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I have recently finished “Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Actually, what i read was this adaptation from Campus Editora in Brazil. At least, i read everything i am going to from it. So now let me vent it out already.

The book is basically an attempt at “applying” some psychology at political issues, like they discuss how human cognition biases can affect the outcome of policies and enterprises. Which is all fine and dandy, except for one little annoyance: instead of just putting forth their ideas they must instead self-proclaim creators of a new ideology of sorts. They call it “libertarian paternalism”. Which is just bullshit.

For the record, they do indeed have one good idea in which to base the book. I will now explain it, using Photoshop metaphors, no less!

A Curves window depicting the basic working of Levels

A Curves window depicting the basic working of Levels

Imagine you had a photo which had come up a bit washed out, a bit too “white”. Say you wanted it to be more “alive” for some printing or whatever. So you, being a regular at Photoshop Addicts Anonymous, logically fire Photoshop and do what? A common pathway to go here is ctrl+L.

Depicted in the image above is actually Curves, not Levels. Curves actually allows you to do everything you can do with levels, and in the picture above we are using Curves exactly as if it were Levels.

What does that window mean? In the bottom of that square graph you have a representation of your original image — the “before”. A light pixel is more to the right, a darker one more to the left — irrespective of where in the image they actually are. In the left side of the square graph you have the final image — “after”. So in our example a pixel that had a 50% lightness (follow the vertical line going out of the centre) will in the final image have around say 35% lightness (extend an horizontal line from where the vertical crossed the diagonal).

This basically means that you made the image darker. Good. What you wanted. But now look at that ball: actually it was a ball but in our “improved” image it becomes just a big round blot of black. There is no volume there, no subtlety, it is just a shadow. That happens because all the pixels that where less than around 20% light in our original picture where sent to 0% — as for the plateau in the bottom left corner.

Now Curves has more tricks than levels, and instead of a straight line we can have a curve there — hence the name.


A Curves window that uses better the power of Curves proper

Instead of simply picking 20% of our lightness levels and painting them black, we replace things with more care. The “watered” feeling we had from the image came not from the blacks, but from the green on the table, and that is more directly affected without altering, for example, the volume of the ball or the door on the corridor. We even have improved the highlights a bit, making everything livelier.

Not only our “curved” image looks better, with more information, it also looks less different from the original image. It seems like the first time our manipulation had “more effect”. That’s not the case, really, but we managed to get what we wanted in a subtler way.

You might have picked from the above that i like talking about Photoshop. But there’s a method to this blurbing. The thing is, this book’s main claim is that instead of forbidding or forcing people to do what we believe to be best for them, we should improve their decision process — which oversimplifying means making the choice we believe to be better for them easier to choose.

If instead of dragging the outer points of the scale we try to deal with the middle, we have better end results. So for example, if we allow people who want to, say, do drugs or use bad savings funds or do stupid medical procedures, if we allow them to do what they please, but first we make it bog-damn-sure that they are doing it because they really want it and not by mistake, their claim is that this would have a much better final effect than either completely letting on their own or having direct interventions.

They say our society does not need Levels, it needs Curves instead.

To make it all sound more “easy to deploy”, i guess, they transform the abstract concept of “bettering the decision processes” into a cool sound-bite: the NUDGE! It also smells, to me, as a technicality.

A nudge is something that influences the decision process of someone without taking away his freedom. In other words, is something you do that changes the decision context where someone does a decision. Psychology says that almost anything in this context can affect the decision, that people do not go very mathematical at those things but instead tend to adopt pretty workable heuristics, and that by and large taking decisions is a difficult thing that many many times people simply do badly.

None of that should come as too big a surprise, but it sure helps to have concrete data to shove at naive economists when they say people are totally self-interested by nature or that markets work automagically or other such rubbish.

Also, it is easy to see how “improving decision conditions”, as opposed to “doing what is better for people”, is something we can objectively deal with. We can consider it, we can compare different decision conditions, weight them, analyse them. It might be difficult at times, obviously, but it is never subjective and idiosyncratic (not to say morally-dubious) naive interventionism. “Best for the people” is at best guesswork, but likely it is active impingement of our fears and prejudices.

Which is all fine and dandy.

The problem is: i am completely pissed off with their book, the reason being the following. I bought some pages that talk about the “Nudge”, and some pages that talk about “Libertarian Paternalism”. You see, beyond their claim that you can influence people gently, they pretend to make a framework for political action of it. I don’t care about their ideologies. Or maybe i would have liked it if it had been sold to me like it. Instead, they tied-sold me those two books, of which the one i wanted, “Nudge”, is roughly 30 pages (namely the intro and the 5th chapter) and the whole rest of the book, 240 pages more, is about “Libertarian Paternalism”. If the book was called “Nudge and the Libertarian Paternalism”, or even better “Libertarian Paternalism through some small Nudges”, i wouldn’t be complaining.

The problem with “Libertarian Paternalism” is: it is an attempt at clearing up the bullshit flood that is U.S.A. politics. As such, it can’t really be a consistent, responsible, balanced comment about politics in general — for, you know, the U.S.A. are the most radical State in the world. Come on, their so-called “left” party is very likened to “extreme right” parties from other countries, like for example Brazil.

They propose to create a framework that allows the overcoming of “left” and “right”. As i said before, and will say again many more times, in any case where you can only see two sides of a circumstance, it almost certainly means you don’t know what you are talking about. So, yes, i agree that left-against-right is almost always bullshit. What i can not hear without flinching in disgust and fear is that such a mentality can be achieved through a framework. In other words: i have a deep fear that they will sell their “system” as the “only way” to overcome partisanship just to end up discovering (or more likely having their children discover) that any given thought that is irrevocable is dumb. It is simplistic to the level of being Manichaean.

As they approach the problem not from a wide perspective but instead from the experience of using a given tool (behavioural economics), they believe that whatever they gain will be a gift from said tool, just like the kid that is given a calculator will soon forget how to make multiplications in his head.

The most nagging thing in reading this book was that i expressly bought it to think about something else i was working on, which was a text that deals with design, and specifically with the political ramifications of design and designed objects and the processes of designing. So, i was hoping to get some insights from their economy theories and applying them to design. Instead, many, if not most, of the valuable insights to design in the book are claimed to be derived from architecture or design.

They will say: “as any good designer knows” — and i will get the feeling that this is something i would like to talk about for designers, that this is some valuable lesson that designers rarely, very rarely, get.


And their references do not help, either.

So, to end it, let me say: what do i think “Nudge” has to do with design? Good question.

For one, i do not believe that a given object, of ambiance, or image, in short anything that can or could be designed, an artefact, i do not believe an artefact can force any given person to do anything or to behave in any given way. For example, i do no believe that objects without ornament make people less deluded, or that it facilitates an ethical way of life, nor do i believe that styling will cause people to become consumerists.

In Nudge terms, i think design is, out of powerlessness, libertarian. I think design is unable to take people’s freedom away.

Exactly on the other hand, though, i believe that any given artefact is unable to stop itself from “nudging” whatever person comes in contact with it — and note that this means the guy who buys it at the market exactly as much as the guy who owns the factory that produces given artefact.

Because the artefacts are part of persons’ circumstance, those people will behave according to those objects, they will take the objects presences and characteristics into account, they will be conditioned by them. The actions that you see people performing are explained by the things around them. It is contextualized. It is complicated and complexified — at the same time.

So, design can’t determine behaviour, but at the same time it can’t avoid framing the same behaviour.

And this influence is subtle, but it is not neutral.

A designer must understand what are the biases that the forms will necessarily impose on the people that contact their creations. They must understand what is the direction of such a influence, to what agendas it serves. And this is never an easy question.

And yet, i do not think this is all. There is still something more. Design is not about nudging people. Or not all. I am, right now, having a bit of a difficulty to express it, to put my finger onto it. But let me make a tentative inaugural attempt.

I believe that the shapes of things do not only influence a behaviour that is influenced by but ultimately separate from and independent of it, i think design is part of behaviour.

For example, a key does not force someone to imprison his fellow beings, and it does not force you to become greedy and protective of the things you can keep locked. But, after you have the key, amongst all of your behaviour, both the cost and the opportunity of such forms become more pronounced. It comes a bit to the foreground. Other less-negative traits also do, like respect for the other’s space and so on. This whole field of possibilities is influenced by the artefact — the key — and it is a delicate balance, which can be navigated in directions, some which we can clearly say are better than others. And all of it is neither created by the key, nor forced by the key, nor merely peripherally influenced by the key. I think the artefact, and therefore it’s shape, and therefore design, serves as the focus of the process.

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