Joe Edelman

I'm a philosopher & social scientist, obsessed with this question:

What do I need to know about a person, to assess whether I'm helping or harming them?

I argue that the thing is to know is: which ways of relating do they believe* constitute a good life. E.g., do they believe a good life for them necessarily includes vulnerable ways of relating? Creative ways of relating? Etc.*

This information tells me more than knowing their goals, what makes them happy, their tastes, revealed preferences, etc.* Even if I've made them happy, helped them achieve a goal, etc, I may be misleading myself in thinking I've helped them—if my help took away an opportunity for them to be vulnerable, creative, etc.*

This may seem abstract and philosophical, but I find immediate applications for it: in design methods, product success metrics, market design, community formation, the evaluation of workplaces, recommender systems, AI ethics, social networks, political theory, the foundations of microeconomics, the nature of emotions, and in many other fields.

My work has provided the basis for an online school called Human Systems. This has an email list and medium blog with all of my work. You can also find me personally on twitter.

I am grateful to the philosophers, computer scientists, and improvisers who laid the groundwork I build on.

Values-Based Social Design, 2021 A social design textbook.

How to Design Social Systems (Without Causing Depression and War), 2018 A model of human choicemaking in terms of evolving and practicing values, and a design method to go with it.

Nothing to be Done, 2017 Intellectual history of the west, from a designers' standpoint, as a succession of approaches to human systems.

Is Anything Worth Maximizing, 2016 About how metrics affect the structure of organizations and societies, how they change the economy, how we’re doing them wrong, and how we could do them right.

Choicemaking and the Interface, 2014 Theories of choice from economics and philosophy suggest information requirements for good choices. In view of these requirements, we can see why current menus lead toward regrettable and isolating choices.

Four Ideas for Better Human Systems, 2016 A summary of some technological applications of my research.

When Wisdom Comes, 2017 On the role of emotions in knowing what’s important.


(Some older things: my talk on empowering design featuring a redesign of the ios lock screen, the list of example framing distortions from software, a variety of dating and other games made and tested, and work in immersive, participatory theater.)

My direct philosophocal antecedents are Amartya Sen, Charles Taylor, David Velleman, and Ruth Chang.

In tech, I was lucky to learn from people like Alan Kay, Terry Winograd, and Bill Verplank at Interval Research, from Casey Fenton at CouchSurfing (where I developed the metrics which guided the company), from Howie Shrobe and Marvin Minksy at MIT. And more recently through conversations with Bret Victor and Rob Ochshorn.

And my tactic of running social experiments through games and performance emerged out of study with Christian Wolff (partipatory music) and Peter Parnell (playwriting) at Dartmouth, and then various improvisational scores with Nancy Stark Smith, Mike Vargas, Ruth Zaporah, and many others. And I had the great fortune to work alongside Albert Kong and Catherine Herdlick on the real world games festival Come Out and Play.

Finally, I continue to be challenged in passionate conversations with Tristan Harris, Nathan Vanderpool, and Anne Selke.