Offering Vision To The Blind
No doubt you are well familiar with Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton’s seminal treatise on the physical forces of the universe. You should be; you’ve had 350 years to read it, and for 250 of those years Newton’s insights were deemed the last word in the mechanics of motion, light, sound, gravity, momentum, heat and everything else that governs our physical world. Look up the word “physics” in the dictionary, and there is Isaac Newton’s picture, a straight-up genius in a curly gray wig.
But Newton had it wrong. Or at least incomplete. Oh, his laws of cooling, motion, inertia and gravity are still laws (and woe betide he who tries to break them), but one of the great minds of history failed to consider a whole other universe of physical forces -- the quantum mechanics within the atom -- because he had no earthly idea they existed. He couldn’t see them, or feel them, or have any reason to look for them, much less know where to look. As a result, until the likes of Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr came along in the early twentieth century, our map of the physical universe was missing a dimension.
Newton wasn’t less brilliant for their discoveries. He just didn’t have enough information. He had what motorists call a blind spot.
He’s in good company. With his book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin forged a revolutionary new framework for the ascent of man and every other living thing. His theory hinges on “natural selection,” which is the notion of trial and error on a global scale. Successful organisms live to procreate and pass on their genetic codes; unsuccessful organisms die before their time and leave no heirs. Darwin’s evolution was an achingly slow process, functioning in tiny increments over many generations. And apart from a handful of Bible literalists, nobody doubted Darwin. He had, after all, the fossil record.
But wait. Darwin missed something. He was a nineteenth-century naturalist, trained to observe, experiment and infer conclusions. His understanding of evolution was limited by what he could see -- which is to say, uninformed by what he could not see. And what he could not see was cellular chemistry. He had no way of even imagining epigenetics, a notion of heritability that blows a gigantic hole in natural selection. Only in the past decade, scientists have documented changes over a single generation caused by proteins that can “turn off” particular genes. The chemistry (chromatin remodeling) is complicated, but it means that new traits can occur without evolutionary changes to an organism’s DNA.
Which means Darwin missed something, but not because he was stupid. It’s just that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He had a blind spot.
See where I’m going with this?
What if there were blind spots limiting our understanding of other disciplines? What about engineering, psychology, medicine and linguistics? And what about business? The world’s economy -- which exists in service of the needs of 7 billion human beings -- is based entirely on selling things of value to the people who value them. Whether it’s food or coal or a Hello Kitty iPhone cover, the entire economy is based on the understanding of what people need and want. In 2012, that was $85 trillion changing hands worldwide, all based on a received wisdom of how to best conceive, design, promote and deliver the goods and services exchanged.
So what if -- and I’m just blue-skying here -- what if that received wisdom about how to produce and sell all things to all people was based on an incomplete understanding of what people want and need? What if our current best practices, standards -- even the metrics we used to predict demand -- to measure the utility of a creative concept or to optimize a design missed vital critical parameters? What if this blind spot were not only wasting our economic and planetary resources on products with limited appeal, but actually retarding cultural and environmental health? What if the accumulated knowledge of research, design and marketing was missing a dimension -- like the quantum dimension -- that would radically or even incrementally alter business as usual?
I dunno. What’s 10 percent of $85 trillion?
Enter Heidi Dangelmaier, designer philosopher.
Founder of a New York boutique design firm now called The Human Market, Heidi works with famous-name clients to help them make existing products and new ones more relevant and meaningful, especially to women and girls. She is at first glance a bit, shall we say, offbeat. An inexhaustible articulator of complex, sometimes inaccessibly abstract ideas with roots in biology, physics, economics and psychology, she rattles off observations and citations at Gatling-gun speed, often in hot pants. Yes, she’s also got this sexpot thing going, complete with skintight clothing and cleavage, which creates a certain cognitive dissonance. Think: Marshall McLuhan in thigh-highs. So let’s just say she makes an impression.
Heidi is first and foremost a scientist. Her background is mathematics and electrical engineering. She was working toward her PhD at Princeton when she split to design computer games for Sega, whereupon she immediately encountered an obstacle that would come to define her life’s work: the bias toward a masculine worldview. Female gamers, she thought, were by nature not geared to react and destroy. She is not an orthodox feminist (however that may be defined), but she was struck by the blind faith invested by the gaming industry in the psychology of aggression. Not so much that the macho assumptions perpetuated gender inequity -- although, duh -- but that they represented a missed opportunity. Wouldn’t it expand the market by a factor of almost 2, she wondered, if some games comported with female psychology? And by the way, by erasing the feminine dimension from the equation -- assuming that all humans contain some combination of masculine and feminine traits, impulses, and so on -- did that not unnecessarily delimit the appeal of all games for all users?
In other words: a blind spot.
And so she commenced a career in design, devoted to understanding and incorporating the largely unexamined dimension of femininity. Not by telling women they’re too fat or by manufacturing cheap pens in pastel colors (“Cristal for Her”) as BIC did stupidly and hilariously a year or two ago, but by factoring in higher-order psychological needs. She has invented and sold products, brands and whole technologies. In such saturated categories as bottled water and razors, she has located and exploited untapped demand. Her client list -- from Mattel to Procter & Gamble to Merck -- is a Who’s Who of Fortune 100 marketers. They have looked past the hot pants to see a big thinker and methodical businesswoman who, by opening up new portals of design and communication, unlocks revenue.
I first encountered Heidi in late 2010 for a column I wrote about a bonus benefit of social media -- that the social Web offered an environment for young women to share ideas on their own terms, uncontaminated by the media/marketing culture fixated on female inadequacies. She had created a panel of what she called Post88s -- female digital natives of broad ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds deployed to react to the brand culture swirling all around them.
“They're seeking likemindedness, places where they feel at home,” she told me at the time. “They're training themselves not to take as a default ‘What's wrong with me?’”
Heidi’s pitch was that the advent of social media presented a historic opportunity for the very marketers whom ‘til now have prospered by persuading young women how poorly they measure up. “Post88s are a critical market to master, as they are a brand's ticket to the future,” her Web site declares. “Capture their loyalty and you will own generations of females to come.”
But if you encounter Heidi Dangelmaier, you quickly discover that her ideas are not confined either to capturing the Lady Gaga demographic or to marketing alone. Her philosophy is built on the idea that the blind spot has corrupted all exploration in all areas of human endeavor, because it fails to take into account integral pieces of human psychology and development.
This is not necessarily a novel surmise. Think of the divide between Western medicine and acupuncture. Think of the difference between the scientific method, based on objective experimentation, observation and conclusion, and the “collective subjective,” which credits the aggregated beliefs of mankind with understanding unavailable to objective researchers. Think about the difference between data and intuition. Think about Daoism, with its feminine yin and masculine yang.
You are familiar with the term “garbage in, garbage out,” which makes the point that a computation is only as reliable as the data points at hand. Well, what if a vast blind spot to the dimension of intuition, feminine energy and the collective subjective has yielded the wrong picture of how we all function, what we all desire and what we all need? What if?
If Heidi Dangelmaier is right, it has yielded a world -- especially a world of goods and services -- knee deep in b.s. And now, after five years spent mainly underground, she is now preparing to resurface with a set of protocols to restore vision to the blind. I suggest that the world pay attention because…well, the arithmetical question I posed earlier wasn’t entirely rhetorical.
What is 10 percent of $85 trillion? The answer is $8,500,000,000,000. Are we leaving that on the table?