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Can we design a society without the Taliban?

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 | Posted by Ryan Hubbard

As Scott mentioned in his post, part of the focus of class today was consumerism, and design’s role in shaping it.  The discussion reminded me of a fascinating and controversial statement I heard recently regarding the role of consumerism and Western culture in creating an environment that encourages radicals and fundamentalism.

I was listening to a Philosophy Bites podcast interview of American moral Philosopher Susan Neiman, who said

“The [clash between fundamentalist religion and more secular values] is as big a problem in Arkansas as it is in Afganistan [...] and we in the West who are not fundamentalist need to look at what we’ve done wrong such that fundamentalists are on the rise.  This is not to excuse the Taliban or Sarah Palin or any of those people whatsoever, but it is to say that we of progressive, Western values need to look at what we’ve done wrong so as to provoke this kind of reaction, and I think we’ve done a lot wrong.

“The rampant consumerist culture that suggests ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ is understandably going to provide a kind of backlash.  I think a lot of the move towards fundamentalism in different cultures is an attempt to say “No, actually I want my life to mean something more than that, I want to be guided by certain ideals of the way the world should be.” [...]  If we continue to see fundamentalists as irrational idiots or if we look at them as cowardly, weak-kneed people who can’t understand how to live in the modern world… then we are lost, because the criticism of consumerist, contemporary culture is in many ways a valid one.” (Transcribed from the podcast)

Though controversial, I find her claim that the pendulum swing of fundamentalism is due, at least in part, to consumerism to hold a ring of credibility. Certainly the search for meaning is a powerful human motivator, and viewing fundamentalists as rational agents searching for meaning is a more mature and hopeful viewpoint.  I can think of no immediate way to validate her hypothesis, but I would welcome suggestions.

Assuming her hypothesis to be true, though, the big question for us is whether designing meaningful interactions (instead mindless consumer experiences) could create a more moderate and peaceful society.  Further, is it enough to simply design more meaningful interactions, or do we need to aim for a more fundamental shift in our culture?  How would we approach that?

5 Comments »
  • http://saranyan.com Saranyan

    Scott – consumerism or greed or stupidity, territorial infringement would cause cultural backlash. But, I don’t necessarily agree that fundamentalism arises from searching for meaning. For instance, if you go and step on a mound of ants, if the ants start attacking you because disturbed their territory, is it meaning they are searching for? I think this is more of a primal instinct that causes anger because somebody disturbed “their” peace, occupied “their” home or something like that…

    But I agree with your view point about designing meaningful interactions. But, how do you quantify that meaning? We are now treading on the topic of value-systems. What appears to be a meaningful interaction to you is not necessarily the same to somebody else. I think that the user experience a design propels can be used to convey some meaning, big or small.

  • http://saranyan.com Saranyan

    BTW – sorry, Ryan, this was directed at you. Not Scott! :)

  • http://www.ryanhubbard.org Ryan Hubbard

    Saranyan,

    I appreciate your dedication to making this blog a conversation as opposed to us all just posting silently. I hope we can keep this up as the year goes on!

    To be fair to the complexity of any historical situation, there are undoubtedly many reasons the Taliban rose to power, and upon some further research it seems that their existence is largely ascribed to the lawlessness and chaos of the failed state that was Afghanistan in the 1990′s [1], which unfortunately doesn’t support my meaning hypothesis nor yours on infringement. I think there is still something to be explored on the topic of the recent resurgence of (much milder) fundamentalism in the US, but I’m afraid that will have to wait for more research at a later date.

    On the topic of meaning, there is a surprising amount you can say about it from an objective, scientific viewpoint. We know from psychological research that some experiences are measurably more rewarding or satisfying than others. For instance, “activities that make people happy in small doses – such as shopping, good food and making money – do not lead to fulfillment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns (Myers, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).” [2]

    So while we always convey some meaning when we design, and yes, meaning and value are in some ways relative, I think we can overcome that challenge by using our knowledge of human psychology. Despite cultural differences, research shows us there are characteristics of interactions that will make for more long-term fulfillment for people from all backgrounds.

    This also relates to the need for a cultural shift that I mentioned in the post, which was referring to a further problem here, which is how to overcome the huge cultural inertia we seem to have that prefers short-term satisfaction and convince consumers to prefer the interactions that will bring them longer-term fulfillment. I think this will be an interesting problem to explore as the year progresses.

    [1] http://books.google.com/books?id=BIyVMkjat2MC&lpg=PR10&ots=sQ7beuWzCz&dq=taliban%20origin&lr&pg=PA22#v=onepage&q&f=false2 http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/faqs.htm (another good source for this is the book the Happiness Hypothesis, which is well researched and quite insightful. I would be happy to lend out once I get around to unpacking my boxes of books).

  • http://saranyan.com Saranyan

    Ryan – I agree on the Taliban angle (like why it emerged in the first place)…But the statement I don’t agree with is

    “I think a lot of the move towards fundamentalism in different cultures is an attempt to say “No, actually I want my life to mean something more than that..”

    About the cultural shift needed to overcome the inertia, is a bigger and broader topic which definitely warrants more discussion and thought. In general, I believe that inertia can be overcome by motivation and even creating a desire, which is do-able by intelligent design. The thoughts like short-term satisfaction and long-term fulfillment have weight when one starts introspecting the very reason for doing something (search for meaning, from your post). So maybe, with design, we can encourage introspection. Maybe, that will act as a seed…

    I don’t know..but this is a good point to ponder over. Thanks for the references, I will check them out :).

  • Alex Pappas

    Perhaps in order to have a ‘moderate’ you need a ‘fundamental’, just like in order to have a middle class you need a rich, and a poor? Our idea of fundamentalism exists partly because of our idea of ‘normal’ or ‘middle’. Those that do not fit in the middle must then be out closer towards the edge.

    Our discussion of what is fundamentalist must be framed in the context of what we perceive as moderate.

    One of the faults perhaps of living in a dualistic society?

    I agree with Saranyan on disagreeing with:

    “I think a lot of the move towards fundamentalism in different cultures is an attempt to say “No, actually I want my life to mean something more than that..”

    it seems to me that the author is confusing ‘action’ with fundamentalism. To me those are two different things… perhaps every fundamentalist activity implies an action, but certainly every action does not imply a fundamentalist activity.

    Hmmmm, I might need to let that though marinate a bit.