Fugitive phenomena

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named.

Robert MacFarlane describing one of the disappearing words he’s collected which describe landscapes and the natural world.

I’m fascinated by language, and I’m drawn to these uncanny words that describe something specific by familiar. They have the alienated majesty of my own thoughts or observations captured in a single word, and they often have the power to change the way I perceive the world.

The Japanese word wabi sabi is one example of this. When I first heard the word, it immediately resonated with me. The idea of something becoming more beautiful with use was something I’d been thinking about already.

Learning about wabi sabi helped to crystalize some of those ideas, but also changed the way I perceived the world. It’s a concept I’ve returned to again and again when thinking about how things should be designed. Knowing the word fundamentally changed the way I experienced the world.

MacFarlane comments on this in his article.

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Not only is smeuse an amazing word, but it’s had the same effect on me. During my walks around our village I’ve noticed smeuses much more often than I did before now that I have a word for them.

It’s this point — naming something means noticing it — that lies behind MarFarlane’s project to collect seldom-used words that describe the landscape and natural phenomenon.

A recently published version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed natural words, such as “acorn”, in favor of digital words, such as “blog.” MacFarlane places his project in this context:

The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

There is a relationship between our experience and the words we use to describe it. It works in both directions. As our interactions with nature decline, so too will our our use of words that describe specific natural phenomenon. Those “fugitive phenomena” are less likely to be noticed, so why would we need words to describe them?

I worry that we’re spending less and less time in nature. I worry that we’ll lose more than just words. I worry that we losing the lessons that are learned when you spend time climbing a tree, buiding a den or losing yourself in the woods: self-reliance, cooperation, close observation of your surroundings. I worry even more because these skills aren’t prioritized by our current education systems.

I’m not convinced that collecting these words will necessarily change this on its own, but I believe that MacFarlane’s project is worthwhile as a part of a larger project to reverse this trend. Collecting these words takes a stand for taking the time notice these things that are rarely noticed. If they spark the curiosity of just a few people or change the way they view the natural world, then it’s well worth it.

Cartographic omissions

The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way. They carry out a triage of its aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a landscape is perceived and treated.

It can take time and effort to forget the prejudice induced by a powerful map. And few maps exercise a more distortive pressure upon the imagination than the road atlas. The first road atlas of Britain was produced in 1675 by John Ogilby. It was a six-volume work, which claimed to be the only ‘Ichnographical and Historical Description of all the Principal Road-ways in England and Wales’. Ogilby’s maps showed a scrupulous attention to landscape detail: they depicted not only roads, but also the hills, rivers and forests that the roads ran round, along, through and over.

In the centuries since Ogilby’s innovation, the road atlas has grown in ubiquity and influence. Over a million are sold in Britain and Ireland each year; twenty million are thought to be in circulation at any one time. The priorities of the modern road atlas are clear. Drawn by computers from satellite photos, it is a map that speaks of transit and displacement. It encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world.

Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, pp. 8-9) discusses how maps can impact the way we perceive a place. This goes well beyond the map not being the territory. A map, like any good model, is wrong, but useful. For driving one place to another, a road map is a useful model. But maps are also a sort of language, and the language we use can influence the way we think.

Road maps are designed to be task-focused. They allow you to plan a route from Point A to Point B. Turn-by-turn navigation does this job even better. Road maps and turn-by-turn navigation are successful because leave out a great deal of information, but what is left out changes our perception. Instead of being aware of the surrounding landscape, we’re aware only of our own route through it, focused only on the blue line that draws us forward toward our destination. Everything else drops away.

The road map is only one way of representing a landscape. For the traveller who merely wants to move through the landscape, it is probably the right tool. For the traveller for whom the journey is the landscape (perhaps this is an explorer, not a traveller), there are other maps that show what road maps have left out: the topography, the history, the ecology, the geology. Of course, there is also everything that no map shows, and that’s where things start to get exciting.

The tale of the drill

Everything made sense except that nobody gives a shit. They go buy [a drill]. Or they just bang a screwdriver through the wall.

Adam Berk, the founder of Neighborrow, on the reasons the company hasn’t worked out as planned in Sarah Kassler’s post-mortem of the “sharing economy.”

In it, she begins with the oft-told tale of the drill, borrowing her telling from Rachel Botsman’s 2010 TEDxSydney talk on collaborative consumption.

How many of you own a power drill?

That power drill will be used around 12 to 13 minutes in its entire lifetime. It’s kind of ridiculous, right? Because what you need is the hole, not the drill.

So why don’t you rent the drill, or, even better, rent out your own drill to other people and make some money from it?

And that simple story is what lies behind what Kassler calls the “real sharing economy.”

But the real sharing economy is dead.

It was a beautiful idea that struck hard, but when it died, nobody seemed to notice… And nobody seemed to ask the question of how an idea that everybody loved so much, an idea that made so much sense on a practical and social level, morphed into the pure capitalism that it is today.

Deciding what the “real sharing economy” is is tricky. Rachel Botsman has recently tried to tease out some definitions. I’m not sure she and Kassler would agree on the definition as Botsman lists Airbnb as an example in her definition of the sharing economy, while Kassler primarily uses Airbnb and Uber (“pure capitalism”) to provide a contrast to what she means by the “real sharing economy.”

I think that Botsman’s definition of the sharing economy is useful, though.

An economic system based on sharing underused assets or services, for free or for a fee, directly from individuals.

I think that many of the tool-sharing services that Kessler includes in her definition of the real sharing economy would also fall under this definition.

But what really interests me about Botsman’s definition is that it is an “economic system.” Language has a way of influencing the way we think about things. In 2007, Alex Steffen proposed another term for these type of tool-sharing interactions: use communities.

I think we very much got what we asked for. When you ask for an economic system, that’s exactly what you get (and I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with that). However, if you ask for a solution that’s community-based, you’re likely to get something that looks quite different.

The thing is, there are some people who did ask for exactly that, who are asking for a use community. And that’s what those people seem to be getting. Makerspaces, Hackspaces, Fab Labs are thriving. Community Supported Agriculture is more popular than ever.

The kind of sharing that Kassler believes are “the real sharing economy” are happening all the time. In the last week, I’ve seen three instances of it, just not in one centralised website. Two—a tent and a string of fairy lights—happened on a mailing list of dads that live in my village. The other–a wifi router–happened on a Hackspace mailing list.

So, I don’t think that the “sharing economy” is dead. I’m just not convinced that it’s much of an economy. It happens when people come together and create a community.

All of this makes me wonder two things.

The first is that use communities–as opposed to some of examples of collaborative consumption that Botsman gives–may work better if they are radicant-like: entities that are connected but independent. Makerspaces and community supported agriculture are examples of this. They are part of a broader movement, but each instance is dependent on a local community. This is opposed to some of the examples of very successful collaborative consumption that are run by one (and are now often very large) company (Zipcar, Airbnb, Uber).

The second is that use communities may work better if they make use of what Clay Shirky calls socially interesting tools. Rather than trying to create something new to support themselves, they use technologies that we take for granted (like mailing lists).

In the end, the tale of the drill that people share turns out not to be a myth. I suspect we were just looking for it in the wrong places.

Creating opportunities

Rather then just telling people to go the gym, public health professionals and advocates must work with architects, urban designers, and planners to reverse the design trends that have contributed to declining physical activity. Creating opportunities for exercise in daily life routines can increase physical activity and assist in controlling epidemics related to obesity, as well as contribute to environmental sustainability.

from New York City’s Active Design Guidelines.

What stuck me about the above paragraph form the Active Design Guidelines was the phrase “creating opportunities.” What I like about this is that it recognizes that the people we are designing for have agency and choice.

There has been a lot talk about behavior change for the last several years. I’ve written before that I’m not entirely convinced by it. Not least because it’s not always successful. Such as when nudging Republicans backfires and they actually start using more—rather than less—energy when shown how their energy use compares to their neighbors.

The idea of “behavior change” all too often leads us to think of people in the abstract, which leads us down the route of believing all people can be easily manipulated. This flawed assumption leads to not understanding the people you’re for whom you’re designing (e.g. not doing enough research) and to designs backfiring.

Creating opportunities, on the other hand, means we need to understand what opportunities are needed. It encourages us to look for something that has been missed, rather than using the same cheap tricks to try to get people to do what we want them to. It means creating more value than you capture, rather than extracting as much value as you can.

After taking Dan Ariely’s beginner’s guide to irrational behavior, I’m convinced that behavioral economics is a truly useful tool. I’m also convinced that much of behavioral economics has been badly used by the design community.

When I linked to a spirited criticism of nudging on Goolge+ (a post which seems to have gone missing), one of the replies was began with the assumption that “technology is morally neutral.” Even if I agreed with that (which I’m not entirely sure I do), language isn’t neutral. And the connotations of “behavior change”—power, arrogance, manipulation and control—make me very uncomfortable.

Focusing on “creating opportunities for change,” rather than “changing behavior,” puts the onus on us as designers. It means we should understand the people we are designing for and use that understanding to help them make their lives better. In other words, thinking about “creating opportunities” works as a kind of a handrail that guides us toward to the type of work that we should have been doing all along.

Update (September 18, 2015) I’ve realized a year after writing (while still thinking about the idea of open nudges) this that focusing on creating opportunities rather than specifically on behavior change fits in nicely with what Clay Shirky says about behavior being motivation filtered through opportunity. Understand people’s motivations and you can design an opportunity which will help them change their behavior. This is why nudging Republicans to reduce their home energy use backfires: the motivation simply isn’t there.

Dictionaries are human

Dictionaries are fantastic resources, but they are human and they are not timeless. I’m struck as a teacher that we tell students to critically question every text they read, every website they visit, except dictionaries, which we tend to treat as unauthored. As if they came from nowhere to give us answers about what words really mean.

Here’s the thing: if you ask dictionaries editors, what they’ll tell you is that they’re just trying to keep up with us as we change the language.

Anne Curzan has given a fantastic TED talk on what what makes a word real. In it, she discusses our somewhat conflicted relationship with dictionaries.

I’ve mentioned before that I consider myself a descriptivist. What I love about Anne Curzan’s talk is her point that you can strongly dislike a word, but still accept it’s usage in a living and ever-changing language.

Banana equivalent dose

[I]t might be helpful to consider something called the banana equivalent dose (BED). This is a term used in physics to measure the amount of radiation emitted by a banana. It is a number popular with people who think the dangers of radiation are exaggerated, and who use it to make the point that almost everything is radioactive. A dental x-ray has a BED of 50; serious radiation poisoning takes a BED of 20m; sleeping next to someone for one night has a BED of 0.5 and living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year has a BED of 0.9.

Since 9/11, 53 people have been killed by terrorists in the UK. Every one of those deaths is tragic. So is every one of the 26,805 deaths to have occurred on Britain’s roads between 2002 and 2012 inclusive, an average of 6.67 deaths a day. Let’s call that the SDRD, standard daily road deaths. The terrorist toll for 12 years comes to 0.0121 SDRD. This means that 12 years of terrorism has killed as many people in the UK as eight days on our roads.

John Lanchester was invited by Alan Rusbridger to review some of the Snowden files and report on his findings in the Guardian. He has has written a superb analysis of the files and the concerns they raise.

I hadn’t heard of a banana equivalent dose before reading the article but I’d like to highlight it for three reasons.

The first is that I believe that Lanchester is right. The risk of terrorism does not justify the powers that have been surreptitioisly granted to the NSA or to GCHQ. Nor does it justify the rights that have been taken away from the British and American people, largely without their knowledge or consent. I think that Laughton’s analysis—along with Bruce Schneier’sappeal for openness—is one of the best things I’ve read since the Snowden files were first revealed. His use of the banana equivalent dose is one of the reasons I found his argument so persuasive.

The second reason is that over the last four or five years, I’ve become very interested in health and fitness. I’m one of the many people that find things like calorie counting and alcohol units both confusing and difficult to keep track of. Nuclear scientists think in sieverts. Nutritionists think in calories, but the rest of us don’t. Something like like a banana equivalent dose might make it easier for us to understand and keep track of how much we’re eating and drinking.

The third reason is the usefulness of something like a banana equivalent dose when doing a risk analysis. It establishes an easily understood and agreed-upon baseline. It’s often hard to understand what we’re measuring unless we have something to compare it to.

Vygotsky’s thoughts

According to Vygotsky, this is the beginning of thinking, this kind of dialog, and at this point, it’s completely external. It’s all happening in that space between the child and her mother, and only over time does it become interalized. And how that happens, Vygotsky thought, is that as the child gets older she’ll start to take on the dialog herself; she’ll start to talk to herself. This is the stage we call “private speech.” We’ve all seen kids do this, right? Where they narrate every single thing they’re doing: “Put the ball in the box. Take the ball out of the box.”

Now what then happens is a few years further down the line, these kids who were narrating everything they were doing then go to school and the teachers tell them, “Shhh. Don’t talk out loud.” So they get the message that they need to start doing this internally. So, they start to whisper to themselves out loud, and then they whisper to themselves silently because the words are now in their head. And that, according to Vygotsky’s theory, that is thinking. Only then, he says, is a child having a thought.

The always-excellent Radiolab disccusses Lev Vygotsky’s theory of Thought and Language with Charles Fernyhough in the Voices in Your Head episode.

This fascinates me for two reasons.

The first is that I have a son who is in the process of learning to speak. This is exactly what we do with him: talk to him about solving problems. I’m not sure I’m 100% convinced by Vygotsky’s theory, though. It seems clear that George is thinking even when we’re not talking him through problem solving. At least I suppose that’s what he’s doing when he’s flipping through the pages of Byron Barton’s Planes, but perhaps this isn’t exactly what Vygotsky means by “thought.”

The second reason this is interesting is because of Steven Johnson’s recent book Where Good Ideas Come From argues that good ideas come about when diverse ideas collide, such as in the coffee houses of the Enlightenment and Modernist Parisian salons. If Vygotsky is right, this may be because thinking begins—and to some extent remains—a social act.

Related posts

In defense of descriptivism

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but… [d]o they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe.

A couple of years ago, Stephen Fry put together a glorious defense of descriptivism (audio). More recently, Matt Rogers rendered it as kinetic typography. The results are inspiring.

(via Laughing Squid)

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By any other name

You make two paper bags and put a rose in each… [Y]ou mark one of the bags “Rose” and the other bag, although it also has roses inside, you label “Mowed Grass”… Then you invite people to sniff each bag… They they have to rate how pleasant the smell is, how sweet the smell is… And it turns out that a rose by another name—Mowed Grass—does not smell as sweet. People overwhelmingly said that the bag marked rose smelled to them, sweeter.

NPR has a fantastic interview with Lera Boroditsky, in which she describes this and a few other experiments she and her students have performed. She’s also written How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?, which goes into more detail (though not about the rose experiment).

(via Lost in Translation)