Behaviour

Unpractical Londoners: Memory, Memorialisation, and Design Thinking

After something of an extended blog break, stuck on a long (and not-yet-finished) blog post, my attention was captured and diverted by a second-hand book purchase last weekend. Two Short Accounts of Psycho-Analysis by Sigmund Freud cost me 99 pence, although the original cost only 30 pence. Published in 1910, the elegant, Marber-grid-designed Pelican 1962 version I found had (so a blurred stamp on the first page told me) previously been part of the Maria Assumpta College Library in Kensington, London.

Book Cover

The book consists of five lectures that Freud gave at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909, summarising his work into the theory of the unconscious and the practice of psycho-analysis. One particular passage, drawing an analogy between how people and how cities experience and remember trauma, stood out:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, if I may be allowed to generalize I should like to formulate what we have learned so far as follows: our hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic [1] symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences.”

The markers of traumatic events, in other words, remain prominent in the memory of ‘hysterical’ people. Freud continues:

“We may perhaps obtain a deeper understanding of this kind of symbolism if we compare them with other mnemic symbols in other fields. The monuments and memorials with which large cities are adorned are also mnemic symbols. If you take a walk through the streets of London, you will find, in front of one of the great railway termini, a richly carved Gothic column – Charing Cross. One of the old Plantagenet kings of the thirteenth century ordered the body of his beloved Queen Eleanor to be carried to Westminster; and at every stage at which the coffin rested he erected a Gothic cross. Charing Cross is the last of the monuments that commemorate the funeral cortege.”

Freud gives a further example:

“At another point in the same town, not far from London Bridge, you will find a towering, and more modern, column, which is simply known as ‘The Monument’. It was designed as a memorial of the Great Fire, which broke out in that neighbourhood in 1666 and destroyed a large part of the city.”

These designed artefacts – the Gothic cross and the modern column – deliberately stand to mark particular traumatic events; moments in history that were upsetting or destructive [2]. Freud focuses us on our thoughts being symbols of prior experience; related things, but different things, where the representation and cause are only conceptually linked. The problems of hysteria come when we can’t let go of a particular symbol in our memory as Freud goes on to explain:

“These monuments, then, resemble hysterical symptoms in being mnemic symbols; up to that point the comparison seems justifiable. But what should we think of a Londoner who paused today in deep melancholy before the memorial of Queen Eleanor’s funeral instead of going about his business in the hurry that modern working conditions demand or instead of feeling joy over the youthful queen of his own heart? Or again what should we think of a Londoner who shed tears before the Monument that commemorates the reduction of his beloved metropolis to ashes although it has long since risen again in far greater brilliance? Yet every single hysteric and neurotic behaves like these two unpractical Londoners. Not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate.”

The reason I was drawn to this passage was that it reveals the complexity of even the simplest of our thoughts.  A thought can be thing, but it can also represent another thing, and the meanings can be very particular, not necessarily ‘rational’, sometimes uncomfortable, potentially debilitating.

My own design research started in the area of design thinking when design thinking meant design cognition and not the general-purpose creative tool it has now become. Central to design cognition, as indeed to all cognition, as indeed is all cognition, is thought. I spent a lot of time thinking about what goes on in the mind of a designer – what thoughts flick through their brain when they’re designing something – where do the memories come from? How does remembered experience feed into the pencil, sketching the new solution?

At the time I took a simple-minded approach to thought. If a person said they’d thought of a ship, I noted it down, and didn’t question why they’d thought of a ship. A ship is a ship is a ship, I thought (and that sketch does look like a ship, I thought). But over the years I’ve noticed that good designers share certain traits; an emotional connection with material and things; a fixation with small details. Getting it just right matters, and that ‘just right’ involves not just aesthetics, but an emotional connection, a feeling that can’t be reasoned away, sometimes a mild hysteria.

Freud touches on thinking at the deepest level, where the sources and the structures and the mechanisms are incalculable and often illusory; logical dead ends. Where symbols erupt seemingly from nowhere; standing for things long gone from conscious memory; an emotional residue [3].

So perhaps to be a designer you have to be just a little bit hysterical. Unable to walk away from a memorial cross without a feeling of melancholy, unable not to shed tears at the destruction of a fondly remembered building – the Macintosh library to fire at the Glasgow School of Art, for example, or the Tricorn Centre to demolition in Portsmouth.

“Memory”, the Enlightenment Philosopher John Locke wrote, “is the key to identity”, but it’s a difficult thing to nail, especially when you’re interested in design thinking.

[1] mnemic – relating to the capacity for retaining the after-effects of a particular experience or stimulation.

[2] Compare this to the ‘speaking countenances’ of Thomas Hardy in another post, where a point on a bridge develops a character formed by many troubled person’s contact with it, and thus where the environment intrinsically ‘remembers’ and represents what has happened there.

[3] One of the best portrayals of how the unconscious mind draws from prior experience, going back to childhood, is shown in the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when a memory erasing device attempts to track down the source of every last memory relating to the traumatic experience of a relationship breakup.

Design’s Political Agnosticism

At the Victoria & Albert museum in London at the moment is a very good exhibition called ‘Disobedient Objects‘ [1]. The exhibition shows examples of things produced for protest: against governments, against organisations, against building programmes, against injustice. Wandering around the show sparked lots of ideas, but not only for me; I overheard one girl knowingly saying to another, just in front of me: “are you getting blog inspiration here?”

She could have been talking to me, because that is what I was thinking too. The exhibition made a link for me that had previously been a bit hazy. It was brought home when I read the following quote, describing one of the exhibits. Try and work out who the ‘they’ is at the beginning:

“They have to be strategic with how they deliver their message. This can mean engaging tactically with the media, or finding ways to circumvent it and speak directly. Today, this involves immediate hands-on forms of expression alongside appropriating cutting edge technology and social media.”

The ‘they’ could be a Barak Obama political campaign – or any politician’s for that matter. It could be Facebook or Google or Vodafone, or any new start-up. It could be David Beckham or Victoria Beckham or even Brooklyn Beckham.

It is, in fact, a general description of how social movements voice dissent and hence how objects can be appropriated for ‘disobedience’.

The use of all manner of objects in civil disobedience shows how creativity and design is essential to form an effective protest. Police using tear gas? Make a gas mask out of a 5-litre water bottle (see below). Need to lock yourself to a post to stop a road being built? Make a lock-on device using a metal pipe with nuts, bolts, and chains. Need to distribute information quickly to avoid censorship? Make a pamphlet bomb.

Gas_mask

An improvised gas mask from ‘Disobedient Objects’. The original caption reads: “The Turkish Government used record amounts of tear gas to disperse the 2013 Istanbul protests. Protesters devised homemade gas masks as a form of protection” (p.48)

The quote was interesting to me because of my teaching in the area of Design Thinking. Rewind to 2009 and I was working for The Open University to put together a new distance-learning course called Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century. Currently over 4000 people of all ages and abilities have studied the course – most with no previous experience – and learned about the many ways in which the methods of design can be applied [2].

In putting the course together, and arguing for the University to invest a considerable amount of money in a new area, I justified it in one primary way: that teaching design methods to people who wouldn’t normally have access, or the confidence, to undertake such an education was empowering; a way of engaging more with the world around and consuming less. Design to self-actualize, in other words, not design to produce more pseudo-useful stuff.

Of course there were other aims too. Giving people a foot up to study Design in a Design School, for example, or using Design Thinking to contribute creativity to an organization or service. And that is where the link I made above comes in; Design Thinking is an ability that can be used equally effectively for business or, bizarrely, for protest against business. In fact, ironically, the strategist planning an effective protest probably has a lot more in common with the strategist in politics or corporate business than they’d like to think.

It does perhaps reveal the strength and weakness of having a Design skill too – its political agnosticism. Design can be used for good or ill, protest or profit, obedience or disobedience.

Resistor

Resistance! Original caption reads: “In December 1981 martial law was imposed in Poland in a crackdown on Solidarnosc, which was declared illegal. Supporters wore tiny badges with the Solidarnosc logo, which signalled their support for the movement in a way that could be easily concealed. A more oblique strategy was to attache a ‘moc rezystor’ (power resister), taken from a domestic radio, to your lapel – a play on words which indicated resistance to the government and support for pirate Radio Solidarity.” (p.116)

I like to think that my teaching in Design Thinking produced, if not outright disobedience, then a measure of resistance (as one of the objects in the exhibition nicely exemplified, see below). I mean resistance in the sense of a questioning of the world around.  But that may no longer be the case, if it ever was. The Design Thinking course is now being offered as part of the Business Studies degree, and they’ll be no Protest 101 any time soon I’d wager.

[1] Floor, C., Grindon, G. (2014) Disobedient Objects, V&A Publishing.

[1] As a nice piece of Design Thinking in itself, the description about how the mounts to display the disobedient objects were put together is worth reading.

 

Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

Two interests collided the other day: continuing photographic experimentation and postcard collecting. I recently bought a mini-magnetic-macro lens for my iPhone (nowadays the only camera I carry with me) and have been rediscovering the worlds revealed by extreme close up. Buying the postcard shown below, of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, London circa 1970, and taking close up photos with the macro lens, revealed some nice aesthetic effects along with reflections on suddenly examined life.

Oxford Street

The postcard is of Oxford Street I’m guessing circa 1970 and shows a classic red bus / black cab shot of London outside the famous Selfridges department store.

IMG_4301

The first macro photo is from the bottom left of the Postcard.

IMG_4300

The second macro photo is from the bottom right of the Postcard.

The image samples remind me of a sophisticated computer-generated model for a new piece of urban design (see past posts on representation); not quite real, not quite not-real; unreal realism you might call it.

The narrow depth of field of the lens introduces a realistic motion that isn’t there in the postcard, while the people caught in focus move centre-stage. What is that old man thinking as he crosses the road? He looks so… sad, reflective and calm amongst the bustle of traffic and people. Perhaps he has just lost his job, or wife? or maybe he is just walking to work. Perhaps he knows the women in the second image, just about to cross the road, with her bags?  Perhaps she is his wife, or daughter, or the women next door that he often catches himself thinking about.

Meat-themed Advent Calendars: The Butcher at Christmas

Just around the corner from my flat in Hove is Canham & Sons, a butcher of the highest order, with queues snaking out of the front door at weekends. If you’re in Hove and you need raw flesh, Canham & Sons is the place to go.

Christmas time is especially busy for butchers and I came across an interesting piece of systems design when I called in for a scotch egg today.  The photo below shows the inside of the shop and it’s worth clicking on the image to see the large version and full detail.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove, with their ‘wall of orders’.

It shows a bustling butchers, full of people waiting to be served, sausages and game hung in the window, joints of beef on show, and eggs piled high on the counter. But take a look at the back wall, which normally consists of a tiled and mirrored surface. Virtually all of it is covered in leaves of paper from a simple notepad. Each one represents a Christmas order: a small turkey for Jeremy, a large goose for Rosemary, a whole smoked ham for J. Reed, and a rib of beef for 8 people for Hartwell – just four of over five hundred orders.  All orders have a name and a number and are hung more-or-less alphabetically in a defined grid.

Instantly one sees what Christmas, or more precisely Christmas Eve, means for a butcher, and can understand the customer base that supports the business.  The ‘wall of orders’ fulfills a number of functions simultaneously and therein lies its design genius.

First, it’s a simple visual representation of how popular the butcher is – 500 people can’t be wrong! Second, it provides a sense of a well-managed and well-ordered butcher. Third, it values every single customer by giving them, equally, a small piece of real-estate on the wall (and providing a nice reminder should anyone want to check that they really did make that order). Fourth, as it builds up it provides a sense of the coming event, like a meat-themed advent calendar.

Most of all, however, it works on Christmas Eve, when a whole team need to match their customers to their meat. Rather than having an order book to rifle through, or a database to access – both ‘one-at-a-time’ processes – it provides a parallel but pretty much failsafe way for multiple people to work together. It also provides another visual reminder of how many orders there are to go, as they are taken off the wall, one by one. This time a reversed, meat-themed, advent calendar.

The simple understanding that such a system provides – to employees, to customers, to the passing photographer – represents a kind of joie de vivre that few commercial design systems produce, and all without a Post-It note in sight. Christmas orders could so easily be a drudge of queuing, checking, confirming, but at Canham & Sons they are turned into a performance of, if not democracy, then at least benign dictatorship, or something like community.

Respectability and Indigence in the Urban Environment

In his twenties, Thomas Hardy, the author, was working as a successful architect which makes reading his novels with an eye on design a revealing activity. Hardy writes with a depth about the built environment – and ‘place’ more generally – that is unusual in literature. The experience he gained in practice clearly gave him an observational capacity that renders the features of houses, streets, roads, markets, inns, hotels, etc. in fine detail. This is from Chapter 5 of The Mayor of Casterbridge describing a scene where the town band has begun to play:

“The building before whose doors they had pitched their music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge – namely, the King’s Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks.”

That ‘spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico’ might be a line out of one of Pevsner’s guides to the Buildings of England but it is the social context through which buildings structure human activity that comes through most of all in Hardy – the shaped behavior following the shaped environment, to draw on Winston Churchill’s famous quote. A good example of this comes in Chapter 32, where Hardy describes two bridges in Casterbridge:

“Two bridges stood near the lower part of Casterbridge town. The first, of weather-stained brick, was immediately at the end of High Street, where a diverging branch from that throughfare ran round to the low-lying Durnover lanes; so that the precincts of the bridge formed the merging point of respectability and indigence. The second bridge, of stone, was further out on the highway – in fact, fairly in the meadows, though still within the town boundary.”

That move to describe the first bridge as: ‘the merging point of respectability and indigence’ combines the spatial aspects of the town with the human aspects. It is a point that will be familiar in many other towns: the place were upmarket connects with downmarket, where honest toil meets dodgy dealing.

Hardy describes the bridges further:

“These bridges had speaking countenances. Every projection in each was worn down to obtuseness partly by weather, more by friction from generations of loungers, whose toes and heels had from year to year made restless movements against these parapets, as they had stood there meditating on the aspect of affairs. In the case of the more friable bricks and stones even the flat faces were worn into hollows by the same mixed mechanism. The masonry of the top was clamped with iron at each joint; since it had been no uncommon thing for desperate men to wrench the coping off and throw it down the river, in reckless defiance of the magistrates.”

The bridges, in other words, had become places to ponder, worry, and reflect on things gone awry in life. The external movements connected with those thoughts – toe and heel movements, leg movements, hand movements, and grasping at loose material – had further served to shape, and communicate the meaning of the bridges according to their use.  Like stone steps, worn down in the middle after decades of people climbing up and down. Indeed the bridges said this very clearly through their ‘speaking countenances’.

Did the architects of the two bridges intend that they would find use in such a way? One might think it unlikely, the main function of the bridges really being to take a road across water, but the parapets – the worn down projections – indicate a secondary function: places for people to stop; to fish, for example, or to keep out of the way of wide traffic, or to look out on the river. So the pondering activity is there in the plan somewhere, if not accurately defined or envisaged. What an architect might not expect is the subsequent shaping of the bridge, through friction, to more accurately define the human activity that takes place on the bridge.

Casterbridge, the imagined town in Hardy’s literature, is derived from Dorchester, the real town in Dorset and it is interesting to think how fiction and reality might be connected and overlap, especially when one thinks of the work of an architect or urban planner as a kind of fiction or authorship. The vision expressed through sketches, drawings, or artist’s impressions, that I’ve talked about in other blog posts, show a potential narrative that is then further formed by actual use. And now Google Street View, time-lapsed over years, can reveal a post-design narrative (see Figure 1). Places take on meaning as much as being given meaning.

The First Bridge

Figure 1: A Google Street View image shows the place of the first bridge in Thomas Hardy’s description of Casterbridge (Dorchester) above. The bridge is ‘immediately at the end of the high street’, though the man caught on camera on the bridge doesn’t look as desperate as the men of Casterbridge.

A prime example of this, and a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy example, came to me when I lived in the centre of Milton Keynes some years ago. The centre of Milton Keynes is a shopping mall. A reasonably nice, high quality, grade 2 listed shopping mall; but a shopping mall none-the-less. Butting on to the shopping mall, further down the hill to the east, is Campbell Park: “the largest and most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century” according to Pevsner (Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire). The centerpiece of the park, leading directly from the axis of the shopping mall, is a belvedere; a huge pile of earth projecting out from the natural hill to give a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape looking eastwards. It is place, in other words, conceivably not dissimilar to the bridges in Casterbridge. The amount of ‘desperate men’ (the law courts in Milton Keynes are further than in Casterbridge I’d wager) is probably far outweighed by the number of people seeking a nice view in their lunch hour, but there is a kind of ‘speaking countenance’ there.

Campbell Park was generally emptier than it should have been. Housing schemes surrounding the park were only partially completed, so outside the hours of business the number of people in the park was often in single figures, outnumbered by the sheep that were allowed to graze from time to time.

The flat I rented looked into a wooded area at the side of the park and, after a year or so of living there, I noticed some odd behavior. My flat, as well as looking directly at the wooded area of the park, overlooked a car-park; a place, I assumed, where people would leave their cars while having a relaxed weekend picnic in the park with their family. What I began to notice was a pattern: single men would drive into the car park and wait in their cars while looking at their mobile phones. After a period of time, they would walk purposefully into the wooded area of the park before reappearing, less purposefully, some time later. Then they would drive off. What was confusing was that the path the men (and it was almost always men) walked so purposefully towards only led out of the park again some way down, after passing through the wooded area – it was a path that led nowhere! Figure 2 shows the place.

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Figure 2. A Google Street View image shows the wooded area (left) in Milton Keynes where a gay cruising area had formed. On the left, near the ‘keep left’ signs, you can see the entry point for ‘the path that leads nowhere’, while the car park is to the right of the picture (behind and out of view). The man caught on camera looks like he is headed to the path.

Now, it might seem obvious now, but at the time I was genuinely puzzled – why would you walk down a path that led nowhere? The question rolled around my head for a few weeks until my friend D arrived to stay. D, who is gay, had a very simple answer to my question: “it’s a gay cruising strip”, he said, nonchalantly. “How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged, “it’s just obvious, take a walk there and you’ll see people in tracksuit bottoms.” This was all news to me, but to prove D’s point we took a walk down the path and sure enough, up came a man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and paying us a lot of attention. “It’s the sense of danger” D explained of the behavior more generally, “or maybe they are married and don’t want their wives to find out”. A place for desperate men, in other words.

D had another theory. Perhaps the path had been deliberately designed for the purposes of gay cruising? After all why would a path that led nowhere make it on to the plan for the park? Maybe this was why Pevsner had called it ‘the most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century’? It’s a nice thought, that someone in the planning office was discretely tending to the needs of a community of people for outdoor sex; intending – by arranging parking, woodland, and a path that leads nowhere in close proximity – that outdoor sex would be the result. More likely is the Thomas Hardy explanation though, that the place came to support, and eventually help to shape, the behavior. And one way of doing that is to place a space at the border of respectability and indigence.

Men in Suits

Over the past few years I’ve criss-crossed through Somers Town, between Euston and St Pancras/Kings Cross stations in London quite a few times.  I’ve observed how a big empty plot of land has changed from community vegetable gardens, to the steel bones of a huge unknown building, to the almost complete Francis Crick building; a wood and glass corporate box with a wavy roof, for the pursuit of ‘multi-disciplinary’ biomedical research.  It’s not clear who is actually funding the building, or who will be in it, but it affects independence with its ‘Chief Operating Officer’.  The boiler plate is certainly impressive:

“The Francis Crick Institute will be an inter-disciplinary medical research institute. Its work will help understand why disease develops and find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.”

I can’t fault that aim.

What attracted my attention were the ‘artists impressions’, on the outer hoardings, of how the new building would look and be used.  These impressions, and the assumptions about how people will behave that underlie them, are things that I’m drawn to more and more as ways in which our futures our imagined for us.  The two images below show quite a range of characters, most in couples, and not many talking biomedicine by the looks of it.  Such diversity is a reassuring image for the man on the street, but I wonder if there should have been more men in suits carrying research papers?

Francis Crick 1

 

Francis Crick 2

Origins of Design Fascination

Since visiting the Bilbao Guggenheim in 2001 and seeing his flowery, supersize Westland terrier, I’ve been interested in Jeff Koons without actually being a fan.  But in the following quote – from an interview with David Sylvester – he nails, for me, how the fascination with modern products originates at the breakfast table.  It brings a Freudian, psychological, perspective into play that I hadn’t quite grasped, and which explains my early fixations with Kellogg’s multi-cereal packs (a different one every day!).

“Childhood’s important to me, and it’s when I first came into contact with art. This happened when I was around four or five. One of the greatest pleasures I remember is looking at a cereal box. It’s a kind of sexual experience at that age because of the milk. You’ve been weaned off your mother, and you’re eating cereal with milk, and visually you can’t get tired of the box. I mean, you sit there, and you look at the front, and you look at the back. Then maybe the next day you pull out that box again, and you’re just still amazed by it; you never tire of the amazement. You know, all of life is like that or can be like that. It’s just about being able to find amazement in things.”

Scott's Porage Oats

Nakamoto’s Last Theorem

A couple of weekends ago I was at the Latitude festival and happened on a rather good talk by Sunday Times journalist Andrew Smith. The talk was a cross-legged affair, in a shed, in the woods and was about the inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto, it turns out, is a bit of mystery. He, if indeed it is a ‘he’ solved a mathematical cryptographic problem that the rest of the world couldn’t, as a necessary condition for inventing a peer-to-peer currency. The neat thing about a peer-to-peer currency is that it doesn’t need a central repository to guarantee its value. That’s bad news for governments and banks everywhere if it becomes mainstream, and potentially destabilising/energising for national economies.

But Nakamoto has disappeared. After introducing the currency, and impressing the pants off mathematicians everywhere, he dropped off the radar and hasn’t been seen since. A bit like Pierre de Fermat and his famous last theorem or Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects. The ‘disappearing genius’ is a good, human-interest angle for journalists and Smith is now on something of a detective trail fueled by potential conspiracy at every turn. Part of that trail is in looking at the fragments that Nakamoto left behind and talking to the people that interacted with him online, another part is trying to figure out the characteristics of the person by looking at the qualities of the ‘thing’ he created. That second part is a bit like the so-called ‘argument from design’ – inferring the nature of God by looking at the world she created – a tenuous exercise at best, as David Hume showed in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, but a fun game all the same.

Shed of Stories

Shed of Stories

I’ve been following Bitcoin in the news for a while now, without ever really understanding what it is exactly, never having used it. The talk, however, brought home design aspects to the currency, and implications for its use, that I found intriguing. One comment that Smith reports Nakamoto as saying, on one of the discussion lists he was part of was that, in figuring out his currency:

“much more of the work was designing rather than coding.”

That’s an interesting comment to me. It sort of implies that there was a ‘hard’ problem to solve, followed by a lot of design problems: working out how Bitcoins could be ‘manufactured’, used, kept secure, and how they might capture the imagination of people.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I think Bitcoin works. A Bitcoin is basically a number, though not any old number. It’s a number worked out by a computational process that allows anyone to ‘mine’ Bitcoins. Early on in the currency it really was anyone (with a computer and the right software) that could mine Bitcoins, and many did. But Bitcoins are finite, like the total amount of gold in the world, so they get progressively harder to mine. The analogy that works for me is of prime numbers – numbers divisible only by 1 and themselves. The first few are easy to work out: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37 but as you get higher and higher, the numbers get harder and harder to ‘mine’, to the extent that it is only since the invention of the computer that we’ve been able to ‘discover’ large prime numbers. The latest, discovered in April 2014 (Wikipedia is a wonderful thing), has 17,425,170 digits to it. And that’s the crux of it; to mine Bitcoins now, you need extensive computing power. There are server farms now set up in the cold half of the northern hemisphere with the sole purpose of mining Bitcoins. That’s a lot of energy, but then mining for gold takes a lot of energy too.

So basically you get a number when you mine a Bitcoin and when you exchange your Bitcoin for goods, services, or other currency there is a process that checks both that you have a valid Bitcoin – in our analogy you really do have a prime number – and that you have not already spent your Bitcoin.

That may, or may not, be a good explanation but it’s about as far as I can go. If you want more detail I’d recommend you read Andrew’s book as a starting point. What I’m really interested in though are two things. First, the process of design leading to Bitcoin and second, the potential disruptive implications of Bitcoin. The two, of course, are linked through the enigma that is Satoshi Nakamoto.

What I like first is the use of gold as a metaphor for Bitcoin. Gold instantly tunes you in to the kind of currency you’re dealing with; one set up with olde world values. Gold coins, mining, ingots stored in safes, buried treasure, mediaeval tradesmen shaking out ducats from leather pouches. Gold fires the imagination; intuitively you seem to know what you’re dealing with – it gets its value, unlike pound notes or euros, from its scarcity. That must have taken some thinking out by Nakamoto, to keep that metaphor in mind while doing the serious coding.

The serious coding, the ‘hard’ problem mainly seems to have involved making Bitcoin hack-proof. All currency is based on trust and once that trust is breached you don’t have a currency any more. If false Bitcoins can be mined as valid Bitcoins then trust in the currency breaks down.  But Nakamoto appears to have covered the bases through the architecture of his software, having a central (and simple) core, which can deflect any potential attack to satellite components; a solution which has been acknowledged by mathematicians as an elegant one. I’ll spare you the details because, to be frank, I don’t know them. What I do know is that making Bitcoin secure involved imagining how possible threats might emerge, and what to do about them. That is, how does the product respond to misuse? A classic design problem.

Of course Bitcoin must also be efficient and easy to use – no point in waiting a week for a transaction to be confirmed. Again, Nakamoto must have imagined potential use scenarios at the point of exchange. How is validity checked? How long does it take the purchaser to know that they have a real Bitcoin? How easy is it to make an exchange even? These are all potential barriers to the take up of a new system, and design problems that Nakamoto systematically solved. Nakamoto looks more and more like a very good designer.

There is more to good design than just the design, though. Good design sets the mind thinking about new directions, consequences, and effects. A good design, like a character in a novel for an author, takes on a life of its own and is able to show the designer the possible implications of the thing as it relates to a broader vision of society. Bitcoin is more than just good code, it is a way of thinking about the fundamentals of what money is and does.

That is where the (potential) disruption comes in. We have got used to our pound notes, dollars, and euros. Money is regulated by central banks and managed for us by high street banks. The whole financial system pretty much runs on transaction charges. Like a casino – and the gaming analogy is apposite – the house always wins. And, as the recent financial crisis has shown, if a bank loses it still (almost always) wins – the government can provide a bail out, say ‘don’t do it again’, and print more money as a sticking plaster. Because money, in this form, and unlike gold, is, in theory if not in practice, infinite.

So, if you can create a stable financial system without banks, that would be a big thing; a way of reshaping the whole financial system and perhaps stopping the wealthy, at least those in finance, from getting wealthier. And all from a number. The interesting thing is that it’s not clear what politics Bitcoin has, though it appears to have come about with political aims. Smashing the system seems like good old socialism, while creating new financial models sounds like rampant capitalism. That seems like an indicator, to me, that it is a potential way forward, and if it is, it has been cleverly thought through.

Bitcoin, though, has not received a good press. Silkroad, a website for buying illicit goods – the Amazon of the dark side if you like – uses Bitcoin as its currency because (another key thing) it preserves the anonymity of the people carrying out transactions. As a result the exchange value of Bitcoin has fluctuated widely from almost nothing (bad press) to something huge (good press). But it abides, and therein lies the challenge to existing financial frameworks. While crypto-currencies like Bitcoin remain, a possible future also remains. So if anything, Bitcoin looks like material for a new architecture, although that architecture remains largely to be constructed. There are interesting applications emerging though. Transactions too small for transaction charges to be feasible, so-called micro-payments, is one area of potential growth; for small chunks of web content, for example. Emerging economies are another area of Bitcoin development, where currencies, banks, and financial services tend to already to be unstable.

You might think that such a fascinating subject would attract a reasonable crowd at a festival like Latitude. Well, see the photo above, I could have counted the audience on both hands.

What’s Real in the Real World? or The Economics of Intangibility

Three articles in close succession caught my eye last week. The first article was on the discipline of Economics and how students are demanding that the subject be taught differently, following the financial crises of 2008. Their claim is that their subject, ignorant of the increasing disparities in wealth distribution, is out of touch with the realities of the modern, networked, conflicted, and frankly greedy world.

“The real world should be brought back into the classroom” they argue, “as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society’s problems can be generated.”

The intellectual space that the new Economics creates, they argue, could prepare the ground for real change. The students want interaction and engagement between disciplines; they want up-to-date and relevant. No more Nash equilibriums and neo-liberalism for them then; beautiful minds or not.

That economics is out of date is ably illustrated in the second article about Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work on the limitations of human rationality followed that of Herbert Simon. Sorry, Nobel prize winning economist Herbert Simon. The problem of many of his peers, Gigerenzer notes, is that they:

“begin from the assumption that various ‘rational’ approaches to decision-making must be the most effective ones. Then, when they discover that is not how people operate, they define that as making a mistake: “When they find that we judge differently, they blame us, instead of their models!” ”

Oh dear, another black mark for models, this time in Psychology! No students revolting their yet though.

Gigerenzer illustrates this with reference to Goldman Sach’s executives blaming their firm’s 2008 collapse on a ‘25-sigma event’ – something as likely as winning the national lottery 21 times in a row; i.e. something very, very, very, very (keep adding ‘very’s ad infinitum) unlikely.

Certainly not the type of event that would happen, as the aforementioned executives subsequently claimed, five times in five days.

The outdated models of the economists, coupled with the outdated models of the psychologists, have produced a quicksand unfit to generate any type of solution on. A fine old intellectual mess, in other words.

Which brings me to the third article about how to value intangible assets. The article begins:

“The link between economic growth and building things – preferably big things – is irresistible to politicians, but it makes it easy to ignore the less camera-friendly assets, from brands to intellectual property that make a modern economy hum. Spending on intangible things such as intellectual property, brands, software and design now outstrips spending on buildings and machinery in Britain.”

Is it now politicians, with their GDP obsession, who have got their models of growth (possibly given to them by the economists) all in a muddle? Most likely (with a probability far from a 25-Sigma event).

The ‘problem’ that is now slowly being solved is how to accurately value intangible assets, like Intellectual Property.

It is an algorithm that comes to the rescue, not us infallible humans (aren’t alogorithms created by humans? – ed.). Software called Yongle searches worldwide patent databases to work out if an idea is a novel one. Once this novelty is determined the idea can be valued economically. That means that not only can a market in intangible assets start achieving steady growth, but also that a truer picture of what actually keeps the economy ticking along can be gained.

This all sounds suspiciously like another way of making money to me, and I think that is what the students were objecting to in the first place. There are things that are happening now that can’t be valued because they are about the value system itself, not a value in a system of value.

I shall leave Robert F. Kennedy to elegantly express the problem in his 1968 address to the University of Kansas (16:20 – 18:10):

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

The first paragraph has a similar structure to the last paragraphs of James Joyce’s short story The Dead, but it is the second paragraph of the Kennedy speech which strikes the stirring chord.  To me it is about better education.  How can we appreciate the qualities of life that Kennedy refers to except through better education? The students seem to realise this, and perhaps they are right; it’s time for academics to catch up with the real world.

In 1968 a certain Nobel prize winning economist called Milton Friedman was also giving an address. This time a presidential address to the American Economics Association titled: ‘The Role of Monetary Policy’ in which he concluded:

“By setting itself a steady course and keeping to it, the monetary authority could make a major contribution to promoting economic stability. By making that course one of steady but moderate growth in the quantity of money, it would make a major contribution to avoidance of either inflation or deflation of prices. Other forces would still affect the economy, require change and adjustment, and disturb the even tenor of our ways. But steady monetary growth would provide a monetary climate favorable to the effective operation of those basic forces of enterprise, ingenuity, invention, hard work, and thrift that are the true springs of economic growth. That is the most that we can ask from monetary policy at our present stage of knowledge. But that much-and it is a great deal-is clearly within our reach.”

Hmmm, ‘steady but moderate growth’ – we’ve not seen that for a while have we?

 

Nudged Off: Maternalism in Design

The publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, in 2010, brought paternalism in design back on to the agenda, if it had ever been away.  Is it right, the hand-wringing naysayers asked, that we can, through design, force people towards making choices that are good for them?  It is a conception of the good here that is problematic of course.  Is a nudge towards eating steamed vegetables at the expense of a plate of greasy chips a good thing for the person concerned?  Doesn’t the good lie in their ability to freely choose what they wish to do?

The argument is that steamed vegetables make healthier people, and healthier people are good for society.  They can hold their concentration for longer and don’t have heart attacks so often; they are sources rather than sinks.  So a nudge towards the steamed vegetables is warranted, even if we did accept the (to my mind illusory) premise of free choice that the HWN assume.

The UK government certainly bought the idea, anyhow, setting up the infamous Nudge Unit or, to give it its official title, the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010.  Presumably the people employed were busy finding all sorts of little nudges that would slowly improve the population without them realising it.  Perhaps once we were all eating steamed vegetables we’d be able to do away with the odd hospital or two?

In the slightly irritating way that ‘new’ design trends are trumpeted by the believers and then dumped as the believers find something else to believe in, the Nudge trend has now come and (largely) gone. Because of its ‘incredible success’, the Nudge Unit has been handed on by the government although a buyer couldn’t be found – not even with a nudge and wink – so it was nudged off to Nesta, which was formerly NESTA the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts for continued, though back-door, publically-funded support (the irony of the whole drama was not lost on Private Eye (#1360, p.11, 2014).

So is paternalism dead, now that the nudge unit is making its way in the commercial world?  I don’t think so at all.  In fact I think it is one of the most powerful ideas in design; an idea that links aesthetics and ethics and gets to the very heart of how we both engage with the world around us and think about the future yet-to-be-designed world. Have a look at this rather good paper on applying behavioural insights to health if you think it is waste of time.

But paternalism sounds ominous to me, like your dad is telling you what to do – “eat those steamed vegetables over there, son, they’ll be good for you”.  There is always an unspoken threat in dealings with the pater familias.  No one likes to disagree with their dad.  But what about your helpful and forgiving mother, full of unconditional love and encouragement in the face of adversity?  Might she provide the way forward for how the world can shape your experience?

Travelling on the Eurostar to Brussels I came across an example that made me think.  The photo below shows the tissue place mat you receive if you travel in standard premier class and hence receive free coffee and drinks.

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You’ll see a crescent-shape embossed in to the paper; a curve that suggests, or perhaps dares you to place your cup or glass in its confines.  One might even play with the ‘rule’ it suggests, placing the cup on the other side of the mat, leaving the space circumscribed by the crescent bereft.  You tussle with the consciousness of a mat that so wants you to put your cup neatly in the crescent.  Perhaps you didn’t know there were peanuts coming, it seems to say to you, and what are you going to do then?

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The crescent is essentially a simple line.  A nicely proportioned and rendered line, a neatly embossed line that has, at some point, passed through heavy machinery, but a simple line none-the-less.  Yet it asks something of you.  Through aesthetics it asks you to consider what you are doing.  There is a conversation taking place between you and the mat.

We are not talking about the common good here, or you becoming a better person for having placed your glass in the ‘right’ place on the mat.  The consequences of my putting the glass on the ‘wrong’ side of the mat are, to be frank, inconsequential.  But there is an experience happening; a play, a soft rule, a guidance; a curve.  Something suggestive rather than something instructive, something that is slightly disappointed if things don’t work out, but there none-the-less.  Something maternal.

The curve is aesthetic, not ethical.  If anything, it is nudging me towards play, and towards a freedom in play.  So perhaps it is nudging me towards a common good after all. In the contours of the curve I can discern maternal delight in my interaction.  A softer kind of thing; a wink rather than a nudge.  A safe place for my glass of milk, although Eurostar may want to rethink their glass purchasing policy.

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