Issue 27: Don’t just look for problems to solve, why navigation apps make traffic worse, how warehouses for personal junk became a huge industry

We also go deep on the African philosophy of Ubuntu

My kids have been fighting a lot recently. A few nights ago, in a fit of desperation, I gathered everyone around the dinner table and gave them a speech about Ubuntu (the African philosophy, not the operating system). I think they got it (I mean, I took a very long time with this), and now whenever I year them fighting I just shout “UBUNTU!” into the void and hope it works. So far the result is eyerolls and some reduced fighting, so I’m calling it a mild success.

Anyway, as a result, I’ve been thinking about Ubuntu a lot this week. If you’re not familiar, a loose translation of this philosophy would be “I am because we are.” It is an acknowledgment that we are not islands, that who we are affects the people around us, and every interaction we have with them affects us as well. Another definition I like is “A person is only a person through other people.” 

Michael Onyebuchi Eze beautifully describes the concept as follows in the book Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa

‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.

I love this so much. Here’s a thought experiment: What would happen if we followed the Ubuntu philosophy everywhere we go and interact with people? Our work, discussions with customers, even (gasp!) our interactions on the internet. No really, don’t move on. Think about it for a little bit. How would your interactions with the people around you change if you acknowledged the fact that you are because they are?


🎵 Here’s a thing I learned this week. A Christian rock band hid a C64 program on a vinyl album in 1984:

They hid the program in the runout groove, which also has “C-64” and other things etched on it. And sure enough, 8-Bit Show and Tell managed to record the analog audio of that program, transfer it to a magnetic cassette, and load-asterisk that sucker. It’s just a simple BASIC program, containing quotes from Albert Einstein and Jesus Christ. 

A Reddit thread on the topic also let me to this release by Pete Shelley, from 1983:

Track B6 is a computer program for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum which printed lyrics in time with the music and displayed graphics. 

I confess I didn’t listen to either of the albums. I’m afraid I might not like them, and I’d rather just be in awe about their mid-80s genius.


Reading list

Stacking the Bricks: The Pizza Crust Problem, or...the Wrong Way to Find a SaaS Idea →

I love this post from Amy Hoy, where she challenges the conventional wisdom that we should look for “problems” to solve with the products we make:

You need to deeply understand not just a problem, but the people who have it. Because there are infinite ways for a fledgling business to fail, but there’s only one way to succeed: Make enough sales to cover costs. […] If your costs exceed your revenue long enough, you fail. That means that the most important question for any new potential product is: “Will people buy it in sufficient quantities for profit?” The What? doesn’t matter, really. The most crucial ingredients are Who? and How Much?

How do you Introduce Product Management Into a Business? →

Some good advice here on being the first product manager in a company:

Nothing speaks of the value of user-centred thinking like presenting findings from the existing user base after just a few days. Whether it’s unearthing previously unidentified frustrations with the software, or presenting a well-structured analysis of the target audience or market, creating some rapid and valid insights can quickly build credibility for your product role.

Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic →

This is a fascinating look at how navigations apps are actually making traffic worse in many cities.

But Waze is a business, not a government agency. The goal is to be an indispensable service for its customers, and to profit from that. And it isn’t clear that those objectives align with a solution for urban congestion as a whole. This gets to the heart of the problem with any navigation app—or, for that matter, any traffic fix that prioritizes the needs of independent drivers over what’s best for the broader system. Managing traffic requires us to work together. Apps tap into our selfish desires.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off? →

The results of a 2018 study where participants were asked to deactivate their Facebook profiles for four weeks are… interesting:

Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

Managing Your Friendships, With Software →

A slew of new start-ups want to help people manage their relationships the way they would sales leads.

There's Dex, "a tool to turn acquaintances into allies." Clay, "an extension of your brain, purposefully built to help you remember people." "Forgetting personal details?" Hippo "helps you stay attentive [and] keep track of friends, family and colleagues you care for," for just $1.49 a month. Plum Contacts sends reminders to message your friends, and rewards you with cartoon berries that "indicate how strong your relationship is." "Build the relationships you always wish you had," the UpHabit sitepromises.


Random things I like

📡 The Lasers of Discontent is an amazing photo essay with images from unrest in Chile, Hong Kong, and Iraq, where demonstrators use laser pointers as tools of defiance.

🏬 Of the many things that I found really strange when I moved to the US, “self-storage” is very close to the top of the list. Self-storage: How warehouses for personal junk became a $38 billion industry.

🚲 I love this story about a Dutch bike company that dramatically reduced shipping damage on their bikes by putting a picture of a flat-screen TV on the box.

❄️ Winter is coming here in the Pacific Northwest. I never really understood why people make such a big deal out of it until I lived through one. Here’s how to survive these cold, dark days.


What is this?

Elezea is a newsletter with links, resources, and commentary to help you create better products, work better together, and understand the broader impact of technology on our work and our lives. It’s written by Rian van der Merwe, who is a product manager, author, speaker, and person who would be very grateful if you shared the newsletter’s sign-up page with people you like.