Western cultures tend to be fairly individualistic and self-centered. That affects everything from our expectations regarding online privacy to our friendships and family relationships. But not everyone in the world thinks that way and acts accordingly.

Even the Golden Rule that so many of us are taught as kids was superseded when I got older by the Platinum Rule. Instead of treating others as you would want to be treated, treat them as they would want to be treated. 

Since most of the tech giants that run our world are Western companies, Western culture tends to strongly shape those products and platforms. Humans are also creatures of habit, so we’re a lot better at tweaking something that already exists than coming up with wholly original ideas. 

But what would the platinum rule for technology look like?

Setting aside our self-centered lens through which we see the world in favour of others’ lenses can create a seismic mental shift. Hmm… telling introverts that it would be really beneficial to expend more energy on other people…? Yeah, I know.

Sometimes that view into others’ reality may not seem terribly relevant, so it doesn’t really register. But again, is that because we’re applying our own lens to define relevance? 

A friend forwarded this article recently on nunchi, the “Korean art of snap judgments.” I’m not Korean, so I don’t know if it’s spot on, complete bunk or somewhere in between. The spirit in which I’m using the idea is as a thought exercise, a lens shift. 

And in this case I’m less interested in its value in interpersonal relationships than in how it could affect how we approach the technology that runs our lives.

From the article:

Some people have described nunchi as a way of reading minds, but there’s nothing supernatural about it. Rather, nunchi is a form of emotional intelligence. You can hone it by becoming aware of your preconceptions, and paying attention to how they can inhibit your powers of observation and adaptation.

Having great nunchi means continuously recalibrating your assumptions based on any new word, gesture, or facial expression. It means staying present and aware. And for Westerners, it requires you to examine a lifetime of cultural values that are hindering you from reading others. I call these biases “nunchi blockers.” At the top of the list is empathy.

Wait… what? Empathy isn’t a good thing? I recommend reading the article to get the full perspective on empathy’s limitations. But that provides a taste of how observing and interacting with the world through a new lens could be beneficial. In interpersonal relationships or, y’know, when you’re building platforms that potentially affect billions of people’s daily lives.

The article’s author notes that the notion of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is of no more use figuratively than literally, since it would put you too close to someone else to see them objectively. The application of this in interpersonal relationships is obvious. But it also makes sense in terms of working relationships and things like inter-team collaboration.  

Too close up and you can’t make new observations very well, which means you can’t recalibrate your thoughts and actions when needed. 

Plus, the mere idea of trying to become someone else, even temporarily, is flawed. You can’t and never will. At best you’re creating only a partial facsimile in your head, so judgments based on that will be incomplete. This goes as much for our friends as for user personas in software development.

Using nunchi, though, you don’t need to “be,” or even relate to someone else to get their feelings or understand the nuances of a situation. You don’t need to share a culture or even a language to figure it out. Seems like a lot more flexible skill, whether marketing is trying to talk to development, or Californians are designing for Kyrgyzstanis.

Consider how people-centric systems like user interfaces, accounts management or data usage would be approached or handled differently if nunchi was applied to creating and running them.

The scale of tech also illustrates why attempting empathy would be useless. First, you’re trying to apply an at least somewhat moral lens to the most rampant capitalism the world has yet seen. Which in our current world is ludicrous. And exactly which person among a million or a billion users are you going to choose to try and empathize with? 

Not to mention that if you’re trying to achieve your work goals, you’re still approaching other people’s feelings through a lens that’s centered around what you want to get out of it.

Nunchi also requires us to get away from “one and done” ideas or decisions. It’s not project-based, so to speak. Accurately reading others requires ongoing effort and improvement. Tech doesn’t like to work that way. 

Tech likes minimum viable products and hockey stick growth and acquisitions and disruption. Not intensive observation of needs and experiences over time and incremental improvements in service of that established audience and existing user/customer relationships.

Unfortunately, it prevents us from learning more holistically about people and the technology they want and use. Not to mention what the implications are over time of what we’re doing now. Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt just teaches us how to make the superficial more temporarily interesting. 

Nunchi could help weave a social fabric for technology, of value to us all, not just shareholders.