step 57-design facilitates agency
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Step 57: Design Facilitates Agency

Our agency is a matter of design: we are shaped by external influences but are capable of more than default choices.

We begin with the Mickey Mouse Club’s compliance training, and then jump into Kant’s dream of an autonomous “will” which leads to heteronomy: the more we divorce ourselves from reality the less agency we have within the world. Our morality becomes like Virtual Reality: separate from consequence and designed by others. By understanding how design influences behavior, we can realize abstractions divorce us from reality, robbing us of agency through mediation, further trapping us in our mental models. To combat this we turn to embodied experience, or as Crawford says,

involve your ass, your mind will follow.

Today, we are talking again about Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head.”

The World Beyond Your Head

Matthew Crawford (2015)

Part 1: Mousekadoer

Part 2: Design, dials, and free will

Part 3: VR as Morality


Part 4: Concept Prep

Part 5: A rebuttal to the rebuttal

Part 6: The world without maps


The World Beyond Your Head
Step 57: Design facilitates Agency

Part 1: The Mouskedoer

Crawford tells this story about watching the Mickey Mouse channel, and on the show they have these segments where, say, 4 objects are in a grid, and a river shows up on the screen. 

Do you use the bridge, the ladder, the hammer, or the banana to cross the river? Did you guess banana? That’s a common mistake. Smart mouses ask for help!

And if you get all 4 you are declared a “mousekedoer.”

 In early cartoons, objects such as hammers, nails, and springs seem to have an identity and a contrary will of their own: they were somewhat threatening. A Spring will bounce back at you or a rubber band with snap on your hand or your eye: all tools misbehaved, even clocks would spin backward or slow down to taunt you. Today on the Mickey Mouse show, all problems are solved swiftly with assurance, if only you ask for help. 

Even the questions on the little quizzes they prompt make you feel as if you’re solving a problem, but before any frustration can set in one of your four choices automatically fits its designated role. The contrariness of reality, the hazards, and overcoming have been removed. All solutions are at hand, instantly, if you submit to asking someone else to take care of it for you. 

Congratulations, you are a mousekadoer who did nothing. 

Step 57: Design facilitates Agency

Part 2: design, dials, and free will 

We have a problem today: part of it goes back to that Cartesian Net Alan Watts was talking about: the grid we throw over the world in order to measure dissect and parse the inter-related complexities of the world. We can also refer to this as the Techno-rational mindset, where we reduce the world into smaller, isolated metrics to try to figure out what’s going on, rather than gauging it holistically. We look for a bolt or o-ring that caused the problem. This is real, and it works, but it also generates more left-brain-centric solutions: limited solutions that cannot account for cascading environmental variables. 

In short, today, we design out vital feedback. We are pulled out of our environment and our bodily connection to sensory information is impoverished. 

Adrienne Cussins says we can know how fast we are moving through our sight/body/perception, but we now have an abstraction that tells us: this is the speedometer. 

When I was first learning to drive, I remember my dad telling me to stop looking at the speedometer, that I could judge how fast I was going just by gauging the rapidity of telephone poles passing, or basically, by looking around. And, bonus, besides just ‘feeling’ your speed it is safer because it keeps you from “chimping” at the dashboard. 

  • “chimping” is what photographers call checking every photo on the little LCD screen on your camera. 

But the speedometer, this additional information about how fast you are going is conveyed in numbers or a dial with numbers. It is an abstract substitution for sensory information. It interferes and pulls you out of sensory reality into an interface. 

Don’t get me wrong, the abstraction has utility and purpose. Just like the abstract sounds that make up our language, it helps us communicate, and if we leverage this information we have a tool that maximizes utility. 

What I mean by this is that abstraction is a reductive model, necessarily, but it allows us to communicate in more fixed terms, these agreed-upon terms are a new fulcrum that bypasses the messiness of the subjective, experiential terms… 

> “really officer? 110? But it only felt like I was going 50” 

Feelings are subjective and slippery, so abstract measures have utility. But also, reliance on the measurement tends to drift into reliance on the dials. The more complex a machine the more we delegate understanding to gauges, which are reductive mediations for reality: we reduce our understanding of reality for the short-hand of the dial.

(This is similar to Goodhart’s law, where we replace the actual thing being measured with the metric we measure it with.) 

For instance, We now offer “attention assist” for drivers, and “blindspot assist” and auto-parallel parking, and even self-driving. We now “idiot-proof” driving, and yet there seem to be more idiots on the road. Like the guy who was sleeping in the back of his Tesla while it drove him home. 

This is peculiar… it is as if handing off our situational awareness stems from (is caused by) handing off the steps of mechanical understanding. The less we understand the process between function and dial (reality and abstract notification) the more we are psychologically prepared to hand over perception itself… leaving us alone inside our wonderfully sound-proofed car, inside our wonderfully isolated heads.

“Those who present choices to us appear as handmaidens to our own freedom.” 

Matthew Crawford

 It is, to paraphrase Cormac McCarthy in the Counselor, as though we think we can move through this world and yet not take part in it, not have it affect us.

What a strange ethic, what a strange philosophy. 

Step 57: Design facilitates Agency

 Part 3: VR as Morality

But, after all, this is the ultimate dream, right? A type of severance? To pass through the world untethered and untouched. To rule the body as a submissive subject, only allowing pleasure, muting pain. And thus, we gravitate towards a dream of Virtual Reality, where the difficulties of reality morph into abstracted difficulties of mind. 

Perhaps in VR we have a new morality with unpluggable consequences, yet it is completely designed by others: thus our morality in VR is not autonomy, it is not agency or freedom, it is heteronomy, which is our morality defined by an outside other… something alien to us, perhaps a machine. 

The larger issue here, because don’t forget we are somewhat of a philosophy podcast, is as Crawford says, our will is looking for how to guide itself, and when it finds itself governed by the laws of objects, it tends to follow the “object’s desire” as if it is our own. 

The object outside of us is, as Immanuel Kant says,

“an alien interest, and you should not administer to it’s purposes” but instead your will should “manifest it’s own sovereign authority as supreme maker of the law.” 

Immanuel Kant

Crawford points out that for Kant, “to be rational is precisely not to be situated in the world.” And when we cease to engage with difficult objects of the empirical world, the WILL becomes “freer” in a rational world without restraint, without grounding.  And does this not seem like the goal of VR, virtual reality? 

Kant wanted the will to be outside of influence, to be a law unto itself, but this also reduces agency, especially in a Newtonian sense: if you remove the will to a separate realm it can have no causal effect in this world. 

the fantasy of autonomy comes at a price of impotence. 

Matthew Crawford
Step 57: Design facilitates Agency


So let’s take a breather for a second because that was a lot: to go from speedometers into morality and alien control of our will through objects which rob us of autonomy, yet, also, to remove our will from conditions of the world, like an escape to moral Virtual Reality, isolates our will in an untouchable realm, which also robs us of autonomy and agency. 

Once again, “you cannot move through this world, yet not take part in it.”

So this is a breather, and I wanted to give a shout out to my buddy Eli Walker, who reached out after the last episode. We texted about the body and design, and he mentioned this amazing video where Keith Haring, the artist, walks up to a wall and maps it out (physically and mentally) and in one shot completes a total mural with no spacing issues. 

And, as Eli said, the impossibility of this feat is proven by our inability to even write out a Wi-Fi password on a scrap of paper without having to scrunch the text at the end, much less tackle an entire wall. 

So when we were talking about embodied cognition: our body’s ability to perceive space is phenomenal, yet we don’t live in a culture that employs this. Instead, we now have apps that measure out rooms for us, yet I know men who can look at a wall and say that’s 19 ft 6 in. and be spot on. I know people who can pick up a screw and say that’s a number 6, 1 5/8 in, can bend conduit pipe without measuring, quilt without patterns, or plow a field in a straight line with no Satellite guidance. 

We have, over time, through flattened screens, lost our basic orientation through kinetic physicality, which we discussed last time: moving through space is how we perceive, relate, and cognate.

we now design reliance where we once developed skill. 

Step 57: Design facilitates Agency

 Part 4: concept prep 

In the last episode, we discussed the human body as a perception mechanism gathering information and reacting to it rapidly through sort of subroutines that never reach our conscious brain. Like feeling the slip of your bike tire, or feeling the wood about to splinter. Or, even when we walk, the ground is rising, step higher. 

By moving we find the affordances our environment offers. Unfortunately, some situations have to be learned: you probably didn’t know your body could map out a whole wall for a mural, and you probably don’t know that a banana peel is slippery to step on until you have seen 37 slapstick cartoons. 

In the book “the upper half of the motorcycle” Bernt Speigel says “one simply has to know about some situations before Behavior can be adapted on the basis of this knowledge.” 

This is fascinating: essentially you have to have a concept in order to recognize and attune your body to the unique coalescence of factors that create a situation. 

For instance, if you are told what black ice looks like, that it looks like pavement and the best solution is to “do nothing.” It is counterintuitive. Or maybe if you are in a desert and know a mirage looks like an Oasis, you can restrain yourself from punching Noel Gallagher. 

But if no one tells you a banana peel is slippery you will be unprepared: we need the concept to recognize the situation. And this comes from others, from the community. 

Once recognized, we adopt a posture that allows us to react, to mirror our forecasting of the situation that may occur. Our body prepares for the possible, and what this does is reduce our reaction time: we don’t want to have to involve the computation of the brain: it is too slow, too taxing. Use the body. 

Instead, we perceive situational affordance through embodied sense-making. This requires attention. Attention is distracted and stolen by staring at a speedometer. Or a phone. 

I keep referring to driving because Crawford does, and it is a good vehicle for the ideas: it is a relatable mid-ground between the self’s agency and larger systems… it embodies the individual will, yet is social, physical, and made possible through complex machinery that amplifies our actions. 

But concept prep and environmental awareness can also work for craftsmanship: As a matter of design, to reach a skill level of mastery, we want to reduce the cognitive leaping about, the projecting and forecasting of several hypothesises (hypothesi?)… that are interfering. These small mental ramblings are like mosquito bites, stealing your attention. 

We need to design an environment that sets us up for embodied flow, relieve the mind of it’s anxieties, and reach a zen state, a flow state, as Crawford says, as state of “Alert watchfulness, without meddling” — YET, this does not happen unless you are involved.
“involve your ass, your mind will follow.” 
conversely: “free your ass, your mind will wander.” 

But here’s the deal, it takes work and risk and a bit of danger: John Muir, author of ‘how to keep your volkswagon alive‘ says “we must have skin in the game” 

If we drove cars strapped to the front, like an Aztec sacrifice, we would be much more cautious with our driving. Safety design actually alleviates awareness and caution, or circumspection: it reduces the need to attend and negotiate. 

John Muir

When people do not have to consider, then “being unaware” they behave recklessly to undermine the very design that is protecting them. Amplify this for each iteration and more safety equals more reckless nonconsideration. 

This implies it may be impossible to idiot-proof, and even more concerning is idiot-proofing, safety, leads humans to be unable to navigate the world without themselves becoming idiots… we become mousekadoers, unable to tolerate frustration and always asking for help so we can retreat back to the safety of our own minds. 

And by idiots, Crawford previously defines idiota from the Greek: meaning a private person detached from the implications of how we move through society or the world.

To be an idiot is behaving as if we were in private when we are actually in public: To assume your preferences take precedence.

Step 57: Design facilitates Agency

 Part 5: A rebuttal to the rebuttal

Is Crawford saying idiot-proofing is encouraging us to behave like idiots? Is he saying that safety features make us less safe? We are, after all, protecting and helping through design. The forethought of engineers saves lives.

It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this, and start saying things like “oh you want to remove speedometers from cars? Why don’t we just get rid of speed limits, Mario Andretti? What’s next? Getting rid of the stop signs and right of way?”

jeff speck walkable city

 And interestingly enough, Jeff Speck in “Walkable City” talks about a concept called Naked Streets. The idea is exactly to remove signage and right of way, narrow lanes, and get rid of crosswalks. Where this has been implemented it decreases traffic accidents and the severity of accidents. 

The “common sense” approach is to widen streets so that people have more visibility, but that only encourages people to speed up since they can see further. We put in stoplights and stop signs, which tell people “you have the right to go now.” And speed limits tend to be reinterpreted to “drive 5 mph faster.”

These environmental mediations through abstract symbols, a green light or a red light or a sign with a number, tell you how to behave without the necessity for you to truly address your environment. Someone has predetermined consideration, so you don’t have to. You no longer negotiate with your environment or others: you have the “right of way” and off-load the responsibility of cautiously, attentively, navigating the shared public realm. 

This lead us (finally) to the concept of design and agency. 

Human agency is our ability to affect change -to consider a situation, make a choice, and feel the power and responsibility of that decision. Rules and nudges that direct our behavior (through hijacking automatic responses) also rob us of our agency of self-determination. (There is no decision to be made, thus no autonomy.) Over time we trade our agency for legal certitude: a right/wrong binary and social guide based laid out as a cartesian abstraction. 

Similar to dials that convey reduced information by requiring no attentive negotiation to a complex reality we free our minds to daydream, our hands to twiddle on phones, and a once public ballet of interaction becomes isolated, individual bubbles colliding. 

So far we have focused on how mediating through design reduces primary sensory input to the human, actually detaching them from the environment and world. 

Yet there is a kind of design, like “naked streets”, that feels like anti-design: removing the over-designed mediation as a means of reconnection and returning agency to the human. A literal human-centric-design philosophy, where insight bolsters human flourishing, not just parading ergonomic door handles as the lever to freedom.  

Step 57: Design facilitates Agency

Part 6: the world without maps 

the world is it’s own best model 

We talked last episode about robot design, and how brute-force computation is costly and slow, while physical design and haptic feedback are much more efficient and elegant as a solution. And of course, the best models of this come through Evolution and the world itself. 

Yet here we are talking about how designs mediate reality into an abstraction, a dial that tells us how fast we are going, or a sign it tells us how fast we should be going. 

These are symbols, and symbols are granted meaning by society, thus grounding them in a universal language, which has great utility. And we now want to create symbols to ground all things. What is fascinating about skipping the symbol and returning to the embodied representations, is as Arthur Glennberg says 

“embodied representations do not need to be mapped onto the world to become meaningful because they arise from the world.”

Arthur Glennberg

 That is if your body derives information directly from the world we do not need to encode and decode it: it is uniquely instantaneous. We do not need a map of the world when the world is its own best model. indeed the map is not the territory. 

And reducing the encoding-decoding process to experience the world directly also allows us to learn more rapidly. This is because multiple senses are bound together, and coupled, in the learning process. This is called cross-modal binding

Not only do we glean information through multiple senses, sights sounds and feelings and location, but we bind those experiences to a shared commonality: time. 

These experiences all occur simultaneously, co-occur, and are coordinated into a Time-locked stream of information. The upshot of this is our brain binds from various senses a coherent sensory pattern of time signatures, this timestamp becomes “the thing in itself” 

When all of our sensory data is mediated, it is an abstraction, and when we turn that abstraction into a falsification, such as the sound of a V8 rumbling engine now running through your speakers because the car no longer sounds that way, we have falsely informative information. 

We are now going to Great Lengths to create the exact opposite of reality as a substitute for reality, pretending to stand in for the truncated reality. 

What is our means to counteract this? 

On the most simple level, it is to actually do something physical. To move. Not only is Locomotion indispensable to learning, but only self-motion can accomplish this, not VR or flat screens. It also begins to provide true options, not simply choices. Most online environments and even much of our built environment have pre-existing choice architectures, paths already prepared for us, and over time we conflate choosing with doing. We literally think we can only go right or left, who we are as a person is defined by the 4 color choices for our car. “what does that red say about me as a person?” 

“if choosing replaces doing for the mouse-clicking mousekedoer, it figures that such a disengage self should be especially pliable to the “choice architectures” to get installed in public spaces.”

Matthew Crawford

You do not find yourself merely by choosing, you find yourself by doing. And it is frustrating and painful to encounter the real world that has an objectness and will of its own, unlike the mickey mouse challenges, unlike the models in our heads, but engaging the real world is also real overcoming, and a step closer to genuine self-reliance and a truer form of autonomy. 

(This is part five of several episodes on “The World Beyond Your Head”)

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Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015) _ link

Alan Watts, The Book

Jeff Speck, Walkable City

John Muir, How to keep your VW Alive

Immanuel Kant, heteronomy

Cross-Modal Binding

The Counselor, Ridley Scott movie, based on Cormac McCarthy


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