Consumption and Manipulation

Last night, our class discussed readings that focus on consumption and manipulation. We synthesized work from Allan Chochinov, Victor Papanek, and Edward Bernays.

Allan Chochinov’s 1000 Words is a manifesto for sustainability in design. We discussed his premise that sustainability can’t be a “nice to have” – it needs to be as integral to production as form, or brand, or engineering. For a designer to pursue this agenda, they need to have some level of authority, they need to be prepared for a long-haul fight, and they need to understand the financial implications of seemingly well-intentioned suggestions for product changes. Chochinov’s second core point – that we should be designing and considering systems before artifacts – carries the same implication. Designers need to move up the strategic value-chain, so that they can drive product or service ecologies rather than focusing on producing single point solutions. A junior designer or a contracted vendor will be unlikely to propose a sustainable solution that requires a change in supply chain, distribution chain, or forces additional long-term investments in a service infrastructure. A senior team member – one that realizes how to champion for their ideas internally – will be more likely to couch their suggestions in business success, and will be more likely to find their ideas implemented.

Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (pdf) is a similar form of manifesto, but one that offers a much more blunt critique of design education. As Papanek describes, “Design graduates leave our schools with some know-how, a great many skills, and a certain amount of aesthetic sensitivities, but with almost no method for obtaining any basic insights.” This lack of process means that they then suffer from both selection problems (they choose the wrong problems to work on), and execution problems (they focus on adjusting styling, material, or ergonomics, rather than pursuing insights and wholesale behavior change). When these designers encounter a problem that requires the creation of new knowledge, these designers are unable to produce meaningful and rich innovations; in Papanek’s language, they lack the ability to develop new content. For him, the change necessary in design education is simple: “to instil in the designer a willingness for experimentation, coupled with a sense of responsibility for his failures.”

Edward Bernays has been called the “father of public relations.” He observed the ability for a strong and focused leader to manipulate public opinion, and realized that he could harness that opinion to drive an agenda. In Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How (paywall), he outlines a boilerplate for manipulating large groups of people. His process is fairly simple:

“As a matter of technique they decided to dramatize the year’s campaign in an annual convention which would center attention at one time and at one place upon the ideas they stood for…

The next step was to decide how to make it most effective…

The third step was to surround the conference with people who were stereotypes for ideas that carried weight all over the country…

The event naturally gave the Association itself substantial weapons with which to appeal to an increasingly wider circle. Further expansion of these thoughts was attained by mailing reports, letters, and other documents to selected groups of the public.”

This is a process we see carried out over and over again, most obviously at the annual Apple WWDC. The yearly convention becomes a spectacle, and the spectacle is strategically positioned to be most effective (“One more thing…”) People who attend are influential media figures, and the circles of media increasingly widen (and flatten to a shallow consumptive desire) to the lay consumer. For Bernays, this process is not only ethical, it’s critical: “This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas.”

In an attempt to synthesize these readings, we discussed the relationship between ideas, and one of the most interesting threads to me was the idea of applying Chochinov’s call for systemic thinking – and consequences – to Bernays’ view of the mass distribution of ideas. Current marketing has perfected the process Bernays describes above, but often treats it in isolation from a larger ecological story. A spectacle event needs to treat the spread of ideas in the context of brand narrative, and simultaneously realize the consequences of driving mass consumption. Simply, marketing now finds themselves squarely in the consequences business; their trash mountains are not physical, but societal. Our norms and culture are the output of these efforts.