Control by Design

When we think about controlling human behaviour, what we usually have in mind are rules and laws. On a day-to-day basis, there is a control going on that is largely not described as such and mostly goes unnoticed: it is control imposed by design.

Our body, physical reality, and everything around us shape our internal world. The way we behave, act, and think largely is due to the things that are around us. By learning to use them, they have changed us.

Think about any object you are using frequently and ask yourself: Could this look differently, and what would happen if it did?

Take, for instance, a spoon. It precisely controls the size of the liquid you can take; if you try to take more, it will not let you. How you handle the spoon is also inbuilt; most of us learned to use it at a very young age.

Unlike the rules and laws, there is no arguing about physical reality. You can argue with a fire as much as you like, but, if you extend your finger toward it, it will bite you. With fire, there is no negotiation; it is just there, it does not understand, and it does not think. It just does its thing.

Everything we learn, in some peculiar way, changes us. We are becoming slaves to it. You and I, we are slaves to letters and grammar. If you want to convey a message to another person, and if you want to be understood, you have to shape your mind and your will to bend around established system and use it the way others, you are trying to communicate, do.

Language and writing systems do make up a large portion of who we are, but what about those other, smaller things you are not even noticing? Take, for instance, widely-adopted Internet platforms. Each of them created a niche market by creating their own unique product. And you, you have bent around that product. That product has changed you and your life.

Take Twitter, for example, and its famous limit of 140 characters. The company was formed in 2006; at the time, smartphones, as we know them today, did not exist. The idea to send a short message you can later review on a web portal was interesting, and the 140-character limit was set largely due to SMS compatibility reasons. Although the first smartphones arrived one year later, with the ability to connect to WiFi, Bluetooth, or mobile Internet, the 140-character limit has remained as the product’s unique feature and has not changed since.

Now, the question is what has that done for you — or rather, to you — or to people who are widely using it?

Some researchers are saying that our sentences became shorter and that many rules of grammar and spelling often are avoided, in order to satisfy the 140-character limit. Although many have become more creative with this needless skill, at the same time, their writing skills declined as a result of frequent usage.

Think about it: the 140-character limit was the limit of some antiquated technology; back then, we did not have the technological capability to transfer more. Now, it is just an arbitrary number, a limit without any justifiable reason. But, some people would rather “die” protecting this rule than accept the possibility of change. It seems we would rather change the way we speak, create sentences, and form our grammar rules than change an arbitrary rule that was designed because of technical limit.

Similar things are all around us. Most of the keyboards in the world are QWERTY. The interesting about it is that, at the time typing machines were invented, the typing speed of some machines was causing frequent jamming of some letters, such as “A.” In order to fix this issue, typewriter manufacturers decided to put the letter “A” to correspond to our little finger, which is physically not as responsive as the index finger. Although there is no any possible reason to keep this rule, we are still doing it, and most of our computer keyboards have the same key alignment.

In a political and economical sense, at some point we said that GDP is the main indicator for how well one country provides for its citizens, and someone else added that growth is the most important. We adjusted our game around this principle, and we indulged everything to that idea, but the effects are far from desired. We have seen detrimental effects on the environment, we have seen countless issues with infinite growth, and we have seen economic crises as the direct result of this rule, but people keep preaching how important the concept of economic growth is.

Now, what does this mean?
Does this mean that every type of control by design will always have negative effects?
Well, there are no negative or positive effects, there are just effects and side effects, and it is largely determined by how we design our tools and systems.

It is possible to design things with equaly good and bad influence on us. Take the bed, for instance: every human being will spend at least 1/3 of his life sleeping, and as it is that much, we care to have the most comfortable feeling we can get. So, the real important change in bed design has happened with raising beds off the ground to avoid drafts, dirt, and pests. This also had an impact on how we get up from the bed, because many are now at knee height; it is significantly easier to get up. But, easier does not always mean better. Researchers have discovered that people who exercise more and move more live longer. In Japan, where the aging population is on the rise, they are redesigning houses to be uncomfortable; each movement is an additional workout and requires bit of effort, forcing elderly people to exercise while carrying out simple, daily household tasks. Having traditional Japanese mattresses, instead of a bed — makes people exercise, a bit more than they would usually do. Researchers found that this change is enough to make people healthier and improve their well-being.

We are bad with tasks that require discipline in the long-term. So, instead of changing ourselves, it is possible to change our environment in such a way that will “nudge” us to a positive action. By accepting that people are bad at certain things, we are left with the option of solving problems without the need to ask people to change their behaviour.

Just as we have the understanding that it is not very smart to walk in the middle of the highway, we also can build system which will create constant reminders by its design. Any web or mobile application does the same, it gives you a user-friendly environment that is easy and enjoyable to use, but you can do only things the creators provided for you. Despite you cannot do everything you may desire, you will still use it and be happy about it.

A good example is speeding while driving. We know that many humans generally have bad driving skills, often driving faster than it is allowed in certain road sections, without any awareness that they are doing it. Instead of forcing people to stop speeding with rules, laws, tickets, and punishment, we could avoid this entire issue by creating a network of traffic stations that would communicate with cars and limit speeds without human intervention. Humans will still have the ability to steer the wheel, to brake until the car stops, or choose to drive slower or faster, but they could only reach the maximum speed that is limited by that particular road section.
With a few additional precautions, for those who would like to block or disable their speed-limiting devices, this approach would work much better than any law or policing available.

Why don’t we see any similar system in the real world?

Although it is very simple and technologically easy to build, for someone those fines are a source of income, and they do not want to give up that source of income. This leads to the conclusion that most of the issues we face on a global scale have the same cause: we still think in terms of money, instead in the terms of solving real issues.

For one person to change his or her negative habits, it takes a lot of time and also requires a big change in attitude and personality. Changing the habits of large populations is an almost impossible task, although, sometimes, that is exactly what we need.

Take, for instance, the excessive consumption of red meat: one person could change this habit by experiencing a need for significant change but, for most people, changing habits would require a different approach.

To change the behaviour of the population, we would need to change the system and incorporate change by design.

By creating production caps and import caps on certain products, and also significantly increasing the prices of those products, we could combat our daily habits.

It is also interesting to mention that, when people are scared, they will eagerly change their habits. In a few occasions of salmonella, swine flu, and mad-cow disease, for instance, this lead to notable drop in meat consumption. Although I am not in favour of producing those effects deliberately or artificially, I must notice that the effects are indeed very interesting.

Few more social examples of solutions by design, and how — by changing small things — it is possible to change the system are described in the article “Paying commuters to cycle,” there you can read how the city of Milan was studying a schema for paying people to cycle to work; also how in Sweden, they solved the congestion problem by taxing people who drive during peak hours. And recently, in Washington, DC, they decided to try out a new schema where they pay criminals to avoid crime. The results are largely speculative and are yet to be seen.

The current system is largely governed by money and profit; if that would change, the game would change, as well. Imagine everyone competing to make our lives better. Redefining the system toward quality, instead of arbitrary economic growth numbers, would require a significant shift in thinking. Redefining goals toward a world where all people have decent homes, clean water, and healthy food (not genetically-modified or treated with dangerous pesticides or herbicides) may look like something that is difficult to achieve, but, if we put our minds to work, there are no goals we cannot reach.

That is the reason we need to constantly remind ourselves that what is good for nature is also good for us, and what is good for our current economy is not very important. If we lose the planet’s biosphere, the economy, as we know it, will vanish along with it.

If we want to make changes in large and complex social systems, bearing in mind that any system has a tendency to resist change, we will need to make a shift from traditional thinking — in terms of laws and policies — toward control and management established by design.