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TEDxHogeschoolUtrecht

Sebastian Deterding: What your designs say about you

November 16, 2011

What does your chair say about what you value? Designer Sebastian Deterding shows how our visions of morality and what the good life is are reflected in the design of objects around us. (Filmed at TEDxHogeschoolUtrecht.)

Sebastian Deterding - Designer
Sebastian Deterding is an interface designer who thinks deeply about persuasive and gameful design. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
We are today talking about moral persuasion.
00:15
What is moral and immoral
00:18
in trying to change people's behaviors
00:19
by using technology and using design?
00:22
And I don't know what you expect,
00:24
but when I was thinking about that issue,
00:26
I early on realized
00:28
what I'm not able to give you are answers.
00:29
I'm not able to tell you what is moral or immoral
00:33
because we're living in a pluralist society.
00:35
My values can be radically different
00:38
from your values.
00:41
Which means that what I consider moral or immoral based on that
00:42
might not necessarily be what you consider moral or immoral.
00:46
But I also realized that there is one thing that I could give you.
00:50
And that is what this guy behind me gave the world --
00:52
Socrates.
00:55
It is questions.
00:56
What I can do and what I would like to do with you
00:58
is give you, like that initial question,
01:00
a set of questions
01:02
to figure out for yourself,
01:04
layer by layer,
01:06
like peeling an onion,
01:07
getting at the core of what you believe
01:09
is moral or immoral persuasion.
01:12
And I'd like to do that with a couple of examples
01:15
of technologies where people have used game elements
01:18
to get people to do things.
01:21
So it's a first very simple, a very obvious question
01:24
I would like to give you:
01:28
What are your intentions if you are designing something?
01:29
And obviously intentions are not the only thing,
01:32
so here is another example for one of these applications.
01:35
There are a couple of these kinds of eco-dashboards right now --
01:39
so dashboards built into cars
01:42
which try to motivate you to drive more fuel efficiently.
01:43
This here is Nissan's MyLeaf,
01:46
where your driving behavior is compared
01:48
with the driving behavior of other people,
01:50
so you can compete for who drives around
01:52
the most fuel efficiently.
01:54
And these things are very effective, it turns out,
01:55
so effective that they motivate people
01:57
to engage in unsafe driving behaviors --
02:00
like not stopping on a red headlight.
02:02
Because that way you have to stop and restart the engine,
02:04
and that would use quite some fuel, wouldn't it?
02:06
So despite this being a very well-intended application,
02:10
obviously there was a side effect of that.
02:14
And here's another example for one of these side effects.
02:17
Commendable:
02:19
a site that allows parents to give their kids little badges
02:20
for doing the things that parents want their kids to do --
02:24
like tying their shoes.
02:26
And at first that sounds very nice,
02:28
very benign, well intended.
02:30
But it turns out, if you look into research on people's mindset,
02:32
that caring about outcomes,
02:36
caring about public recognition,
02:38
caring about these kinds of public tokens of recognition
02:40
is not necessarily very helpful
02:43
for your long-term psychological well-being.
02:46
It's better if you care about learning something.
02:48
It's better when you care about yourself
02:51
than how you appear in front of other people.
02:52
So that kind of motivational tool that is used
02:55
actually in and of itself
02:59
has a long-term side effect
03:00
in that every time we use a technology
03:03
that uses something like public recognition or status,
03:04
we're actually positively endorsing this
03:08
as a good and a normal thing to care about --
03:10
that way, possibly having a detrimental effect
03:13
on the long-term psychological well-being of ourselves as a culture.
03:16
So that's a second, very obvious question:
03:20
What are the effects of what you're doing?
03:23
The effects that you're having with the device,
03:25
like less fuel,
03:27
as well as the effects of the actual tools you're using
03:29
to get people to do things --
03:32
public recognition.
03:34
Now is that all -- intention, effect?
03:35
Well there are some technologies
03:38
which obviously combine both.
03:40
Both good long-term and short-term effects
03:41
and a positive intention like Fred Stutzman's Freedom,
03:44
where the whole point of that application
03:47
is, well, we're usually so bombarded
03:48
with calls and requests by other people,
03:52
with this device you can shut off the Internet connectivity
03:53
of your PC of choice for a preset amount of time
03:56
to actually get some work done.
03:59
And I think most of us will agree,
04:01
well that's something well intended
04:02
and also has good consequences.
04:04
In the words of Michel Foucault,
04:06
"It is a technology of the self."
04:08
It is a technology that empowers the individual
04:10
to determine its own life course,
04:13
to shape itself.
04:15
But the problem is,
04:17
as Foucault points out,
04:18
that every technology of the self
04:20
has a technology of domination as its flip side.
04:22
As you see in today's modern liberal democracies,
04:25
the society, the state,
04:29
not only allows us to determine our self, to shape our self,
04:31
it also demands it of us.
04:36
It demands that we optimize ourselves,
04:37
that we control ourselves,
04:40
that we self-manage continuously
04:41
because that's the only way
04:44
in which such a liberal society works.
04:46
These technologies want us to stay in the game
04:48
that society has devised for us.
04:53
They want us to fit in even better.
04:55
They want us to optimize ourselves to fit in.
04:58
Now I don't say that is necessarily a bad thing.
05:01
I just think that this example
05:04
points us to a general realization,
05:07
and that is no matter what technology or design you look at,
05:09
even something we consider as well intended and as good in its effects --
05:13
like Stutzman's Freedom --
05:18
comes with certain values embedded in it.
05:19
And we can question these values.
05:22
We can question: Is it a good thing
05:23
that all of us continuously self-optimize ourselves
05:25
to fit better into that society?
05:29
Or to give you another example,
05:31
what about a piece of persuasive technology
05:33
that convinces Muslim women to wear their headscarves?
05:35
Is that a good or a bad technology
05:38
in its intentions or in its effects?
05:41
Well that basically depends
05:43
on the kind of values that you bring to bear
05:44
to make these kinds of judgments.
05:47
So that's a third question:
05:49
What values do you use to judge?
05:51
And speaking of values,
05:53
I've noticed that in the discussion about moral persuasion online,
05:55
and when I'm talking with people,
05:58
more often than not there is a weird bias.
06:00
And that bias is that we're asking,
06:03
is this or that "still" ethical?
06:06
Is it "still" permissible?
06:09
We're asking things like,
06:11
Is this Oxfam donation form --
06:13
where the regular monthly donation is the preset default
06:15
and people, maybe without intending it,
06:18
are that way encouraged or nudged
06:20
into giving a regular donation instead of a one-time donation --
06:23
is that still permissible?
06:25
Is it still ethical?
06:26
We're fishing at the low end.
06:28
But in fact, that question
06:30
"Is it still ethical?"
06:31
is just one way of looking at ethics.
06:32
Because if you look at the beginning of ethics
06:35
in Western culture,
06:37
you see a very different idea
06:39
of what ethics also could be.
06:42
For Aristotle, ethics was not about the question,
06:43
is that still good, or is it bad?
06:47
Ethics was about the question of how to live life well.
06:50
And he put that in the word "arete,"
06:53
which we, from the [Ancient Greek], translate as "virtue."
06:55
But really it means excellence.
06:58
It means living up to your own full potential
07:00
as a human being.
07:04
And that is an idea
07:06
that, I think, that Paul Richard Buchanan nicely put in a recent essay
07:07
where he said, "Products are vivid arguments
07:11
about how we should live our lives."
07:13
Our designs are not ethical or unethical
07:15
in that they're using ethical or unethical means of persuading us.
07:18
They have a moral component
07:23
just in the kind of vision and the aspiration of the good life
07:24
that they present to us.
07:29
And if you look into the designed environment around us
07:31
with that kind of lens,
07:35
asking, "What is the vision of the good life
07:36
that our products, our design, present to us?",
07:38
then you often get the shivers,
07:41
because of how little we expect of each other,
07:43
of how little we actually seem to expect
07:46
of our life and what the good life looks like.
07:48
So that's the fourth question I'd like to leave you with:
07:52
What vision of the good life
07:56
do your designs convey?
07:57
And speaking of design,
08:01
you notice that I already broadened the discussion.
08:02
Because it's not just persuasive technology that we're talking about here,
08:06
it's any piece of design that we put out here in the world.
08:10
I don't know whether you know
08:15
the great communication researcher Paul Watzlawick
08:16
who, back in the '60s, made the argument
08:18
we cannot not communicate.
08:20
Even if we choose to be silent,
08:21
we chose to be silent. We're communicating something by choosing to be silent.
08:23
And in the same way that we cannot not communicate,
08:28
we cannot not persuade.
08:30
Whatever we do or refrain from doing,
08:32
whatever we put out there as a piece of design
08:34
into the world
08:37
has a persuasive component.
08:38
It tries to affect people.
08:41
It puts a certain vision of the good life
08:43
out there in front of us.
08:45
Which is what Peter-Paul Verbeek,
08:46
the Dutch philosopher of technology, says.
08:48
No matter whether we as designers intend it or not,
08:50
we materialize morality.
08:55
We make certain things harder and easier to do.
08:57
We organize the existence of people.
09:00
We put a certain vision of what good or bad
09:02
or normal or usual is in front of people
09:04
by everything we put out there in the world.
09:08
Even something as innocuous as a set of school chairs
09:10
is a persuasive technology.
09:14
Because it presents and materializes
09:15
a certain vision of the good life --
09:18
the good life in which teaching and learning and listening
09:20
is about one person teaching, the others listening,
09:24
in which it is about, learning is done while sitting,
09:27
in which you learn for yourself,
09:30
in which you're not supposed to change these rules
09:33
because the chairs are fixed to the ground.
09:35
And even something as innocuous as a single design chair --
09:38
like this one by Arne Jacobsen --
09:41
is a persuasive technology.
09:43
Because, again, it communicates an idea of the good life.
09:44
A good life --
09:48
a life that you say you as a designer consent to
09:49
by saying, "In the good life,
09:52
goods are produced as sustainably or unsustainably as this chair.
09:54
Workers are treated as well or as badly
09:58
as the workers were treated who built that chair."
10:00
The good life is a life where design is important
10:03
because somebody obviously took the time and spent the money
10:05
for that kind of well-designed chair,
10:08
where tradition is important
10:10
because this is a traditional classic
10:11
and someone cared about this,
10:13
and where there is something as conspicuous consumption,
10:15
where it is okay and normal
10:16
to spend a humungous amount of money on such a chair
10:18
to signal to other people what your social status is.
10:21
So these are the kinds of layers, the kinds of questions
10:24
I wanted to lead you through today --
10:28
the question of, What are the intentions
10:29
that you bring to bear when you're designing something?
10:32
What are the effects, intended and unintended, that you're having?
10:34
What are the values you're using
10:38
to judge those?
10:39
What are the virtues, the aspirations
10:40
that you're actually expressing in that?
10:42
And how does that apply,
10:45
not just to persuasive technology,
10:47
but to everything you design?
10:49
Do we stop there?
10:51
I don't think so.
10:53
I think that all of these things are eventually informed
10:55
by the core of all of this --
10:59
and this is nothing but life itself.
11:01
Why, when the question of what the good life is
11:04
informs everything that we design,
11:07
should we stop at design and not ask ourselves,
11:09
how does it apply to our own life?
11:12
"Why should the lamp or the house be an art object,
11:14
but not our life?"
11:17
as Michel Foucault puts it.
11:18
Just to give you a practical example of Buster Benson.
11:20
This is Buster setting up a pull-up machine
11:24
at the office of his new startup Habit Labs,
11:26
where they're trying to build up other applications
11:29
like Health Month for people.
11:31
And why is he building a thing like this?
11:33
Well here is the set of axioms
11:35
that Habit Labs, Buster's startup, put up for themselves
11:37
on how they wanted to work together as a team
11:40
when they're building these applications --
11:43
a set of moral principles they set themselves
11:45
for working together --
11:47
and one of them being,
11:49
"We take care of our own health and manage our own burnout."
11:50
Because ultimately how can you ask yourselves
11:54
and how can you find an answer
11:57
on what vision of the good life
11:59
you want to convey and create with your designs
12:01
without asking the question,
12:04
what vision of the good life
12:06
do you yourself want to live?
12:07
And with that, I thank you.
12:10
(Applause)
12:14
Translator:Timothy Covell
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Sebastian Deterding - Designer
Sebastian Deterding is an interface designer who thinks deeply about persuasive and gameful design.

Why you should listen

Sebastian Deterding is a designer and researcher working on user experience, video games, persuasive technology and gameful design. He is interested in how code shapes conduct -- and how to put that knowledge into practice. He is a PhD researcher in Communication at the Graduate School of the Research Center for Media and Communication, Hamburg University. He is also an affiliated researcher at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research in Hamburg, and works as an independent user experience designer.

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