods with different cards with different symbolism.

I mean, I have genuine uncertainty. It is not hard to see how a white storefront tarot reader in a “g*psy” costume is engaging in appropriative minstrelsy. But is it wrong to engage in sortilage divination with those particular cards because some Roma have a story about them having Roma origins? Much slipperier.

What obligation do we have to be deferential to oppressed peoples’ ahistorical claims of cultural ownership, as a gesture of respect toward them? I don’t ask that as a way to be dismissive, I consider it a serious question.

Consider how social justice advocates agree that it is a racist gesture for white people in the US to wear their hair in matted ’locs, because doing so is appropriative of Black culture. Historically, that does not hold water. Black Americans are hardly the only people to invent matted hair — indeed, ’locs evidently did not emerge organically from Black American culture but evidently out of imitation of Black Jamaican Rastafarians, which raises hard questions about who is appropriating whom — and there are white historical examples ranging from Polish plaits to Shakespeare’s references to “elf-locks”. But whatever the history and cultural logic, it is surely true that a white person in ’locs knows that Black people will read them as engaging in a racist insult, so they are in an important sense choosing to insult. We have a broad cultural agreement that, given this, justifications white people make from cultural history are less important than the readings of Black people.

How far do we take that? One can easily make a much stronger case from cultural history that the history and structure of rock ’n’ roll makes it cultural appropriation. If some Black people tell white people to stop performing and listening to rock ’n’ roll, must we heed that? How many such critics are required before we would need to?

That last question is particularly pointed in the case of the Roma claim to tarot. I have already seen people reference this as the consensus among Romani people, while it is my understanding that in Europe Romani people overwhelmingly oppose this move. How is a gadjo outsider like me to evaluate that?

I have no satisfactory answers for those questions, only more questions and worries.

I feel queasy finding myself even examining the possibility that oppressed people of color are wrong about their own history or what constitutes a racist insult to them. That is not a good place for a white person to stand. But the nausea I get contemplating the Preserve Cultural Purity implications of this plea is even worse. Anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and folklorists debunked the whole concept of cultural purity ages ago; culture just does not work that way. Worse, advocates of social justice saying White People Need To Stick To White Things court very unwholesome bedfellows. The letter arguing for tarot as a closed practice suggests that white people should instead turn to divinatory methods “that fit with [our] interests and heritage” like ... Norse runes. This aligns with the ideology of “Neo-Volkish” white nationalists who will heartily agree that white people should stick to their noble white heritage of the runes. Surely we do not want to go there.

Figuring out a better praxis

These examples are not peripheral issues. As someone with a hand in the modern Pagan & esoteric movements, I see them as the tip of a large iceberg.

Again, we have a lot of irresponsible cultural politics and confused spiritual practice to answer for. I have seen rituals which invoke Aphrodite, Kali, and Ix Chel as “names of The Goddess”, erasing profound distinctions between these deities and deracinating the source cultures who named them. I have heard white people singing “Native American chants” which were probably fabrications ... not that singing authentic NA chants would be any better. There are countless other such examples of appropriative moves far more cringe-inducingly wrongheaded than qabalah or tarot.

Our tools for thinking about this are far too blunt. I do not have answers; I have worries.

In service of this question, I offer some commentaries to chew on.



Dr. Heidi Hart's paper Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism* looks at implied ideas of Cultural Purity in terms of their relationship with scary populist movements on the right.

Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.

Again, I think Team Social Justice should not want these bedfellows.


Leftist Pagan Rhyd Wildermuth offers the essay A Plague of Gods: Cultural Appropriation and the Resurgent Left Sacred as a skeptical response to common ways of framing these questions. He offers both an analysis grounded in left politics ...

While it may seem a bit harsh to compare social justice arguments for cultural exclusion to capitalist enclosure and private property, this cannot be ignored. Much of the discourse—especially from American activists—has inherited (or has been colonized by) the capitalist logic of property. In their framework (unacknowledged or not), cultural forms are property belonging to a specific group of people, and using those forms without express permission is theft or trespassing.

... and another drawing on an esoteric way of classifying understandings of sacredness.

The left sacred is a transgressive sacred, a sacred that seeks to spread and contaminate the rest of life with its power. The other hand of the sacred, seen in the purity codes of Leviticus, is the right sacred, the sacred that polices the borders between the sacred and the profane with an aim to stop the sacred from spreading to places where it cannot be controlled any longer.

He turns this analysis toward the same letter I referenced asserting that tarot is a closed Roma practice.

Consider again the above cited essay, which essentially claims that the Romani “own” Tarot. The authors argue that, because they believe the Romani are the authors or creators of Tarot, that Tarot is inherently Romani and has an intrinsic Romani property, they therefore have the right to assert an intellectual property right over its use. It is improper for Tarot to be used by others because such use takes it out of its proper place. And people who use it without their permission are therefore violating Romani ownership rights, a point that can be seen particularly in the essay’s repeated statements that, if someone wants a Tarot divination, they must pay a Romani person to perform it for them.

Asserting ownership and attempting to privatize something that has become common parallels the capitalist logic of property, especially during the birth of capitalism. The repeated use of the word “closed” in their essay about Tarot echoes the capitalist logic of Enclosure, the privatization of something that had been commonly used.

Wildermuth does not address the cultural politics of signaling respect for oppressed people, which as I say above I think needs an integral place in our practices, but I find his deep dive into the origins and meanings of the word “appropriation” illuminating. This is the kind of clarity we need.


Esotericist Phil Hine reflects on how the origin of chakras is as messy and strange as kabballah / cabala / qabalah.

Well the simplistic answer would be that chakras are Hindu and stolen by naughty colonial westerners then dropped into virtually every popular occult book written since 1910. That's not what happened of course.

He also observes how historical practitioners’ attitudes do not align with our cultural politics.

The problem for those people who insist that particular traditions can only be followed by those who are of particular cultures is that you can find, in the tantric literature, explicit statements against this view.

Conversations between modern Pagans and indigenous people can be very fraught. Ivo Dominguez, Jr. has a memorable story about how affinities can read as appropriation.

The last person to approach me, approached me with a stern face. I listened as he harangued me for a few minutes, as the room continued to empty, about how wrong I was for appropriating his cultural heritage. He said that as a Native American he was particularly troubled that this should occur at a conference that he expected to be more forward thinking. When he was finished, I told him that nothing in my opening had been borrowed from his culture. [...] I ran through a short list of places and peoples that had developed these sacred ideas on their own. I also said that the use of percussion is global. I stated my belief that there are some things that are perennial and universal and as such will appear again and again in many times and in many cultures. He was not completely convinced, nor did he soften his tone or demeanor.

This is painful to see, because like a lot of modern Pagans I have hopes for alliances between white modern Pagans and indigenous peoples. It is tempting for white modern Pagans to romanticize the natural affinities there, but I do think they are not simply a fantasy. If that is to happen, we will need to overcome how indigenous people have every reason to eye white modern Pagans with distrust.

Don Frew tells a story about this tension unfolding at a big interfaith conference.

In the midst of this, a number of Native American representatives, in the middle of one of their programs, read a “Declaration of War” against all those who would “steal” their spiritual practices. The Declaration named Neopagans among the thieves.

We immediately arranged a sit-down meeting with a number of the Native American Elders. We explained that their information about us was coming from the same news sources that so often misrepresented their spirituality. Why should they trust those sources to be any more accurate about us? We shared information about our practices, how people living on and in relationship with the Earth in different parts of the world will come up with similar practices, how ours are rooted in historic examples of the practices of our ancestors in Europe, and how we shared their disgust with those who falsely pass themselves off as Native American teachers to make money.

Some white modern Pagans have framed at least some contemporary pagan practices as “European indigenous religions”, like Andras Corban-Arthen, who offers A Declaration for European Indigenous Religious Traditions.

We are members of diverse European indigenous ethnic cultures who seek to revitalize and reclaim our ancestral religious and spiritual traditions. We honor those who went before us, who gave us our life and our heritage. We are bound to the lands of our ancestors, to the soil that holds their bones, to the waters from which they drank, to the roads that they once walked. And we seek to pass that heritage to those who come after us, whose ancestors we are in the process of becoming – our children, our grandchildren, and the many generations yet to be born. We send solidarity and support to those other indigenous nations, races and religions who are also engaged in the struggle to preserve their own ancestral heritages.

I have met Corban-Arthen; as a modern Pagan I cannot help admiring both his love for local pagan practices in Europe and the sincerity of his project to support them. But the cultural politics of this approach worry me on several levels.

The term “indigenous people” emerged from shared efforts by oppressed people, living in the consequences of European colonization & genocide, to build a place to ground their political claims and build solidarity among peoples facing similar predicaments. I have to imagine that many indigenous people would object to so many Europeans shouldering their way into that cohort and drawing on that hard-earned legitimacy. There are some peoples like the Saami in the Nordic countries and the Basques in Spain & France who are broadly recognized in the global movement for indigenous people, and there are numerous others fighting for greater recognition, but Corban-Arthen and his European Congress of Ethnic Religions cast a much wider net. One can easily see how that can be read as a form of unwholesome appropriation.

Further, this disrupts the hopes that many modern Pagans have for a Big Tent Paganism as a cultural movement. It distinguishes Pagan practices which are admittedly recent historical inventions from practices which have (or at least claim) a much older historical provenance ... implying that if a tradition has deep historical and geographical taproots, that gives it a claim on legitimacy which the newer religious movements lack. That seems like a bad place to stand, both politically and theologically.

Indeed, that takes us again to Blood And Soil rhetoric with its horrible implications and bedfellows. I will gladly swallow such worries when the Lakota, Aymaras, and Maori people talk about their people and their relationship to the land and bake that in to the choice of the word “indigenous”, because fergawdsake I am a white American and have an obligation to have their backs on anything I can, in the face of a history and a present of horrors and oppression. But white people do not merit the same latitude.

A start on a model of cultural appropriation

I have my own way of thinking about the base principles behind the movement to combat cultural appropriation.

One can understand it as emerging from an ambivalence about both the modern understanding and postmodern understandings of Authenticity and Identity. Postmodern sensibilities see these through a lens of multiplicity & fragmentation. There is no universal subject with an objective understanding of all culture to retreat to. Social justice advocates rightly reject modernist universalism with its colonialist / Western chauvinist / etc implications. But at the same time, oppressed people compelled to inhabit an identity which subjects them to injustices yearn to ground that identity in some kind of authenticity, pushing back a vulgar postmodernism which rejects any stability there. “Culture, Authenticity, and Identity are not slippery mush!” they say, and so turn to the response, “This thing is real and belongs to these people who can be clearly identified!”

But as Wildermuth describes above, countering colonialist modernist universalism with claims like “the chakras belong to South Asian people” still accepts modernist conceptions of property rights and crisply distinct “peoples”. That can act as a convenient shorthand, but does not hold water on close examination.

This frustration with some of the sloppy thinking behind common manifestations of the movement against cultural appropriation does not mean that I reject the entire framework and its project of resistance. There are at least three distinct modes of cultural appropriation which I think can be clearly identified and combatted.

  • Colonialism when people in a privileged position employ their power to deny oppressed people who have a cultural and historical link to a thing access to it, while they exercise or exploit that same thing from their base of privilege. So for example, when white people in a posh neighborhood open an “authentic” taqueria where Mexican immigrants could not.
  • Minstrelsy when people in a position of power engage in misrepresentation of an oppressed people and their culture, for the benefit of the privileged, sometimes even claiming credibity for their twisted version by pointing to its supposedly authentic roots. As the name indicates, the minstrel show is the classic example, but there are plenty of esoteric examples of inventing of bogus ancient foreign lineages and cribbing poorly understood elements of “exotic” traditions, as in the case of qabalah.
  • Deracination when the privileged exercise some cultural elements of the oppressed, stripping them of their context and full meaning. For example, white people with arbitrary bindi marks because they look cool.

Because the objection to cultural appropriation emerges from and serves a social justice politics, we need to apply an awareness of privilege & oppression to understand the stakes. Avoiding at least these three forms of cultural appropriation is righteous in the name of the basic politeness which the privileged owe the oppressed in recognition of the power relationship in which they operate ... that politeness is only one face of a necessary bigger project of correcting injustices.


This article was republished in the July 2021 edition of the Hermetic Library Zine.

28 May 2021

Putting people together to create new products

This article originally appeared on the Cooper website in October 2001.

When companies plan out a new product (or service, or business process) they often think of the effort as the coordination of two teams solving different problems. Engineering addresses the question “what can you make?” Marketing addresses the question “what can you sell?”

You could engineer a combined toaster and cell phone, but you could never sell it. Marketing would tell you that you have a product no customer would buy. Likewise, you might successfully market a car that runs on tapwater, but the impossibility of building one makes it a meaningless product idea. Smart organizations know that they need to combine the insights from both marketing and engineering to find products that they can both make and sell. 

You might think that those two perspectives cover everything you need for a success. Certainly, many products have had modest successes this way. But to have a big success, you need more than just engineering and marketing.

If you want to sell a new spaghetti sauce, for example, engineering can set up how you will cook and jar the sauce, while marketing can come up with ways to advertise, distribute, and promote it. But if you want loyal, satisfied customers who tell their friends to try the sauce, you have to make it taste good. Design addresses the question “what will people like?” It makes sure that the sauce tastes good.

A separate design team

Many companies give their marketing group responsibility for determining what people will like, but marketing must focus on customers and their purchase decisions. This differs subtly from design’s concern with users and their satisfaction. To succeed with a spaghetti sauce for children, you need marketing that will motivate adults to buy it, but designers need to give it a flavor that appeals to children. Marketing and design apply different skills to different problems.

With interactive products like software, consumer electronics, and Web sites, design means determining how the product will behave when people use it. Since engineering creates the software which generates the behavior, many companies leave it to engineers to decide what behaviors the product should have. But leaving the design in the hands of engineers tempts them to create behaviors which they can build more easily, or which may make sense to them but not to users. Engineering and design also apply different skills to different problems.

Responsibility, authority, and resources

Any organization draws its shape from the responsibilities assigned to its members. As most people in business know, if no one has ownership of some area of responsibility you can expect that it will not get done. Your organization’s success comes from the sum of your employees’ successes, so you must measure your employees’ effectiveness against their responsibilities. Your organization will only get what you measure.

You also need to give people the resources and authority necessary to meet the responsibilities that you give them. This governs how the different groups in your organization work together.

Design should have responsibility for users’ satisfaction with the product. Look carefully at your company—many organizations do not really hold anyone responsible for this! In order to accept this responsibility, designers need to have the authority to decide how the product will behave. They also need to gather a lot of information: they must talk to potential users about their needs, to engineers about the technological opportunities and constraints that define what the product might do, to marketing about market opportunities and requirements, and to management about the kind of product to which the organization will commit. 

Marketing has responsibility for the product’s appeal to customers, so they need to have authority over all communications with the customer. In order to do this, they need a lot of information resources including the results of designers’ user research and customer research of their own. 

Engineering has authority over all of the system architecture that users do not see. For the design to deliver its full benefit, engineering must have responsibility for building the behaviors that the designers define, on budget and on schedule. Too often, engineers get handed a schedule and vague product requirements, leaving them to guess what will satisfy management. Engineers need to get better resources in order to fulfill their responsibility, in the form of a clear description of the product’s behaviors which guides what they build and drives their time and cost estimates. 

Management has responsibility for the profitability of the resulting product, and therefore has the authority to make decisions about what the other groups will work on. In order to make those decisions, they need to receive information from all of the other groups: design’s product description, marketing’s analysis of the volume of sales they project, and engineering’s projection of the time and cost to create the product.

Design and engineering

In order to make this work, the design and engineering groups need to have an effective working relationship. They have the greatest opportunity for friction, but also the greatest opportunity for mutual benefit if they work together well.

In many companies today no one has specific responsibility for the satisfaction of users, so, by default, in those companies this falls under engineers’ broad responsibility for the quality of the product. As a consequence, engineers tend to regard designers’ plans for product behaviors as suggestions rather than directives, and instead implement behaviors that make sense to their engineering sensibilities. Software engineers, in particular, tend not to respect mere authority, and may call a design “impossible” in order to take control when they distrust designers’ judgment. But if management makes it clear that the designers have accepted real responsibility for users’ satisfaction, designers will have the respect of the engineers who, in turn, will fulfill their responsibility to build what designers specify.

Furthermore, designers must serve the engineers well by writing very clear behavior specifications. Engineers find vague requirements directives frustrating, because they expect that they will lead to requests for changes later in the process, wasting their time when schedules get tight. Engineers value designers who can give them a specific picture of what the product should do.

Engineers also may fear that unsophisticated designers will demand the impossible. Designers have an obligation to understand the technology involved well enough that engineers can really implement everything they design. However, designers should not concern themselves with ease of implementation, only possibility. Evaluation of the ease of implementation should only happen when engineering takes the design and creates a time and cost estimate to give to management.

The relationship between design and engineering shifts when the designers complete the behavior specification. Before that point, the designers draw on the wisdom of the engineers in order to understand the technological opportunities and constraints that control the vocabulary of behaviors which the product can use. This ensures that the designers deliver a design that the engineers can implement. 

After the designers have created the behavior specification, the situation reverses and the designers become resources for the engineers. No specification can anticipate every possible behavior and situation, so the designers must support the specification with explanations and elaborations as the engineers proceed with the creation of the product. This also acts as a check on the designers, ensuring that they deliver a clear specification.

The benefits of a good organization

Setting up the right responsibilities in your organization reduces costs and risks throughout the entire product development process. Engineering efforts become easier to manage because you can measure engineers’ work against the behavior specification, without mid-course changes. This makes it easier to keep costs and timelines from spiraling out of control. It also means that marketing has more lead time to prepare a campaign for the new product because they can get a good picture of it before engineering has finished their work.

The end result: great products. Your business benefits because a well-designed product spurs users’ enthusiasm, making it easier to sell, support, and market. Beloved products help to build your brand. And everyone in your organization can take pride in what they have produced.

Turning requirements into product definition

This article originally appeared on the Cooper website in August 2002.

In his newsletter article last month, Ryan Olshavsky outlined an overall process for defining new products and services, taking a look at the start of that process. But how do you get from understanding your users to a vision for an innovative product which will appeal to them?

Avoid roadblocks to innovation

For many companies, identifying what they should create in the first place is the hardest question in developing new products and services. They know how to build things, but they don’t have a good way to decide what to build.

Many technology companies simply follow the technical opportunities they see, hoping that the technology they create will find a market need. This strategy is high-stakes gambling. Many innovative products do come out of this strategy, which can result in huge profits—but many, many more “great new technologies” don’t go anywhere. This is why you want a user-centered process, not a technology-centered one. Start from an understanding of users, and find technology to serve them, rather than the other way around.

Other technology companies grow existing products by responding to the feature requests which their customers give them. In the short term, this guarantees that the product will serve a market. But you won’t get anything truly novel out of this process, just refinements of the product you started with, which may or may not be significant improvements. In the long term, you will have a product weighed down with feature creep, ripe for a competitor to come along and steal your market with an innovative new system that serves your customers in a better way. This is why you want a needs-driven process, not a customer request-driven process. Proactively figure out what your customers will want, rather than just wait for them to tell you.

Similarly, many companies have strong marketing groups who do quantitative surveys of their customer base. That kind of work is essential—it tells you where there are dollars to win—but it cannot give you true innovation because it only shows you how the market works now, not how it could work with the introduction of something new.

Innovation means delivering products and services that address needs that no-one else has seen. Development driven by technology delivers innovation, but inconsistently, because it just hopes to stumble across those hidden needs. Development driven by conventional market research doesn’t deliver innovation because it only identifies how many dollars are out there to pay for products that address the needs you already know about. Development driven by customers’ requests doesn’t deliver innovation because your customers tell you about the features they want, not the underlying needs that could be met with a truly innovative product.

To keep from leaving opportunities on the table, you have to target innovation directly by looking closely at what people need, and by giving planners the responsibility to invent new products that address those needs. Done right, this can produce not just a single product but a portfolio of products and services that address a range of needs for a range of users and customers.

Frame the question to find opportunity

This is why you want to marry traditional quantitative marketing research together with qualitative user research. In last month’s newsletter article, we discussed the importance of talking to users, and in an earlier article, Reconciling market segments and personas, we talked about applying different tools to thinking of people as users and as customers. An understanding of your potential user population provides the most powerful fuel for the definition of new products.

You also need to have a general picture of your capacities. What kind of organizational resources do you have to apply? Do you have some basic technologies you need to think about up front? Do you have a clear picture of how your products and services fit together? Planners need to have answers to these questions in order to make sure that the organization will get behind the product.

That said, some companies go overboard with talking about their capacities at this early point in product development. Big companies often want to get all of the organizational players lined up at the start, and technology-driven companies often dig deep into the technology from the very beginning of product development. Committing to a specific technology, working group, or budget before you have a product definition to talk about can mean missing opportunities that lie along a different path. Giving planners just a little background in these areas goes a long way.

Structure your company to include planning

Making use of a keen understanding of users is not just a new technique. It demands political change in your company, realigning the way that your company distributes the responsibility for developing new products. Because technology and marketing alone are not enough, you need to introduce a “planner” role that has responsibility for defining new products. I talked about how the responsibilities of these three groups fit together in my previous article.

Planners are a small but essential component in a company that creates innovative products and services. They are the ones who should be responsible for defining new products, and they are the ones who have to create the form and behavior specifications that will drive managers’ decision-making and engineers’ development work. That’s a heavy responsibility, but an important one: if no one in particular within your company is held directly responsible for coming up with innovative product concepts, then your company cannot do it consistently.

Maintain planning team continuity

At least part of the planning team involved in the creation of the product should stay involved from beginning to end, from the initial research to the final testing.

Continuity with research provides enormous benefits: nothing can substitute for the subtle benefits of direct exposure to users, especially during the definition of a form and behavior specification. Even when others have done more thorough or skillful research, planners will commonly benefit the most from research where they have the intimate familiarity of having participated in the process.

Similarly, after the creation of the form and behavior specification, its authors will have a facility with its contents which no one else can match. Keeping the planners involved as the work proceeds helps maintain the integrity of the product vision, and saves developers time and energy.

Keep the core planning team small

Once they’ve recognized the range of things that will go into making a product, many companies try to involve numerous players in the early planning process: engineering, marketing, managers, and so on. In practice, this weighs down the process with coordination and communication overhead. It slows the process and demands enormous organizational effort. It also leads to uninspired, compromised products that are plagued with feature creep, rather than distinctive products with a strong vision.

You want a small, fast-moving, decisive core planning team. Involve other people in the company, but have those supporting people respond to the core team’s requests for information and discussion, rather than the other way around. This will help the planning process go more smoothly. At Cooper, we generally assign a core team of just two planners to a project, supported by others as necessary, because a team of two can communicate closely and work quickly.

A small planning team also helps protect you from committing to ill-conceived products. If the product defined by the planning team doesn’t make sense to develop, it won’t yet have the momentum of many people’s involvement.

Think about structure first

The process of defining a product can easily get lost in details. Planners tend to start looking at details as soon as possible, but this pressure can also come from outside the planning group: In web and software projects, managers often like to see screen mock-ups as soon as possible, in order to have progress they can see. This creates problems: looking at one element of the product in detail, planners discover problems in some unexamined assumption about the product, which means making some changes to that structure, which then requires revisiting the details of some other element which had been discussed before, which has implications somewhere else. The planning gets bogged down in interdependencies within the product itself.

To avoid this, planners should split the time they spend working on the form and behavior specification in two. In the first half, they work on structure: the major elements of the product, the basic scenarios in which people will use it. Inevitably, this will demand a little bit of dipping into details, but planners should stay disciplined about focusing on structure. Once they have resolved the structure and switch to looking at detail, they need the opposite discipline, resisting the temptation to revisit and change the overall structure. Again, planners cannot avoid a little bit of cheating, but they need to minimize the backtracking as much as possible.

Take a short vacation from feasibility

Many companies, especially technology-oriented companies, start their thinking about new products by looking at the technology available. This makes sense: a form and behavior specification that describes a product you cannot build, or a service you cannot deliver, does no good. But stepping away from thinking about those real constraints for a little while, at the beginning of the design phase, can lead to better products that sometimes even turn out easier to build.

Setting aside feasibility for a bit frees the planners to think entirely in terms of the initial requirements, clarifying their vision. This often prevents feature creep, because the resulting product vision does not include any elements that are there only because the technology permits it. Occasionally, you can produce real breakthrough ideas from unrealistic brainstorming. As they work toward the form and behavior specification, planners infuse more and more reality into their thinking, progressively scaling back the idealized product they initially conceive.

Articulate product ideas in coherent chunks

Everyone knows that product design benefits from an iterative process, where the team proposes, reviews, and refines ideas. Your planning team will have to brainstorm and reflect on a number of product possibilities, but do not to try to expose the whole organization to these ideas. Your early ideas probably will not yet have reached a point of coherence where people can communicate and discuss them well.

Nor do you want to ask your planners to create heavy written documentation of their interim ideas, or bog them down with doing too many status reports. The whole point of checking in with the planners during this phase is to provide feedback to them as the product concept takes shape. Creating heavy documentation at the middle tempts planners to defend interim ideas too strongly, and confuses the organization about what the true “blueprint” is. Interim discussions with the company stakeholders should take the form of small, informal working sessions, where planners can speak from simple sketches on a whiteboard, or in a PowerPoint file. At Cooper we call these “chalktalks.”

Ultimately, you want the company to work from a form and behavior specification that provides a final and coherent description of what the product is and how it should work. Next month, we will talk about this kind of document in greater detail.

Not all web sites are alike

This originally appeared on the Cooper website in April 2003.

With the Web now completely ubiquitous and familiar, and the frenzy of getting on the Web for novelty’s sake long past, companies routinely turn to the Web to address many types of challenges. A Web site can offer a simple brochure for communicating with customers, a way to disseminate information to people within a large organization, a tool for running complex business processes, and much more. Because different sites try to address different problems, creating them requires different kinds of planning and development.

Although it may sound like a truism, many people have a hard time talking about the distinctions between different kinds of Web development, which makes it difficult to decide how to proceed. This article offers a quick survey of various Web projects and of the techniques that address them.

Basics

All Web projects call for a measure of Web production: creating the HTML, images, et cetera that will manifest in the browser. Though basic, this work remains challenging, even with the many tools and skilled professionals available in the wake of the Web boom. Making appealing, readable pages that load quickly and work for readers with different browsers on different devices remains tricky and demands careful craftsmanship. This goes hand-in-hand with the planning of the site’s look, even if the site does not have ambitions toward flashy visual design.

Where Web projects differ is in the planning they require before production begins. What a Web site must accomplish determines the kind of planning effort it requires.

A company site facing customers or partners should present the company’s brand identity. Companies with solid brand guidelines must provide Web developers with these guidelines and give clear direction about how the site fits into them. New sites, new companies, or Web-oriented companies may call for Web-oriented efforts in developing branding, rather than just an extension of an existing brand identity. This may not require a major effort, but it will require clarity up front.

Any site with static content—in other words, any site—will demand not only the creation of that content but also the definition of the information architecture that defines the navigation for the site. Even the simplest site, with just a dozen static pages, demands a little thought about the information architecture before production begins. And almost any corporate site is more complex than a small online brochure.

Complex sites

Web sites grow complex for three broad reasons. A site may have a lot of content, which makes ensuring that people find what they want tricky. A site with dynamic content makes it difficult to ensure that changing information is current and that it goes to the right place in the site. Last, a site may enable users to take some action, which introduces the possibility that they will not succeed in taking the action they want.

Often, a site involves some combination of these three elements. A news site may have content that is both dynamic and plentiful. An online database may combine large amounts of content with the ability to take action by creating reports. An e-commerce site may combine all three, with a large amount of dynamic catalogue information and the ability to take action by placing orders. Each kind of complexity demands its own combination of planning processes, development skills, and supporting technologies.

Big sites and information architecture

Everyone has encountered sites where they cannot find the information they want, though they suspect that it must appear somewhere in the site’s many pages. Organizing large amounts of information presents challenges that did not start with the Web—authors, librarians, and file clerks have wrestled with these problems for centuries—but doing this on the Web calls for a unique set of skills in constructing “information architecture.” Pages must link to other pages in ways that make sense, allowing users to easily navigate the site and find what they want.

For a site with even just a few dozen pages, information architects perform extensive planning before their work goes into production. Choosing appropriate labels and categories for information can call for research into the information domain, analytical exercises applied to the content, and usability testing with potential users of the site.

Database technologies typically support the organization of a site; any major site today consists of content served through a database, rather than just a collection of fixed pages. While that database may simply make it possible to change the top banner of links on the site without changing pages individually, turning to databases creates the opportunity to do much more, including dynamic content.

Dynamic content and content management

Over time, a site’s content changes. This must happen in a way that doesn’t cause the information architecture to break down. In the case of a mostly static site, this may mean a periodic redesign to accommodate new content. But when a site’s content changes quickly—as on a news site, for example—the site needs to have a structure that accommodates that change in order to prevent the information architecture from degenerating into chaos. This requires its own kind of planning and supporting technology.

The database for a dynamic site must do much more than it does for a static site. For instance, it must know when content first appeared and when it will become “stale.” It may need to know rules for publishing bits of dynamic content to a homepage or other index pages, which requires planning for the way information will appear on the site, the decisions the site will make about what content to present where, and the supporting structure of data associated with content.

Planning for a dynamic site involves not only the basic visual look and information architecture but also logical structures for deciding what to publish where. Complexity arises from looking at how content changes over time or how it changes when personalized for different people; thus, creating a different kind of information architecture work than what goes into a large static site. A dynamic site becomes an exercise in “content management:” the system’s ability to choose the right information to present depends in large part on how people put content into the system.

Many companies have learned that when a site grows big enough, it starts to face many of the same problems as a smaller dynamic site. Information grows stale, authors no longer work directly together, and different readers need to see different elements. Very large sites become less useful as they grow if they don’t have a foundation of good content management in place.

Taking action and interaction design

The Web began as a medium for presenting information, but many sites actually provide something very different: tools for taking some kind of action. Many people miss this very important distinction, even though it dramatically affects the planning that will shape the site and the technology that will support it.

Creating a Web tool means programming software, just like with a desktop application or a client-server system. The more complex the behaviors of the Web tool, the more sophistication the software development group will require and the more your “Web project” will become a software project.

Though most people find Web browsers fairly easy to use, this does not necessarily mean that a tool delivered through a browser will be easy to use. Making usable Web tools presents the same challenges as making usable software or electronics. In fact, delivering a usable tool on the Web can be harder than in a desktop application. If the best way to serve users involves a dynamic drag-and-drop system, you won’t be able to keep them happy with a click-and-wait Web site.

It is imperative to consider usability from the beginning of the requirements-definition process. Doing so requires thinking about some basic questions in your planning, for example: Will people use this tool just once, or will they use it again and again? (If just once, you will want to focus on usability testing to analyze first-timers’ experience. If repeatedly, you will want to research your users’ working context in order to understand their real-world needs.) Will this tool serve customers or people inside your organization? If the latter, do you need to think about how you will train users?

Considering users and usability in early requirements clearly supports defining the behaviors of a Web tool, which in turn provides the software development group with a good picture of what the organization expects them to build. The result is a software development project that is speedy and effective.

Where to product managers fit?

This article originally appeared on the Cooper website in September 2004.

People often ask how interaction designers should fit into their companies. If the company cannot take good advantage of it, the most brilliant interaction design in the world won’t help as much as simple, workmanlike interaction design will benefit a company that uses that design well.

To talk about putting interaction designers into your organization, it helps to start by talking about some other people—product managers. In the past several years, many companies have started introducing a product management (PM) role into their organizations. The way PMs play out at different companies often varies dramatically in what PMs do day-to-day, in how PMs fit into the organization, in what skills and background the company expects a PM to have, and so on. But most organizations agree at the most fundamental level about the PM’s charter: the PM has responsibility for ensuring a product’s success.

Hard questions about product management

PMs face a range of challenges. A few organizations frame the role in such a way that it becomes obviously difficult for the PM to succeed. They may give a PM responsibility for too many disparate products, or too little support from above for their authority, or unclear divisions of responsibility with other people in other roles. More often, though, companies have not made mistakes so much as struggled with hard decisions about how to define the PM role.

For example, many companies have internal disagreements about whether to place the PM as part of the marketing group or part of the development group. Putting the PM into marketing makes sense, since the ability to win customers for a product very directly measures the product’s success. But putting a PM within marketing can cost the PM credibility and effectiveness in the development group that actually creates the product, compromising the PM’s ability to affect the shape of the product itself … which of course has a direct link with the product’s success or failure. On the other hand, putting the PM under development makes it hard to keep the PM connected to customers’ needs and responsible for the product’s sales success.

This conundrum suggests that the PM might best stand outside of either group, but this presents its own problems. Working relationships become hard to define. If you have a big, complex product, then the product has both a development lead and a marketing lead.

How does the PM fit together with those? As a peer? How, then, does the PM act to control the product, without authority over marketing, development, or anyone else? As their superior? How, then, does the PM interact with these leads’ superiors within the development and marketing groups?

Who does a product manager manage?

The interaction design connection

To answer that question, let’s bring interaction design into the picture. When I describe what I do to people who have not encountered the term “interaction design” before, I say first that “I look at users’ needs, figure out what kind of product best addresses them, and create a behavior specification for that product which the development team then uses as requirements to drive their work.” Often people say, “In my organization, we call that a ‘product manager.’”

Whoa! My description didn’t describe me managing anything. Why should my description of “interaction design” ever correspond to anyone’s notion of “product management?”

This connection surfaces because organizations see that the description of product requirements strongly affects whether the product will succeed … and they recognize that the development team won’t actually follow requirements that don’t have the backing of management authority. Thus the person who drives the decisions of the development group by setting requirements must become a “product manager,” placed in the organizational hierarchy at or above the level of the development lead. So even though the PM doesn’t manage the people in either marketing or the development team, we call that person a “manager” as a way of denoting their level of authority.

In practice, the term “product management” does work well as a descriptive title because PMs concern themselves with a product and in fact do management as their day-to-day work. They talk to people in the organization, individually and in meetings, offering information and making decisions.

What does this have to do with talking to users, figuring out behaviors, writing requirements—the stuff of interaction design? In an organization lacking an explicit interaction design role, many PMs recognize that as the owners of product requirements, they have to also author those requirements. The development team cannot author their own requirements, the marketing team typically cannot write requirements that serve the development team well, and executives above the PM will not set requirements at the necessary level of detail. So the PM must do it.

But a problem emerges: the work of interaction design—all of that talking to users, solving interface problems, writing detailed requirements documents—takes a lot of time and effort. Doing this work thoroughly takes more time than a PM can spare from the work of managing. Plus, few people have strong skills in both management and design. Either the PM’s management work suffers to spare time for interaction design or the PM’s interaction design work suffers to make time for management. This spells frustration for the PM and problems for the company.

The interaction design role

Thus the organization really needs a separate person with a distinct role as an interaction designer (IxD). The work of interaction design done well demands so much time, attention, and skill that it takes a person’s full attention as a full-time job. (Indeed, at Cooper we find that a team of two or three IxDs works much better than a lone IxD.)

Does this mean that you need IxDs instead of PMs? No. You still need management authority supporting any behavior specifications that IxDs create. Anyone with management authority will end up doing management work, which becomes incompatible with interaction design work.

This distinction also helps to keep interaction design from becoming too important. Good IxDs think in terms of users’ needs and advocate for them. But though addressing users’ needs plays a very important role in determining product success, many other concerns have at least equal importance. You need a product that you can make and sell at a profit. You may have a gatekeeper customer making purchase decisions, someone quite different from your end user, who needs to see some characteristic in the product that does not matter to users. You may have partner agreements to satisfy. And so on.

The PM must weigh and integrate the various elements of success. If that PM also has responsibility for the interaction design, then either their effectiveness in product management or their effectiveness in interaction design will suffer because of their divided priorities.

Working relationships

Without IxDs, you have PMs in the Dilbert situation of trying to arbitrate “he said, she said” disagreements between development and marketing. The addition of IxDs creates a completed system of groups with interlocking concerns and responsibilities, giving a PM the ability to make informed decisions about product strategy because she has people speaking for all of the components of product success.

My earlier article, Putting people together to create new products, included this diagram showing how the different groups have different domains.

The organization thus considers these three groups as peers, separate from one another, but all working at the direction of a PM. The PM manages these three groups, receiving information from all three, giving them direction about how to use their time, coordinating their efforts.

Product creation

Consider how product creation works in this kind of organization. 
The company may start with a market they want to serve, identified by the marketing group. IxDs talk to users in the space, identifying a few different classes of users and spotting opportunities to serve them with new products. Marketing turns around and takes those classes of users and connects them with customer demographics, determining how much potential revenue those users could represent.

Meanwhile, the IxDs take what they learned about users’ needs, market requirements, and technical constraints (from talking to users, marketing, and development, in turn) and put together a product definition, describing its behaviors in detail in a behavior specification. Development then takes that behavior specification and produces a technical specification and a development timetable.

Now the PM has the information available to make intelligent business decisions. She can ask marketing, with a well-defined product and intended audience for it, how much money can we expect to make with this product? She can ask development, what time, money, and resources will it cost us to make this product? She can ask executives, does this product match our vision for the company’s business?

The PM can now act to integrate the concerns of the different constituencies in the organization. For example, if developers express concern that an element of the designed product will take a lot of time and money to build, the PM can then ask if it makes sense to defer that component to a later release. Development can answer what the costs become, breaking the product into multiple releases. IxDs can answer whether the more limited, early release product will still satisfy users, and what a more limited product will look like. Marketing can answer the impact on customers, revenue, and marketing the multiple-release strategy.

Each of the groups owes information to the PM, who then in turn makes decisions, and can hold the group accountable for executing on those decisions. IxD provides a clear picture of target users and product behaviors, and has accountability for user satisfaction. Marketing turns target users and product definition into a marketing plan, and has accountability for sales. Development turns a behavior specification into a development timeline and a finished product, and has accountability for robust engineering and meeting their promised timeline.

The PM, in this world, not only has a charter to deliver a successful product—she has the ability to actually deliver one.