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


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.


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 (in Dutch).


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 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 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.


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Yahoo! buys

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

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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