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

What I’ve been up to lately

You might be wondering what’s been going on at the Leapfrog studio lately, since I haven’t really posted anything substantial here in a while. Quite some stuff has happened — and I’ll hopefully get back into posting longer articles soon — but for now, here’s a list of more or less interesting things I have been doing:

This happened – Utrecht

We had our first This happened – Utrecht on November 3. I think we succeeded in creating an event that really looks at the craft of interaction design. I’m happy to say we’re planning to do three events next year — all at Theater Kikker in Utrecht — and we’ve got lots of cool speakers in mind. If you want to make sure you won’t miss them, subscribe to our newsletter (in Dutch).1

Teaching

My students are nearing the end of their project. They’ve been hard at work creating concepts for mobile social games with a musical component; they came up with 20 in total. Now they’re prototyping two of them, and I must say it’s looking good. They’ll have to present the games to the project’s commissioner — a major mobile phone manufacturer — somewhere the beginning of January 2009. I hope to be able to share some of the results here afterwards.

Office space

Since December 1 I am a resident of the Dutch Game Garden’s Business Club. That means I now have a nice office smack in the centre of Utrecht. The building’s home to lots of wonderful games companies, some, like me, operating on the fringes — like FourceLabs and Monobanda. If you’re curious and would like to drop by for a tour, a coffee and some conversation, let me know.

Brainstorm

I was invited do help compose one of the cases for the ‘Grote Amsterdamse Waterbrainwave’. A one-day brainstorm in which 45 students from various institutions were asked to come up with water-related innovations that would make the Netherlands a significant global player once again. It was organised by the Port of Amsterdam, Waternet and Verleden van Nederland2. I also attended the day itself as an outside expert on games and the creative industry in general. Read a report of the event at FD.nl (in Dutch).

Book

Dan Saffer’s book Designing Gestural Interfaces has been published by O’Reilly and is now available. Turn to page 109 and you’ll find a storyboard by yours truly used for illustration purposes. That’s the first time any work of mine is featured in print, so naturally I’m quite proud. I have yet to receive my copy, but got a sneak peek this weekend and I must say it looks promising. If you’re a designer needing to get up to speed with multi-touch, physical computing and such, this should be a good place to start.

That’s about it for now. There’s a lot of exciting stuff in the works, the outcomes of which I will hopefully be able to share with you in 2009.

  1. The creators of This happened in London have been nominated for a best of the year award by the Design Museum, by the way. Well-deserved, I would say! []
  2. A cross-media campaign aimed at increasing awareness of Dutch national history. []

Random brick writings

An awesome random phenomenon in Woerden, the Netherlands: Just after moving into his new villa, André van Zuilen noticed the word “dick” on the front of his house. An act of vandalism by a disgruntled construction worker or coincidence*?

Original article in Dutch over at AD.nl. Via Edwin.

Schuttingwoord in metselwerk

  • We all know there’s no such thing as a coincidence right?

Opgehokte raven

Geweldig nieuws uit Groot-Brittannië – de koninklijke raven zijn opgehokt. Onlangs las ik een mooi artikel in mijn favoriete blad Fortean Times, waarin werd verteld hoe de zes raven van de Tower of London door de Yeoman raven master worden verzorgd en beschermd. Een oude voorspelling zegt dat als alle raven de Tower verlaten het Britse koninkrijk ten onder zal gaan. Nu staat de vogelgriep voor de deur, dus gaan Branwen, Hugine, Munin, Gwyllum, Thor and Baldrick op stok! Iets wat de raven master liever niet doet:

“Although we don’t like having to bring the Tower ravens inside, we believe it is the safest thing to do for their own protection, given the speed that the virus is moving across Europe.”

I get invited to a good beta (Newsvine)

Guess I won’t be needing that shirt – today I got an invited to the private beta of Newsvine.

In the words of Mike Davidson (previously known for his work on sIFR, now of Newsvine):

“We believe in turning news into conversation, and every page on Newsvine.com is designed to do precisely that.”
Haven’t had the time to actually give it a try, but here’s a screenshot of this morning’s world news home page.

Newsvine

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Yahoo! buys del.icio.us

Wow. Yahoo! continues on it’s shopping spree. Now they’ve bought social bookmark service del.icio.us. I guess I’m just glad I’ve already got an account with del.icio.us – otherwise I’d have to struggle through Yahoo!’s horrible sign up process… Congrats, del.icio.us!

Update: Dan Saffer writes about all the users bemoaning the takeover.

Dutch ABC spotted!

At first I was quite sceptical about the existence of our (The Netherlands’) very own Alien Big Cat, but now, both photos and videos have surfaced.

Pantera, a foundation dedicated to the defence of big cats in Europe, have made it their mission to find and capture the alleged puma (which they’ve named ‘Winnie the Poohma’) roaming the ‘Hoge Veluwe’ alive. As opposed to Dutch police, who just want to shoot the animal, because it poses too great a threat to the public.

Looking at the film and pictures, to my untrained eye it does appear that the ABC is feline. However, I have my doubts about its size. The images have been taken at a considerable distance, and there is hardly anything to in the surroundings to compare the cat against.

Also, some experts have spoken out, saying that the ABC can’t be a puma, because it’s the wrong color. Love how that works: first there is no puma, because there’s no hard evidence. Now there’s evidence, but the cat’s no puma, because the color’s wrong!

Another interesting fact is that Dutch authorities are studying the video made by Pantera, to make sure they’re no fake. The same authorities that have been putting expensive personnel on the Hoge Veluwe for days, to protect the public!

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Dutch Alien Big Cat

This is so cool. For a few days now, police in The Netherlands are hunting down an alleged puma on the Hooge Veluwe, a large natural reserve.

To me, being a Fortean, this is a treat. Alien Big Cats is a phenomenon well recorded in Fortean literature where multiple people start seeing a large felid in or around a specific location. Sometimes the animal is never found; sometimes it turns out to be a dog, cat or other domestic animal. And sometimes it turns out to really be a wild cat.

Whatever it turns out to be, I’m enjoying seeing this strange phenomena play out in the Dutch media, who have no clue, and seeing where the mass hysteria will take us.

(Also check out this British ABC roundup at the excellent Fortean Times.)

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