Transdisciplinary Design

Black or White?

Posted on December 1, 2011 | posted by:

Evils or angels we are? Are we rational or unpredictable creatures? Do we have free will or our life is predetermined? Too many people are interested in the topic of human nature, among which are Socrates, Rousseau, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. There have been countless assumptions about what we actually are and these assumptions have certain implications in politics, psychology, ethics, pedagogy, and other social sciences.

But how do we address this question?Just like any other scientific experiment, we try to study ourselves in different contexts and give a theory about our nature. The problem is that the object and subject of study are the same and the context strongly affects them and hence the results of the experiment. Among all the contextual factors, I’m especially interested in technology.

We, human beings, create technology and then this technology changes our perception about the world, as Lanier implies in his book: You are not a Gadget. He says that technology doesn’t change your mind through discussion, but simply changes how you perceive the world. Based on what I said about studying human beings, I want to add that technology also changes how we see mankind.

During industrial era we see how scientific and technological advancements put a rational framework on the world. We see the world as a logical system working for us, which should be optimized according to our goals. And what are those goals? We are not sure, but economical welfare is an important concern. This concern is articulated in this way: we are rational, self-interested creatures who want to make best use of our resources and maximize our utility[1] through increasing consumption. This is the basis of free market theory, which claims maximizing individual interest leads to maximization of social welfare or utility. There are too many people embarrassed by this assumption about human nature, one of the most well known of them is Carl Marx. While economists, favoring free market, believe that they are describing human behavior and interactions objectively, others believe that this is the capitalist economy that makes people behave in a self-interested way. We are not going to discuss these theories here; just keep in mind that how the assumption about human beings being rational and self-interested coincides with industrial revolution at about 18th century.

Later in the post industrial era, we witness how communication tools change the face of the world we are living in. Internet lets us know, communicate and collaborate with people we never had access to earlier. I’m especially interested in web 2 and open source projects. It seems that people are participating in creative activities that have no monetary reward. They share content through social communities like YouTube, contribute to projects such as Linux, and participate in building a large body of knowledge in Wikipedia. But why are they spending their time and energy on these projects, while there are no immediate rewards or monetary compensations involved? What is happening to the rational self-interested agent born during industrial revolution? We are not sure about it.

There is no doubt that we do certain activities to gain benefit for ourselves, but self-interest cannot be a one-fit-all measure of our activities any more. Human being changes face under different lights and when building theories about human nature, we should be aware of this fact. Designers should be aware of the fact that how they can bring to surface different faces of people through their designs.

[1] In economics, utility is a measure of customer satisfaction, referring to the total satisfaction received by a consumer from consuming a good or service