Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Four Horses of Homeopathy and the Agents in Human Design

In this series I write about human design, and show how human design processes that lead to mass produced items of complexity are similar to evolutionary processes in living systems. So far, I have shown only a few examples. In this essay I will explain a framework with which one can understand the human design process. 

I start by describing the “agents” in human design, and a simple classification of these. Put most simply, the agents are the actors and characters in the process of human design. They contribute during the arc of the process that starts with an idea for a design, then a prototype, then production into many copies of the design, then decisions about sustainability of production and demand, and eventually, obsolescence. This arc, from idea to prototype to production to obsolescence, is universal in our world of man-made things. 

For every example of a human design that is copied in substantial numbers and then widely distributed over a long period of time, there can be many agents involved. The first person to adopt cork bark as a bottle stopper centuries ago is a different agent than the modern designers and manufacturers of steel screw caps. Despite being separated by centuries, their designs still compete with one another. 

Agents may not even know they are participating in a given design or selection process. From my last example, legislators banning promotions on alcohol and sommeliers performing wine pouring rituals inhibit the success of the steel screw cap design from displacing natural cork in wine bottles. Likewise, health and safety legislation exerts a very weighty role in human design decisions today much more than it did in the past. For example the motorcycle was invented well in advance of helmet laws. So agents are the actors with efforts and influences exerted, upon which the success or failure of each story of human design is dependent. 

To understand the agents involved in any given example of human design, a study in the history of the object in question is required. Detailed historical summaries of objects are not always easy to discover. The richest source of historical information about invention is the U.S. Patent office together with its sister agencies in other nations. In my examples I provide links to patents as primary sources of reference for human design because they are, in fact, the legally sworn testimony of the inventors. They are intended to describe the novelty and utility of an invention and they also are intended so that someone skilled in the art of construction can reproduce the invention. A design historian therefore has a rich source of reference information, and search engines like Google Patents (patents.google.com) offer everyone who is a student of human design immediate access to this wealth of historical information.  

My concept of the agents in human design arises from the design histories from the patent literature as well as other written histories of design, often by companies, or private collectors, or academic historians. But I write about human design not only because of my own “book-learning”. Design is something I do. I design on a very regular basis as a software developer, and as a biologist. I work on a much broader set of design targets than most people. I have designed software, algorithms and databases, genes, furniture and musical instruments. Some of my designs are stillborn and never make it off the paper. A few of my designs have patents and a few have become successful memes that have made it into production, with investment into scale-up and enough attention to attract both competitors and commercial investors. 

The best example of my own success in design is the molecular interaction database BIND. This has passed over the entire arc of the design process to the stage of decline and obsolescence, and even nostalgia, all in the short span of a decade. The agents in the BIND story are indeed many and their influences and outcomes were wholly unpredictable to me as a designer in the beginning. I wish it were otherwise, but today I have much more insight into the process and the unpredictability of selection. I study human design because it helps me understand the very process I undertake. 

So it is from these personal stories of design that I recognize the agents involved in other stories of human design. I will now offer the categories of agents in human design, and these will help you to understand the nature of the protagonists and antagonists amongst these agents.

There are four distinguishable categories of agents that can be identified in any example of human design: (a) Change agents (b) Prototype agents (c) Production agents and (e) Selection agents.   They are logically separable, although sometimes they may be embodied in a single person. As product complexity grows, the more numerous are the agents in each category.  

The Change agents are those who influence or otherwise innovate in the creation of novel design, or those that combine existing ideas and new ideas in a novel and interesting new design. Often the inventors listed on a patent are the Change agents. But not every design is turned into a physically real creation. Many never make it off the paper. I have not yet found an exception to the rule that Change agents make small changes to previously known designs at each stage in the process.

The Prototype agents are those individuals, often engineers or specialist fabricators, who turn the combination of new ideas into one or a handful of first examples of the product before it becomes widespread through mass production. Often the Change and Prototype agents are so tightly coupled that they reside together in one person, or work together in a close team. But even in the case of an individual there is a mental or conscious difference in the tasks involved. It is divisible into the creative thinking component, and the rote actions of construction, like drilling holes in a piece of wood, or soldering. Innovation is distinct from construction. The Change agent has the new idea, and the Prototype agent has the tools, materials and capacity to create a tangible, mostly-working instance of the idea. Change agents will seek out competent Prototype agents when they themselves are not up to the tasks required. Iterations of change and prototype may cycle many times before proceeding to mass production. Such is the case in software, as we who make it recompile only a few new lines of code, and repeat this many times before we achieve completion.

Figure 1. Four Humphreys Homeopathic Trademark Veterinary Bottles with horse head in relief. The two ponies on the right are smiling.

An example of a Change agent is Frederick K. Humphreys (1816-1900), a Homeopathic remedy vendor and Methodist Minister, who made and distributed his homeopathic horse elixir in distinctive glass bottles. I have four of these bottles in my collection, from which mould mark forensics tells the story of their manufacture and design. The Prototype agent, a mould-maker, first executes a prototype of the bottle as a wood carving, then casts a metal mould, into which the molten glass is blown into the bottle shape. The Prototype agent has no idea as to whether this elixir is real medicine or snake oil (it is the latter), but is skilled at making exactly the kind of bottle mould his customer wants. The Prototype agent does not come up with the idea of the bottle’s design, which has a picture of a horse on it, but yet has to draw it and then carve it in relief on the wooden bottle prototype. 

Equally separate, the Homeopaths in the company are incapable and have not the correct tools or training to build the prototype bottle mould, nor can they produce the bottles. The Production agents manage and operate the glass factory that uses semi-automated machines to produce the glass bottles using the mould. The mould can be brought to a different glass maker to be copied or altered and used to manufacture the same bottles on a different assembly line, this time fully-automated, and at a better price. Production agents can have different locations and completely different machines in their assembly line, and yet still achieve the goal of making copies of the glass bottle. The Production agents may copy the mould and include their corporate mark on the bottom of the bottle. One manufacturer of the bottle changed the relief figure of the horse so that it appears to smile. 

Incidentally this Homeopathic remedy company is still in business, selling bottles that contain solutions that I cannot call medicine. For example there is no clinical trial that shows a nearly infinite dilution of deadly toxins from poison ivy, colchicum, lye and a noxious weed called Bryony, can cure or effect arthritis. However a 1983 double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study published in The Lancet paper showed homeopathic solutions of poison ivy were no better than placebo, and not anywhere close to as effective as a real medication (PMID 6129459). 

Figure 2. The mould seam (highlighted with black wax) stops at the neck for the bottle on the left (at the horizontal black line) indicating the neck was hand-applied by a separate tool, indicating a semi-automatic glassblowing process. For the three on the right, the mould seams go up the neck and over the edge, indicating a full Arbogast style neck mould and a fully-automated glassblowing process.

Figure 3. The bottom marks are shown with black wax, indicating from left-to-right an unknown manufacturer (the number 6, estimated 1890-1915), the Illinois Glass Co. of Alton IL (Diamond I, 1916-1929) and the two from Whitall-Tatum Co. of Millville NJ (Triangle with WT, 1920-). The oval scar encircling the marks on the right three is the tool mark indicating they were made by an early Owens automatic glass blowing machine. All four moulds are different.

In a more modern example, these agent categories may be large teams. I recall only within the last five years that a digital camera, the MP3 music player, the Bluetooth transmitter, the GPS receiver, and the WiFi antenna were each distinct devices I owned and plugged into my computer. Today we witness them all coexisting and crammed together within the single smartphone device in our pocket. It takes a large team of Change agents to modify the design of a cellphone into a smartphone and to add in the new circuitry and software for of each of these new components. It takes a large team of Prototype agents to make a new smartphone, which is put together by subassemblies of microelectronic and optical parts. Each of these subsystems must be prototyped and tested, and produced by a different supplier. So there are many Production agents. And just as the Change and Prototype agents are most successful when tightly coupled, an emerging trend in human design is that in which Prototyping and Production agents are also tightly coupled. Prototypes are often only made from components and subassemblies that are most readily scaled up in production. 

So then, the Production Agents move the prototype of a newly designed product into a specially designed assembly line so that it may be reproduced for distribution. In this case, Production agents are involved in the human design process itself as regards tools and assembly lines. A design can be rescued from an inefficient production system by applying the design process to improve the assembly line itself. Some designs were patented decades before an efficient production facility emerged to keep up with demand, such as the light bulb, ballpoint pen and mousetrap.

A human design cannot succeed in widespread distribution without the combined efforts of all three of the agents so far described. But the design must still make it past the gauntlet of Selection. Selection Agents are the influencers that take new decisions or reinforce existing decisions about whether a produced item has a demand, will be purchased, will be complemented, should be prohibited by law, or inhibited by competition. 

Selection Agents are much more broad and diverse than the other three agents in their contributions to the success of a given design. Customers are the most obvious and potent Selection agents. A smartphone case manufacturer selects which design they will produce a case for, complementing the product with an accessory. A competitor may introduce a competing smartphone with small changes in design that inhibit sales of the other. 

Nature itself can be a powerful and unpredictable Selection agent. Many a fire has destroyed production lines housed in factories built from wood. The chance occurrence of a small spark or tipped oil-lantern is in turn diminished by incremental development of fire codes and safety regulations, and replacements of oil and gas lighting by electrical lighting. For a more recent example, before the 2011 earthquake in Japan, there was a growing sentiment about starting new construction of nuclear reactors for efficient power production without carbon emissions. But after the earthquake and resulting nuclear accidents, public sentiment took a 180 degree turn. Some governments have considered halting their nuclear power development. Another recent example is the floods in Thailand that halted factory production of disk-based computer hard drives leading to short supply and price increases that are noticeable. The decisions of computer buyers choosing between old-style spinning disc drives and faster new solid-state storage devices are affected by these price and supply situations. Here, the Thailand flood may be an agent driving customers to new technology.  

The complexity of selection is such that we cannot be sure that a particular Selection agent is the sole contributor, as it may only be correlated with selection. People often buy things they don’t need because of the awesome persuasion of marketing and peer pressure. Scientific studies have been reproducible in their proof that homeopathic remedies are nonsense and that customers are routinely duped by marketing, mysticism and the twin effects of consultation and placebo. Selection is not necessary rational or intelligent. As I described in the “Reason vs Ritual” essay, selection is truly messy and unpredictable and Selection agents are the most difficult to account for, compared to the other agents in human design. Designers have little ability to predict the large number of possible Selection agents that may arise in the lifetime of a design. 

To understand any example of human design is to understand the complex interplay and the stories of these four agents, Change, Prototype, Production and Selection. One reason why evolution is analogous to human design in miniature is because the molecular agents, the protein and nuclecic acid nano-machines of living cells, take on these agent roles. Change, Prototyping and Production agents are tightly coupled within the living cell, and the same messy and unpredictable process of Selection is the gauntlet through which each organism must pass. 

Before I expand further on the similarity, there is one more aspect of human design to consider. That is the nature of information and knowledge storage and dissemination in human design. I talked about patents here, but the changing nature of knowledge and stored intelligence requires some deeper consideration.

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