Monday, April 14, 2008

Choose your instincts wisely

A day or two ago I stumbled across this fascinating project, the Alertness Enhancing Device by Susanna Hertrich, an MA student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, London.

Before/after | Image: Susanna Hertrich

Writes Hertrich:

This project picks on how much today's people have detached themselves from their original animal inheritance. Which of our lost animal abilities do we miss and how would we try to regain them?

It is said that no other generation before has been as anxious and risk aware as ours. Other than animals, we aren't equipped for the challenges of contemporary living. We don't have the abilities to identify the real dangers in a surplus of potential threats and horror scenarios offered to us by mass media. We don't have the right instincts to tell threat from panicmongering.

This device is meant as a physical prosthesis for a lost or missing natural instinct for the real fears and dangers that threaten us – as opposed to perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.
The device stimulates goosebumps and shivers that go down your spine through microcurrents resulting in your neck hair standing up. You will be more alert and ready for the real dangers in life.

A chart at Hertrich's website illustrates the tremendous disproportionality between statistical risks (below the line) and the issues that actually cause us to worry (above it):

This is a marvellously clear portrayal of that disjuncture. (I'd like to dig into the data behind each of these misshapen risk-snowmen -- but details notwithstanding, it makes intuitive a rather tricky point, with a whole lot of examples.*) And the Alertness Enhancing Device is a splendidly provocative route toward narrowing that gap.

Adds RĂ©gine "we-make-money-not-art" Debatty:

While we consciously know what are the things that really threatens us, we tend to dedicate much more of attention to spectacular disasters with many deaths.

That's when the Alertness Enhancing Device comes in. If you feel dispassionate and bored when reading news stories about another environmental pollution scandal, it's probably time to turn the dial of the device on.

~"Prosthesis for a lost instinct", 21 February 02008

I'm excited about this project, but not on account of the recovery of "lost animal abilities" angle so much. That frame conceals, I think, what's rather more novel here. No animal -- including humanity -- has developed properly calibrated survival strategies, let alone instincts, for such challenges as traffic accidents, cancer, and pollution. These threats (in their present forms) play little or no part in the wilds of the jungle or savannah. They are not the problems we evolved to deal with, even though they have become some of the most pressing risks we now face.

This approach reunites the assertion of animality (if we insist on understanding our embodiedness that way), with highly subtle collective cognitive operation -- in effect, guiding evolution, which is of course what technocultural change is all about (McLuhan: "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us"). What's interesting to me is that the recruitment of the body enables (more) direct feedback loops, expressed in somatic language, which bypasses (or, better yet, compresses into instantaneously "comprehensible" form) the complex conjecture of risk assessment. It also makes available a new take on both future-shock therapy and ambient foresight -- perhaps indeed a counterpart idea; embodied foresight -- concerning the engagement of new risks, in old forms. It's a programmable, strap-on judgment heuristic. Or, if you prefer, prosthetic intuition.

Taking the hypothetical proposed by this device a step further, I should add right away that we ought to be mindful of some of the risks (more risks!) associated with the implementation of such a system. Who wears it, and with what effects, and with what actrivation thresholds, and for what purposes -- all are politically charged questions raised even at the hypothetical level by an intervention of this form. Maybe my hackles are too quick to go up, but there are spectres here of Pavlov's dogs, of psychiatric treatments such as shock therapy, and more broadly speaking, other bodily and neural policing strategies (about which my colleagues Sean Smith and Jake Dunagan, among others, will be able to comment far more intelligently). Still, this activation and fine-tuning of instinctive responses for the purposes of presenting complex risks that provides great food for thought. Perhaps later versions could include specialised and nuanced bodily responses tailored specifically to the issue (so, for instance, riding in an SUV could cause your skin to crawl in a really unique way -- in case it doesn't already).

Commenting on Daniel Gilbert's observations about why climate change is such a tough issue for us to wrap our primate heads around, it was noted here a couple of months ago that...
without a mechanism for manifesting the outcome of long-slow processes here and now, a mechanism for rendering visible the risks and opportunities that are otherwise invisible, we will have no choice but to keep stumbling on happiness and catastrophe alike.

This is a really cool project, I think, because it asks us to rethink and perhaps redesign the coupling of our thoughts and feelings, the unmooring of which have put at serious risk not just our bodies, but entire ecosystems. It suggests how we might choose to render available otherwise abstract and distant thought processes, both immediately and profoundly. So, prosthetic intuition about risk scenarios, both wearable and distributed elsewhere in our informational environments, will now figure more prominently in my ruminations about how we might feel (v. tr.) tomorrow.

* Incidentally, here's a comparable graphic from the National Safety Council (U.S.), of positively Tuftean clarity and elegance, posted by Bruce "Schneier on Security" Schneier:

1 comment:

Rujunko said...

Interesting blog on the prosthetic Spidey sense and cool "Risk Perception and Actual Hazards" graph! I like your "misshapen risk snowmen" description. And, the discrepancy between the two measurements is somewhat alarming. I'd be curious to see the risk to hazards ratio assessed according to global location. Anyway, good talking to you yesterday and look forward to working with you and Jake...hopefully.