I have been enjoying a mashup of different kinds of input lately as I attended a short conference on design fiction, took my lunch walks with an audio book called Habit, delved uncomfortably deep into concepts around buying and selling, watched a friend defend her thesis on persuasive design, and finally read a bit of Marxist psychopolitics. There is some commonality in these topics as they are all related to trying to get people to think or do what you want them to. This is how they mashed up.
Horror of AI
I admit to not knowing much about design fiction as my design activities have always been on the pragmatic side. The presentation by Jeffrey Bardzell from Penn State University focused on horror fiction (“a fiction that contains a monster that is designed to elicit an emotional response”), specifically Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster of which he likened to two AI monsters: the one that takes your job and the other that takes over the whole world. In these times of social change, be it industrialisation or AI takeover, fiction can serve as a means to demonstrate the limits of the schema we have and offer alternatives.
His first example was reframing by Deloitte where the AI monster taking over our jobs is only one possible future and we might just as well end up changing jobs, emphasizing upskilling and/or reskilling workers to prepare them/us for different jobs, working together with AI and spending more time with our loved ones (hah). The monster is disarmed by understanding it better, in this case proving that it will be more beneficial for companies to do something other than just replace humans with robots. So the horror story becomes a business case and is so much easier to accept and even believe in because capitalism.
The other monster AI which will take over the world or even kill us all was retold in a book AIQ by Nick Polson and James Scott where they use a similar mechanism of disarmament and argue that AI is largely task-based and far from becoming a general intelligence. And that we are hampered by availability heuristic and our belief that Siri really understands us. I have to say that whatever I think about Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking, who have both been proponents of the monster narrative, I doubt that they think that Siri really understands us. To me this reframing is somewhat patronizing and simplistic and I can definitely see this monster of the AI still lurking there, not because the AI is taking over, but because of the power we accord it. It is unknown because humans are not good a system or long-term thinking and we definitely cannot predict where this path will take us.
The story within a story structure in Frankenstein was an example of a very complex retelling that we might learn from to make visible the limits of our schema and offer alternatives. I am just not sure if knowing more about the monster is actually disarming them. For example, for me knowing more about the machinations of the trolling factories is just causing more fear and loathing.
Horror of self-improvement
The book about habits follows a typical popular science book structure of listing psychological and business experiments which fit the narrative the author is working with. I admit my bias against psychological experiments (both the ones looking at brain activity and the ones not looking at it) but listening to this book I was mainly thinking about:
- our intelligence is also task-based rather than general
- how capitalism benefits from this idea of self as a project
- how marketing is the devil’s work
It was all relatively interesting though, albeit behaviourist, until the chapter about willpower muscle. It started from a version of the marshmallow test (which I really hate in all of its bullshittery) where hungry students had to resist either cookies or radish and then try to solve an impossible puzzle. And what happened, the students who ate radish were annoyed and performed worse than the ones who ate cookies which led the researchers to conclude that this was because they had used up their willpower muscle resisting the cookies, and not just because they were hungry and had to eat radish. And of course you can develop the willpower muscle, just like you can change your habits. If you cannot, you are a loser.
I am not saying that we cannot practice self-constraints, focus or whatever makes us a better worker or less expensive member of society, but I detest the idea that all is up to the individual, the process is the same for everyone, and that the change You propose is for the better. Maybe the habits that keep you alive are largely better than the ones that are slowly killing you but there are fuzzy areas even in those. One particular example from the book was of food journals, which probably work in terms of weight reduction for some people but open the door to eating disorders for others.
In general, it is this never-ending improvement project narrative that is so tiring. The author Duhigg says: “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.” Yeah, get to work, loser. Another perspective is offered by a psychoanalyst David Bell and it works for me much better:
“[…]to think of individuals just as individuals, not as people in a network of social, cultural, historical relationships that are determining and affecting them. That goes hand in hand with a wish to transfer all responsibility to change on to the individuals themselves — and with undermining systems of social and medical welfare that form the basis of our way of thinking about our responsibilities for each other.”
Horror of designing for behaviour change
Another tangent to self-improvement was the thesis defense. My friend and her group worked on behaviour change support systems, which means helping change behaviours when the users themselves want it, without coercion. But again the line is somewhat blurry especially if the system is productised for commercial use as the systems would also start from a position of power in that the change proposed by the system is an improvement.
Designing for behavioural change is a very hard thought for me as I prefer to think of product development naively as building tools that have a purpose and value but also space for the human being to apply their creativity. Something that was not predicted by the “masterminds” in its design and development process, something that is a dialogue the tool mediates between the maker and the user. My brief study into willingness to pay is doing exactly the opposite: it is about taking advantage of our knowledge and assumptions about human psychology and behaviours to change behaviours in ways that are useful to the seller. And in fact any habit loop that you are seeking to build is the same thing, just without money directly involved. Which all clicked into place when I read Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics.
Horror of psychopolitics
Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics is a book I picked up somewhere but never started. However, I was on the train a couple of weeks ago and this was perfectly small to carry in the backpack all day. And it resulted in so many thoughts which is very much appreciated as COVID is turning my soul into a callus. Here are some personal highlights from Han which offer an alternative angle to self-improvement and designing for behavioural change.
- In the age of neoliberalism, we are projects rather than subjects, which amounts to a form of compulsion and constraint (as described in the above Habit for example), which actually results in a more efficient kind of subjectivation as we are doing it to ourselves.
- The neoliberal, entrepreneurial project is auto-exploiting themselves in their own enterprise transforming the class struggle into an inner struggle. We are both the master and the slave and thus cannot unite to revolt.
- Instead of disciplining the docile body or surveilling it in a panopticon, the seductive power of neoliberalism is targeting the psyche (psychopolitics instead of biopolitics). Physical discipline gives way to mental optimisation and the power moves invisibly from passive surveillance to active steering by seizing on emotion in order to influence action on pre-reflexive level.
- The imperative of self-optimisation serves only to promote perfect functioning within the system. Weaknesses are to be eliminated to enhance efficiency and performance, everything is made measurable and subjected to the logic of the market.
- And one of my favourites: “Dataism is nihilism. It gives up on any and all meaning. Data and numbers are not narrative; they are additive. Meaning, on the other hand, is based on narration. Data simply fills up the senseless void.”
- Han draws on Hegel to ground the above data = dada argument. For Hegel only the Concept of an object brings forth knowledge while data affords only correlation in which nothing is comprehended. Of course Hegel was a logician who believed in absolute knowledge, but that aside, he does still have a point: constant addition does not result in a conclusion, it needs the narration (which I have already blabbed about several times).
- Following Foucault and Deleuze Han finishes with an escape from psychopolitics. We can either master the art of living, which refers to the art of killing psychology and creating unnamed individualities, relations etc. or by embracing the idiot (savant), the unallied and unnetworked modern day heretic, who preserves the magic of the outsider (from consensus) and practices the politics of silence.
The only thing I disagreed with was that Han seems to believe in free will, but potatoes tomatoes because gosh I love marxist philosophy.
Beauty of mystery
In a recent Marc Maron interview of Patti Smith spoke beautifully about celebrating the mystery, of not trying to understand or explain everything. For example, enjoying a piece of art allowing it to touch you without having to analyse it throughout or find meaning or observing a phenomenon without attachment, leaving it as is, without having to exhaust all its angles and offer an explanation which in turn leaves very little space for alternative explanations. Maybe Patti Smith is mastering the art of living.