When we design today, we isolate problems and then create solutions for them, and we then celebrate those solutions. But in reality we have no idea exactly what we’ve done, because in focusing on any particular problem we have really just ignored everything else. We have failed to engage with the complex realities of our interconnected world, and in our attempts at solutions have only created more problems, the cumulative effect of which can be devastating.
When we really understanding the implications of this idea, we soon realize that in our design of anything, we must consider everything. There is no part of the entire system that isn’t affected by every other part of the entire system. This idea became very clear to me while working in healthcare. You can’t solve for a particular condition in isolation… it interacts in complex ways with the system of rest of the body. When you consider the entire body, and you soon realize that you can’t solve for the health of the individual in isolation… it interacts in complex ways with the social systems, culture, the environment, and on and on. Changes to any part of that system can have dramatic, complex, unforeseen, unintended, and often unknown consequences in other parts of the system.
Bryan Castañeda, who lives in Southern California, told me this:
The law firm I work at specializes in toxic torts. We represent people who have been occupationally exposed to chemicals and are now sick, dying, or dead. Most of our clients have been exposed to benzene and developed some kind of leukemia. We sponsor various leukemia charities, walks, and other events. [On January 21, 2012] in Woodland Hills, CA, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society held its first annual Blood Cancer Conference. Although the speakers were mainly doctors, it was a conference meant for laymen. The chair was an oncologist from UCLA Medical Center.
After introductory remarks and the keynote speaker, there were several breakout sessions. I attended a session on acute lymphoblastic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. The speaker was [Dr. Ravi Bhatia,] a doctor specializing in leukemia from City of Hope in Duarte, CA. His talk was almost exclusively about new drugs and clinical trials. Very dry and dull. Things got more interesting during the question period. At one point, [Dr. Bhatia] told an attendee not to experiment on his own because “you won’t learn anything and others won’t learn from it, either.”
I would have liked to ask Dr. Bhatia three questions:
1. What’s the basis for this extreme claim (“you won’t learn anything and others won’t learn from it”)? Ben Williams, a psychology professor at UC San Diego, wrote a whole book (Surviving “Terminal” Cancer, 2002) about taking an active approach when faced with a very serious disease (in his case, brain cancer). Likewise, the website Patients Like Me is devoted to (among other things) learning from the experimentation of its members. Lots of forums related to various illnesses spread what one person learns to others. MedHelp has many forums devoted to sharing knowledge.
In November, at Quantified Self Europe, Martha Rotter, who lives in Ireland, gave a talk about how she cured her acne by self-experimentation. She summarizes her talk like this (slides here):
When I moved to Ireland in 2007, I began to have skin problems. It began gradually and I attributed it to the move, to stress, to late nights drinking with developers and clients, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was multiplied by the anxiety of being embarrassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ireland involved me being on stage in front of large audiences constantly, often several times a week. A year later my skin was perpetually inflamed, red, full of sores and very painful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.
Frustrated, I went to see my hometown dermatologist while I was home for holidays. He told me that a) this was completely normal and b) there was nothing I could do but go on antibiotics for a year (in addition to spending a fortune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.
I was not interested in being on an antibiotic for a year, nor was I interested in Accutane (my best friend has had it multiple times and it hasn’t had long term results, plus it can be risky). What I was interested in was figuring out why this was happening and changing my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insistence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.