Curiosity is our product

A few weeks ago I facilitated a discussion on ‘advocacy in a post-truth era’ at the European Digital Rights Initiative’s annual general assembly. And last night I was part of a discussion on fake news at a behaviour design meetup in Amsterdam. This was a good occasion to pull together some of my notes and figure out what I think is true about the ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

There is plenty of good writing out there exploring the history and current state of post-truth political culture.

Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and Michael Gove’s “I think people have had enough of experts” are just two examples of the right’s appropriation of what I would call epistemological relativism. Post-modernism was fun while it worked to advance our leftist agenda. But now that the tables are turned we’re not enjoying it quite as much anymore, are we?

Part of the fact-free politics playbook goes back at least as far as big tobacco’s efforts to discredit the anti-smoking lobby. “Doubt is our product” still applies to modern day reactionary movements such as climate change deniers and anti-vaxers.

The double whammy of news industry commercialisation and internet platform consolidation has created fertile ground for coordinated efforts by various groups to turn the sowing of doubt all the way up to eleven.

There is Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” which sends a high volume of messages across a wide range of channels with total disregard for truth or even consistency in a rapid, continuous and repetitive fashion. They seem to be having fun destabilising western democracies — including the Netherlands — without any apparent end-goal in mind.

And then there is the outrage marketing leveraged by trolls both minor and major. Pissing off mainstream media builds an audience on the fringes and in the underground. Journalists are held hostage by figures such as Milo because they depend on stories that trigger strong emotions for distribution, eyeballs, clicks and ultimately revenue.

So, given all of this, what is to be done? First some bad news. Facts, the weapon of choice for liberals, don’t appear to work. This is empirically evident from recent events, but it also appears to be borne out by psychology.

Facts are often more complicated than the untruths they are supposed to counter. It is also easier to remember a simple lie than a complicated truth. Complicating matters further, facts tend to be boring. Finally, and most interestingly, there is something called the ‘backfire effect’: we become more entrenched in our views when confronted with contradicting facts, because they are threatening to our group identities.

More bad news. Given the speed at which falsehoods spread through our networks, fact-checking is useless. Fact-checking is after-the-fact-checking. Worse, when media fact-check falsehoods on their front pages they are simply providing even more airtime to them. From a strategic perspective, when you debunk, you allow yourself to be captured by your opponent’s frame, and you’re also on the defensive. In Boydian terms you are caught in their OODA loop, when you should be working to take back the initiative, and you should be offering an alternative narrative.

I am not hopeful mainstream media will save us from these dynamics given the realities of the business models they operate inside of. Journalists inside of these organisations are typically overworked, just holding on for dear life and churning out stories at a rapid clip. In short, there is no time to orient and manoeuvre. For bad-faith actors, they are sitting ducks.

What about literacy? If only people knew about churnalism, the attention economy, and filter bubbles ‘they’ would become immune to the lies peddled by reactionaries and return to the liberal fold. Personally I find these claims highly unconvincing not to mention condescending.

My current working theory is that we, all of us, buy into the stories that activate one or more of our group identities, regardless of wether they are fact-based or outright lies. This is called ‘motivated reasoning’. Since this is a fact of psychology, we are all susceptible to it, including liberals who are supposedly defenders of fact-based reasoning.

Seriously though, what about literacy? I’m sorry, no. There is evidence that scientific literacy actually increases polarisation. Motivated reasoning trumps factual knowledge you may have. The same research shows however that curiosity in turn trumps motivated reasoning. The way I understand the distinction between literacy and curiosity is that the former is about knowledge while the latter is about attitude. Motivated reasoning isn’t counteracted by knowing stuff, but by wanting to know stuff.

This is a mixed bag. Offering facts is comparatively easy. Sparking curiosity requires storytelling which in turn requires imagination. If we’re presented with a fact we are not invited to ask questions. However, if we are presented with questions and those questions are wrapped up in stories that create emotional stakes, some of the views we hold might be destabilised.

In other words, if doubt is the product peddled by our opponents, then we should start trafficking in curiosity.

Further reading

Mashing up the real-time city and urban games

Yesterday evening I was at the Club of Amsterdam. They host events centred around preferred futures. I was invited to speak at an evening about the future of games.1 I thought I’d share what I talked about with you here.

I had ten minutes to get my point across. To be honest, I think I failed rather dismally. Some of the ideas I included were still quite fresh and unfinished, and I am afraid this did not work out well. I also relied too heavily on referencing other’s work, presuming people would be familiar with them. A miscalculation on my part.

In any case, thanks to Felix Bopp and Carla Hoekendijk for inviting me. I had a good time and enjoyed the other presenter’s talks. The discussion afterwards too was a lot of things, but dull certainly isn’t among them.

What follows is a write-up of what I more or less said during the presentation, plus references to the sources I used, which will hopefully make things clearer than they were during the evening itself.2

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(This is where I did the usual introduction of who I am and what I do. I won’t bore you with it here. In case you are wondering, the title of this talk is slightly tongue-in cheek. I had to come up with it for the abstract before writing the actual talk. Had I been able to choose a title afterwards, it would’ve been something like “Growth” or “A New Biology of Urban Play”…)

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This gentleman is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He is said to be the first to formulate a coherent theory of evolution. His ideas centred around inheritance of acquired traits. So for instance, a blacksmiths who works hard his whole life will probably get really strong arms. In the Lamarckist view, his offspring will inherit these strong arms from him. Darwinism rules supreme in evolutionary biology, so it is no surprise that this theory is out of favour nowadays. What I find interesting is the fact that outside of the natural domain, Lamarckism is still applicable, most notably in culture. Cultural organisms can pass on traits they acquired in their lifetime to their offspring. Furthermore, there is a codependency between culture and humans. The two have co-evolved. You could say culture is a trick humans use to get around the limits of Darwinism (slow, trial-and-error based incremental improvements) in order to achieve Lamarckism.3

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You can think of cities as cultural meta-organisms. They’re a great example of natural-cultural co-evolution. We use cities as huge information storage and retrieval machines. What you see here is a map of the city of Hamburg circa 1800. In his book Emergence, Steven Berlin Johnson compares the shape of this map to that of the human brain, to illustrate this idea of the city being alive, in a sense. Cities are self-organizing cities that emerge from the bottom up. They grow, patterns are created from low-level interactions, things like neighbourhoods.4

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Games are this other thing nature has come up with to speed up evolution. I’m not going to go into why I think we play (you could do worse than have a look at The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith to get a sense of all the different viewpoints on the matter). Let’s just say I think one thing games are good at is conveying viewpoints of the world in a procedural way (a.k.a. ‘procedural rhetoric’ as described in Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games). They provide people with a way to explore a system from the inside out. They give rise to ‘systemic literacy’.5 The image is from Animal Crossing: Wild World, a game that, as Bogost argues, tries to point out certain issues that exist with consumerism and private home ownership.

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Moving on, I’d like to discuss two trends that I see happening right now. I’ll build on those to formulate my future vision.

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So trend number one: the real-time city. In cities around the globe, we are continuously pumping up the amount of sensors, actuators and processors. The behaviour of people is being sensed, processed and fed back to them in an ever tightening feedback loop. This will inevitably change the behaviour of humans as well as the city. So cities are headed to a phase transition, where they’ll move (if not in whole then at least in neighbourhood-sized chunks) to a new level of evolvability. Adam Greenfield calls it network weather. Dan Hill talks about how these new soft infrastructures can help us change the user experience of the city without needing to change the hard stuff. The problem is, though, that the majority of this stuff is next-to invisible, and therefore hard to “read”.6 The image, by the way, is from Stamen Design’s awesome project Cabspotting, which (amongst other things) consists of real-time tracking and visualization of the trajectories of taxis in the Bay Area.

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Trend number two. In the past decade or so, there’s a renewed interest in playing in public spaces. Urban games are being used to re-imagine and repurpose the city in new ways (such as the parkour player pictured here). Consciously or subconsciously, urban games designers are flirting with the notions of the Situationist International, most notably the idea of inner space shaping our experience of outer space (psycho-geography) and the use of playful acts to subvert those spaces. Parkour and free running can’t really be called games, but things like SFZero, The Soho Project and Cruel 2 B Kind all fit these ideas in some way.

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So I see an opportunity here: To alleviate some of the illegibility of the real-time city’s new soft infrastructures, we can deploy games that tap into them. Thus we employ the capacity of games to provide insight into complex systems. With urban games, this ‘grokking’ can happen in situ.

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Through playing these games, people will be better able to “read” the real-time city, and to move towards a more decentralized mindset. The image is from a project by Dan Hill, where the shape of public Wi-Fi in the State Library of Queensland was visualized and overlaid on the building’s floor-plan.

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Ultimately though, I would love to enable people to not only “read” but also “write” possible processes for the real-time city. I see many advantages here. Fore one this could lead to situated procedural arguments: people could be enabled to propose alternative ways of interacting with urban space. But even without this, just by making stuff, another way of learning is activated, known as ‘analysis by synthesis’. This was the aim of Mitchel Resnick when he made StarLogo (of which you see a screenshot here). And it works. StarLogo enables children to make sense of complex systems. A real-time urban game design toolkit could to the same, with the added benefit of the games being juxtaposed with the cities they are about.

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This juxtaposition might result in dynamics similar to what we find in nature. Processes from these new games might be spontaneously transferred over to the city, and vice versa. The image is of roots with outgrowths on them which are caused by a bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria is well known for its ability to transfer DNA between itself and plants. An example of nature circumventing natural selection.7 A new symbiosis between urban games and the real-time city might lead to similar acceleration of their evolutions.

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(I finished a little over time and had time for one question. Adriaan Wormgoor of FourceLabs asked whether I thought games would sooner or later become self-evolving themselves. My answer was “absolutely”. to get to ever higher levels of complexity we’ll be forced to start growing or rearing our games more than assembling them from parts. Games want to be free, you could say, so they are inevitably heading towards ever higher levels of evolvability.)

  1. Iskander Smit has posted a report of the evening over at his blog. []
  2. If you’re interested, the slide deck as a whole is also available on SlideShare. []
  3. I first came across Lamarck, and the idea of nature and culture co-evolving in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control. The blacksmith example is his too. []
  4. All this flies in the face of large-scale top-down planning and zoning, as Jane Jacobs makes painfully clear in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. []
  5. Eric Zimmerman talked at length about the need for systemic literacy at Playful 2008. []
  6. For more on this have a look at another blog post by Adam Greenfield titled Reading, writing, texts, literacy, cities. []
  7. As Kevin Kelly writes in Out of Control, evolution with symbiosis included is less like a tree and more like a thicket. []

Cities, systems, literacy, games

If you were asked to improve your own neighbourhood, what would you change? And how would you go about communicating those changes?

Cities are systems, or rather, many systems that interconnect. Like buildings, they can be thought of as having layers, each changing at its own pace. If those layers are loosely coupled, the city — like the building — can adapt.

Recently, new urban layers/systems have started to emerge. They are made up of rapidly proliferating computing power, carried by people and embedded in the environment, used to access vast amounts of data.

At the same time, games have given rise to a new form of literacysystemic literacy. However, to date, players have mostly inhabited the systems that make up games. They can read them. Writing, on the other hand, is another matter. True systemic literacy means being able to change the systems you inhabit.

True read/write systemic literacy can be used to craft games, yes. But it can also be used to see that many other problems and challenges in daily life are systemic ones.

To be sure, the real-time city will confront its inhabitants with many new problems. It is of the essence that the people shaping these new systems have a deep concern for their fellow humans. But it is also at least as important that people are taught the knowledge and skills — and given the tools — to change stuff about their surroundings as they see fit.

The wonderful thing is, we can shape systems, using the ‘new’ streets as a platform that transfer this knowledge and these skills to people. We can create ‘seriousurban games that facilitate speculative modelling, so that people can improve their living environment, or at least express what they would change about it, in a playful way.

Adaptive design and transformative play

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Allowing people to change parts of your product is playful. It has also always ‘just’ seemed like a good thing to do to me. You see this with with people who become passionate about a thing they use often: They want to take it apart, see how it works, put it back together again, maybe add some stuff, replace something else… I’ve always liked the idea of passionate people wanting to change something about a thing I designed. And it’s always been a disappointment when I’d find out that they did not, or worse—wanted to but weren’t able to.

Apparently this is what people call adaptive design. But if you Google that, you won’t find much. In fact, there’s remarkably little written about it. I was put on the term’s trail by Matt Webb and from there found my way to Dan Hill’s site. There’s a lot on the topic there, but if I can recommend one piece it’s the interview he did for Dan Saffer’s book on interaction design. Read it. It’s full of wonderful ideas articulated 100 times better than I’ll ever be able to.

So why is adaptive design conducive to the playfulness of a user experience? I’m not sure. One aspect of it might be the fact that as a designer you explicitly relinquish some control over the final experience people have with your…stuff.1 As Matt Webb noted in an end-of-the-year post, in stead of saying to people: “Here’s something I made. Go on—play with it.” You say: “Here’s something I made—let’s play with it together.”

This makes a lot of sense if you don’t think of the thing under design as something that’ll be consumed but something that will be used to create. It sounds easy but again is surprisingly hard. It’s like we have been infected with this hard-to-kill idea that makes us think we can only consume whereas we are actually all very much creative beings.2 I think that’s what Generation C is really about.

A sidetrack: In digital games, for a long time developments have been towards games as media that can be consumed. The real changes in digital games are: One—there’s a renewed interest in games as activities (particularly in the form of casual games). And two—there’s an increase in games that allow themselves to be changed in meaningful ways. These developments make the term “replay value” seem ready for extinction. How can you even call something that isn’t interesting to replay a game?3

In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman describe the phenomenon of transformative play—where the “free movement within a more rigid structure” changes the mentioned structure itself (be it intended or not). They hold it as one of the most powerful forms of play. Think of a simple house rule you made up the last time you played a game with some friends. The fact that on the web the rules that make up the structures we designed are codified in software should not be an excuse to disallow people to change them.

That’s true literacy: When you can both read and write in a medium (as Alan Kay would have it). I’d like to enable people to do that. It might be hopelessly naive, but I don’t care—it’s a very interesting challenge.

  1. That’s a comfortable idea to all of the—cough—web 2.0 savvy folk out there. But it certainly still is an uncomfortable thought to many. And I think it’d surprise you to find out how many people who claim to be “hip to the game” will still refuse to let go. []
  2. Note I’m not saying we can all be designers, but I do think people can all create meaningful things for themselves and others. []
  3. Yes, I am a ludologist. So shoot me. []