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

re: wijkwandelingen

Recently the local Denver YIMBY Facebook group was discussing a piece published over at Governing which explored ‘When Citizen Engagement Becomes Too Much‘. Specifically, the pros/cons of technocratic vs participatory forms governance through the example of Austin’s CodeNext process.

My response included the below;

Further, while I do believe in the value of technocratic expertise, I would disagree that we need less citizen participation/feedback in governing. If anything more. For instance things like participatory budgeting, which I have heard some council-members speak favorably of. I’ve also attended meetings where tabletop games or insta-polling were used and the consensus of the room was that these were very useful, rather than officials being able to merely check the box via monologue heavy community “listening sessions”.

Or how about even more fine-grained, neighborhood scale approaches like wijkwandelingen?

My 2nd set of Denver library system reads

‘Archangel’ by William Gibson

An alternative-history, counter-factual sci-fi, graphic novel. Certainly, not my favorite work of Gibson, but a pleasant and brief diversion.

‘Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade’ by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, John Romita Jr. and Peter Steigerwald

A 21st century take on the 20th century, ne plus ultra graphic novel. Didn’t love the drawing style and the storytelling was so-so (aka a “disappointing reading experience“)  with the necessary cliffhanger (prequel) ending.

‘Bloom County: Brand Spanking New Day’ by Berkeley Breathed

I have dim but nostalgic memories of my first encounters with the original Bloom County strip. Was definitely one of the first comics I read, in the early/mid 1990s, that wasn’t at least on the face of it for kids (ie: Garfield and the like). Had an awareness of the 2015 Bloom County relaunch but hadn’t gone out of my way to find it. Particularly enjoyed it’s riff on MAGA and the Trump 2016 campaign. Overall I liked it, but perhaps due to my age, the absurdism seemed a bit less fresh than in past.

‘Autonomous’ by Annalee Newitz

Used to be a regular reader of I09 and heard good things about this. Kept me as enthralled as Snow Crash, Neuromancer and the like. A heady blend of bio-tech, post-warming climate fiction and human vs cybernetic AI love story. Nice mix of dialog, internal narrative and narrative exposition with a coherent syntax, universe and voice.

re: land acknowledgements

It’s not so much about focusing on the omission of belonging, and all of us having a right to a home, but rather about introducing non-Indigenous people to this land’s accurate confederate history and the importance of relationship to land despite the dominant worldview of owning the land.

via Selena Mills at LocalLove

And specifically regarding the Greater Toronto Area

There is a fascinating Indigenous oral history covered up by the concrete of Toronto today, but those stories are not lost…We’re going back 11,000 years, which is a reminder of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan nature of Indigenous people then, something we can all see reflected in the rich multicultural landscape of Tkaronto today.

the Committee to Abolish Outer Space

Once the cosmos was thought to be painted on the veil of the firmament, or to be some kind of divine metaphor, a flatness inscribed with thousands of meaningful stories. Since then it’s become outer space, a grotesque emptiness. Space is a site of desecration, an emptiness in which one moves, and moving into space means closing down any chances for Earth. C.A.O.S. is not interested in setting up limits. We want to create a future, not one of tin cans dodging rocks in a void, but a future for human life. To do this we must abolish outer space with all its death and idiocy, and return the cosmos to its proper domain, which is mythology, so that when we look up it will be in fear and wonder, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is not possible.

From back in 2015 via The New Inquiry

The Black Atlantic

It is also clear that Gilroy’s drawing attention to the rich and ambivalent traditions of black Atlantic intellectual thought and experiences is a way of transcending myriad impasses created by reducing black agency past and present to defensive responses to victimization and victimhood. And not only black Atlantic thought and experience, part of what makes Gilroy so interesting as a scholar is his keen attention to black Atlantic popular culture past and present — whether it be in the form of close readings of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, hip-hop or rap, and their artistic use of material drawn from a wide range of sources. What interests him here is, quite similarly to the case of black Atlantic intellectual thought, the analysis of the forms of expressions that transcend ready-made binaries relating to these expressive forms’ alleged racial authenticity. In the current heated debates about cultural appropriation, there is certainly rich analytical material to draw upon in Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic.

*I had an excellent seminar “The Black Atlantic” in graduate school. I still have a number of the books and the readings definitely made an impression.

Via Africa is a Country