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Ironic Architecture: The Audience And Its Double

My eyes trace the curve of a jet black line as it snakes across the paper. There’s a point at which the line stops and my eyes keep going, tracing the trajectory of where the line might have gone. It’s within the bounds of that short distance that we travel into the future. It’s this tracing that doesn’t trace anything that is the subject of this meditation.

“and now I can go on,” is the phrase Wittgenstein used to describe a certain relationship to a series. Given “2, 4, 6, 8, 10,” I think I can see where things are going. “Even positive integers” is a possible answer, but no matter what numbers come next, a logic can be found for it. If the number is 12, that’s one sort of logic; if it’s 22, that’s another. Based purely on the visible, the adjacent invisible can always be colored in with a reasonable pattern.

It turns out that perception works in a similar way. The gaps in our apprehension of the world are bridged, filled in, to create the sensation of the smooth flow of time and experience. We project ourselves into the future. And our memories make liberal use of sampling to construct a rational narrative to account for the dramatic beats of our lives occuring before this one.

While past is not necessarily prologue, if you have enough data on what ‘usually happens’ you can make an educated guess about what will happen next. Through a statistical analysis of big data, the trajectory of partial behavior can be made visible, and the completion of that behavior can be projected. Correlations in the data emerge to tell a story that is unavailable to any one individual. Here the life of the human becomes actuarial, a set of probabilities for the possibilities. Once the percentages of the probabilities have exhibited some durability, casino economics can be installed to manage the risk and profit from these tendencies. The owners and operators of big data systems have a private view into a higher-dimensional phase space. And despite what these organizations tell us about good and evil, they are purely commercial enterprises.

A big data interlude: capturing big data on the Network, used to be the province of spiders. In the search business, it was only through expedition, return and accumulation of pointers and meta-data that a sufficient store of big data could be created. With Twitter and Facebook big data is created second-by-second within the walls of a single location. It’s the users who do all the traveling, sending postcards and pointers back to the archive.

As the probabilities solidify, another landscape emerges—along with the building materials for another level of architecture. For instance, using the tendencies that behavioral finance has uncovered, Thaler and Sunstein suggest building architectures that frame choice in such a way that people are ‘nudged’ into getting with the program. The program might be putting a percentage of one’s salary into a 401k to fund their retirement, or selecting a healthy lunch at the school cafeteria. We tend to accept the default and choose the item put in our path. Sunstein and Thaler call this activity ‘Choice Architecture‘ because while an individual is free to make any choice, the selection set is tilted toward a particular policy agenda. This tilting toward a particular outcome is what they call “a nudge.”

I like to call it “Ironic Architecture,” because while any choice can theoretically be made, the character in this little story is unaware of the manipulation and tilting of the selection set. When the character accepts the nudge and acts as the statistical analysis suggests they might, another level of the story is being played out.

Here’s Fowler’s Modern Usage on irony:

“Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware of both that more and of the outsider’s incomprehension.”

While we make a big show of talking about how we want to engage the rational needs and desires of a user in the networked hypertext environment, more and more we’re seeing choice architecture employed to win without fighting, to persuade without engaging in a rational discussion.

This kind of strategy plays out in a number of domains, in politics, it’s called framing, or a little more obscurely, heresthetic:

“Like rhetoric, heresthetic depends on the use of language to manipulate people. But unlike rhetoric, it does not require persuasion. ‘With heresthetic,’ according to Riker, “Conviction is at least secondary and often not involved at all. The point of an heresthetical act is to structure the situation so that the actor wins, regardless of whether or not the other participants are persuaded.”

Personal behavior data is being created and recorded at an ever increasing rate. The phrase ‘information exhaust’ is an apt description of the continuous inscription of our activities into digital media. And while we may think that some superior form of personalization will be available to us based on this large data set, it’s more likely that big data will yield correlations and trends that are built into our environments and make us characters in stories of which we are unaware.

Harry Brignull has coined the phrase ‘dark patterns’ for this kind of architecture. Brignull writes eloquently about Alan Penn’s lecture on the architecture of Ikea and how consumer movement through that environment results in the unfolding of a singular story that its characters are unaware of:

“What Ikea have done is taken away something which is very fundamental, evolved into us, and they’ve designed an environment that operates quite differently, given that we are forward facing people, embodied […] from the way it would happen if you just looked down from outer space. Its effect is highly disorienting.”

“Ikea is highly disorienting and yet there is only one route to follow. […] Before long, you’ve got a trolley full of stuff that is not the things that you came there for. Something in the order of 60% of purchases at Ikea are not the things that people had on their shopping list when they came in the first place. That’s phenomenal.”

The best minds of our generation are designing dark patterns to entangle us in a story in which we spend more than we intend. They’re also designing choice architectures to get us to save for retirement, eat a healthy diet, get immunizations and show up for school. But the conversation and the narrative is happening at a level we don’t have access to—rhetoric without argument.икони


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