Object-Oriented Product Thinking

Introspective product builders can find themselves trapped in a paradox between (A) the product-driven Steve Jobs mentality of bending the world to your vision, and (B) the customer-driven lean startup mindset of adapting our products to the environment and the marketplace.

This fundamental tension in product mirrors an ancient philosophy puzzle.

The product-driven mindset echoes an anti-realist branch of epistemology where the world is a construction of our minds. Anti-realists emphasize how reality is malleable, something that can be transformed by language and concepts.

The customer-driven approach, in contrast, echoes a realist philosophy. Epistemic realists believe that there is an absolute world that exists independently of us. It is the job of philosophers and scientists, they say, to conform our mental models to the external reality.

It’s easy to say that the product-driven / customer-driven paradox is a yin-yang that requires a balancing act as opposed to a resolution. However, as someone who perpetually yearns for maximum strategic clarity, I find “balance” to be an unsatisfying answer. I’d rather find a way around the ambiguity.

In The Democracy of Objects, philosopher Levi Bryant argues that the world views of both epistemological realists and anti-realists rest upon their bifurcation of subject and object. Bryant writes:

… within the Modernist schema that drives both epistemological realism and epistemological anti-realism, the world is bifurcated into two distinct domains: culture and nature. The domain of the subject and culture is treated as the world of freedom, meaning, signs, representations, language, power, and so on. The domain of nature is treated as being composed of matter governed by mechanistic causality. Implicit within forms of theory and philosophy that work with this bifurcated model is the axiom that the two worlds are to be kept entirely separate, such that there is to be no inmixing of their distinct properties.

Both realist and anti-realist mental models anthropomorphize nature such that objects can only be understood in human terms. Their debate is only about whether or not human representations correlate to an absolute reality. Anti-realists hold that there is no such thing beyond our constructions, while realists aspire to accurately map an independently real external environment. Bryant distills the contention as the X in the following diagram.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 11.40.25 PMBryant elaborates:

… this mode of distinction leads us to ignore the role of the nonhuman and asignifying in the form of technologies, weather patterns, resources, diseases, animals, natural disasters, the presence or absence of roads, the availability of water, animals, microbes, the presence or absence of electricity and high speed internet connections, modes of transportation, and so on. All of these things and many more besides play a crucial role in bringing humans together in particular ways…

Put in this light, both the realist and anti-realist philosophies seem ill-equipped to grapple with the realms of tech products where people and technologies are tangled together.

Alternatively, Bryant argues for an object-oriented ontology where human and non-human objects, first and foremost are objects. Wikipedia defines this philosophy as a “… school of thought that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects”  The door then opens to examining, not just how machines can mimic human systems, but how all forms of human and non-human objects interact with each other. Bryant writes:

… where the anti-realists have obsessively focused on a single gap between humans and objects, endlessly revolving around the manner in which objects are inaccessible to representation, object-oriented philosophy allows us to pluralize this gap, treating it not as a unique or privileged peculiarity of humans, but as true of all relations between objects whether they involve humans or not. In short, the difference between humans and other objects is not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree. Put differently, all objects translate one another. Translation is not unique to how the mind relates to the world. And as a consequence of this, no object has direct access to any other object.

While I’ve barely touched the surface, object-oriented ontology feels like a solid foundation for product thinking. The extreme forms of both the product-driven and customer-driven mindsets give primacy to the single problem of how a company integrates with its external environment. It’s liberating to let go of this bifurcation and delve into the multiplicity of systems that require integration.  Product builders must integrate teams, technologies, customers, and business models who are all simultaneously interacting with society, culture, nature, and the economy.

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