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

Artificial intelligence as partner

Some notes on artificial intelligence, technology as partner and related user interface design challenges. Mostly notes to self, not sure I am adding much to the debate. Just summarising what I think is important to think about more. Warning: Dense with links.

Matt Jones writes about how artificial intelligence does not have to be a slave, but can also be partner.

I’m personally much more interested in machine intelligence as human augmentation rather than the oft-hyped AI assistant as a separate embodiment.

I would add a third possibility, which is AI as master. A common fear we humans have and one I think only growing as things like AlphaGo and new Boston Dynamics robots keep happening.

I have had a tweet pinned to my timeline for a while now, which is a quote from Play Matters.

“tech­no­logy is not a ser­vant or a mas­ter but a source of expres­sion, a way of being”

So this idea actually does not just apply to AI but to tech in general. Of course, as tech gets smarter and more independent from humans, the idea of a ‘third way’ only grows in importance.

More tweeting. A while back, shortly after AlphaGo’s victory, James tweeted:

On the one hand, we must insist, as Kasparov did, on Advanced Go, and then Advanced Everything Else

Advanced Chess is a clear example of humans and AI partnering. And it is also an example of technology as a source of expression and a way of being.

Also, in a WIRED article on AlphaGo, someone who had played the AI repeatedly says his game has improved tremendously.

So that is the promise: Artificially intelligent systems which work together with humans for mutual benefit.

Now of course these AIs don’t just arrive into the world fully formed. They are created by humans with particular goals in mind. So there is a design component there. We can design them to be partners but we can also design them to be masters or slaves.

As an aside: Maybe AIs that make use of deep learning are particularly well suited to this partner model? I do not know enough about it to say for sure. But I was struck by this piece on why Google ditched Boston Dynamics. There apparently is a significant difference between holistic and reductionist approaches, deep learning being holistic. I imagine reductionist AI might be more dependent on humans. But this is just wild speculation. I don’t know if there is anything there.

This insistence of James on “advanced everything else” is a world view. A politics. To allow ourselves to be increasingly entangled with these systems, to not be afraid of them. Because if we are afraid, we either want to subjugate them or they will subjugate us. It is also about not obscuring the systems we are part of. This is a sentiment also expressed by James in the same series of tweets I quoted from earlier:

These emergences are also the best model we have ever built for describing the true state of the world as it always already exists.

And there is overlap here with ideas expressed by Kevin in ‘Design as Participation’:

[W]e are no longer just using computers. We are using computers to use the world. The obscured and complex code and engineering now engages with people, resources, civics, communities and ecosystems. Should designers continue to privilege users above all others in the system? What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants?

AI partners might help us to better see the systems the world is made up of and engage with them more deeply. This hope is expressed by Matt Webb, too:

with the re-emergence of artificial intelligence (only this time with a buddy-style user interface that actually works), this question of “doing something for me” vs “allowing me to do even more” is going to get even more pronounced. Both are effective, but the first sucks… or at least, it sucks according to my own personal politics, because I regard individual alienation from society and complex systems as one of the huge threats in the 21st century.

I am reminded of the mixed-initiative systems being researched in the area of procedural content generation for games. I wrote about these a while back on the Hubbub blog. Such systems are partners of designers. They give something like super powers. Now imagine such powers applied to other problems. Quite exciting.

Actually, in the aforementioned article I distinguish between tools for making things and tools for inspecting possibility spaces. In the first case designers manipulate more abstract representations of the intended outcome and the system generates the actual output. In the second case the system visualises the range of possible outcomes given a particular configuration of the abstract representation. These two are best paired.

From a design perspective, a lot remains to be figured out. If I look at those mixed-initiative tools I am struck by how poorly they communicate what the AI is doing and what its capabilities are. There is a huge user interface design challenge there.

For stuff focused on getting information, a conversational UI seems to be the current local optimum for working with an AI. But for tools for creativity, to use the two-way split proposed by Victor, different UIs will be required.

What shape will they take? What visual language do we need to express the particular properties of artificial intelligence? What approaches can we take in addition to personifying AI as bots or characters? I don’t know and I can hardly think of any good examples that point towards promising approaches. Lots to be done.

"Anonymous Scientology 1 by David Shankbone" by David Shankbone - David Shankbone. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Political play is a mode of thinking critically about politics, and of developing an agonistic approach to those politics. This agonism is framed through carnivalesque chaos and humour, through the appropriation of the world for playing. By playing, by carefully negotiating the purpose of playing between pleasure and the political, we engage in a transformative act.

Quote taken from PARTICIPATORY REPUBLICS: PLAY AND THE POLITICAL by Miguel Sicart on the Play Matters book blog.

I love where Miguel is going with his thinking on the relationship between play, politics, appropriation and resistance.

I am interested in this because at Hubbub we have been exploring similar themes through the making of games and things-you-can-play-with.

The big challenges with this remain in the area of instrumentalisation – if you set out to design a thing that encourages this kind of play you often end up with something that is far from playful.

But the opportunities are huge because so much of today’s struggles of individuals against the state relate to legibility and control in some way, and play is the perfect antidote.

For example shortly after reading Miguel’s piece I came across this McKenzie Wark piece on extrastatecraft via Honor Harger. Extrastatecraft shifts the focus from architecture and politics to infrastructure.

Infrastructure is how power deploys itself, and it does so much faster than law or democracy.

You should read the whole thing. What’s fascinating is that Wark briefly discusses strategies and tactics for resisting such statecraft.

So the world might be run not by statecraft but at least in part by extrastatecraft. Easterling: “Avoiding binary dispositions, this field of activity calls for experiments with ongoing forms of leverage, reciprocity, and vigilance to counter the violence immanent in the space of extrastatecraft.” (149) She has some interesting observations on the tactics for this. Some exploit the informational character of third nature, such as gossip, rumor and hoax. She also discusses the possibilities of the gift or of exaggerated compliance (related perhaps to Zizek’s over-identification), and of mimicry and comedy.

“Gossip, rumor and hoax” sound a lot like the carnivalesque reflective-in-action political play Miguel is talking about.

To finish off, here’s a video of the great James C. Scott on the art of not being governed. He talks at length about how peoples have historically fled from statecraft into geographical zones unreachable by power’s infrastructure. And how they deploy their own, state-resistant infrastructure (such as particular kinds of crops) to remain illegible and uncapturable.

Reboot 10 slides and video

I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.

Update: It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to briefly summarize what this is about. This is a presentation in two parts. In the first, I theorize about the emergence of games that have as their goal the conveying of an argument. These games would use the real-time city as their platform. It is these games that I call urban procedural rhetorics. In the second part I give a few examples of what such games might look like, using a series of sketches.

The slides, posted to SlideShare, as usual:

The video, hosted on the Reboot website:

  1. I did post a transcript in English before, in case you prefer reading to listening. []

Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the presentation to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for recording this.

In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1

Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:

“…the street finds its own uses for things”

For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…

Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2

Continue reading Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The website of Gramschap contains a chronology of the Provo movement in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emergence of the vertical style of skateboarding see the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys. []