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. []