Molding Behavior


All systems that humans interact with feature affordances or constraints that can nudge users into certain behavior patterns (example).

At the end of my last post, I started to entertain ways that a story can be transferred (ex. orally or on palm-leaf manuscripts) and how these media can influence the kinds of stories that are best able to be communicated. Consider Upworthy’s model, and how they attempt to optimize clicks by testing different headings and pictures for the same content on social networking sites. Their A/B testing model allows them to see what versions of the story best “click” with audiences. (edit: I didn’t even mean to use a pun there. I’m so, so sorry.)

All stories are constrained by social expectations and harder limitations of their medium. Probably, most timeless classics are better described as well-timed, succeeding for whatever reason the environment they’re consumed in has dictated.

In this post, I’ll riff about technology-driven large-scale social change.


Cultural Evolution

In order to be properly realized, sometimes new institutions and technologies require cultural evolution. For example, pants are a strongly historically correlated with horse-riding warfare and were adopted deliberately as a result of military necessity.

The Romans eventually realized that they had to acquire reasonably efficient cavalry. At first, cavalry was an auxiliary force, manned by non-Roman citizens. During the Empire (from the first century AD on), the Romans began to employ cavalry more effectively. But riding a horse while wearing a tunic is not very comfortable. So Roman cavalrymen started wearing pants, or braccaeas they called them (borrowing a Celtic term; this word eventually became ‘breeches’). After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe fell under the rule of warriors who fought from the horseback – the knights (this transition actually occurred during the Carolingian times, roughly eighth century AD). So wearing pants became associated with high-status men, and gradually spread to other males. By the way, I am talking here about the Mediterranean cultures. In northern Europe, of course, pants were worn by both Celtic and Germanic people at least from the Iron Age on.

Chinese pants adoption is well-recorded, and the strain that this forced adoption caused is very clear:

According to a Chinese chronicle of the Warring States period (Zhan Guo Ce), King Wuling confessed to an advisor, “Now I am about to adopt the Hu [Hunnu] costume and mounted archery … , and the world will certainly criticize me.” The advisor then urged the King to be resolute in his decision, but Wuling lamented, “It is not that I have any doubt concerning the dress of the Hu. I am afraid that everybody will laugh at me.” After musing that “The laughter of the stupid man is an affliction to the man of worth,” Wuling, nevertheless, decided that in the long run adopting the ‘barbarian’ dress will pay a dividend in an increased military efficiency and better prospects of expanding the state territory: “Even though it drives this generation to laugh at me, I shall undoubtedly possess the lands of the Hu and Ching-Shan.”

Fortified by this argument, Wuling started wearing pants in court. But this innovation was met with an enormous amount of resistance from the more conservative elements of Wuling’s government, starting from his own uncle and including many of his ministers. The resulting debate is covered in Zhan Guo Ce. Here’s an example of the argument against Wuling’s innovations:

“Now Your Majesty is changing what has been the practice from the beginning and is not according with the established customs. You are adopting the dress of the Hu and have no regard for the age. That is not how to instruct the people and perfect the rules of propriety. Moreover he who puts strange attire has a dissolute will. He who goes perversely against the established customs disorders the people. That is why he who presides over the state does not clothe himself in strange and perverse attire.” (quoted from a translation of Zhan Guo Ce by B.S. Bonsall)

It should go without saying that technology-driven social change can also be entirely incidental. In one less obvious example, Fred Clark laments the effects of American suburbanization on American political Christianity:

The effect of this [suburban sprawl] has been huge and pervasive. It has tended to favor forms of church and flavors of theology that fall toward the conservative end of the culture-war spectrum, but it’s misleading to therefore refer to this as a more “conservative” theology. Radical changes and a massive break with the theology, traditions and institutions of the past aren’t usually the sorts of things we describe as “conservative.”

The suburbanization of American Christianity has had a huge impact on institutional and denominational structures. Automobile-shaped development has produced an automobile-shaped ecclesiology. The car has abolished the possibility of the parish. And that, in turn, has helped to redefine “neighbor” as a matter of preference more than of proximity — as optional rather than obligatory. That redefinition is rather significant, since “Who is my neighbor?” is kind of an important question for Christians.


High Modernism

The 20th century is a hotbed for these kinds of sweeping social changes. Mass media and the internet have created an increasingly global marketplace for consumption on one end and a platform for niche consumption on the other. Social media and the cellular phone have reorganized the way that we interact with others. And that’s only the last fifteen years. There is an attitude that is unique to the 20th century called High Modernisma sort of scientific view of governance that was practiced most widely during the Cold War (on both sides). High Modernism brought us the famous definition of the house as a “machine for living in”, and brought metrics for standards of living into vogue. It also causes a lot of familiar problems that I’ll touch on in a later post. Straight from Wikipedia:

High modernity is distinguished by the following characteristics:

1. A strong confidence in the potential for scientific and technological progress, including a reliance on the expertise of scientists, engineers, bureaucrats and other intellectuals.

2. Attempts to master nature to meet human needs (this also includes attempts to control and change human nature).

3. An emphasis on rendering complex environments or concepts (such as old cities or social dynamics) legible, most often through spatial ordering (for example, city planning on a grid).

4. Disregard for historical, geographical and social context in development.

For the blog that brought this idea to my attention, the “legibility” characteristic (3) was the most fruitful one. For another blog that I’ve linked to before, the first characteristic was elegantly addressed. Both of those links do a great job explaining those concepts and I can’t really effectively retread what those links outline. In my first two posts, I’ve sort of sloppily approached the fourth characteristic, talking about historical contingency and social context and how they color the information we share and how we see the world.

It is not inherently evil to deliberately build things that drive behavior changes in some direction. In fact, I think carelessness in designing social systems is a strictly worse attitude. Soft Paternalism (of Nudge fame), attempts to reconcile the direction that a High Modernist structure can provide with the dissidents who have concerns about individual control or freedom. Some political opponents to this see this behavioral economics-based approach as a new paint of coat on an old authoritarian concept, but I don’t see it as fair to call it the same kind of coercion. All designed things are coercive, then. It strikes me the same way that over-broad “human rights” arguments do- if everything is a right, nothing is. The phrase is co-opted.

When you have a hammer, a lot of problems will look like nails. All tools, all interfaces, and all institutions are carving out likely behaviors out of their users. All default options, all Commandments, all talking points, all lists, all physical signs, all explicit metrics, all mottoes, all laws,  all visualizations, all history-telling, all metaphors, all education, all comments, all numerations, all tooltips, all memos, all icons, all press releases, all phone trees, all community-developed abbreviations, all thread topics, and all sound effects interact and incentivize particular attitudes and behaviors in some audience. In HCI, “usability” is about reducing the barriers to use, and being as effortless and transparent and non-resistant to the user’s will as possible. This is not the only stance that an artifact can take towards a user. It isn’t even the most common stance.
More on that soon.