Becoming a setting

I’ve been geeking out about this fascinating phenomenon when parts of one customer-vendor loop become a setting for others. By virtue of connecting the dots to find a functioning setting, we necessarily make this setting more accessible and legible to others. As one outcome, others can now copy our setting and create its clone. The discipline of business strategy covers this situation well, so I want to direct your attention to its alternative. When others can observe our setting, they may – and more than likely will – reuse its conveniences for their own purposes.

Take the ice cream shop example (boy, did I wear it out or what). When my shop becomes a destination for teens to hang out, it’s no longer about the ice cream. For them, it is a setting for satisfying their need to connect and belong. Teens take all of my hard work of establishing a setting and, just like that, make it their own. This might be good for me at first – more ice cream being sold! – but quickly, it turns into a nuisance. The teens loiter at my store after buying just a couple of cones and their youthful exuberance turns other patrons away.

In my experience, this “becoming a setting” is so common that it ought to be a law or something: as the Customers stock of my customer-vendor loop grows, the probability of this loop becoming a setting for others approachers 100%.

If we accept this “law”, our hypotheses for how our customers will behave must include scenarios of them setting up camp within our customer-vendor loop and appropriating parts of it in unpredictable ways. The more I embrace such scenarios and prepare for them, the more likely I will engage with them in a mutually beneficial relationship.

For a less made-up example, let’s look at Midjourney. If asked to define their product, my first response might be, “well, the AI-generated art, of course!” But that is only part of the story. As I mentioned before, their embrace of community-based creation, and the way they made the process of creation tweakable and shareable (thanks for pointing that out, Ade!) all hint at something different. 

Midjourney might look like a simple AI-generated art service, but as it grew, it became a setting for artists – a place where they can co-create, remix, riff off each other, and have that sense of belonging. The prompt and variation mechanism design seems to be begging: “please take this prompt and mess some more with it!”  Even if intuitively and completely by chance, Midjourney’s decision to lean into Discord had a big role in ensuring that the explosive power of creativity continued to play to their strengths – unlike the annoying high-schoolers in my ice cream example. 

Similarly, Midjourney’s eagerness to hallucinate compared to similar products becomes a feature: if I am an artist looking for inspiration, I don’t want the tool to give me exactly what I am asking for. I want it to surprise me, to stir my imagination. From the perspective of technical excellence, it might be tempting for Midjourney engineers to look around and worry about “more accurate and lifelike” representation, but that is not what technical excellence means for the audience that gathered around them anymore. It turns out, “weird and unexpected” is more valuable when it is part of a creative setting.

This is the most delightful and terrifying part of becoming a setting: it is impossible to know how it works out. Even if we have our eyes open to the possibility, we must be prepared to be surprised by what happens next. In human systems, exaptation is not a rare occurrence. It’s a continuous process. And most certainly, we must not start with an idea that we somehow can control it.

One of the greatest follies of high modernism – from architects to dictators – is the belief that becoming a setting can be constructed through a mechanical waterfall process. According to this belief, if we know enough things and think hard enough, we can draw the blueprints, plan, organize, and manage resources, and given enough time, bring forth the ideal setting of our design, be that a building, or a country. It is the belief that becoming a setting is solvable problem, that people will just come and dwell in the thing we create in just the way we planned for them. And when people refuse to and the conclusion of the waterfall process is revealed to be just a first step of an ongoing dance of exaptation, a high modernist is left with the choices of having a painful, but transformative learning experience or blaming the pesky people for screwing up their plans. You can guess which one happens more often.

A thing that might be helpful is recognizing that there’s a bit of a high modernist in all of us, and knowing how it shows up in our thinking. For instance, the irritation over “pesky users screwing up our plans” is a really good marker. Not expecting exaptation is a sure sign that we’ve fallen back into the waterfall model of becoming a setting.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: