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Philosophy Meets Design, or how the masses are missed (and revealed again) in environmental policy and ecodesign
Jaap Jelsma, Department Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Twente
Shortened version of a paper for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Tucson, Arizona, 23-26 October 1997
Dutch environmental policy: the turn to technology
As global carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, the morale of environmental policymakers declines. Consumer behaviour is a persistent concern. Studies undertaken by the Dutch Environmental Institute (RIVM) indicate that, despite all kinds of government campaigns (like "a better environment begins with you") escalating consumption of water, electricity and natural gas, increasing mobility (especially by air), and the growing production of waste more than outweighs the benefits of environmental improvement achieved in industry.
Policy makers’ apparent inability to modify consumer practices by means of information and self regulation has led them to re-think conventional strategies of social policy and to trust in technology, rather than consumer behaviour, in pursuit of their environmental goals. This turn to technology suggests that policy makers take consumer behaviour, and the technologies with which they interact, to be completely disassociated phenomena. Such disassociation is exemplified in a statement by the Dutch Minister for the Environment made during the National Debate on Sustainable Development in 1996. On that occasion, the minister estimated the relative contributions which technology, on the one hand, and changes in consumer behaviour, on the other, could make to sustainable development, concluding that these worked out at 80% and 20% respectively (quoted in Achterhuis 1996). Rather than suggesting that environmental problems might be solved through the application of technology, this estimation reflects policymakers’ pessimism about the feasibility of changing consumer behaviour. It also demonstrates a traditional conception of technology as an essentially neutral instrument, not itself related to moral issues which remain firmly within the domain of human choice. This split representation means that the environmental problem appears as either a problem of wrong routines and consumer practices, or a problem of wrong technologies. In stating the position like this, policymakers resemble the Latourian moralists who despair of the common people because they can only see them as isolated socialized humans (Latour 1993).
In this paper I hope to show that we would be better served by a more unified approach which views the outcomes of both technology and consumer or citizen behaviour as interdependent. Following Akrich we have come to see that man-made technologies, as nonhuman actors, prescribe the behaviour of their human users (Akrich 1992). We have also become sensitive to the fact that users often ignore such prescriptions, and appropriate or domesticate technology in ways which counteract designers’ intentions (Lie and Sørensen 1996).
With such insights from technology studies in mind, this paper explores the possibilities and limitations of shaping consumer behaviour in environmentally positive ways through the development and introduction technology deliberately been designed for this purpose, i.e. by rethinking ecodesign from this point of view. For this exploration to be possible, we need further theoretical articulation of the ways in which technology and behaviour interact. More specifically, we need a conceptual language with which to identify the conditions under which technology can change human behaviour in more sustainable directions. This language should be able to inform the design of such technology, and of policies to support the realisation of design intentions. With such a language in place, we may put the policy makers’ turn to technology on an more productive footing. Before taking up this challenge we should, however, scrutinise contemporary diagnoses of the (relative) failure of social and behavioral science (SBS) as a basis for effective environmental policy.
Shortcomings of social and behavioral science approaches to environmental policy
In order to put its environmental policy on a firm scientific basis, and to develop effective policy instruments, the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) has commissioned some 25 studies in the field of SBS over the last seven years. These studies have recently been summarized in a report which identifies their main conclusions and outcomes (VROM/DGM 1996). Considering these from a science and technology studies (STS) angle one quickly recognizes how such work might profit from a combination with insights from technology studies. This can be explained as follows:
SBS studies portray human behaviour as something which is embedded in routines and determined by a variety of social factors, all of which make behaviour difficult to change. The summary report identifies a number of so called determinants of social behaviour:
Many of the studies suggest that intentions are weak determinants of behaviour. That is, they conclude that there is a gap between what people say and what they do. Values, awareness and routines are identified as stronger determinants, awareness being especially relevant with respect to those environmental problems characterized as social dilemmas. In other words, people recognize the problem, but are reluctant to contribute to a solution by modifying their own behaviour as long as it is unclear that others will do the same.
The outcomes of SBS studies as summarized above are quite understandable from a STS point of view. As a matter of fact, all seemingly "strong" determinants refer to the context of the individual, which is for a large part material, i.e. nonhuman. In the first place, these material properties characterise factors which are, in the SBS studies, explicitly indicated as '(unfavourable) contextual factors', 'provisions' etc. These factors refer to specific configurations of hardware - i.e. technology - in the midst of which people live, and which determine their perceived opportunities for, and the cost and benefits of, changes in behaviour. In other words, relations of costs and benefits should not be taken as explanans of behavioral routines, but as explanandum in terms of the material configurations which construct the practices in which such routines are embedded. Behaviour in relation to what are called social dilemmas should also be understood not as a purely individual phenomenon but as a matter of social negotiation and interaction.
The finding that actors’ intentions play only a modest role in behavioral change is in agreement with outcomes of STS studies. For instance, one such study showed that patterns of interaction within a research domain are much more important than individual intentions to invest in a new field of research (Rip & Nederhoff 1985). Similar results come from studies of genetic testing. When asked whether they would take a certain test when it becomes available, many people say that they will do so; but when the test becomes a reality, most fail to use it, for instance because their relatives have to cooperate. Of course every marketeer knows (or should know) such stories. By saying this, I do not want to suggest that individual intentions are insignificant. On the contrary, intentions are the prime movers of behaviour. However, as STS scholars have reflexively argued, the goals and intentions of actors are mediated (translated) by (other) forces in the individual’s environment. Because of such translations, behavioural outcomes often differ from original goals (Latour 1994). As many evaluation studies show, the same often applies to the goals of policy as well (Rip 1990).
Opening the black box of 'contextual factors' just a bit further, we can imagine individuals moving through reality as through a sociotechnical landscape full of asymmetries and resistances which form all kind of gradients: gradients of high costs and low benefits, of highly esteemed values and broken rules, of splendid but congested highways and scenic but muddy footpaths. These gradients in the landscape - which can be imagined as the contours on a Michelin road map - have the function of orienting the behaviour of the landscape’s inhabitants: they constitute a pattern of directions some of which are easy to follow, others more of a struggle. Going down is easier than going up, as long as you do not conspire with a fossil fuel burning device. In such a 'context' the division between things and people, or between nature and culture as dissociated classes of entities is blurred (Latour 1988). The division between social science and technology studies dies with it.
On the basis of the foregoing, we may plausibly hypothesize that the relative failure of SBS in supporting the development of effective environmental policies comes from its neglect of technology as a social force behind human behaviour, i.e. from its missing of the missing masses (Latour 1992). Bringing in 'a few mundane artifacts', cleverly designed to do their job, might do wonders for the environment. Or is this to over play the technology card? Will humans feel forced and manipulated by technology created to police them, and will they then resist and wreck those arrangements?
The morality of moralizing technology
In the Netherlands, the philosopher Achterhuis felt inspired by Latour's exposure of the role of the missing masses. Achterhuis, paraphrasing the slogan of the Philips Company ('let's make things better'), launched the idea of deliberately influencing human behaviour through 'moralized' technology as an option for environmental policy (Achterhuis 1996). The idea has been attacked from its first presentation onwards both from the side of the environmental movement as well as from the engineering world. In these exchanges, the notion of using technology to drive human behaviour was controversial, and criticised as overly behavioristic. This resistance seems to be based on a fear of suppressive and 'deterministic' technology. The spectre of technology getting out of hand may date back to a Frankenstein-like view of a collection of uncontrollable creations dominating man. More probably it is inspired by modern versions of this myth, and a vision of autonomous technology as the spearhead of technocapitalism. These concerns have to be taken seriously indeed, but they threaten to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In the first place, artefacts have fulfilled essential functions for humans and their societies right from the beginning. We might even say that they have been (and are) indispensable conditions for the development of our societies: we co-evolved as human societies together with our tools and technologies. The significance of the thesis of the missing masses is to make this insight explicit. It is only one step further to translate this insight into action to 'make things better'. If companies handle this successfully for their own narrow purposes, why not explore it for broader societal goals?
Second, the fact that technology becomes ever more subtle and penetrating is in itself not an argument against such development. To the contrary, the very reason that the omnipresence of sophisticated technology is so highly appreciated is that it makes the complex machinery of modern life so invisible. What would you prefer, burying your turds like a cat, or visiting a modern bathroom equipped with several pieces of ingenious apparatus all forming part of largely invisible system which welcomes your product, working it up into clean water and some harmless minerals? Do you feel terrorized when the knob leads your finger to the act of flushing? Would you feel anxious when the knob asks you to make a choice between its two parts, one telling the cistern that it should use a lot of water to do its job, and the other that only a few litres are enough? Hopefully we will reach a society in which sustainability is as common a practice as hygiene is now (but has not always been). In such a society ecofriendliness, like hygiene today, will be mediated on a large scale by equally invisible technology. How far the control of consumers will go, i.e. how much of the necessary action will be delegated to technology is a question of design decisions taken by humans. So change, but do not blame technology when you are displeased with the ways these decisions are being taken. The challenge which our approach takes up is not to qualify so called ‘social factors’ as the determinants of human behaviour, but to identify points at which facilitating technology can be applied to save the water, energy and raw materials that we, consumers, are wasting by the way we behave. That sustainability is inescapable is becoming a accepted notion within our culture. What is lacking are the routines and the practices to make it an reality. In failing to use technology to help build such practices we become completely dependent on Big Brother’s moralising and the imposition of regulations, taxes, orders, prohibitions and other measures we do not like. And after all of that, brother government is still not big enough to guarantee results in this especially intractable case.
From the descriptive to the inscriptive
If we are to develop ‘moralising’ products and design strategies which seek to influence environmental behaviour (beyond merely encouraging users to opt for ecofriendly substitutes) we have to move from the descriptive to the inscriptive. The retrospective description of how the missing masses work in particular situations only helps in so far as it is possible to identify malleable conditions or parameters which can actually be used in the design of new technology which shapes users’ behaviour in societally desirable directions.
The foregoing boils down to the following question: under which conditions does technology produce the behavioral effects we want? If we remain ignorant of these conditions, the danger is that we will produce failures. Stories abound in which consumers appropriate or domesticate technology in ways never dreamed of by designers, often producing unintended or unwelcome effects. And even if technology is used as intended, it can strike back with unforeseen revenge or rebound effects which turn upon the technology itself, as when furious people attack your car at night because its alarm (false, of course) keeps them awake. Such effects are very relevant here because they are the product of practices governed by behavioral routines. When it is hot and everybody turns on the airco, it gets hotter out in the street, which makes everybody decide to stay inside and turn the airco higher (Tenner 1996).
To describe such conditions we need an adequate conceptual language. For the development of such a language two concepts are helpful to start with, one is the concept of script, the other the concept of the sociotechnical landscape (STL) mentioned earlier. STL is relevant here because pictures of this landscape offer clues about the existing forces which play upon the inhabitants, and which have to be translated if the behaviour of these actors is to change. A map of the STL reveals the gradients of resistance which guide human behaviour in all kinds of daily practices. STLs differ for different actor groups and for different cultures. For instance, in our culture computers become steadily more important for communication, for banking, for leisure etc. For the young, who grow up with these machines and who start playing computer games well before their teens, the computer is an opportunity not an obstacle in their landscape: it makes life easier and more entertaining. For the elderly the opposite is true: computers are a burden, a source of stress in their lives and something to be blamed and cursed. Thus the effort needed to take the road through computers - and ever more roads in the STL become blocked by these machines - is not the same for all actors. This example warns us of some of the problems which lie in store for our plan to change the map with respect to environmental issues. If our ecofriendly technology creates only new obstacles in the STL, then we should expect to encounter resistance and to find actors making elaborate detours to avoid the situations we have created.
The concept of "script" is now so established by STS scholars that definitions abound, ranging from ‘social context baked into machines’ (Berg 1996) to ‘a kind of user manual inscribed into an artifact ‘(my students). To coin my own definition, I see script as a configuration of artifacts in a STL, whose action programme exerts a force on other forces in the landscape, i.e. forces originating from other action programmes, human as well as nonhuman. These forces try to translate and resist each other in building reality. Such trials of strength (Latour 1988) shape more or less temporary outcomes, like actions and their effects. Together with elements which were presented to us as 'social', scripts are important ingredients of the gradients of resistance which constitute STLs. If we are indeed so impotent (as social scientists tell us) to over turn the sociotechnical landscape by changing it from the social side, why not start the trial of strength from this side, i.e. from the side of technology? By redesigning the existing scripts, or introducing new ones, we can try to manipulate the gradients of resistance and change the directions in which behaviour is easier or harder for specific groups of actors. Cleverly designed scripts will reward ecofriendly behaviour, and resist actions which damage the environment. And as alternative scripts embed practices, so values, rules etc. will change too. Thus interference with scripts represents an opportunity for environmental policy and for design practices which connect technology with behaviour and culture. Now before the policymakers jump up in excitement ('change the scripts! shift the gradients!') they must realize that this approach has at least two limitations.
First, when things bite the actor may bite back. (S)he may put an antiprogramme to work, or develop one. If warning signs generate irritating feedback, they will be sabotaged or pasted over. If cars are hampered by road-blocks, they will be provided with better shock absorbers. Or scripts will be used opportunistically and in ways which nullify their benign effect on the environment. Or even worse, the effect of such "domesticating" use may be to reverse the script’s impact leaving us with nothing but rebound effects. So what is in store may be a never ending trial of strength, a kind of armament race between programmes, antiprogrammes and anti-antiprogrammes of action for the environment and against any disturbance to the easy happy postmodern life. This picture be may too pessimistic. Those scripts which co-produce a better environment with more fun, convenience or a sense of luxury may be welcomed. Thus behavioral effects will be a co-production stemming from kind encounters or heated struggles between actors and artifacts. This again raises the question of whether or not we can say something systematic and useful about the circumstances under which such co-production will turn out well.
Second, only a small part of a STL can be deliberately redesigned. Modern life, and the infrastructures in which it is embedded, are too complicated to be controlled and planned from one Olympic spot. Most societal processes of change have an obscure origin, incomprehensible dynamics and a dark future. All policymakers can try to do is to intervene in trends which are developing anyway, and to make small corrections through shifting relevant gradients at different moments and in different domains. If such corrections are successful and well coordinated (i.e., if they add to each other, like ecotaxes favouring the adoption of 'moralizing' technologies), then the trend may be bent away from its dangerous course.
Possible interventions and their effects: three scenarios
Let us now return to the question of how we might anticipate the result of a deliberate res-shaping of STLs through the introduction of 'moralizing' technology on the one side, and behavioral outcomes on the other, in a more systematic way, using the concepts introduced and explained above. If we think in terms of force and resistance, what more should we know about these parameters? I explore these questions by sketching three scenarios, which I consider as examples (though not as exhaustive cases).
Scenario 1: REBOUND
Intervention in a STL by an half-open script which is convergent with existing values
Intervention and outcome are illustrated by figure 1.
Explanation: Existing behaviour of human actors (b) driven by action programme A develops along a resistance gradient in the direction of a dominant value (increasing luxury and convenience against decreasing cost) and of concomitant individual preferences and technical devices. The latter (not shown in the figure) translate behaviour of actors down the gradient, producing a negative outcome; that is, the force exerted by this behaviour on the environment causes deterioration. The intervention meant to correct this trend is the development and marketing of an improved device which has positive environmental properties compared to the device in use. The script of the device is half open, i.e., it delegates saving to the action of the apparatus - the routines of actors can remain undisturbed - but does so in a half-hearted way: it does not prevent wasteful behaviour. Nevertheless, the script is meant to exert a counterforce which should deflect the outcomes of actor behaviour into the positive, i.e. translate it to increased ecofriendliness (see dotted arrow) as compared with the existing situation. This is not what happens, however. The improved device appeals to the value 'be cost effective' in the action programme 'save money where you can' . For this reason, the device is adopted on a large scale but, because of its cost-effectiveness, is used much more frequently than the old device. Because of this increased use consumers achieve more luxury and comfort but with the result that the overall levels of consumption actually rises. The script of the saving device has lost its trial of strength: its translating force is overruled by the force of the citizen striving for luxury.
Example: the energy saving incandescent lamp. Because the use of this lamp 'costs nothing', it is not switched off any more, and is instead applied in new niches, like lighting gardens all night long.
Scenario 2: WIN/WIN
Intervention by half-open script which sustains embedded values
Outcome: successful translation of behaviour
Intervention and outcome are illustrated by figure 2
Explanation: In this case a script is introduced which enhances convenience for the user while at the same time realizing a small saving which is beneficial for the environment. Consumers are enthusiastic about the extra comfort and willing to pay for it. The environmental benefit is welcomed but is not crucial for the purchase decision. The financial saving which the device offers to consumers is only modest, so it does not lead to an increased frequency of use. Because of the large scale on which the device is purchased and used, the environmental advantages are significant.
Example: the cruise control for cars. With this device, which can be built into every car, a cruising speed can be adjusted and maintained allowing the driver to take his foot from the gas. This adds to a feeling of easy riding. Moreover it helps the driver maintain a fixed speed and prevents exceeding speed limits which apply to highway traffic: cruise controlled drivers pay fewer fines for speeding. The constant speed, i.e. a quiet style of driving, saves about 10% gas. Thus the script of the cruise control imposes a small translation of driver behaviour, with a modest profit for the environment. This case also illustrates differences in STL for different groups of drivers. A cruise control appears to be especially attractive for businessmen, who frequently drive long distances. Recently the Dutch government has cut taxes on purchase of the cruise control to stimulate the diffusion of this device, which is not yet common in Dutch cars. Fleet owners, who lease cars to their employees, might be an interesting target for such a policy. Up till now the script of the cruise control did not exert much force on actors generally indifferent to a tiny saving in their fuel costs.
Scenario 3: TURNING AROUND
Intervention by development of a closed script which runs counter to cherished consumer values. Because of anticipated resistance the force of the script is increased by policy measures designed to support the shift of relevant gradients.
Outcome: shift from a polluting to an ecofriendly regime
Intervention and outcome are illustrated by figure 3
Explanation: Growing environmental pollution in cities forces government to stimulate the development of cleaner means of transport. The script introduced is much more radical than in the former scenario, and yields a much greater profit for the environment (at least in cities). Not surprisingly, the change in consumer behaviour which has to be realized is also much greater. The unlimited and highly esteemed freedom to jump into one's car and go for a ride has to be replaced by careful planning. This change in behaviour requires a measure of commitment since the script of the new vehicle is closed, i.e. the vehicle stops after a certain time if the driver neglects the script. When the innovation spreads, a new market may come into existence, but for now, even its advocates believe that a topdown implementation (for instance by stricter regulations) would meet with too much resistance. Hence there is a policy of persuasion, learning and gradual scaling up. At the borders of existing markets, experiments and demonstration projects are initiated. These function as a kind of delivery room (‘niche’) in which the growing pains of the new technology can be traced and cured, and its advantages made clear to potential users. After 15 years the improved vehicles have been embedded in quite a number of markets and can do without government support. In these parts of the transport regime, the script (with some help from policy) has driven back pollution by turning behaviour around (forcing it up the gradient of resistance) and generating novel forms of driving which have become intertwined with new consumer values and preferences.
Example: the electric car. This type of car powered by batteries or fuel cells, is being developed in several countries in the context of a framework of policies of the type described above (like 'strategic niche management’, explained in Elzen et al., 1993).
Integration: a tentative model
The findings of the three scenarios can be aggregated into a tentative model which indicates how the parameters used vary in relation to each other. The model is given in figure 4.
Explanation: Translation of behaviour is plotted on the horizontal axis, along the relevant gradients of resistance which facilitate (move to the right) or hamper (move to the left) changes in behaviour. Such gradients are built by configurations of elements like rules, values, scripts etc., i.e. of actants whose programmes of action mediate the behaviour of actors in situations we want to change (point zero on the axis). A translation of behaviour against an existing gradient (i.e. to the left) will meet increasing resistance from existing action programmes, so it will need increasing force exerted by the script (Fs, righthand vertical scale) which is being mobilized to bring about the translation. This translation against the gradient will yield increasing positive outcomes for the environment (lefthand vertical scale). Translating behaviour down an existing gradient (i.e., to the right), we can profit from existing action programmes. Fs may be weaker, but the outcomes are also lower: a small profit in win/win situations, or even a deterioration in situations of rebound. In the latter situations, Fs is too weak (i.e., is negative) to turn behaviour around for a better environment. Thus the model predicts types of behavioral outcomes which occur under certain conditions specified by the parameters chosen. Of course this model is still very simplistic, and is only be a stepping stone toward a more sophisticated version. For the moment, however, it helps to identify dimensions of decision making relevant for the design of technology intended to shift consumer behaviour in an eco-friendly direction.
Dimensions for design decision making
In the foregoing we have conceived of change in the behaviour of human actors as the outcome of a struggle between two forces, (i) forces exerted by scripts (developed and introduced in the framework of action programmes designed to foster sustainable development), and (ii) forces exerted by behaviour of human actors (in the framework of existing action programmes which are damaging the environment). Both forces translate each other. Thus in order to win the trial of forcing actors’ behaviour in a desired direction, it is important to anticipate the potential for effective translation of a particular script which is the spearhead of a specific intervention in a STL. Which factors influence this potential? Is the force of the script under construction the only relevant consideration in the design process? What determines this force? On the basis of the conceptual language and relations developed here, we can distinguish at least three dimensions worth reflecting on in terms of ecodesign:
We may expect that these dimensions will not change independently. As the scale of interventions extends, scripts will have to work harder against existing gradients, and will need to be more forceful.
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