The Irony of Neuroscience & Behaviour Change

I have been enjoying the Brain Culture: Neuroscience & Society series via BBC Radio 4’s podcasts recently. In the series Matthew Taylor looks at how developments in neuroscience are changing the way we think about everything from law and punishment to education and marketing. As a fan of Raymond Tallis’s writing, who is somewhat of a neuroscience sceptic, I found Taylor’s account pretty balanced, but not without asking some provocative questions.

The last episode looked at the use of neuroscience with regards to behaviour change, perhaps most famous through the Nudge concept favoured by the previous and present UK governments. Its also something that has gained some attention in service design and public policy/social design fields as a potential tool for designing for behavioural change.

The theory is essentially that by bypassing our brains’ rational level, we can be nudged into changing our behaviour on the semi-unconscious level, because our brains frequently make decisions before we are rationally conscious of them. This is put into practice in political environments, such as election campaigns, policy and public service systems (as in the case of using it for preventing no-shows to doctor’s appointments) or in the slightly scary sounding field of neuromarketing. On the one hand the practice appears extremely devious and devalues our sense of self and of being rational beings because it denies us the possibility of changing out nature (Tallis’s argument). On the other hand, neuromarketers claim that these techniques are no different from anyone who has baked bread or made fresh coffee in order to sell their house during viewings.

Science was built on the foundation of rational thought. Until recently economics and business thinking was also based on this rationale, much of it still is. The irony of the new discoveries in neuroscience, it seems to me, is that rational science is essentially getting excited about something designers and many others have know all along. People aren’t rational and make decisions – from financial investments to buying a car to getting married – based on their gut feelings, which they mostly post-rationalise afterwards. It’s also why we are so naturally rubbish at understanding statistics and probabilities. Science has taken several decades to rationally prove that we are irrational.

Tim Brown on Serious Play

I would have loved to have gone to the Serious Play conference, but seem to remember it cost serious money too. This talk from Tim Brown of IDEO sums up a great deal of my own thinking and research, although he got there first of course!

It’s much, much harder to put into practice than people think. Undoing the sense of embarrassment adults feel and the guilt that we’re “not working” is surprisingly difficult, even in design studios.

(Thanks to Karin for finding this for me).

The Network Generation is in The White House

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Photo: barackobamadotcom on Flickr

It is hard to overstate just how different these US elections were and what a shift in thinking Obama and his campaign signify. Is this the dawn of a fourth republic, whose cycles are “linked indirectly to stages of technological and economic development,” as Michael Lind argues? Or is this the rise of a kind of new informality or informalism, to bastardise a perfectly decent word into another -ism?

Just four years ago, at the time of the previous US election, the blogosphere consisted of around four million blogs, now it’s difficult to even count, but it’s possibly 133 million. In those four years we have, of course, seen blogging become and integral part of mainstream media culture. As The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss noted, this was a truly cross-platform election, with TV woefully slow to catch up with calling the election win for Obama compared to those online.

But what was impressive and very different about the Obama camp approach was how much they clearly get these new media forms.

Twitter’s election feed was – and still is – a torrent of posts and opinions, but during the voting we got to hear people’s accounts of waiting in line, the excitement the atmosphere. I’m not American, what should I care? And yet. And yet, it was hard not to be drawn into the sense of shared experience.

Obama has (or had – it’s been a bit quiet since the elections) a Twitter stream and being on Twitter during the vote was a shared experience. The Obama camp made great use of Twitter to push for support, to spread the message. The exit poll stats show just how much the 18-29 year old turnout had increased from 2000.

What is essential to remember here is that Twitter isn’t just a computer-based chat space, it is completely integrated into mobile devices too. That means Obama’s tweets, and those of his supporters, reached people on the way to or in the waiting lines of polling booths. It’s direct and intimate.

The world has become cynical of politicians who have long since appeared to ignore the protest and voices of the people who elected them. Whether Obama himself wrote his Twitter tweets we will probably never know, but the fact a presidential candidate is aware of it shows a much more direct connection with people – and not just US citizens. Even if there’s a lowly paid intern tweeting on his behalf, there is a sense that it might filter up. And, of course, there’s always the secret hope that Obama himself is doing the tweeting.

The Flickr photo set above show’s Obama with his family and aides watching the results of the election, watching McCain’s concession speech and being congratulated by his family. They’re intimate, often off-guard and in many he looks quite nervous as if he’s thinking “Oh God, now I actually have to be president”. It’s like looking at post-ceremony, pre-reception drunkenness photos of a freshly minted bride and groom.

The most striking thing about these pictures, though, is that they’re covered by a non-commercial Creative Commons licence. These photos (by David Katz) that picture editors all over the world would love to use to sell their papers remain out of their reach. But they remain usable by the millions of bloggers around the world.

The difference in approach is striking – these aren’t polished, selected, vetted images, tightly controlled by a PR office. They’re informal and out there for the world to see and use. It’s unthinkable that Bush – or any other major politician – would have done anything remotely similar on the “internets“. (The cynic in the back of my mind wonders if they maybe are vetted – there are no photos of Obama shotgunning a beer and flicking the Vs at McCain on TV, after all. But that doesn’t seem like his style.)

A day after the election, Obama’s campaign set up change.gov with, naturally, a blog. (Compare it to the stiffness of whitehouse.gov).

So, now we have a US President who blogs and twitters – or whose staff do at least – and appears to be open to opinions and voices from all over the world. In an age of increased surveillance and control, of clipped civil liberties, of an attempt by the previous generation to hang onto control at all costs, this different attitude and use of technology signifies a much bigger, generational shift. It is a shift to a mindset in which collaboration, conversation and the network mind are much more powerful than spin and top-down control ever can be.

It’s what anyone using Twitter, Facebook or writing a blog has known for some time, but now it’s as mainstream as it gets. The network has grown up. The network generation is in The White House.

Core77 Broadcast interview with Troika

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Sebastien and Eva from Troika, the studio behind the Cloud and All The Time In The World installations at new Terminal 5 at Heathrow. So, if you were one of the hundreds stuck at Terminal 5 when it opened, at least you had something decent to marvel at.

Troika are unusual in their combination of disciplines, I feel. It’s not so often that graphic and motion graphic design and this kind of interactive installation work come together – architecture is the more usual bedfellow.

I found it very interesting to hear them talk about the development of their creative palette and language of the objects they create as well as how some of the seemingly tiny technical issues can end up defining a massive part of the work.

You can have a listen to the interview on Core77.

Sweet English Suburbia in Hamburg

'English' Shop in Hamburg

I quite often teach COFA Online’s course, Graphics and Contemporary Society, which I find more interesting now that I’m here in Germany. A lot of the discussion amongst the students, who are in Australia, is about the differences between Asian and Western cultures (though those are sweeping terms in themselves), because there’s a large Asian population in Australia and Australia is really in the Asia-Pacific region.

So it’s always weird to have your own culture reflected back to you, like this shop I discovered in Hamburg called Sweet Suburbia replete with Marmite, Digestive biscuits, Suffolk Herbs, Walkers crisps, Jelly Tots (I grabbed a packet each of those last two), and everything else you’d find in a village corner shop in England mixed with some clothing and souvenirs.

Obviously everything cost more that it would in England (although, I’m not so sure about some corner shop prices these days), but it was just odd to see other customers looking so curious about our everyday things. It was a bit odd for me too because I’m pretty much used to living in Germany now.

It was nice to see, though, and a reminder that in a globalised age where any high street in any major city in the world looks pretty much like another, the small details still set cultures apart.

If you’re an Englander and living in Germany, you can stock up using Sweet Suburbia’s online shop. No Nestle condensed milk on there though, so my bannoffee pie will have to wait.

[tags]UK, British, shop, suburbia, hamburg[/tags]

Collabor8 – Creative Waves 2008

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The Omnium Project will be running another global online creative collaboration project under the Creative Waves banner from 28th April – 20 June, this time convened by Ian McArthur and Rick Bennett.

This time the project, called Collabor8, will see design students and lecturers from Australia and China join forces for eight weeks, with project convenors, teachers and special guests worldwide, to work collaboratively and fully online.

The project theme is about creating awareness about the importance of cross cultural design practice and sustainability in design. It will do this by challenging students to work together to design graphics for contemporary, environmentally friendly and sustainable ceramics, textiles, products and environments.

Participation is free and I believe there is space to squeeze in a couple more people, even though the website says the deadline is mid-April. If you are interested, you can apply here.

If it’s any kind of incentive, I’ll be doing a special guest podcast and hosting a thread called “What good is service and interaction design for saving the planet?” in which I’ll take a look about how ‘network thinking’ – something inherent in interaction and service design – is essential to solving some of the complex problems facing us.

Of course, that might be a disincentive for you, in which case just ignore my part and enjoy the rest of the special guests in there.

[tags]Omnium, creative waves, COFA, Australia, China[/tags]

I Want You To Want Me by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar

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Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, who created one of my all time favourite interactive pieces, We Feel Fine, have a new piece called I Want You To Want Me commissioned for MoMA’s Design and The Elastic Mind show.

I Want You To Want Me explores the world of online dating, scraping data from thousands of online profiles all in search of love. As with We Feel Fine the interaction is simple, but allows you to view the data in lots of beautiful, emotional and meaningful ways. The interface is made up of balloons representing each person and each one has one of over 500 specially shot video silhouettes inside it.

The ways of looking at the data are described as movements and include things like “Who I Am” and “What I Want” along with “Openers”, “Closers” and “Taglines”, which are used in the profile descriptions. There’s also a matchmaker section:

Matchmaker algorithmically pairs people based on their descriptions of who they are and what they’re looking for. Balloon couples emerge on the horizon and drift to the foreground, before pausing side by side for a few seconds and then floating off together.

The project’s website explains it all in detail with some great images from it. A real treat is that they also documented their process with sketches, photos, etc.

[tags]Jonathan Harris, Sep Kamvar, MoMA, installation, dating[/tags]

Podcast interview with Jason Bruges

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My latest Core77 Broadcast interview with Jason Bruges from Jason Bruges Studio is now online.

In a slightly echoing room in Jason’s studio, accompanied by the usual sirens and car alarms of London’s Shoreditch, he talks about his roots in architecture, the journey to interactive surfaces, sustainability and his thoughts about giving this emerging area a proper name.

Hope you enjoy it.

The next one, coming soon, is with Troika.

[tags]Core77, Jason Bruges[/tags]