Sven Ceelen is a phenomenal thinking partner and we’ve had some amazing conversations. I was happy to capture just a piece of this one which began over text messages. It concerns a seemingly innocuous design feature that points to the single most fundamental concern for all designers.
Let me know what you think. There’s a little form at the bottom for responses.
On the radio they said that people feel powerless in the face of climate change. Solution: show users the emissions from flights.
I would argue that this is actually a disempowering tactic, and a design which is meaningfully flawed in at least three ways.
First, the two simpler flaws:
Setting the baseline at ‘average emissions’, even though flying in a commercial jet is — on average — terrible for the environment, starts the viewer off with a poor framing for thinking about the environmental factors in their decision. This is one of those classic cases of “lies, damned lies, and statistics” — implicitly the most insidious of all lies. You can very effectively lead someone down an awful train of thought with only factual statements. And, in this case, the presentation creates an incredibly unreasonable cognitive anchor.
So, flight option number one has thirteen percent lower emissions that the average flight? I’ll grant it. But, why? Is it a smaller plane — meaning that more flights will be required to carry the same number of people? Are planes with longer direct routes being compared to planes which cover shorter distances? And, how are those calculations being handled? There are a dozen confounding factors with secondary transportation, the disproportionate full use in take-off, etc. Is the airplane itself just new and fancy and more fuel efficient? That sounds like a positive, but we should take into account the massive carbon footprint of manufacturing airplanes? All in all, it is incredibly unlikely that the carbon footprint shown is calculated in any truly rigorous manner.
So, yeah. Like I said, those are the simple problems. Here’s the big issue:
Remember: the initial proposition was that this effort is a solution to the problem of the public lacking a sense of agency. Now, imagine playing a long game of darts. Every time you throw, though, the lights go out before the dart hits and is removed from the board just before the lights flick back on. Only after a few dozen throws are you told how you did — on average.
Oh! But it gets better, you aren’t the only one throwing. The average you’re given after a few dozen throws is actually the average for your whole cohort of dart throwers — who you don’t know and aren’t practicing with or anything like that. Now. How much agency do you feel? Do you feel like you have agency in determining the overall score? Do you feel like you’re getting enough feedback to actually improve your dart throwing? Not likely.
Even if the sense of agency could be conveyed it would be dishonest.
One can’t honestly give people a sustained experience of having something that they don’t actually have — especially agency. Maybe that should go without saying, but here we are.
Any organization with more than about 150 employees cannot be meaningfully influenced by any individual who is not a part of its hierarchy. That organization’s capacity to hold influence over the outside individual, the person who is detached from the organization’s hierarchy, will always be orders of magnitude greater.
Read that twice. It’s a little wordy but I’m passably sure that it’s the best way of saying it.
What a corporation can give people, in situations like this, is a little kick of dopamine and an absolution of guilt — both profitable things to offer. So, the person who may have been persuaded that they should limit their flying because of global climate issues can now be induced to affirm themselves with the idea that they’re doing thirteen percent better than the average person.
Oh! But, that’s not what the interface said.
Well, that’s how it comes across.
And, it helps the airline to sell slightly more expensive seats to boot. Tactics like this are disempowering because they give people a feeling that they’re calling ‘agency’. They’re giving people a coping mechanism, something that keeps them away from hitting rock bottom. And, the worst case scenario is that the person will internalize this experience as what it means to be empowered — which is really possible for folks who’ve never really experienced themselves as powerful. In that case, more than any other, this tactic is ultimately disempowering because the experience that a person retains, which they label empowerment, is entirely ineffectual.
Powerlessness is comfortable, because there’s always someone else to blame for everything. It’s easy to be addicted to it. And, these interface design patterns are just a part of that cycle of addiction. They allow people to feel that they’re not as far down the path of powerlessness as someone else and don’t need to get help.
Most organizations aren’t ready to just hand the reigns of their business over to popular opinion — nor should they be. So, how does an organization make environmental change and actually empower people. Well, if I owned an airline and wanted to help the environment, I would do two things:
The above is a blue ocean strategy putting faith in people and good process over short-term profiteering — though I actually believe that it could be incredibly profitable in the long run.
Usually, the best we can do is to provide useful information and to draw out solutions through dialog and prolonged engagement. As an airline, there’s a huge opportunity in becoming the firm that goes public about the corruption and collusion that keeps the whole industry in the air. Imagine a campaign that more elegantly stated, “Everything this industry does is deeply flawed, but we’re working to change that. Here’s how.” This kind of thinking is also probably the reason that I don’t own an airline. Few venture capitalists can see value in anything that will definitely hurt the next quarter’s bottom line — even if it actually wins hearts and minds for life.
Remember the lesson of Alexander and Diogenes by the river side. If you can’t be in power, be a cynic. I’ll circle back to this shortly. First, this is where the conversation with Sven went:
Interesting. I can agree, but also notice that my own criticism of action leads to inaction. It’s almost like I over-analyze and can’t see something good enough, which feels like a major problem. Trending in the right direction is the most important as it’s impossible to be perfect. The defining of good enough can lead to endless debate and analysis. Do you see that as an issue? Or are you able to see a clear path forward?
I see that issue as a sequencing failure. It only comes up in means-and-ends / utilitarian thinking. With a fundamentally principled and process-oriented outlook, which is not the same as a progressive outlook, it becomes a non-issue.
By progressive do you mean the political meaning? Or progressing though time?
both. Both assume a stance of philosophical materialism, which is what introduces the problem.
Questions like this are weighty. And, though they can be made clear they cannot necessarily be made simple. They deal with the relationship of incarnate life to what has been called Beriah, the Akashic Record, the Logos, the Hylaean Theoric World, and probably many other names. The simplest version of the thinking that I can articulate goes:
There must be something that is objectively real “before”, “behind”, or “outside of” anything tangible because the consistent rules by which all tangible things are made and interact are not themselves tangible. And, for reasons that there are some fascinating books about, what is good for people is necessarily a peer to those rules which connect that world of disincarnate Truths to the material world. Which means that what is good for people cannot be any specific physical or circumstantial condition or set of conditions.
If the preceding paragraph makes perfect sense to you and requires no further substantiation then you can skip reading the Enchiridion, the Kybalion, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Platonic Dialogues, and the Mahabharata — which elaborate that point at great length, among others. Though, I would still recommend them.
However, just to get the idea of the point, only folk tales are needed. King Midas wanted to make money without the work — circumstance over character. The Little Mermaid in giving up her voice to take on an idealized form wanted to possess the love of another while avoiding vulnerability and depriving that person of any understanding of herself — circumstance over character.
The theme of principled moral virtue, which is not to be confused with legalistic religious codes of conduct, and the preeminence of morality over circumstantial ends-and-means thinking, is one of the most expounded themes in all cultures. It is also certainly the most lauded essential of both theology and philosophy which is agreed upon by great thinkers as far flung from each other as Epicurus and Epictetus, Socrates and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Aleister Crowley, Kierkegaard and Camus, Rebecca Sugar and Pendleton Ward — all of whom actually agree with each other more than their respective fanatics would like to acknowledge.
Giving someone a feeling of agency is deplorable and manipulative because it optimizes for their circumstantial experience without addressing their character or honestly revealing the reality of the situation in question. Agency cannot be given but comes through personal efforts. So, giving someone a sense of agency will always be deceitful.
I mentioned cynicism before. Through the practice of cynicism, in the old sense, one gains self-sovereignty through criticizing everything and literally stripping away connection to everything which doesn’t meet spec. This is why Alexander the Great said that if he could not be Alexander he would prefer to be the naked and happy Diogenes. This property of leading the seeker to true happiness and enduring empowerment first, and to civic engagement and worldly matters secondarily, is actually generally held by the classical schools of philosophy and mysticism around the globe and across the millennia — even if they differ on the particulars.
So, the only way to feel a genuine sense of agency is to become an agent. The only virtuous way to give people a sense of empowerment is to point the way to the gate of the gauntlet of personal development. Within the gauntlet, they will be empowered. When they are empowered, they’ll feel it.
And, are you someone who dedicates any amount of your precious time and resources to improving your community, to developing new economic models, or to regenerating ecosystems?
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