When I was in 5th or 6th grade, I went to a summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains. The first time I went canoeing, I remember noticing a mysterious phenomena no-one could explain: as I pushed my paddle through the water, two little whirlpools spun from its edges, spiraling away into the lake long after I pulled my paddle from the water.
What were they? Why did they form?
It was trying to figure it out for myself that pulled me into a love for physics and math: together, they give you a map by which you can work out the whys of the universe.
You can find the same vortex in the eddies at the edges of streams, in the rising warmth of dust devils, in the dangerous air-rotors lurking behind cliffs. There are simple, unseen rules that govern everything.
As a teenager, Aza gave talks on interfaces and toured with the San Francisco Youth Symphony. He studied physics and abstract math in college and continued to dark-matter research at Cal Tech, but left his PhD program after three months. Aza returned to design, and has founded or had leadership roles at the Center for Humane Technology, the Earth Species Project, Mozilla, Massive Health, and Songza.
Metaphors are maps that preserve relationships.
They help you understand one thing by borrowing your understanding of another. They let you understand something huge by understanding something small; something you can’t touch by something you can.
The better your maps, the deeper variety of things you can understand with what you already know. The deeper variety of things you know, the more your maps can teach you how the world is actually the same.
By walking more territory and bettering your maps, you can find constant insight into whatever you care about most.
These maps—your metaphors—help light the universe’s simple, unseen rules.
Aza grew up steeped in the values that gave birth to Silicon Valley: the Englebartian-view that computers should augment our collective intelligence. His father, Jef Raskin, started the Macintosh project at Apple and used the word "humane" to describe its philosophy.
In Aza's final year of college, his father died abruptly of pancreatic cancer. They had shared a close intellectual relationship.
"My Father's Final Gift" is one of Aza's most well-read essays on design. He later gave it as a TEDx talk.
Aza learned a lot, mostly by accident...
He started Humanized, a small interface design company in Chicago (2005). He worked on natural language interfaces and invented infinite scroll (2006). He made Bloxes—adult cardboard legos—with his sister Aviva and friends. He started Songza with Scott Robbins (2007), now a part of Google. He was a member of the team that founded Mozilla Labs with Chris Beard, who since 2014 has been Mozilla's CEO (2008). He helped bring geolocation to the web (2008). He did the first explorations of how web browsers should be designed for mobile (2008). He worked on what interfaces could do with your data by predicting your behavior (2008). He continued working on language interfaces and released Ubiquity, which became something of geeky cult hit (2009). He gave a TED Talk on it (2009).
He started Privacy Icons to protect human data rights (2010). He worked on web security (2010). He gave the John Seely Brown Symposium on the limits of human memory and how technology could overwhelm who we are (2010).
He left Mozilla to found Massive Health, a consumer health company that explored how to use design and data to change behavior (2011). He became Fast Company's Master of Design (2011). Then Inc. and Forbes 30-under-30 (2012).
In 2017, Aza returned to his roots to co-found the Center for Humane Technology, with his long-time friend Tristan Harris.
A Humane Movement
We desperately need a new movement taking us from being sophisticated about technology to being sophisticated about human nature.
As the power of technology to overwhelm us has increased… and because our technology is not designed with sophistication of ourselves… it is increasingly doing damage to who we are, what we value, how we decide.
I think of human beings as a kind of origami. We bend and fold in some ways and not others. Relationships, communities, and societies, too. If we bend and fold ourselves the wrong way, our relationships rip, our communities tear, and our societies come apart.
Technology is playing an increasingly central role in crumpling our humanity into distracted lives, polarized cultures, societal incoherence... just as we are feeling the first flame-licks of global climate change.
Awareness brings the opportunity for choice, but we have few names for what we are losing. If we did, we could protect more of them.
The study of how to design for the way our bodies bend and fold is called “ergonomics”.
The study of how to design for the way our minds bend and fold is called “cognetics”.
There is not yet a name for the unified study of how to design for the way our relationships, communities, and societies bend and fold.
It’s a fascinating and urgent field awaiting its first explorers.
I ask myself often, “What is technology even for?”
My current answer: Technology is for extending the parts of us humans that are most brilliant... for making tools that let us express more deeply our capacities and creativities.
That’s what a cello is. That’s what a paint brush is. That’s what language is.
Technology isn’t about making us super human, it’s about making us extra human.
That sophistication will take a compassionate and clear-eyed look, not into screens, but mirrors... seeing ourselves as the complex creature Homo Sapiens Sapiens, one fantastical species among many, so that we can choose what we are going to do about it.
He's a member of the World Economic Forum's Global AI Council and has a leadership role at Stochastic Labs, which convenes the best creative minds in the SF bay area and beyond for conversations and art residencies in a curious Victorian mansion in Berkeley.
He's collaborated on site-specific work in the Korean DMZ (2018), he and Alexa Meade have created experiential art installations (2017), he's co-curating this year's Ars Electronica (2019), and sometimes he paints his toe nails gold.
My two younger sisters have a different answer to the unvoiced question of growing up in our house.
Aenea, eight years younger, is a middle-school teacher, dedicating her life to nourishing the future. Aviva, three years younger, just graduated with a double masters in social work and public health. Both follow the inspiration of my mother, Linda, who is a nurse practitioner with a passion for end-of-life care and has helped thousands of families—one by one—find dignity and meaning in death.
There's a tactility to their work beyond what pixels can muster.