What It’s Like to Live in a Non-Place

November 6, 2014

The contrast was stark, the transition unsettling. We entered the subway on West 86th, near where it meets Central Park West, with the sounds of horns, children’s screams and sirens ringing in our ears. We could see the local grocer, and the homeless man who had staked out his piece of sidewalk. It smelled like pretzels and sewers and fresh coffee. A whole world existed within a couple of blocks, colliding, shattering, unfolding all around us. When we finally emerged from the city’s depths, four (delayed) trains and three hours later, we were in the stark white arena of the airport terminal. Staff wore uniforms. The walls were white. It smelled faintly of citrus floor cleaner. It was hard to tell it was New York City at all. There was no hyper-local culture here, only the dehumanizing experience of being trapped in a tunnel with numerous angry strangers while being shuttled between one drab and unfamiliar station to the next, followed by being made to feel less valuable than my luggage by the vast majority of the airport staff.

If you have ever been to an international airport, you probably know how we felt. This is a non-specific experience for a non-specific age. Travel is dehumanizing precisely because it is efficient, and often takes place as a transitional stage between places, not as a destination in itself. In fact, we experience this a number of ways as the world copies and pastes bits of itself over and over in different countries.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tal Bright

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tal Bright

And yet we crave uniqueness and belonging. This is why many of us travel for pleasure in the first place, to experience new ways of living. It’s also the reason neighbourhood restaurants still survive in an era of chain restaurants’ economies of scale, and why Cheers makes people sigh with nostalgia. Online, we carefully cultivate very specific and personalized networks of imagined communities in the virtual world, circles of people who share our interests or backgrounds. We celebrate the nooks and crannies of places.

A few posts ago, I wrote about what makes cities great, in the form of a Hierarchy of Urban Needs, and suggested that at the top level (the “self-actualization” stage), a city becomes a beacon that represents ideals. Through a virtuous process, as a city of the imagination, it attracts others who identify with what it represents and who work to build networks within it and help it achieve its potential. It becomes a place.

And the opposite…

Just as it is said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, the opposite of places that draw people in and foster their passions must be a generic, interchangeable non-place, a freeway, perhaps, or an airport or suburban shopping mall. This concept of the non-place, or non-lieu in the language of its birth, was initially put forward by Marc Augé, a French anthropologist. Augé has defined non-lieux as “spaces in which no lasting social relations are established.”  These are generic anyplaces that are unknown but somehow familiar, in the sense that instead of this particular grocery store you could be at any grocery store, in any town in North America (or, with a few tweaks in language and symbols, the world).

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniele Frediani

Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniele Frediani

Non-lieux are notable for producing unanimity, and also for their ability to dehumanize. If people are just passing through, there is obviously a benefit to utilitarianism and ease of use, both of which often come at the expense of beauty or uniqueness. (Think: bus stations, highways, or airports.) And there is little incentive for those doing the passing to improve the spaces, or individualize them, rendering them anonymous. [1]

I have been grappling in my everyday life with the sense of being in a non-lieu for a while, and wondering if (ironically) it is the place I’m in that lends itself to such unspecificity. I stumbled across a description of where I live recently that seems to sum this idea up perfectly, and it’s worth quoting at length (particularly for lovers of Burt Bacharach tunes):

Reflecting on the tune, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” [Dionne] Warwick was quoted as saying: “It’s a beautiful little city. I was made an honorary citizen. I’m accused of putting it on the map and overpopulating it.”

I contemplated that statement for a long, long time. She was accused of putting the city on the map. Not thanked, not congratulated, not applauded, but accused. For me, it put everything into perspective, since now, 40 years later, it often seems like many people in San Jose still don’t want to city the be known for anything. They live here because they don’t want it to be an interesting place.

In my opinion, the San Jose condition will always involve the conflict between urban and suburban, small town and big town, or what constitutes a “major city” and what doesn’t.

A-ha! A veritable non-place in my midst, and one I’ve written about before as feeling transitional, and slightly unrooted. It’s ironic, really, because that song is about how San Jose is an anchor that provides a home and peace of mind in contrast to the “great big freeway” that is L.A. (another non-place!).

But I have started to wonder about the distinction between somewhere being a non-place generally, and a non-place to me. As Augé says, in non-lieux one finds “a total absence of symbolic ties, and evident social deficits.” This sounds a lot like the experience of being an immigrant, doesn’t it?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Emerson

Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Emerson

Moving to a new city can feel like entering a “non-place.” As a newcomer, you are unfamiliar with its norms. You move inefficiently through it because you aren’t aware of traffic patterns or even the geography. You have yet to demarcate what will become the familiar signposts of your life (the coffee shop on your way to work with the friendly staff; the quirky graffiti on the brick wall near your apartment; the alley you cut through as a shortcut that erupts into a riot of flowers and stray saplings each spring).

Changing places

And thus a non-place might be a matter of time, not of the place itself. Usually a sense of place is built with repeated exposure. Little parts of a space become “yours” and you build community through enjoying them with others. Eventually you begin to share your discoveries, recommending restaurants, giving directions, and encouraging others to join you there. You might even join a community group to improve it in some way, to give back what you gain.

Non-places may also just be another word for loneliness. I read recently that space “has been viewed as container of populations with particular demographic characteristics, and as stage on which networks of social interaction take place. The boundaries of spatial experience are seen to coincide with a social world rather than with a particular area.”[2] In this way places hold different meanings for different people at different times. Perhaps they are only non-places insofar as they are lacking in connection, not anything inherent to the spaces themselves. Airline employees feel differently about an airport that they see every day than passengers who are just visiting once. Those who feel more rooted contribute more to platemaking, and this can be to the detriment of the diversity of the place since newcomers don’t often feel this way.

A place in time?

A place, in time? [3]

It seems that the strength of a place is in its social bonds. [4] In order for places not to feel like the hotel rooms, supermarkets, and airports Augé talks about, we need to invest in them. So in order to feel rooted, I’ve learned I had to give something of myself away. Even in generic suburbs, which Augé wrote were (merely) areas of “circulation, communication, and consumption,” people eventually develop an affinity or sense of rootedness based on having grown up or lived there, and known others there. They become … places.

So here’s hoping for a place, in time, for everyone passing through a non-place time, whether airport or grocery store or city. Explore. Connect. Make it count.

Some Notes

1 It should be said that some airports have tried to overcome this sense of placelessness. I saw one excellent exhibit on Louis Comfort Tiffany and another on old and new doors from around the world while waiting for a late-night flight out of San Francisco Airport recently.

2 This is from a lovely 1976 essay by Anne Buttimer titled Grasping the Dynamism of the Lifeworld.

3 There are roughy five thousand photos on flickr of signs to SJ, riffing on the song. This is one of them, courtesy of user John ‘K’.

4  I’ve just realized that a suitable one-line summary of this post/blog, and my life, may be: Social capital is the answer; I don’t care about the question! Thank you, Robert Putnam.

How people we hardly know cause us to have more serendipitous, lonelier, busier lives 

April 11, 2014

Imagine you live in a small town, circa 1750. Your daily life is spent working – maybe farming, or maybe you make shoes or are a teacher. You eat, drink, sleep, look after children, and socialize. Your social circle consists of others in the same class and gender, for the most part, and you will most likely spend your whole life living with, farming with, marrying into, reproducing with, and dying with the other families that live in your village.  You know these people really, really well.

Perhaps someone in your family emigrates – to London, or to one of the settlement colonies, say – and so you spend a bit of time every month writing letters to them, but know that it’s a bit pointless, because anyone who had moved more than a few hundred miles away would likely never come back. Every so often a traveller or vagrants will come by, and sometimes people will move in or away, but for the most part social circles are set. There is no networking to change your lot in life, or make new friends, just living.

Now imagine the richness and diversity of your current social circle. It is probably more like a multi-national organization than a village. It probably includes people living in several countries, from different backgrounds. It is probably quite large. You probably don’t know many of them very well, but may spend a lot of time, like I do, writing emails, talking on the phone, or communicating in other ways with them. I spend much of what time I have leftover in my day feeling guilty that I haven’t spent more time writing more emails or making more phone calls. When I lived in Toronto, I must have had 25 people at any given time that I had honestly been meaning to “catch up” with for about six months. Now I live further away, it is even more important (and time-consuming) to keep up links with everyone back “home.” (I am that immigrant mentioned above! Doubly so. So many letters.)

Of course, this doesn’t even include time spent on the more common definition of “networking” – the kind that makes me want to take a shower – which is to purposefully make connections with the hope of them being useful at some point hence, in a search for a new job or piece of advice.

Network Proliferation

The abundance of methods of communication and social networking technologies has made all kinds of networking almost unconscious, but quite time-consuming. Modern networks are kept alive by either the acceptance of an inferior means of communication (email, letters, FaceTime) as satisfactory grounds to sustain them, or the faint hope of a better way of interacting occurring again in the future. But it appears that quality decreases even as time spent increases, and we are left accepting many more threads of connection without time to forge many into lasting companions.

If we are being honest, it is highly impractical to spend so much time maintaining friendships with friends of friends, those who live outside of our immediate geography, or people who were major players in our lives years ago but no longer cross our minds very often. So why do we do it? What is so inherently appealing about having far-flung networks of others who share our interests and experiences?

I see the main points of the cost-benefit analysis as follows:

  • The social inclusion high. With the breakdown of actual barriers of geography through telecommunications and easier global travel, and imagined barriers of social class, we are much more likely to find others who share commonalities with us. And most of us are willing to spend time and energy building a social circle of like-minded peers, over and above the time and energy required to simply exist in the world with those who may not necessarily (e.g. colleagues, extended family members, baristas at the coffee shop, the mailman, etc.).
  • Imagined future benefits. Slightly more self-serving, but no doubt also a factor is the potential usefulness of knowing an old travel companion who lives in Auckland, NZ in case you ever need a place to stay, or a contact in the federal government in case of a future career change. This is, basically, the only reason LinkedIn exists.
  • Guilt. It’s harder to terminate a relationship than keep it vaguely open-ended. It is much easier to have friends from elementary school connected by a thin thread on a Facebook feed than acknowledge that there is no real reason to be part of each other’s lives. In this case the cost may be low (provided they don’t constantly spam us with game requests or multiple smarmy medical school acceptance status updates), but it also makes me wonder if our village-dwelling ancestors were more comfortable with saying goodbye and just letting go of outdated relationships.

Dunbar redux

There are very real advantages to having large, loose networks of connections, but the cost of all of this network upkeep is time and anxiety. According to a well-known study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the optimal size of a human’s social network is about 150. This number refers to how many people we can cognitively sustain stable relationships with, and is directly related to the size (and thus functionality) of our neocortex. (For a fantastic and hilarious illustration of Dunbar’s number, see this piece.)

Dunbar’s number has obvious applicability to real-world organizations, but has more recently also been found to apply to our online social networks, in the number of people we frequently interact with online. But with ever-larger networks to maintain, something has to give: the quality of the relationship, the amount of time humans are willing to spend communicating with others, or a shift in our physiology so that we are able to cognitively adjust to a greater size of stable connections.

It seems that quality is the first thing to go. A 2007 study showed that Facebook has many positive social attributes, in that it enables us to “keep tabs” on others very easily, thus “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” increasing the serendipity factor in our lives. As is already widely known, however, it also carries costs. The constant identity curation necessitated by Facebook and similar social networks is exhausting. We want to project an image of ourselves as (relatively) happy, successful and social. It’s stressful, and it also makes us lonely.

I pick on Facebook, but we use the same techniques to keep up appearances across networks with all of our weak ties, and this is facilitated by not being near people for sustained periods of time in person. And it isn’t just in our personal lives. Image production has become an increasingly useful skill for knowledge workers who have to justify the value of their work through self-promotion or “personal branding,” either within an organization to get that excellent performance review, or to win more business as a sole proprietor. Such conscious displays of our better sides (I won’t go so far as to say artifice) would have been impossible to keep up in the village with so many strong ties and so few weak ones.

Back to the village…

Perhaps it is a symptom of our modern greed that we expect to have so much capital interpersonally and intellectually, as well as physically. Since we have “progressed” beyond the village, we can now create and maintain more opportunities: opportunities for more knowledge about the world, more interesting friends, better social activities, and better jobs. This is good news if you don’t want to be a shoemaker who sees the same 50 people every year for the rest of your life, but bad news if you want to have an empty inbox and be ulcer-free.

I see it as a social manifestation of the “paradox of choice” (a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling swamped by choice). Having more options actually makes us less happy, because the stress inherent in choosing between them, and the time it takes to do so, often outweighs the potential benefits of a better choice (if there even is a better choice). More weak ties naturally means more choice, and more stress.

So maybe those who withdraw from frequent socializing are (intentionally or not) limiting their options, and maybe they are happier for it. They moved back to a slightly bigger village, and they’re enjoying the lifestyle.

What makes a city great? Toward a hierarchy of urban needs

April 3, 2014

A few years ago I created a conceptual model of national needs, shown below, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of (personal) needs. It has become one of the most read posts on this blog, indicating that our identification with both nations and Maslow’s framework both continue to resonate today, decades after their creation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some context: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for individuals

Of course, it is difficult to map the idea of progressive needs of an individual cleanly to a political entity. Nations, like people, continue to evolve, and the role of nations in the world is changing too. Nonetheless, the idea of a hierarchy, in which basic needs must be satisfied before one can progress to a higher level of actualization and fulfilling one’s whole potential, can be applied to countries in various stages of development.

Since writing my National Needs post in 2010, a new country was created in South Sudan. It is still struggling (as indeed are many other nations) with the lowest level of securing territorial integrity and peaceful borders, and this remains its primary focus. The struggle for survival must come before feelings of security, esteem and morality.

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

Exon [Smith]’s Hierarchy of National Needs, c. 2010 (Click for a larger version)

Yet there are other geographical entities with which we commonly identify, and which are becoming more and more important as centres of culture and economy as a greater percentage of the world’s population moves into them: cities. It is estimated that for the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than outside of them, and cities are becoming important political players in their own right.

Since moving to California in late 2013 (and spending a lot of time on the Atlantic Cities channel), I have been thinking about how fundamentally important cities are. What makes them truly great? What makes them “cities” at all, in a sense apart from the obvious population requirements? For example, I live in San Jose, which is the third largest city in California, ahead of San Francisco in both population and area, and yet its own inhabitants curiously refer to San Francisco as “the city.” Why? What has to happen for a place to transform into a world-class city from a mere urban area?

So, as I am wont to do, I created a new model to explore the needs of a city, also along the lines of Maslow. I’m calling it the “Hierarchy of Urban Needs.” Note that I am assuming that this city exists within the context of a nation that ensures the rights and privileges of, as well as general governance over, its citizens.  Some discussion of the stages is below.


Exon Smith’s hierarchy of urban needs (Click for a larger version)

Basic services 

At the most fundamental level, cities need key services delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way. (This is true even if such services aren’t necessarily paid for by the cities themselves, as is the case with, say, healthcare in Canadian cities.) This includes fire, police, and ambulance services; waste management; housing inspections to ensure both safety and affordability of housing; water treatment, and the like. For many cities, this means being able to control the tax base and be able to levy taxes on the population as necessary.

World-class cities will also have exceptional healthcare options and a focus on sustainability woven through even these fundamentals, such as extensive recycling and compost programs. San Francisco, for example, deploys teams to examine what its residents recycle properly and what they don’t so the city can mount better educational campaigns.

Of course, the basic running of the city must be free of corruption, and be able to pay its bills so it avoids a Detroit-like bankruptcy claim, or the succession of mayors Montreal has recently had.


Historically, cities developed around major ports and, later, railway depots. Even today, no major cities exist without some kind of harbour, airport, train station or freeway linking them with the outside world. Inter-city transportation, undergirded by solid infrastructure, is a critical component of economic progress.

Cities with poor transit are at a huge disadvantage. Jakarta, a city of nearly ten million people, and the largest city of its size with no metro of any kind, has notoriously been working on an underground transit network for 20 years. Traffic congestion is thought to cost the city $1 billion a year. In another cautionary tale, it can take 12 hours to travel 40 miles in Lagos, Nigeria, and the way is fraught with crime and other dangers, a threat to legitimate trade.

Intra-city transportation is also a key factor, and how best to support the movement of people within a city is a subject of almost universal debate. Subways vs. light rail, bike lanes vs. car lanes, pedestrian-only roads and congestion pricing – these are major issues for all cities, and the thinking on public transportation keeps evolving.

This is one area in which San Jose currently struggles but has big plans for the future. My theory is that older cities, built before car use was predominant, have an easier time planning for pedestrian and bike access. Those (like San Jose) that were built after the advent of freeways and a Cadillac for every nuclear family tend to struggle to retrofit density in the downtown core when its points of interest are already quite far-flung.

And yet. San Jose is a critical location for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as a hub for transportation around the San Francisco Bay (linking to San Francisco and Oakland), and has reserved space downtown for new transit links. It is planning for increased density to accompany the new transportation. Hopefully use of public transportation within city limits will also increase, because at the moment the city is hugely dependent on the car. Inefficient public transit routes poorly serve the population, resulting in, for example, 78% (!) of San Jose commuters travelling to work in single-occupancy vehicles.

Central Park

Infrastructure also includes sewers and other large-scale public works, including parks and other green space. More and more research indicates that green spaces make for happier communities, and many major cities can be identified by their parks alone (e.g. Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Bois du Boulogne, Sanjay Gandhi National Park). As I’ve said before, I love sewers, water mains and bridges, personally, and think more campaigns should be fought around securing funding for them. The recent, tragic gas explosion in Harlem only underlines the need to think the way the Victorians did about how cities really run and how we can leave a legacy for the future that is perhaps not glamourous, but that is critically important. One of Toronto’s great strengths, as is the case in many other cities, is the numerous cranes on the skyline building new architectural wonders (as well as a few duds). Would that we could focus on what lies beneath the soil as well.

A brief interlude on mayors…

Thinking about these lower levels of needs, it strikes me that the level of a city’s discourse (and thus position on this hierarchy) can often be seen through the lens of its mayoral elections. Toronto’s 2010 (as most likely will its 2014) election centered on the issues of transportation and waste in providing city services, leaving little room for discussion of higher-order issues (such as, ahem, drug use among elected officials). New York’s 2013 election, in which Bill de Blasio won almost three quarters of the votes, turned largely on issues of income inequality and pre-kindergarden education, the next level in my hierarchy. And the major issues of London’s 2012 election, won by incumbent Boris Johnson and his hair, were the economy, tackling crime, public transportation, and affordable housing.

Boris, Campaigning on Transit

Boris: Campaigning on Transit

It makes sense that the basics need to be taken care of, and continually improved upon, before a successful cultural scene can take root, in the same way that humans must be fed and watered, feel physically and emotionally safe, and feel a sense of belonging before they can achieve self-actualization.

…and then back to the hierarchy: Educational and research institutions

A strong educational foundation at every level is critical, and a well-educated population requires relative equality in the quality of schools. This is one of the main reasons cities should not fund their schools through neighbourhood taxes (and thus subject schools to the vagaries of house prices), as many cities in the United States do.  A well-educated citizenry contributes more to the economy than a poorly-educated one.

The presence of leading research and teaching institutions draws in talent and sows the seeds of innovation, which is why “cluster economies” such as Silicon Valley are the next big thing, because they focus research and development into localities with populations educated enough to feed them with employees. Every one of the world’s greatest cities has a leading university at its heart, without exception – this cannot be a coincidence.

Diversity is the key here. Cities built around just one industry are like monocultures: potentially dominant for a short while, but vulnerable to disastrous decline. Take any of the grand old cities in the Rust Belt: Buffalo, for example, was one of America’s greatest cities one hundred years ago, built on a strong grain-milling and shipping/railroad industry. After almost a century of decline, it is, well, no longer great – but it has managed to slow the decline by diversifying into the education and medical fields. Glasgow, once the premier city of Scotland, faced a similar decline due to its emphasis on a resource-based economy and de-emphasis on education.

Robust arts, sports and cultural scene

This stage is where the jump occurs from a merely livable city to one that is great. A safe, well-run, working city is lovely, but a city with a thriving cultural scene is one to fall in love with. In fact, social offerings, a broad category encompassing art, music, sport, religion and other community activities, are among the most significant contributing factors to residents’ feelings of attachment to their community. This is even above security or the state of the economy.

This stage of course includes both major municipal institutions such as museums, symphonies and ballets, but also spontaneous or smaller-scale, citizen-led activities. Being able to participate in a Sing-A-Long Messiah or see an independent movie at a film festival is as important as having the Bolshoi nearby, and also makes the arts more accessible to a wider population. Having Old Trafford around the corner is great, but so is the local curling league.

Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art


An arts and culture scene, moreover, is a key driver of tourism, which in turn feeds the economy on general feeling of being in a place worth being. (Just imagine Paris without the Louvre, or New York without the Empire State Building.) Older cities naturally have an advantage here because of the in-built history in ancient cathedrals, palaces or public art, but some newer cities have benefited by investing heavily in creating an arts scene. Doha, once little more than an oily afterthought, is planning for the time when its resources run out by creating a strong film industry and thriving place for modern art. It is also newly host to a major international economic forum, and will host the 2022 World Cup. (Probably.)

Openness to influence; becoming a symbolic beacon

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free !

These words adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty  and represent what I have spoken of before, being a city of the imagination. These cities are the subject of books, films, Broadway musicals, and countless daydreams, and have a romance and level of impact that serves to draw people to them, for a visit or for good.

These cities, in turn, receive their tourists and immigrants in a more or less accommodating way, taking from them the best of their cultures and using that to strengthen and further diversify the metropolis. Cuzco, Islamic Seville, and the Florence of the Medici were all historical examples of the power of such “mixing bowls” of culture: out of their cultural milieu came the starting point for a massive empire, the Golden Age of exploration, and the Uffizi Gallery. Modern equivalents spring to mind precisely because they have this pull on our hearts and minds.

The last two levels of the hierarchy are quite iterative: the greater the cultural scene and economy, the greater draw a city has for immigrants, who then enrich the culture further. It is difficult to find a world-class city without a large percentage of immigrants, who bring with them new traditions, great ideas, ambition, and excellent food. It is in fact difficult to overestimate the importance – both historically and in the present day – of immigrants to cities’ successes, which is why openness to influence and disruption may be the most important trait a city can have.


So there’s the model. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Greater Understanding but Less Choice? The Decline of Free Will

March 18, 2014

Every human’s behaviour is constrained. Legal or social censure, theological or other conceptions of morality, and physical restrictions all affect our agency. The idea of any of us having true free will is contested.

Technology and biological research have just accelerated the debate. For example, in less than six months, you will likely have advertising delivered to your cell phone based on your geographical position. (“Did you know that sweaters are on sale at the Macy’s you just walked past?”) In less than a year, service alerts and other helpful information will likely be added. (“Don’t take King Street on your way home; there is a traffic snarl up by the freeway entrance.”) If you use Google as your primary search engine, you already see only a fraction of all the search results available for your query, because predictive search technology has selected only the ones it thinks will be most relevant to you, based on your location and search history.

If not direct constraints, these are certainly strong determining factors in our behaviour. It’s the world, curated especially for us. Choices are made for us, about what we want, and should do and see, that are continually narrowing our conceptual field of vision. Spontaneity, and serendipity, in an online world where our doings are tracked and analyzed, may be a thing of the past.

Nudge, Nudge

Greater understanding of human brains and decision-making also explain the choices we make, and can be manipulated to affect them. The nudge theory of behaviour – popular with the Obama and Cameron governments, who think of it as a way to combine paternalism and libertarianism – advocates providing incentives to subtly change behaviour toward a more rational course. Give people tax credits for eco-friendly home improvements, and they’re more likely to go with the low-flush toilet and reflective window coating. Place the salad bar in a prominent location closer to the entrance of the cafeteria than the mac ’n’ cheese and you may end up with diners making healthier food choices. There is even a group dedicated to implementing such “nudges” within the UK government.

Recycling bins

Here’s a nudge toward recycling more – in Toronto, recycling and organics bins are free, while larger garbage bins cost more money

Successes claimed by nudge theorists include everything from a reduction in traffic fatalities (on curves where the lines are pained in such a way as to unconsciously encourage drivers to slow down) to less urine in public toilets (where an insect is painted on the men’s urinals to attract attention). And yet nudge theory has come under fire from various libertarian groups, who believe we should at least be aware of having our perception manipulated so it is less of an infringement upon our conscious choices. Some philosophers even argue that free will is not free without knowledge of the potential outcomes from different choices.

And yet, so many of our choices seem to be unconscious. Recent neurological research into what is called “haptic sensation” has inexorably chipped away at any concept of free will we may have had. Studies indicate that holding a warm mug of tea or coffee while interviewing a candidate, or having his/her resume presented on a heavy clipboard, can lead to a more favourable outcome for the interviewee than iced tea and a flimsy page. Soft furniture in a conference room can lead to more harmonious meetings than wooden benches. Sitting in a hot room can amplify anti-social tendencies like aggression.

Similarly, priming female students before math tests to consider their gender results in a much poorer performance than prompting them to consider more positive characteristics, such as their attendance at an elite school. The fear of conforming to gender stereotypes (“women are worse at math than men”) affects performance, in a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” The same effect has been shown on test-takers who are members of visible minority groups.

Why bother studying those limit laws when a few spoken words or a poorly placed demographics question before an exam can have significant negative effects?

Who is guilty when nobody is responsible?

Better understanding of human emotions and the human brain has already significantly affected our conception of human accountability and the choices we make. So what happens when everything can be explained away, or rationalized with a new theory of behaviour? The first verdict of “diminished responsibility” paved the way for a trend of exculpatory evidence that now encompasses hundreds of conditions rendering us unaware of, or unable to control, our actions. Everything from brain tumors to hormonal imbalances have been shown to lead to often drastic, out-of-character bevahiour.

This is often where politics draws a line between more conservative advocates for “punishment” and liberal advocates for “rehabilitation” of anti-social behaviours. And free will is an essential part of the argument, mainly because it is often linked with morality. Kant says that actions cannot be moral without being free: if we are not in control of our own actions, how can we choose to be moral or otherwise?

If you fail to slow down where nudging lines have been drawn closer together on the road, are you an unsafe driver, or merely someone on whom the psychological trick didn’t work? Should a manager be sued if he failed to hire the “better” candidate because he was sitting on too firm a chair during the interview? If two medications interact in an unprecedented way and you assault someone, are you culpable?

3d speed bumps

Slow down for the fake speed bumps! Or else?

A middle path

Perhaps there is a way to be somewhat but not entirely responsible. Many people view free will as an illusion, and consider the lack of it as a freeing, positive experience. The well-known atheist writer Sam Harris, who wrote a book on free will in 2012, argues on his blog  that in fact believing in the absence of free will lessens unhelpful emotions like pride and hatred by chalking up a good portion of the cause of our actions to unconscious reflexes and brain chemistry. If we focus less on hating “bad” people for their actions, he argues, we can spend more time meting out appropriate punishments to ensure they do not reoffend. And yet, he still leaves room for persistence, hard work and other actions that enable success and prosperity in the longer term.

The theme of intentional long-term, repetitive choices being a proxy for free will (if not the same thing) jives with another discussion I read researching this post. It mentioned religion, still the prevailing global codification of human morality, as essentially acting in one’s long-term self-interest (that is, ensuring one’s place in heaven). And really, this is what almost all morality comes down to: ensuring the harmonious relations of the species so we don’t all kill each other, couched in terms of individuals keeping those around them happy by not stealing from them, lying to them, killing them, deceiving them, etc. It is enlightened self-interest to foster mutual support networks. In this light, all historical constraints on free will (such as laws) are for “our own good.”

Perhaps the increasing awareness of the restrictions on our consciousness – and manipulations of them – are actually prosocial. Perhaps they, like morality, have given us a way to preserve the real-life networks by encouraging rehabilitation over punishment and understanding over mystery. It is certainly possible that as more behaviours are justified or explained (away), society will become more liberal in meting out criminal “justice”. Many will consider this moral progress.

Will the passage of time and progress of science eventually explain all actions we take? Will we be living in some real-life version of “Minority Report”? Will Google ever be able to know when I need a good game of trivia and be able to tell me where I have the most fun (and win)?

Perhaps – the jury is still out.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments below – do you think free will exists? Does it matter?