Ursula K. Le Guin on Observation and Change

“There are two kinds of knowledge, local and universal.”

Book Cover for Four Ways to Forgiveness, by Ursula K. Le GuinUrged by my husband, who reads her catalogue more or less continuously, I recently read Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) for the first time. She always takes science fiction beyond its cliches, and this collection of four short stories is thought-provoking, beautiful, and at times, brutal.

In “A Man of the People,” the protagonist contemplates the possibility of societal change in a world in he is assigned to observe. Called to be an emissary of progress, and change by the women of the world, he realizes:

You can’t change anything from the outside in. Standing apart, looking down, taking the overview, you see pattern. What’s wrong, what’s missing. You want to fix it. But you can’t patch it. You have to be in it, weaving it. You have to be part of the weaving.

Image of Ursula K. Le GuinIn my work, I am usually called to stand apart, to look down and take the overview of other people’s behavior. Being able to see the patterns that most people are too close to is important and valuable work, and the essence of what a researcher does. In this framework, though, it becomes all too clear how understanding a problem and fixing it are different activities and need different skills. As a user researcher and designer/architect, it may be within my power to fix an interface or a data structure, but I need to make sure I’m giving the people who are in it, weaving it, to make the organizational change that will make those improvements permanent.