Social Design using feedback loops: guides and manuals


For Wired Magazine, Thomas Goetz looks at the idea of feedback loops and how they can be used as a powerful tool that can help change people’s behavior in Feedback Loops Are Changing What People Do.

The basic premise is that technology has advanced to a point that sensors have become cheap and powerful enough that data (ie: ubicomp) the key and necessary precursor to establishing a feedback loop, can be captured and transmitted about a wide range of factors. Which creates the possibility of increasing energy efficiency, medication administration compliance or calming traffic. The key however is for the design to be straight-forward. Goetz quotes David Rose

The best sort of delivery device “isn’t cognitively loading at all,” he says. “It uses colors, patterns, angles, speed—visual cues that don’t distract us but remind us.” This creates what Rose calls “enchantment.” Enchanted objects, he says, don’t register as gadgets or even as technology at all, but rather as friendly tools that beguile us into action. In short, they’re magical.

To me this implies a sort of pre-cognitive design. Reptilian or primordially evocative. Something that is almost instinctual affective. Early versions of this sort of interventional designed trigger ie: can be found in the example of  projects like Amphibious Architecture

which submerged ubiquitous computing into the water—the substance that makes up 90% of the Earth’s inhabitable volume and envelops New York City but remains under-explored and under-engaged. Two networks of floating interactive tubes, installed at sites in the East River and the Bronx River, house a range of sensors below water and an array of lights above water. The sensors monitor water quality, presence of fish, and human interest in the river ecosystem. The lights respond to the sensors and create feedback loops between humans, fish, and their shared environment. An SMS interface allows citizens to text-message the fish, to receive real-time information about the river, and to contribute to a display of collective interest in the environment.

How could such designs use feedbacks loops to highlight a psychology of ecologies. Creating social ecologies that are based on visible data, instruments for evolving environment ecologies. Wherein the idea of prosociality has been extended to include all species not just our own? This could result in an experimental altruism of ecological infrastructure(s). Soft infrastructures of resilience.

Next, think about the  idea of gamification. Of social gaming or networked social economies. Non-currency based earnings. Recently I read

A few hours of raking leaves might build up points that can be used in a gardening game. And the games induce people to earn more points, which means repeating good behaviors. The idea, Krejcarek says, is to “create a bridge between the real world and the virtual world. This has all got to be fun.”

Could this idea be applied to infrastructural, urban landscape design? I have wondered before about how one might create a less capital intensive form of maintenance. Could one solution be a form  based more on a knowledge building, community creating, recreational-volunteerism? It seems like one could take the growth of games like FarmVille to the next level.  Applying the concept of gamification to community development or urban ecologies. The result being a sort of social design (by designing social interactions and using social interactions to shape more traditional designed things/scapes) using feedback loops to develop recreational modes of doing and learning.

Finally, their would be in such a program a need for an owner/player, manual of sorts. Every game has one, right? Recently,  faslanyc in Surveying the Field: Guides and Manuals, wrote about the possibilities of the manual.

we are interested in the possibility that landscape and architectural practice might move away from the plan set and capital project as the sole primary document for design and towards a more open arrangement defined by the manual.  As Brett Milligan of F.A.D. and Rob Holmes of Mammoth recently noted, we had a chance to work this idea out a bit in the most recent issue of MonU.

He went on to contrast two genres: guides  and manuals. Whereas “the guide is a commercial endeavor” focused on identification the “emphasis of the manual is technique- the manner and ability of a person to employ the specialized skills to execute specific procedures.  The manual is instrumental and operational”  Then closing with “When the maintenance manual- already a part of traditional design projects, albeit a neglected and unglamorous part- is considered in conjunction with the theoretical and speculative efforts to construct landscapes that are more open, performative, and adaptive over time, the manual might be repositioned in design projects as the primary document, with plans becoming secondary.

 In conclusion what is the importance of manuals?  I would argue that particularly in the current economic times of austerity the importance of manuals is increased. For after all aren’t manuals more about manual (labor) rather than capital (flows). Many people also have more time than money now. Even in my case a manual could be a tool for strategizing. For the manual helps to sort the easily achievable from the more prophetically desired. In the end a manual can perhaps be thought of as a document focused more on the how to (including whens and wheres) than the final what. Yet, I would like to think that the manual can also be a form of critical speculative design as others have already articulated more clearly

My 3rd set of Denver library system reads

‘Saga Of The Swamp Thing: Book One’ by Alan Moore

A classic from Alan Moore. I was somewhat familiar with the Swamp Thing universe before reading. However, I wasn’t expecting the twist wherein (spoiler alert) Swamp Thing is less transformed man than mutant-moss/worm with consciousness. The psychedelic tuber plot-line and resulting super-villain (Wood-rue) were noteworthy and also highlighted the surreal, swamp-world elements inherent to the larger universe.

‘The Borgias’ by Jodorowsky and Manara

Given the creators, surprisingly staid and classical in the visual sense. Not surreal or psychedelic. Very lush drawings and lines. I was familiar with the Borgias having studied their world, (but not them specifically) of late Medieval Europe, a bit in graduate school. I knew of the depravity but the graphic novel format, really allows you to soak it in. Not exactly pornography but certainly adult content. All the backstabbing, conspiracy, incest and killing makes for great copy.

‘Cidermaster of Rio Obscuro’ by Harvey Frauenglas

At first this book reads as the memoir of a man starting a second career as a cidermaster and farmer. This first part of the book emphasizes the hard work and lessons learned.

I read the book shortly after finishing Gary Snyder’s ‘The Practice of Wild‘. That was a book I slowly (kept re-reading passages) made my way through (will hopefully write-up something for in the future). With Synder’s book so fresh in my mind I couldn’t help notice how both authors share a belief in place-based wisdom that comes from a commitment to being through a sort of Dharma/Tao/Zen doing. Aka “Chop Wood Carry Water“. Plus, an emphasis on local seasonal rhythms, patterns and bioregional knowledge.

For instance he writes about teaching volunteers how to prune “Consider the whole tree…This is a tree that’s lost its direction. It’s going every which way. How can I redirect it…Ask yourself, and ask the tree“. (pg. 93) Or “Someone asked me once how he could learn what apple growing is about. I said one way to learn is by walking…Pruning…Putting in the water. Opening gates. Closing gates…And then again“.

These sorts of teachings are the cidermaster equivalent of Zen koans. Yet the word Zen appears only once, if I am not mistaken (pg. 107). When talking about, the labor inherent in the community based form of organizing and irrigation that are, the acequias of the pre-USA Southwest. Interesting to note those traditions extend up into south-western Colorado as well (see this by KUNC). High Country News published a great B&W photo-essay focusing on the tradition, in the cidermaster’s, New Mexico.

Later he reflects on his first career as an atomic scientist and with now critical eyes, at nuclear weapons and MAD “it is potlatching, but on a global scale…Whatever the cost, at any cost, we will win.

The last third of the book takes a mournful turn. It begins with a daughter, marrying and starting a family. It also introduces her diagnosis of cancer. The story then becomes a personal expression of loss.

Besides the more traditional prose of memoir, the book includes lists (of tools for pruning, bird species, poetry ( a coda which seems a requiem of sorts for his daughter, Marni) and other assorted notes. All related, at least tangentially, to the chores and skills (which includes “Listening to his trees“) that make up the life of a cidermaster, father and farmer.

Tony Conrad re: music as a “mating ritual” et al.

you can pick out patterns of fluctuating combinations of harmonically related pitches, that’s what vowels are, but it happens that’s what music is too. So I think it is interesting that there is another way to see that we are literally embedded in a larger process…spoken language…music as a para-language system

Advice for writing

good procedure for writing features: research interviews draft least boring scene draft “what is it” section draft bad analysis section structure poorly draft context section fix structure write last scene write through fix analysis make sentences nice add jokes write through


with few exceptions, this is the best structure: 1. fun lede, often in-scene 2. who/what/where/when section + a too-concise why 3. scene that teases basic tensions of the why 4. context section 5. scene that shows context in action 6. 30,000 foot analysis 7. zingy closing scene

via Jamie Lauren Keiles

Regarding Hilma af Klint, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and the like

“Each of these publications reveals something essential about af Klint—the Guggenheim presents the clearest overview of her life and how she intersected the art world of her time; the Lenbachhaus does groundbreaking work in placing her within the setting of Spiritualist practice; and Notes and Methods offers a window into the consistency of her thought. And yet the essence of that thought remains difficult to embrace. The last section of Notes and Methods is an English translation of af Klint’s glossary”

From a New York Review of Books review of three books, reflections on Klint’s hermetic symbolism, by Susan Tallman.

Hilma af Klint, Group X, Nos. 1–3, Altarpiece (Altarbild), 1915. Oil and metal leaf on canvas, No. 1, 93 1/2 x 70 11/16 inches (237.5 x 179.5 cm); No. 2, 93 3/4 x 70 1/2 inches (238 x 179 cm); No. 3, 93 1/2 x 70 1/4 inches (237.5 x 178.5 cm). The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm, HaK 187–89

How to Be a Better Web Searcher

Overall, expert searchers use all of the resources of the search engine and their browsers to search both deeply (by making query variations) and broadly (by having multiple tabs or windows open). Effective searchers also know how to limit a search to a particular website or to a particular kind of document, find a phrase (by using quote marks to delimit the phrase), and find text on a page (by using a text-find tool).

Via Daniel M. Russell and Mario Callegaro (senior research scientists at Google) at Scientific American