Meta Thinking 

The future of design is meta. And may not be designed by designers.

The Bell System technical journal

In a world of abundant technology, the bottleneck is the ability to read between the lines, to exercise meta creativity. Technology is becoming cheaper by the day. Big tech is not only creating a plethora of digital products, but also setting the stage for everyone else to do the same. This is what an exponential world means. When the barrier to produce a highly complicated algorithm is removed, smart machines abound.

Employees at Facebook now have access to a graphic interface that allows anyone in the company to touch and manipulate highly advanced machine-learning models. The more layers we build on top of these technologies, the more accessible they become, and the faster we will approach this age of abundance, and also scarcity. Because this abundance—like any other—negotiates with scarcity. And this scarcity is one of creativity. 

Economies of scale seek exponential growth, making it impossible for the traditional creative to compete with large and increasingly autonomous systems. Code systems will optimize themselves, and deliver endlessly efficient solutions. What consultants in TATA call “a context of one” brings with it a world where the sheer act of finishing a thought will make it a done reality. 

With endless firepower, however, we need to know where to aim.

In order for AI to truly augment and not replace the human practitioner must too grow. If you follow instructions, those instructions can be passed onto a machine that will do so better. If our creativity is dormant, we will be automated. An organic human robot is inferior to a silicon one, because he is less efficient. When you’re unable to explain why you get out of bed in the morning, go to work, or make the decisions people ask you to make—you are losing to the machine. Efficiency will wash you away if you lack the emotional and social intelligence to open up, and to reflect on questions of agency and the powers of your practice.

Efficiency operates on lines of the known. It delivers endless incremental,  structured improvements. Meta thinking , on the other hand, is fundamentally unstructured and unknown, and therefore adaptive. It is the intuitive and spontaneous moment when reading between the lines, it is the articulation of invisible patterns, the meaning-making from the unknown. Machines can’t optimize the unknown.

A meta thinker will not be automated because she can articulate the how and why of her practice. An intentional practitioner spends time in their head. They are able to identify opportunities for conviction, and avoid those that will overfit them in someone else’s plan.

If you ever want to know if someone is intentional in their work, simply ask them what are they interested in. If they respond with what they do for a living (their job) then you can assume that they’re an intention-less cog, and like all cogs will be eaten by the efficiency machine.

The efficiency machine is made out of AI, the status quo, and human cogs. It is not interested in change, but rather more efficient sameness. It averages humans and flattens contexts. It segments the human condition. Before conditioned to be cogs,  humans always sought change, growth, and fulfillment. We navigate ambiguous situations, we make sense of unexpectedness, and we operate in liminality.

A meta thinker will be rejected by the efficiency machine, as it has no use to it. The machine only seeks those who are able to stand in line, and fit in. But our practitioner, the one able to articulate his practice, need not fit in, because his agency is internally motivated. And that is what a practice is: an exploration, a journey. An intentional pursuit of interests, gradually moving towards articulating, and always seeking allies. It is not pulled back by the inability to fit in, but driven by it. It negotiates with, but never dictated by, external guidance.

This exploration by the meta thinker is deeply personal but always connected to other deep thinkers. This is the true meaning of an exponential world: an explosion of taxonomies of meaning. Intentional practitioners connecting to those they seek. Liminal ideas in conversation with each other, the remix of intersecting fields, books, and backgrounds. It is our individual and collective ability to generate value from incomplete puzzles.

Knowledge is diminishing in value in this new world we’re building. Do you know who knows everything? The efficiency machine. You could print all of the machine knows: like my friend Paul Soulellis does in his project The Library of The Printed Web (currently part of MoMA’s collection). The websites he prints, the printing process itself, and the paper are all cheap and accessible. Paul actually makes the full files available to download. But the taxonomy Paul built is invincible; it is a generative engine of meaning. This act of human creativity is squarely outside the reach of machines, which are only capable of brute force, number-crunching pursuits.

The meta creative looks at the abundance of facts, images, and pages, to then places them in a new taxonomy, a new context, and by doing so generates new meaning, inviting others to engage with it.

The meta creative is not interested in production, because production is free. The meta creative’s deliverables are finished thoughts. Sound arguments, provocatively put together, generative and generous.

In a future of abundance we should look for what’s scarce, We should seek other creative, generous humans who are able to articulate what they’re interested in.

Now ask yourself: what am I interested in? Who are those that I seek? Articulate and reflect on these questions. These are the cornerstones of your practice, and will return dividends long after the robot takes your job.


Originally appeared in The Book of Beautiful Business