Reporting Fives—Week Three

I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom,

This week I spent two days learning from Leyla Acaroglu during her Unschool Disruptive Design Workshop in Sydney. You might remember Leyla as the inspiration for the refrigerator piece in Week Two. As such, the last two pieces in this week’s dispatch are inspired by ideas captured during that workshop.

Monday, 06 February 2017

Ego depletion and morality

The brain demands a great deal of energy to function. In fact, something in the order of 20% of our body’s total energy consumption is attributed to the brain. We can feel the effects of this energy requirement, but we don’t always appreciate how it manifests in our decision making.

While reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I was made aware of a study by Roy F. Baumeister, who coined the term ego depletion. His findings, as Kahneman put it, were that:

> The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose. When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops. The effect is analogous to a runner who draws down glucose stored in her muscles during a sprint. The bold implication of this idea is that the effects of ego depletion could be undone by ingesting glucose, and Baumeister and his colleagues have confirmed this hypothesis in several experiments.

If we accept that morality is essentially the process of deciding between right and wrong, is it any wonder that making moral decisions becomes more difficult as we fatigue? This is a narrative that we have been made to feel comfortable with by the way of Baumeister’s study. For example, »I am tired therefore I will reach for that hamburger rather than this carrot«. But that narrative has been thrown into some doubt in recent years. For one, we now understand that the brain doesn’t consume all that much extra energy under load.

So why is it that we don’t consistently make moral decisions? It’s possible that it is the oft-held belief that morality is a zero-sum game, with gains for one cause coming at the expense of another. We tend to keep a moral balance sheet in which we tally what we understand as good choices against bad. Riding our bike to work rather than driving is entered in the positive column, which we feel justifies a beef burger for lunch.

I can’t be certain, but it seems that the narrative around ego depletion and decision fatigue is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck et al. concluded that:

> only those who believe that willpower relies on a limited resource show poor performance without sugar and a replenishment effect with sugar. We suggest that those who believe that willpower is not highly limited show no replenishment effect when given sugar because they do not need one and/or because they are not vigilant for cues about the availability of mental energy.

In other words, belief drives behaviour. So if one wishes to remain vigilantly ethical, beware of that metal tally rather than one’s blood sugar level.

Inspired by: Fast Company
Reference: Scientific American

Tuesday, 07 February 2017

Democratic design and the environment

Scandinavian design is often celebrated for its democracy. However, unlike the work of Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto, only Ikea remains democratic to this day.

Aalto’s three-legged 60 Stool costs roughly 350AUD, while the four-legged E60 cost an additional 35AUD. Meanwhile, Ikea’s E60 derivative, the Frosta, costs just 14.99AUD, less than half the price of the E60’s fourth leg. Despite the design infringement of Ikea’s Frosta, there is no question that it serves the people in a way the 60 Stool can not, due entirely to its price.

But it’s not the Frosta that is the best indicator of Ikea’s incredibly thrifty nature, that title goes to the ubiquitous Billy bookcase. This extremely utilitarian product was introduced in 1979 by Ikea’s fourth employee, Gillis Lundgren who joined the company in 1953 to manage the now famous catalogue. Since that time the Billy has sold more than 41 million units. It’s so ubiquitous that Bloomberg measures the state of a country’s economy base on the price of the Billy. During October of 2015, it cost just 39.35USD in Slovakia when converted from the local currency, meanwhile, Egyptians would have paid 101.55USD.

Tim Harford describes some of the efficiencies that Ikea employs to arrive at its low prices in his podcast, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. But anyone with a keen eye can obverse the optimisations and evolution of its products over time. My first Billy was delivered with solid aluminium shelf support pins. By the time my younger brother bought his some years later, those pins arrived with a hole through the axis. This almost imperceivable optimisation would have had an enormous effect on the amount of raw materials spent in the part’s fabrication, and considering the huge number of units shipped to all corners of the globe, the cost of transportation would also fall significantly. More importantly, however, those new pins that are functionally equivalent to the originals, now embody and incur less carbon.

This is not to say this is Ikea’s primary motivation. It and its consumers are most likely motivated by lower costs, but there is evidence that the blue and yellow behemoth is making further optimisations to its products with environmental sensitivity at their core if one were to read Ikea’s 2016 Sustainability Report. Additionally, in an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Joanna Yarrow, Ikea’s head of sustainability for the UK and Ireland, revealed that the ever-evolving Billy will soon feature recycled cardboard components. For better or for worse. But while I remain sceptical that a company that delivers a clone of Aalto’s E60 for less than 4% of the price can do so in a sustainable and ethical fashion, they must be commended for the steps they appear to be taking. Most notably, during 2016 Ikea did not send a single gram of the 33,944 tonnes of waste produced in its UK-based stores to landfill.

Inspired by: 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy: Billy Bookcase
Reference: Bloomberg

Wednesday, 08 February 2017

The carport for essential living

Australia, like many other industrialised countries, loves the car. But while we might think of the car as an object in motion, it spends the majority of its life at rest. Despite the twisty subterranean parking complexes, complicated stackers or street-side parking of cities, there is little question that the carport is a well-understood fixture of Australian vernacular architecture.

Unlike a garage, a carport has no walls, it is nothing but a simple awning. We might not question this distinction beyond the obvious cost-saving measures, but it’s inventor Frank Lloyd Wright designed the carport in this way as a lifestyle-shaping device so that its owners would not fill the space with unnecessary things.

The project for which the carport was designed is a marvellous example of Wright’s belief that proper architecture could shape culture. This project was called Usonia 1, which was designed to fit a then 5,000USD budget (roughly equivalent to 85,000USD today). In describing the Usonia project Wright explained:

> I believe now people are going to know what constitutes good architecture, and of course, good living has to go with it. Good conduct also. Good dressing too. Because you wouldn’t dress in a loud and vulgar way in a quiet and beautiful room. All these good things are dependent more or less one on the other and add up to something we call culture. It’s only by a natural growth that you can attain culture.

Today many would see this as overtly authoritarian. But as we are products of our environment, perhaps we all ought to live with such constraints in order to live essential lives.

Inspired by: 99% Invisible: Usonia 1

Thursday, 09 February 2017

Call me Trim Tab

Buckminster Fuller is considered among the greatest designers and thinkers of the 20th century, and a great believer in the virtue of small interventions. Perhaps the most famous of his metaphors to describe the influence of small things on big systems is inscribed on his headstone at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The inscription reads »Call me Trim Tab«.

Fuller, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, observed how the trim tab (a small surface connected to the trailing edge of a ship’s rudder) was able to affect the course of an ocean liner with great ease.

In an interview for Playboy during 1972, Fuller responded to the question of how can we live with »a sense of the individual’s impotence to affect events, to improve or even influence our own welfare, let alone that of society,« with these words:

> Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, »Call me Trim Tab.«

To that I say, call us all Trim Tabs.

Inspired by: Unschool: Disruptive Design Workshop

Friday, 10 February 2017

Flipping the script

It would come as no surprise to anyone that change does not come easily. This is in part due to the status quo bias, or otherwise put, the desire for things to remain as they are. Whether we like to admit it or not, the human brain naturally considers any change away from the baseline as a loss. More precisely, the individual tends to weigh the potential loss resulting in a move away from the status quo more than the potential gains. This means that as a species we are averse to change, despite its inevitability.

Since designers are agents of change, we must be aware of this bias within the population as well as in ourselves. But awareness alone does not provide immunity to its effects. It requires a great deal of self-control to ensure we do not fall victim to our cognitive traps. So rather than to assume we can avoid the bias, we must defer to procedure.

One such procedure is the reversal test. This can be thought of as flipping the script. Our brain naturally defaults to one narrative of a situation as we begin exploring a concept. The point of this heuristic is to explore the other.

In the 2006 paper by Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord called The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics the authors suggest that:

> When a proposal to change a certain parameter is thought to have bad overall consequences, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction. If this is also thought to have bad overall consequences, then the onus is on those who reach these conclusions to explain why our position cannot be improved through changes to this parameter. If they are unable to do so, then we have reason to suspect that they suffer from status quo bias.

In doing this, we can develop empathy for the opposing perspective and find new intervention points. However, we must be aware of its limitations. It is believed that the reversal test has a tendency to erect straw men, but that’s a concept for another time.

Inspired by: Unschool: Disruptive Design Workshop
Reference: If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics