Research fellowship

Overview

I’m offering six months of funding and mentorship to you, an aspiring interface inventor, to pursue a research project we’ll choose together.

(This note assumes familiarity with me and my work; browse here if you’re unfamiliar.)

  • Who:
    • you are some blend of a designer, a technologist, and a researcher—an aspiring interface inventor
    • e.g. artist-technologists, creative tech industry people between positions, academic folks on sabbatical or leave, recent graduates still exploring, post-exit founders pursuing creative work, consultants looking for an interesting break
  • The project:
  • You’ll produce:
    • a prototype of a novel tool for thought, tested with real people
    • an essay (like this) documenting the prototype, the theory behind it, and what you learned in your test
  • You’ll receive:
    • $25,000 (+$5,000 if you’ll move to / live in San Francisco)
    • regular meetings with me for ideas, feedback, support
    • introductions to potential colleagues and employers
    • a larger audience for your work
  • When:
    • six months, ~full-time, starting late 2022 or early 2023
    • application deadline 2022-11-25
  • Where:
    • San Francisco preferred; remote OK for the right candidate (probably only within ±3 hrs of Pacific Time)

Motivation

Decades after their introduction, I’m still excited about the potential of personal computers for creating transformative tools for thought. I’m not talking about the relatively mundane ambitions of most software; I’m talking about environments which radically transform what people can think and do, so much so that they expand the set of thoughts it’s possible to think. Aspirationally, I’m talking about producing alien cognitive and creative powers—as wondrous and magical to us today as, say, a modern visual effects artist might seem to a cave painter.

I’d like to see many more thoughtful designers and technologists developing ambitious ideas in this vein. It’s tough to do, for many reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, but I’d like to help (at least in a small way) with one problem: how is anyone supposed to learn to do this sort of work?

For many other fields, the answer is graduate school. But I don’t think the relevant academic field (human-computer interaction) does this kind of work very well. Apprenticeship with industry designers is more or less mandatory to develop many of the practical skills you’d need. Unfortunately, industry designers rarely have the opportunity to invent radical new primitives, and their practices generally lack the domain-specific depth necessary for transformative insight.

I don’t know how to solve this problem systematically; I’m far from done learning, myself. But in the coming months, I’d like to help at least one person develop some of the relevant skills. Think of it as a (very) miniature graduate program. Like a graduate program, I’m hoping to be rewarded with a bit of progress on a research question of mutual interest, and perhaps, in the future, a new colleague.

What we’ll do

Research is messy, so we’ll co-create the exact structure as we go. But here’s a rough sketch.

We’ll identify a project of mutual interest, one where some increment seems possible within six months. We’ll meet a couple times per week to discuss your work. You’re driving the project day-to-day; I’ll push on your thinking, generate ideas, offer logistical/emotional support, suggest reading; etc. You’ll develop a theory and instantiate it in a software system. We’ll test the prototype in some authentic context, and we’ll use the observations to improve our ideas. You’ll cap the fellowship by writing (or co-authoring) an informal essay (like this or this) or an academic paper about the work.

If you’re comfortable with it, I’ll encourage you to work in public. I’ll help your outputs reach a broad audience. If all goes well, you’ll wind up with a great project under your belt, and a much clearer understanding of your own research interests and methods.

The fellowship includes a $25,000 stipend, meant to help free you for full-time work on this project for six months. Collaboration is much better in person; I’ll provide an extra $5,000 if you’ll move to San Francisco (or live here already). I’m happy to introduce you to group houses where you can find an affordable room and lots of interesting people. My means are quite limited: this award isn’t an employment relationship; you’ll use your own equipment and cover your own taxes; I’ll provide no health insurance or other benefits. I can’t sponsor visas myself, but I can connect you with some folks who may be able to help you find a viable visa situation. You’ll freely license any work you produce during the fellowship, but you can commercialize subsequent derivative work if you like.

Apart from the mentorship and financial support, I can introduce you to peers, users, and potential post-fellowship employers. If you’d like a title for this period besides “Research Fellow”, I’m probably amenable.

We’ll need to align on a project of mutual interest. The most straightforward route would be for you to pick up a research sketch from my work/collaborations which I haven’t yet pursued (e.g. timeful texts, doing-centric explanatory mediums, mnemonic video, programmable attention, peripheral vision). You’re also welcome to propose a riff or a thematically aligned project of your own creation. Selfishly, I’d like the fellowship project to advance my own research agenda, though perhaps tangentially.

Who should apply

There are no credential requirements (years of experience, a PhD, etc). Continuing the “miniature graduate program” analogy, this fellowship is intended for people who are at the cusp of independent work in this space. You have ideas; you have enthusiasm; you can design and build interfaces; you can read and write carefully. You’ve done relevant small projects, perhaps in a supporting capacity. Now you’re looking to take on a more ambitious project—with help, yes, but in the driver’s seat.

More concretely, you’re ready to make semi-independent progress on a six-month-scale project of mutual interest. You’ll get a lot of guidance in an intense synchronous meeting, then you’ll need to make real headway alone for a few days, until we next meet. You’ll need enough velocity across six months to accumulate a shot at some modest, but meaningful, increment.

In our discussions, I’ll focus on ideas, theory, and conceptual design, since those are the topics which are hardest to develop elsewhere in tech culture. You’ll execute the novel interface end-to-end yourself. That part should be relatively easy; we want the difficulty to be in conceiving it. So while you need only semi-independence in a research capacity, you’ll need both the design and engineering background for full independence in implementation. Engineers will need a design portfolio; designers will need enough technical capacity to produce high-fidelity prototypes we can test in authentic contexts.

Why you might not like this fellowship

I almost offered a fellowship like this last year, but I worried there was too much risk for the recipient. Friends have convinced me that I should leave that concern to you—who am I to judge your risk tolerance? Still, I’d like to share a few important reasons why this fellowship might be a bad idea.

First and foremost, I don’t have an answer for “what comes after the fellowship?”, at all. I don’t think there is a good answer. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to cobble together support for myself as an independent researcher, but I don’t think it would have been possible without accumulating social, intellectual, and financial capital in my earlier roles. It’s very unlikely that a early-career technologist could jump into a situation like mine immediately from university, or from their first few years of industry work. This fellowship won’t be enough to bridge that gap. Several consecutive fellowships of this size probably wouldn’t be enough to bridge that gap. I don’t know how, in general, to bridge that gap. The modal outcome here is: you work with me for six months, then you go back to industry or grad school with a cool project under your belt. With luck, you’ll get a more interesting role as a result, and you’ll get a bit closer to someday achieving creative independence. It’s possible that your work will generate enough enthusiasm that we could raise an extension to fund follow-ups; if that looks possible, I’ll absolutely help make it happen.

“What comes after the fellowship?” is a problem for your career path, but it’s also a problem for your fellowship work, and for the field. You’re not going to create “alien cognitive and creative powers” in six months. Hopefully you’ll produce a real increment, and you’ll build skills, and that’s great—but who’s going to do the next iteration? I might, but I’m one person, and I have other projects on my plate. You might later, if you can find a route to independence. There are only a handful of others right now who might build on your work. This fellowship is a bet that in the future, we’ll figure out how to fund more people doing long projects in this space.

There’s a pretty good chance that nothing meaningful comes of this fellowship. That’s true of real graduate programs, of course. But it’s especially true here. This is a proto-field. We don’t clearly know what skills are necessary to make progress, and we certainly don’t have practices for teaching them. My own research methods and directions may lead only to dead ends or incremental outcomes. It’s not clear that systematic progress is even possible, that this can ever become a field—that is, that we can discover fundamental principles from designing one tool for thought which can help us design a better related one. Field aside: I have some experience mentoring developing researchers, but I have much less than a typical university professor would; and I haven’t run a program like this before. Finally, independent research has its own challenges. You won’t have the structure or legibility of a formal institution, nor fellow graduate students to encounter at lunch.

All that said: for the right person—unusual though they might be—I still believe this is a great opportunity. Almost no one ends up doing path-breaking creative work full-time without taking on precarious circumstances for a while. No one can hand you a clear-cut path. I wish it were otherwise, of course, but that won’t stop me from providing what help I can.

How to apply

Submit this form by 2022-11-25, 6PM PST. You’ll be asked to:

  • Give an overview of your research interests
  • Describe what project you might like to pursue
  • Sketch your background and any relevant experience
  • Share what you hope to get out of the fellowship
  • Provide a design portfolio

Finalists will have a video chat with me. Depending on your background, I’ll probably suggest a (paid) two-week try-out period, which can be part-time if your circumstances require. Even if we don’t move forward, I expect you’d find that short period quite useful.

I’ll aim to make a decision by 2022-12-16.