design, marketing, and manipulation as ideological imperative

I seem to be linking Cennydd Bowles a lot lately, but why would one not? So here’s a nice, short injunction from the man himself, off the back of his having thrown out the question “when does design become manipulation?”, and being real unsettled by the answers he got:

Design influences. It persuades. But if it manipulates, something’s wrong. The difference isn’t just semantic; it’s moral. A manipulative designer abuses their power and strips people of their agency, reducing them to mere pawns. I see almost no circumstances in which that’s ethically acceptable.

So if you think all design is manipulation, please stop designing.

I think I’m pretty much on the same page as Bowles, here, though I think—as last time, when he was asking tech sector folk to show epistemic humility—there’s a structural issue going un(der)examined. Pose it as a question: why might so many designers, and/or people who know (or presume to know) what design is about, think it’s mostly a matter of manipulation? Because manipulation is what most designers who get a job with the label ‘designer’ on it will be paid to do, which in turn means that most courses meant to turn out people with qualifications as designers will (if they want to hit their employability metrics for the course!) be teaching them, implicitly or explicitly, that design is mostly about manipulation.

Now, some of this may be down to the nuance between manipulation and Bowles’s preferred terms, influence and persuade. I mean, I think of myself as very much A Words Guy, but I’d struggle to delineate the difference in those terms without writing at considerable length; this is always the challenge when it comes to values. Bowles’s tell-your-spouse-what-you-did-today technique, elsewhere in that post, is admirably efficient at highlighting the distinction as it manifests in our perception of meaning, but doesn’t delineate that distinction. I suspect Bowles might say it shouldn’t need delineating. And I would agree, it shouldn’t—but perhaps, in this less than ideal world, it does.

But why is that? Well, because of those structural forces I mentioned, which result in people with earnestly-held good intentions thinking in ways that ensure the continuation of the thing they think they’re trying to combat. Here’s another example, via friend-of-the-show Andrew Curry; if asking designers where influence ends and manipulation begins results in contortions and confusions, then what happens when a marketing guy wants to use marketing to solve climate change issues?

Well, what happens is the marketing guy—with the instinctive judo move that presumably comes from spending a great deal of your time trying to convince C-suite suits to fork over another tranche of consulting fees—will reframe the problem as being located in the firm’s customers rather than the firm itself. This is, of course, the classic neoliberal move of individualising responsibility for systemic failings—but, to be clear, it is coming from what I am going to assume is a sincere and genuine wish to reduce emissions.

The next step, though, is the clincher, because it’s the same one that informs most attempts at climate policymaking:

… marketers should stop focussing on their clients’ businesses and focus on their customers’ instead. They should, in short, start creating narratives about changing behaviour rather than moments of consumption.

Why is this the clincher? Because it’s a behaviourist model of human agency; it’s our old fictional friend homo economicus, just waiting to be given the right information, narrative or ‘nudge’ (as specified by various mutations of the long-since-discredited by nonetheless seemingly unkillable Information Deficit Model) that will ‘change’ their ‘behaviour’, which is somehow simultaneously rational (because neoclassical economics, and all that stems from it, insists on the rationality of the economic actor), woefully uninformed, and easily changed.

It is also, as anyone who has read (for example) their Elizabeth Shove, utterly wrong. The reasons people do the things that they do in the hugely variable and particular ways they do them has very little to do with simple utility-maximising decision-making, and a great deal to do with context.

I could go on about the social practice model of human agency for hours, but I’m already drifting away from my point, which is this: the consumptive behaviours which Mr Marketer here wants to change were indeed shaped by marketing in times past, but assuming that merely pointing that behaviourist model at a different behaviour will be sufficient to reverse it is naive at best. Because the problem is not the behaviours of the consumers, or even (if you want to get all Uncle-Karl’s-Volume-1 about it) the scheming avarice of cartoon capitalists, but rather the complete and unquestioning immersion of both within an economic model that valourises, nay necessitates, the externalisation of costs.

This guy uses McDonalds as an example, and wonders why they don’t reduce their footprint by, say, somehow discouraging people going to the drive-thru in a gas-guzzler SUV. Why don’t they take more responsibility for their customers’ chunk of the emissions of the business?

First off it’s hard to calculate […] it is hard to track what customers and end users are really doing. These things are hard to measure.

To reiterate, again: this guy is sincere, I’m sure of it. I expect he’s even a nice guy. I wish him no ill. (Hell, he even notes that the Measurement Problem doesn’t seem to be at all insurmountable when it comes to targeting advertisements, or fine-tuning supply-chains for cost reductions.) But nonetheless, his conception of human agency—which is the foundation of his industry (Adam Curtis got you covered on that stuff), as well as the econo-political ideological keystone of the world in which we all live—means he can’t come up with a better list of things for marketers and their clients to do than this:

The next generation of marketers working on sustainability are moving beyond doomist thinking (yes, we’re in very, very deep trouble, now what are you going to do about it?) to an obsession with delivering genuine change.

  • Less shaping the narrative, more shaping behaviour.

  • Less ‘sustainability theatre’ workshops, more testing MSP (Minimal Sustainable Product).

  • Less internal focus and a lot more customer centricity.

  • Less risk management, more business model innovation.

  • Less reporting that reassures investors, more accurate measurement and responsibility for carbon being emitted.

In closing, we must do all we can to decouple growth from carbon emissions and unlearn the worst excesses of consumption behaviour. We need to 1) educate, 2) regulate and we need to 3) activate.

I’m starting by activating customers, unleashing the latent desire in all of us to reduce our carbon footprints through what we buy (or don’t buy), the choices we make and the habits we form.

I mean, that last line, there; as if “unleashing latent desire” (which, historically, has meant fabricating desires wholesale) isn’t exactly what got us in to this mess! Or the ‘graph above: decouple growth from carbon emissions? Sure, OK, that sounds like a nice idea, so we’ll set aside the historical fact that growth, as we understand that term in both the vernacular or the more specific economic sense, is entirely predicated on the emission of carbon, and we’ll look at your three steps to success and—oops, shit, stalled at number one, it’s the Information Deficit Hypothesis once again! Because if you think of people as programmable economic robots, that’s always where you start, that’s where marketing has always started, it literally cannot start from any other model, and that’s why trying to market your way to a carbon-free future is like trying to drink yourself sober.

Andrew Curry gets it, in his commentary on the above (my emphasis):

Of course, the problem with a lot of this is that meaningfully reducing emissions involves reducing consumption, especially by the most affluent. And even with business model innovation, it’s hard to maintain growth or increase profitability while reducing consumption. Marketers don’t get paid for doing that. The incentive systems are all wrong.

And that, in a very digressive blog-ranty way, is my attempt to explain why it is that so many designers think that design is basically manipulation: because most design is done in the ultimate service of capital accumulation, and as such it has failed if it does not maximise consumption. Doesn’t mean designers are bad people. Doesn’t even mean that marketers are bad people (though I can see the ghost of Bill Hicks raising an eyebrow at me). It means that the assumptions of neoclassical economics are so deeply embedded in every structure of our society that we can’t think outside of them… and it’s those assumptions, among which is the vital principle of increasing profit through the externalisation of costs, whether financial or otherwise, that have resulted in our treating the planet like a combination of cornucopian replicator and bottomless rubbish-pit.

I mean, sure, I would like it if we could get designers to think about what they’re doing, and whether they’re being manipulative rather than persuasive or influential, and to choose the latter over the former. That is a good goal! The problem is, if you did it really well, you’d end up with a bunch of designers finding themselves out of work (whether by choice, or through an inability to find morally acceptable gigs), and them being replaced by folk whose somewhat more straitened circumstances would—quite understandably!—make them less likely to undertake such reflections, and less likely still to act upon them.

Does that mean that it’s not worth having the discussions that Bowles and others are trying to have, here? Not at all. Any more fundamental change to the our ontological conception of the world and our relation to it is going to require a lot of that sort of reflection, and not just in the fields of design and marketing. But it’s that more fundamental change that we have to have as the utopian horizon of any and all such conversations, because otherwise we’re just twiddling with placebo dials (to use a design term).

Whatever label you choose to put on the tangle of systems-of-systems in which we are enmeshed, you have to start from the understanding that it is incredibly good at recuperating the many critiques directed at it. This ability is in no small part down to the magic of marketing, and of its more knowingly unethical siblings PR and ‘reputation management’; it really is stories all the way down. But another important element is, I suspect, the homo economicus model, and the individualisation of responsibility which it enables. While that model dominates, designer’s gonna design to manipulate (because the user could always choose not to follow the dark patterns, right?) and marketer’s gonna unleash those latent desires (because what could be wrong about making a profit from fulfilling the sense of lack you went to so much effort to engender in someone, right?) and ecomodernist’s gonna keep claiming that we can somehow, if we just innovate real hard while clicking the heels of the Ruby Slippers together, have growth without fossil fuels (because growth is an utterly unquestionable Good Thing, the rotten beam to which every other plank in this disintegrating raft is tied with twine and good intentions, and only some sort of primitivist lunatic who hated the less fortunate would not want growth, right?). They will do this because, on their planet—which is, to be clear, yours and my planet too, to a lesser or greater extent—these are completely rational and (crucially) moral things to do.

The problem is, that planet bears significant non-similarities to the one on which we happen to actually be living. The cognitive dissonance of that increasingly obvious disconnect is starting to get pretty serious; but as Latour has noted, no amount of recourse to capital-S Science and its supposed rationalities—which were originally sourced, long before the actual sciences got the names by which we know them, from none other nascent discipline than economics—can back us out of the alley into which they have already driven us.

So by all means, let’s highlight the distinction between manipulation and persuasion, between “behaviour modification” and treating people as sentient beings in webs of relationships, and all that other stuff—but let’s see that as the start of the process, not the end. Treating the symptoms will not cure the underlying malady.

And so the last word goes to Edward Abbey:

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

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