Out of the Interface, Back To the Frontier

There’s something special about playing your first video game. 

It creates a portal to a new world with limitless possibilities, unlocking hidden away creativity.  For me, that game was Pokemon Silver on Game Boy Color.  Such a glorious day.  

I felt complete ownership over the world I created in this game. I could test new strategies and explore places I never imagined.  I could spend all day leveling up my Pikachu.  It was incredible -  nothing on my Game Boy was possible in the real world!  Why would 7 year old me spend time playing outside when all of the world’s excitement lived in that little game cartridge?  

There’s a reason for the fond memories of that first video game; it’s usually your first time interacting with a user interface.

We find these user interfaces around us everywhere.  We interact with them every day.  Almost all of them lay more subtly around us than the pixelated screen of a Game Boy. 

In this essay, we’ll explore:

1. How this concept of a user interface permeates the fundamental levels of the universe

2. How it rules over both the business world and our social behavior

3. The hidden consequences it creates for us as a society

Let’s get to it!

A Wild Theory of Reality

Don Hoffman, cognitive psychologist at UC Irvine, has the craziest theory of reality you’ll ever hear.  The first time I heard it, I literally had to skip back in the video to make sure I wasn’t the crazy one.  His idea?  

Everything we see in reality is a representation of something that our brain constructs and is not an actual representation of reality itself.  

In Hoffman’s words:

“Our perceptions constitute a species-specific user interface that guides behavior in a niche. Just as the icons of a PC’s interface hide the complexity of the computer, so our perceptions usefully hide the complexity of the world, and guide adaptive behavior.”

He argues that evolution has shaped our sensory organs such that we cannot see true objective reality; we can’t access the 1’s and 0’s behind the desktop interface.  

You might wonder: why don’t our brains perceive reality as it actually is?  

Hoffman makes an important point here. Evolution does not favor organisms that can perceive objective reality accurately; it simply favors organisms that live long enough to make babies, full stop.  

For example, bees have evolved to see color in the UV spectrum that the human brain can’t perceive.  From the aptly named site, BeeCulture:

Some flower petals appear to change color, depending upon the angle. This is known as iridescence. It’s often in the UV spectrum, so we can’t see it. But, bees can. They see these shiny petals and associate them with sugar. Thus, the flower becomes more attractive to the bee and gets pollinated.

We don’t see shiny flower petals, but bees rely on this evolutionary trait to survive.  Which way of seeing shows objective reality?  Neither.  This simple example lends support to Hoffman’s theory: neither humans nor bees need to perceive objective reality accurately in order to survive.   

The importance of this idea, if proven true, cannot be understated.  

Every animal, including us, has adapted to the environment around it, selectively choosing what to perceive and what to filter out.  We all have our own interfaces with which we use to interact with and survive reality. 

Cool...so what?  

Well, in Hoffman’s mind, knowledge of the interface is the first step in actually figuring out what’s hiding in plain sight!  Imagine if we could access this fundamental, objective reality, understand it, and manipulate it.  I’m not going to speculate here, but you can watch this video to hear Hoffman get into the insane possibilities of conscious agents and space and time.  

For our purposes though, we care how this user interface idea relates to businesses and our society.  If we interact with a user interface that sits on top of the entirety of physical reality, what’s stopping businesses from creating their own interfaces on top?

Through this lens, we can begin to understand how businesses create their own unique interfaces that customers interact with, contorting reality just like our brains do to the rest of the world.  

Businesses Creating The Perfect World

While humans have evolved to the point where we only interact with physical reality through an interface, businesses have quickly realized that, like Nature, they too can create a user interface for their customers.  This interface creation has spawned some of the most impactful and successful businesses of the 21st century; it has also shifted the culture in our society in unexpected and potentially dangerous ways.

These successful businesses have followed the same blueprint when creating an interface for their customers: 

They hide away the massive, ugly, industrial work foundational to their businesses and place the end product directly in the hands of their customers.   

In his essay The American Cloud, Venkatesh Rao describes this obfuscation of the messy industrial underworld, referring to this concept as a “Hamiltonian Cathedral.” Rao writes:

“Over the course of two centuries, the Hamiltonian makeover turned the isolationist, small-farmer America of Jefferson’s dreams into the epicentre of the technology-driven, planet-hacking project that we call globalisation. The visible signs of the makeover — I call them Hamiltonian cathedrals — are unprepossessing. Viewed from planes or interstate highways, grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards cannot compete visually with big sky and vast prairie. Nevertheless, the Hamiltonian makeover emptied out and transformed the interior of America into a technology-dominated space that still deserves the name heartland. Except that now the heart is an artificial one.”

What a profound idea. 

People like me who live in a city have NO IDEA what goes on behind the scenes to make the city run.  We never have to interact with, let alone understand,  all of our important systems.  Where does our food come from? How does our high speed internet get hooked up? Where does the steel come from in the skyscrapers all around us?.  It just happens.  We leave the messy, industrial logistics to the businesses.  We only interact with the end product. 

The tactics of abstracting away these processes have created resounding business success stories.  The Hamiltonian Cathedrals continue to grow.  

And over time, everything has become even easier for us customers.  

Can’t leave your home because of COVID?  Tap a few buttons on your phone, and your favorite deep dish pizza gets delivered in 30 minutes.  Forgot a gift for your mom’s birthday?  Amazon Prime has hundreds of recommendations for you right now.      

Rao argues that nothing on the “back end” has changed.  Our critical supply chains and food systems have remained the same for years.  Businesses have figured out that changing the experience of buying creates the greatest growth opportunities.  Businesses have improved their ability to hide away the back-end messiness so that customers don’t have to think about anything other than consuming the end product.   

Here we finally see the user interface that business success stands upon: It’s easy, personalized, and transactional.  They provide the experiences and the products we want with zero friction and no commitment needed.   

With a few clicks from us, a hulking industrial monolith lurches into motion, extracting, cutting, building, sorting, organizing, shipping.  We see none of this.  Just the buzz letting us know that we just got what we wanted, now.  

Comedian Ronny Chieng sums this shift up perfectly.

Who’s created the best interface?

A few companies stand apart in their mastery of this user interface.  Rao brings up one of the best examples: Whole Foods.  

Whole Foods creates a sophisticated illusion of shopping at a real Farmer’s Market, where customers forage for healthy, local food.  They create an illusion of familiarity with the food around you.  Almost as if you could say where it comes from and how it gets on the shelf.  The shopping experience aims to replicate an ideal that no longer exists (especially within cities).  The shopper never sees the crucial, massive supply chain responsible for putting food on the shelves.  There’s no need to worry about it!  We simply show up and pay a premium to have the close-to-extinct, idealized Farmer’s Market experience.  It’s no wonder one of the other experts of the business user interface paid a hefty $13.7B for Whole Foods in 2017.

Unlike the Whole Foods interface that’s been around since the 1970’s, Airbnb leverages the user interface in a modern way through their growing Airbnb Experiences business.  They saw a 295% growth in the number of experiences available between 2018 and 2019, with over 90% of experiences boasting 5 star reviews.  Millennials (myself included) love the convenience and uniqueness of these Airbnb Experiences.  But a peek under the hood shows us that a crucial user interface actually sits on top of these “authentic” experiences.  

Think of an Airbnb Experience like a simulation of a real experience.  As a traveler, you get the  benefit of experiencing local life without being a local or putting in the necessary work to create the connections and develop the skills that render truly authentic experiences.  Just like Whole Foods, the customer exerts no effort to get the experience they crave - they just have to show up!  The excellent work by the Airbnb engineering teams and local hosts to create this user interface representing an authentic experience has led to a significant growth segment to leverage with the upcoming IPO.

Other companies have even started to leverage the user interface outside of the physical world.   The user interface exists in the digital realm (albeit more subtly).  Businesses like Zapier, Webflow, Shopify and Namecheap have abstracted away the difficulty of moving around 1’s and 0’s.  Anyone can create an online store or spin up a website or connect data across disparate applications without any knowledge of the executing code behind the scenes.  They remove the messiness and literally simulate this work with a clean user interface that enables even the least-tech savvy among us to get started building immediately.

Okay...we get the user interface idea and how successful businesses leverage it. Again, so what?

Of course businesses leveraging user interfaces have provided tremendous value to us customers.  You can buy nutritious and humane food at a fair price.  Important household essentials and medicines arrive on your doorstep within days, if not hours, of needing them.  You can have a travel experience your grandparents never dreamed of. Opportunities to build businesses and create online exist for anyone with an internet connection.  There’s never been a better time in history to be a customer or a creator.  

But, and this is a big but, the negative externalities created by these user interfaces have deep consequences for us as a society.  

We’ve lost our ability to adapt to a changing environment.  The market gives us what we want, when we want it. Faced with adversity, we no longer possess the skills to adapt when we need to most.

User interfaces have abstracted away challenges worth overcoming.  Without the challenges, we’ve become complacent.  This complacency has made younger people hesitant to commit to anything hard.  Businesses have primed us to expect an easy, cheap switch when we don’t like dealing with something or it becomes too hard.

Didn’t like your last date?  Just swipe right.  There’s better people out there anyway.  Don’t feel like learning how to cook?  You can find your favorite food on one of 8 different apps.  Not sure how to spend your time productively?  Not a problem, just throw on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Video or HBO and you’ll think of something eventually.

We’ve lost our sense of OWNERSHIP and COMMITMENT over the things we spend our time on and our own growth and skills.  The user interface has made everything else in our lives so seamless and easy, within three generations (maybe less) we’ve forgotten how to fend for ourselves and improve our own lives.

In his essay, “On Cultures That Build”, Tanner Greer writes:

In 1918, America was not even a generation removed from its frontier past; the frontier was only officially closed in 1890, and the state of Arizona was only admitted to the Union in 1912. The Americans of 1918 had carved towns, cities, and states out of the wilderness, and had practical experience building the school boards, sheriff departments, and the county, city, and state governments needed to manage them…...To a large extent we wander in the ruins of the world this generation built.

Our parents’ grandparents saw the world and reality with clear eyes, and they made their mark on it.  We eat the fruits of their labor.  Today, user interfaces have made us lazy; we’ve forgotten how to access that spirit that lives inside us all that gives us the confidence to conquer the impossible.  

We’ve become passive, as French Sociologist Jean Baudrillard noted, in part through sensory and information overload.  There’s so much to consume and buy and it’s so easy with the interface, there’s no time left to sit and think, let alone adapt!   He describes our world as succumbing to simulations of reality that feel more real than reality itself.  In other words, a world where all we can interact with, and even imagine, is the user interface itself.  

Mike Solana of Founder’s Fund, and also the excellent Pirate Wires, wrote on this recent lack of imagination:

"Our conception of reality, and physics in particular, is biologically limited. There are ways of knowing about the world, and dimensions of the universe, that were simply not essential for us to perceive on our evolutionary journey. It doesn’t really matter what the bright lights in the sky are when you’re focused primarily on eating and not being eaten. We have seen some version of ‘worlds’ beyond our perception in examples of discovery from x-rays and sonar to cell biology. Is it so impossible to imagine further limitations in perception? New worlds we can’t see, or can’t imagine?

Bringing it all the way back to Don Hoffman’s case against reality, the evolutionary deck is already stacked against us.  We started the game with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind our back.  We slowly built up our imaginative and creative momentum and spirit. But the user interface has led us to wander down a strange path.  

The good news is we still have time to reimagine and strive towards this better world. 

Also good: our choices on what to work on matter.  We have to regain that frontier spirit of getting shit done, committing to hard things, and finding ways to adapt to challenges.  The first step starts with each of us deciding to work on what we think matters and sticking to it.  What becomes ambitious, yet possible, becomes clearer. We’ll learn to avoid the comfortable illusion of the user interfaces and begin to propel ourselves, our businesses and our society into the next REAL frontier.

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