Let me start by saying how deeply, deeply sorry I am not to have posted on this site for so long. I would offer up all the usual excuses but the bottom line is I failed against the standards any reader of a blog has a right to expect. In short, I let you down and, in doing so, I let myself down.
OK, I don’t really feel quite that sorry but it seemed an appropriate way to start a post about whether today is a milestone in an ‘ethical revolution’. It seems that gradually, in a range of areas, we are now talking about how ethical standards can be raised.
It started, of course, with the banks. The general view that unrestrained greed led to the Crash has gradually prompted a wider debate about corporate activities. That debate reached a milestone today with the PM and Ed Miliband both trying to outdo the other with speeches on ‘croney capitalism’. Fascinatingly, this deeply moral debate now incorporates far more than excessive banking bonuses. Tax avoidance, corporate takeovers, and the treatment of consumers also seem fair game on both sides of the Commons.
Then there is the media. The moral shock and professional introspection caused by phone-hacking has just reached a new pinnacle with the news that Jude Law received a considerable payout. And again, just as bonuses led to a wider ethical consideration of corporate Britain, so phone-hacking has created a deeper debate about journalistic ethics centred on the extraordinary Leveson Inquiry.
Into the mix, we can throw the Summer riots and youth crime. While there are some who are deeply concerned at the way the courts have reacted, polls show that the extra tough sentences have wide public approval. However, there is also a deeper discussion underway about why so many young people took part in that orgy of violent materialism. Many are now asking what sorts of social, economic and ethical degeneration lie behind such behaviour. That debate was given a significant boost today by the news that violent crime had risen significantly in the last year.
Whether these disparate concerns might turn into a more expansive questioning of standards across all classes, ages and professions probably depends on whether they can be joined by one single narrative. Broken Britain which has long been a political theme does not quite capture the potentially comprehensive nature of the introspection because its focus has always been on the crime and anti-social behaviour aspect. An ethical revolution in the 2010s, to match the social revolution of the 1960s perhaps, would have to begin with a debate about the very nature of our ethics as a society. If it remains focused purely on certain professional or age groups, it is little more than a self-satisfied and sometimes hypocritical pointing of the finger.
Maybe, as in the 1960s, the key is popular culture because of its pervasive nature and huge influence. So it is interesting that concern about ethical standards in popular culture seems to constantly bubble below the surface waiting for an event to kick off public debate. For example, the X Factor came close to a major scandal this year over its treatment of vulnerable contestants. In the wake of the riots, some questioned the role that the music business plays in promoting lawlessness. And the advertising, fashion and pop music industries’ relentless use of sexual imagery seems regularly on the brink of major challenge.
Of course, a big question is whether such an ethical revolution, were it to happen, should be welcomed. My feeling is generally positive but with some concerns. I think a world where people are less self-centred and where the achievement of success has clearer boundaries is a better world. I simply don’t buy the crass version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory which states that self-interested behaviour leads to better outcomes for all. (Incidentally neither did Adam Smith!)
My concern is that a more strident ethical sense does risk shading into intolerance of difference. The post-war period, for example, was characterised by strong ethics but one built around a very restrictive notion of what constituted correct behaviour or lifestyles. The same could be said of the conservative right in the US where higher ethical standards of the sort discussed here are muddled up with intense hostility to secularism and gay people.
In fact, maybe it is the very notion of an ethical revolution that combines higher standards of professional and personal behaviour with respect for diversity and difference that can provide the narrative to weave the fragmented concerns together.
Now, I really must prepare my apology for writing such a long blog post.
On Wednesday I will be attending a conference to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Francisco Varela, organised by the Centre for Real World Learning, and hosted at City University in London. There are still places available for those who wish to attend.
Have you heard of Francisco Varela? If not, I envy you, because you have the chance to experience the excitement of his singular contribution to knowledge for the first time, while I can only read him again, and again, and again.
I was introduced to Varela by my Phd supervisor, Guy Claxton, who is one of the main organisers of Wednesday’s conference. It is difficult to do justice to Varela’s thought with a standard academic description. ‘Cognitive Scientist’ is a good start, but there are thousands of those. What makes Varela particularly special is the confluence of three main strands of thought: Biology, particularly Neuroscience, European Philosophy, particularly the Phenomenological and Existential strands, and Tibetan Buddhism, particularly his own sustained practice of meditation.
What these perspectives gave him was a view of consciousness from third(objective/impartial), second(inter-subjective/relational) and first(subjective/embodied) person perspectives. He was a scientist, philosopher and meditator. He had a unique ability to understand human beings simulatenously as bodies, relationships and minds. His experience in contemplative practice also brought a strong ethical dimension to his work- he was always thinking about the ethical implications of our understanding of what it means to be human.
I enjoyed his classic texts The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (co-written with Maturana) and The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience(co-written with Thompson and Rosch), but the book that made the deepest impression was a small book comprising three lectures called: “Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition.”
When I came upon this book I was at a low point in the process of thesis writing, struggling for a fresh perspective on the concept of wisdom, and disenchanted with the main theoretical perspectives available, including those of Robert Sternberg at Yale and Paul Baltes at the Max Plank Institute of Human Development. These proto-canonical models were basically sophisticated psychometric measures, reducing wisdom to a form of advice-giving expertise. They succeeded in making the concept of wisdm more tractable and amenable to empirical measurement, but could only do so by cutting it off from the embodied, situated nature of wisdom, which is what I most valued, and wanted to understand better.
Varela’s view of wisdom was very different, because it presents it as a form of ethical know how in action. There is no point in being wise in abstract if you cannot act wisely in complex situations when called upon to do so. Varela doesn’t give the particular example that follows, but his perspective helped me to understand this kind of wise action:
There is a classic story of Mahatma Gandhi hurredly boarding a train that was pulling away from the platform. As he boarded, one of Gandhi’s sandals fell onto the track. With no time to retrieve it, and with the train gathering speed, he instantaneously took off his other sandal and threw it down, so that whoever came upon the first sandal would now have a pair of sandals to wear.
What struck me about this example, and what I wanted to understand better, is the difference between thinking of doing such a thing, perhaps five minutes later when it would no longer be effective, and being ready, willing and able to act wisely in an immediate problematic situation, as Gandhi was in this case.
Varela’s view of ethics helped me considerably in this regard,because he has a highly sophisticated view of virtuous action arising from extended inclinations and dispositions, usually cultivated through sustained ethical or spiritual practice, in which we gradually decentre from our egoic impulses by becoming aware of our fragile or ‘virtual’ selves. In the small book I mentioned(p73) he puts it as follows:
“The means of transformating mental constiuents into wisdom is intelligent awareness, that is, the moment-to-moment realisation of the virtual self as it is-empty of any eogic ground whatsoever, yet filled with wisdom. Here one is positing that authentic care resides at the very ground of Being, and can be made fully manifest in a sustained, succefful ethical training. A thoroughly alien thought for our nihilistic Western mood, indeed, but one worthy of being entertained.”
There is lots more to say about Varela, who was originally from Chile and became the Director of Research for the French National Research Council. I hope to report back after the event on Wednesday, but for now, you can get a glimpse of the person and his thought by watching the following video.
According to a story in today’s guardian, a serious migraine can cause a permanent French accent.
I have to confess that I found this idea very funny. Then it occurred to me that for the person concerned it was probably fairly devastating. So much of our identity is tied up in what we say, and how we sound. Such a condition could make you unrecognisable to yourself and to others, relationships might change, depression could set in, and your life could spiral out of control. It is serious.
And yet, does it cease to be funny? As George Bernard Shaw once put it: Life doesn’t cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh. And while foreign accent syndrome is serious, it is surely not as serious as death.
In this respect, like many others, I experience some degree of polyphasia. I recognise that the condition is serious, and yet I still find it funny. Is that ok? Or I am being unforgivably insensitive to the women concerned?
Just a quickie to say that it’s fantastic to see some higher-profile and thoughtful conversation developing on the web about the influence that designers have in enabling and encouraging people to change behaviour. In an introduction to the concept, Robert Fabricant (VP of Creative at Frog Design) writes:
“…we’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behavior from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement … but many designers hesitate to pursue [this approach]. Committing to direct behavior design would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centered design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”
User-centred design is the default paradigm for industrial designers; the user is king, and the designer’s job is simply to design products that serve the user’s desires as closely as possible. Robert Fabricant suggests that when designers start using persuasive techniques (e.g. those of persuasive technology) then the roles are suddenly reversed; designers start designing according to how they think the user should behave, and the user (knowingly or unknowingly) is led down that path.
The question of whether the use of persuasive techniques is still user-centred design is fascinating to designers. Although Robert Fabricant thinks it’s not, he still seems in favour of the use of persuasive techniques. Others have shared his non-user-centred point of view, but with a more negative tone. In a book review of Persuasive Technology (BJ Fogg’s seminal book on the topic), Robert Johnson writes
“the book portends to be interested in end users – office workers, teachers, students (young and old), and the general public – … in practice, the book is designer-centred and system-centred” *.
Dan Lockton has written a response to Robert Fabricant’s article, in which he touches on whether using persuasive techniques is user-centred or not:
“I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour.”
I tend to agree with Dan’s position. As I’ve jotted down in the past, when products that have persuasive techniques designed into them are sold on the free market, I can’t see significant problems with designers using persuasive techniques. Taking the useful (but rather tired) example of real-time energy displays, if I buy one to keep a closer eye on my energy consumption, I’m quite happy for it to be designed in a way that will help me influence my behaviour most effectively. I suppose (as Dan says) I’d be a little less happy if there was a disconnect between my original purchase and the behaviour that it tried to encourage in me – say I bought a George Foreman grill that somehow gently nudged into becoming a vegetarian.
What I think is much more interesting (and problematic) is if the state gets involved. One of the aims of the RSA’s work in this area is to explore whether design can make a positive contribution to behaviour change policy. Policy makers are keen to hear of new methods of changing behaviour. For example, the present government is proposing to fit smart meters into all UK homes by 2020 which will be equipped with real-time displays that you can carry about your house communicate energy consumption. To help design these displays, the recent consultation from the Department of Energy and Climate Change seeks:
“…input (from consumer groups in particular) on the type of data that will best incentivise behavioural change (for instance, information on energy use, money, CO2 etc). Getting the balance right between providing enough data to enable behavioural change, without overloading consumers, will be important.”
Here’s a product that you don’t choose to buy, but will be specifically designed to influence your behaviour and distributed to your home over the next ten years. You can always bung it in a drawer though.
Ethical issues abound in behaviour change policy – particularly when more sophisticated insights from psychology are applied. Whether people think there is a role for government to try and change behaviour will always vary from behaviour to behaviour, and it doesn’t make much difference whether the method used by government is regulation, taxes & incentives, information, advertising campaigns, or other forms of design.
* I can’t find the original review, but his words are cited in a later review by Bernardine Atkinson
By Maayan Ashkenazi
Public enemy no.1 to road-safety, classrooms and small-talk, daydreaming has never had the easiest of rides. But like all other things caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, is it just misunderstood?
A recent study led by Schooler and Christoff on mind-wandering confirms something that has been known about daydreaming for the last decade or so – that quite the opposite of switching off, the brain is whirring away, resolving internal issues, rehearsing situations, making unexpected connections – the legwork of creativity.
It’s a question of giving the mind time to indulge in forms of thinking which are ordinarily hushed when it has to engage with its external surroundings. As the researchers comment, “The observed parallel recruitment of executive and default network regions—two brain systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition—suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.” And here we get to the nugget of the thing.
For the real conundrum of the brain isn’t just where among the billions of connections different things happen but how all those things coordinate to form consciousness.
In this regard, what needs to be remembered when reconsidering daydreaming and mind-wandering is that the amount of time we allow for things has a bearing on the kinds of thinking we allow to happen. A study by the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC College highlighted that certain emotions such as empathy for others’ psychological states, indeed those things which so strongly define our humanity, take much longer to be realised than recognition of physical states. So we’ll react to someone in slight physical pain long before we recognise quiet despair. The link here is that if we don’t allow some down-time, if our attention is constantly at full-throttle, jumping from one thing to the other, we not only bias the kinds of judgements we make but also the behaviours that subsequently follow.
I’m not suggesting we elevate staring out the window as the lost art of the modern age (though worse things have happened), rather that paying attention to different forms of thinking, allows a more nuanced self-reflexivity, so that when we do think “what’s the best way to think about this”, we’re better able to choose. So it’s a question of control as much as relaxation. The best daydreamer after all, will be the one who has the control to come out of the dream once they’ve found an answer.
Ridley Scott’s advert that launched the Macintosh personal computer in 1983 sought to show:
…the fight for the control of computer technology as a struggle of the few against the many, says TBWA/Chiat/Day’s Lee Clow. Apple wanted the Mac to symbolize the idea of empowerment, with the ad showcasing the Mac as a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality. What better way to do that than have a striking blonde athlete take a sledghammer to the face of that ultimate symbol of conformity, Big Brother? [link]
One of the aims of this project is to connect individuals working in the design for behaviour change field with policy makers looking for ways to encourage behaviour change. When you think of the public policy implications of persuasive technology, do you think it will empower individuals, or open the gate to a Big Brother?
The persuasive technology discourse (despite its rather Orwellian name) in a similarly general way to Google says “don’t be evil”. This emphasis was set at the first Persuasive conference in 2006:
“In the PERSUASIVE 2006 conference, a particular emphasis was put on those applications that serve a beneficial purpose for humans in terms of increasing health, comfort, and well-being, improving personal relationships, stimulating learning and education, improving environmental conservation, et cetera.” 
However the ethics of stuff that is designed to change behaviour is still a bit of a minefield. Here are four points that seem to describe the ethical issues made by writers publishing within the persuasive technology discourse.
1. Awareness or Deception
B. J. Fogg’s definition of persuasive technology precludes coercion or deception , meaning that persuasion must be voluntary. But doesn’t avoiding deception require the user to have fairly sophisticated knowledge how the techniques employed by a piece of persuasive technology work?
The possible problem is illustrated by the point of view of practioners like Wai and Mortensen , who writing from a commercial perspective, suggest that successful adoption by consumers of some devices lies in making them as boring as possible, and making efforts to “mask any behaviour change”.
The point is picked up by Atkinson  in a critical review of Fogg’s book, who writes that persuasive technology could only be ethical “if [users] are aware of the intention from the outset of their participation with the program [or product]”. Atkinson maintains that going further than this would be manipulation.
2. Who has the right?
The designer’s mandate is usually to have the desires of the user firmly at the centre of their decision making (user-centred design is the mot juste). As Johnson  writes in his review of Persuasive Technology, the techniques of persuasive technology, however, shift the focus from the user’s desires to those areas in which the user could buck up his or her ideas and change behaviour (paraphrased).
This is presumably not such a big deal in a free market, where any person is free to buy a particular product (providing the product is not deceptive – as the previous point) or not, but what happens when the state gets interested?
3. Which behaviours?
The third area of concern raised is around which behaviours are fair game for designers to encourage. Berdichevsky and Neuenschwander note that any persuasive attempt (regardless of whether technology) is on “uneasy ethical ground” and propose a golden rule of persuasion:
“The creators of a persuasive technology should never seek to persuade anyone of something they themselves would not consent to be persuaded of.” 
Fallman  calls for a philosophy of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) to decide which behaviours could be ethically persuaded by persuasive technology.
The final point (and to my mind an important one), is well made by Atkinson, who conceding that persuasive technology might be ethical if the designer’s intent were altruistic:
“But would not this sort of benevolent intent be better constructed and represented by the sound reasoning we know as advocacy or even education, where intent is exposed at the outset or revealed through simple inquiry about course content? … Exposure to both is cognitively enriching and can result in attitude, belief and behavioural change, but both remain respectful of the individual’s own ability to synthesise the offerings provided by new information into a worldview that is meaningful for that individual.” 
That seems to me to be a whole blog posting in itself… Check back soon for more.
Big Brother or Empowering Individuals? How could ethical public policy be developed?
 IJsselsteijn, W., de Kort, Y., Midden, C. Eggen, B., van den Hoven, E. (2006), Preface. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 3962, V.
 Fogg, BJ (2003), Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann.
 Wai, C. and Mortensen, P. (2007), Persuasive Technologies Should Be Boring. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4744, 96.
 Atkinson, B.M.C. (2006), Captology: A Critical Review. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 3962, 171.
 Johnson, R. R. (2004), Book Reviews: Persuasive Technology. JBTC. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, April, 251–254.
 Berdichevsky, D. and Neuenschwander, E. (1999), Toward an ethics of persuasive technology. Communications of the ACM, 42, 51–58.
 Fallman, D. (2007), Persuade Into What? Why Human-Computer Interaction Needs a Philosophy of Technology. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4744, 295.
5 January 2009: The Business and Media section of yesterday’s Observer is virtually themed: the excessive consumption of the Festive Season interbred with an accelerating alarum over the dwindling credit that chiefly furnishes all the consumption in the first place makes for a pathological publication. We look at recycling your gifts or auctioning them for charity; at which stores will and won’t give you a refund for returns; at renting luxuries to minimise capital outlay; at managing credit card debt; and all in the framework of “an economic outlook like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetimes”, one that “could mean going back to the thrift and austerity our parents’ generation saw during the war and the 1950s”.
Is it because I’m a designer that I find all this so terrifically exciting? The collapse of retail so apocalyptic and thrilling? It’s a truism that designers – in principle at least – love limits and are stimulated by the tension created by production constraints; money for example. If no-one’s got any money imagine how creative we’ll have to be! The very idea of thrift and austerity populates my head with improvisations and contrivances and making do and mending and problem-solving and pooling resources and endless opportunities to create a solution you can no longer just go and buy new.
Ha! Just wait until our boiler packs up. Or worse, Alliance & Leicester go bust. Yikes. One more warning that we should all be judicious in our estimation of what design can and cannot achieve. Too little and designers just sound like stylists with a very confined role. Too much and nobody knows what you’re talking about unless they’re a designer. Now that we have re-christened the Design pages of the RSA website Design & Society careful calibration of this potential is more or less our raison d’etre in the coming year.
21 November 2008: Ben Schott gave us his summary of 2008 at yesterday’s RSA Thursday. The story was rich with wit in the details, and pregnant with meaning in the larger themes, all delivered with the dispassionate restraint of this arch-taxonomist. Ben warned me (as chair) that his presentations seldom provoked questions. Although there were a number yesterday, I mused that facts are less provocative and contestable than opinions.
More importantly my office gave me the opportunity to press Ben on the issue of Design. Exercised in my new role at the RSA by giving definition to the relationship between design and social progress, I have been baking a little theory that one of the spanners in this relationship is the absence of amateurs in design – as I mentioned last week with respect to Tod Machover’s talk here. There’s DIY, there are crafts and hobbies, and there’s more or less incompetent poster layout of the “lost kitten” genre, but it’s hard to edify anything in this amateur league of form-giving with the title design, and there are virtually no shades of grey between it and the work of trained professionals.
Ben Schott, however, gives the lie to my theory, being no slouch at all with 8-point Garamond and printers’ ornaments. When he clamed a couple of years ago to have designed the Original Miscellany himself, I was initially sceptical, but quickly convinced. He explained yesterday, via a respectful nod to Edward Tufte, past master of the visual display of quantitative information, that he has never wavered from his early discovery that the facts, purely and simply displayed, have a persuasive elegance that outweighs any “big” design. It’s cheering to see geo-politics, trivia and significa, through Beatrice Warde’s crystal goblet.