Changing the language of climate change

Climate March photo

From http://peoplesclimate.org, Photo by Heather Craig

A fascinating article in New York Magazine suggests that through careful management of language it will be possible to bridge the nearly 40% divide between progressives and conservatives on climate change. Psychologists Are Learning How to Convince Conservatives to Take Climate Change Seriously, by Jesse Singal, begins with a critique of September’s 400,000-strong People’s Climate March: it won’t change American politics, despite the slogan “to change everything, we need everyone” – because it didn’t include everyone. Conservative thinkers were excluded.

Singal’s article notes that, “Although climate scientists update, appropriately, their models after ten years of evidence, climate-science communicators haven’t,” according to Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale who studies how people respond to information challenging their beliefs.

Convincing conservatives that climate change is a threat to civilization might just work, though, if the climate activist community comes to grips with the way conservatives see the world, and change their messaging to fit the conservative framework.

Singal goes on the describe two theories currently being examined by social psychologists: moral foundations theory, and system justification.

Moral Foundations Theory holds that people with different political beliefs arrive at those beliefs because they have different moral values. Liberals tend to be more moved by the idea of innocent people being harmed, for example, while conservatives are more likely to react to notions of disgust.

In their paper The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes, social psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer describe testing liberals and conservatives by asking them to read op-ed-like blocks of text designed to stoke either “care/harm” (innocents suffering) or “purity/sanctity” (disgust) concerns. One excerpt “described the harm and destruction humans are causing to their environment and emphasized how important it is for people to care about and protect the environment,” while the other touched on “how polluted and contaminated the environment has become and how important it is for people to clean and purify the environment.” Post-test attitudes of the “disgust” group showed no statistical difference between liberals and conservatives, and the gap in the belief in global warming was significantly diminished.

Researchers are also exploring the concept of system justification. We humans have a deep need to feel that the broad systems we are a part of are functioning correctly. As Singal says, “It doesn’t feel good to know you attend a broken school or inhabit a deeply corrupt country — or that your planet’s entire ecology may be on the brink of collapse.” People respond to threats to the system either by attempting to neutralize the threat, or finding ways to justify the system’s legitimacy by denying problems within it.

Irina Feygina, a social psychologist at New York University, finds strong evidence that conservatives tend to have greater confidence in the system, and are much more likely to justify it – leading to a strong correlation between system justification and denial of environmental problems.

“What you need to do is put the system first,” says Feygina. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s deal with climate change, let’s be pro-environmental, let’s protect the oceans,’ you need to say, ‘If we want to preserve our system, if we want to be patriotic, if we want our children to have the life that we have, then we have to take these actions that allow us to maintain those things that we care about.’” Remove references to catastrophe, and climate change becomes a patriotic challenge and an “opportunity to profit, to save money, to compete with China.”

Singal concludes, “If climate activists are serious about doing anything other than preaching to the choir, they’re going to have to understand that messages that feel righteous and work on liberals may not have universal appeal. To a liberal, the system isn’t working and innocent people will suffer as a result — these are blazingly obvious points. But conservatives have blazingly obvious points of their own: The system works and we need to protect it, and it’s important not to let pure things be defiled.”

Singal’s article reminds me of this nation’s most successful anti-littering campaign, Don’t Mess With Texas. It launched in 1986 with a TV spot featuring blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan sitting in front of a huge Texas flag, playing a soulful rendition of “The Eyes of Texas.” The campaign continues to this day, and celebrities such as Willie Nelson, George Foreman, LeAnn Rimes, Erykah Badu, and Owen Wilson have contributed their time and image for the anti-littering ads. The original spot’s voiceover says, “Messing with Texas isn’t just an insult to the Lone Start state, it’s a crime.” Stevie Ray Vaughn ends the spot with the spoken admonition, “Don’t mess with Texas.”

The campaign was so successful that even when factoring 25 years of in increases in population and roads, the Texas DOT spending on litter cleanup has dropped from $2.33 per person to $1.90. In bypassing the typical liberal rhetoric about littering, the campaign successfully appeals to Texans’ strong sense of preservation, pride, and loyalty.

Of course littering is not the same as climate change, but both issues relate to “the environment” and how we feel about the systems we live within. It’s time for environmental organizations and activists to rethink how they frame discussion around this issue that has profound implications for everyone on the planet. Because to change everything, we really do need everyone.

The power of a symbol

altered accessibility signA year ago I wrote a post, Guerrilla Art is Changing Perceptions of Agency for the Disabled, about two New York artists, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, who started a culture-jamming project of modifying public ‘disabled accessible’ signs. Their aim was to make the person-in-a-wheelchair symbol more energetic by changing the angle of movement, and adding a sense of agency to the figure. They wanted to counter the message of passivity embedded in the traditional accessibility symbol.

Their work caught the attention of New York city officials, and the new symbol soon became recognized in New York city.

 

updated disabled symbolFast-forward a year, and Governor Cuomo recently signed an updated accessibility icon into New York state law. (See press release.) The new official symbol of accessibility for New York state features a much more active and engaged image, and it very closely follows the original guerrilla art design. After the artists placed the symbol in the public domain, it was turned into official signage by Conrad Lumm and Katrina Otuonye for SmartSign, and is being distributed by MyParkingSign on a mostly donation or discount basis to encourage implementation of this important revision as fast as possible. (See MyParkingSign’s accessibility campaign.)

As Conrad Lumm says, “Ambient messaging about people with disabilities has the potential to stifle job prospects and quality of life, so the Accessible Icon designed by Hendren and Glenney is an important corrective. We look forward to rolling out (and donating) indoor wayfinding signage that includes the Accessible Icon, too. It makes us unspeakably proud that New York state is making this switch, and we hope more states follow.”

What I love about this story is not just that disabled people in New York have a better public symbol, but that the movement towards this change came from the grassroots. Culture-jamming and guerrilla art can be defined as the people talking back to a culture whose messages and images are largely corporate- or institutionally-driven. That two artists took it upon themselves to say, “Here is a better way to symbolize this particular sector of our society,” and that their idea was seen and acted upon by those with the power and resources to move the change into law, and distribute it statewide, is truly inspiring.

Now it’s time for Oregon to update its disabled signage!

 

 

Kathy Eldon on learning to forgive

drawing by Dan Eldon

Kathy Eldon is a powerful changemaker.

Her memoir, In the Heart of Life, is about losing her son, Reuter’s news agency photographer Dan Eldon, who was stoned to death by an angry mob in Mogadishu. It’s also a meditation on the “cosmic pull of forgiveness” that enabled her to finally let go of her anger over her son’s murder.

In an interview with Brandon Jones (Good Magazine, Issue 031, Winter 2013) She recounts the day she learned to forgive:

My daughter Amy and I were on our way to the premier of the Dying to Tell the Story documentary at the United Nations. As we ducked into our taxi, I quickly realized our driver was Somali. Out of all the taxi drivers in New York, mine had to be Somali? So, what the hell do I do? I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to tell him what happened, and I don’t care what he thinks. I’m just going to tell him.’ I told him how my son was trying to do good. I told him about what the Somalis had done to him. I told him how very sad I was. I told him everything. He continued to drive, quiet all the while. When we arrived at the United nations, he turned and said, “I know everything about what happened to your sone. Many of us Somalis were affected. In Mogadishu, people loved your son. They knew your son, and they knew he was just trying to help.” I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. This is amazing. This is impossible.’ But, I still wasn’t totally receptive. Then he looked at me, and he said, “Mrs. Eldon, on behalf of all Somalis, I ask your forgiveness.” I was completely shocked. There was a long pause. In that moment, I realized that the world needs redemption. I said, “I understand what the Somalis did, and I have forgiven them.” And with those words, I felt a great sense of relief come over me.

Kathy Eldon is the founder and chairman of the Creative Visions Foundation, a “hub where creative activists turn ideas into action & a community becomes a force for change…providing tools, resources, mentorship and community to help everyone use the power of media and arts to build social movements and impact the world.”

A look at Design Thinking – and how it’s not a milk cow

Vitruvian ManThe phrase “Design Thinking” is getting bounced around a lot, and for a while I found it a bit puzzling. I didn’t understand how it differed from regular thinking. Then today I read Rick Wise’s succinct (if perhaps oversimplified) definition in the FastCompany blog and realized the reason the phrase puzzled me was because is regular thinking. At least for me.

“At heart … it is about fusing the creative and open-ended with the analytical and operational, combining very different ways of thinking and acting. This is, of course, easier in theory than in practice. How do you get children’s book authors and chemical engineers to click into something greater than the sum of the parts–rather than devolve into warring camps?”

Like Rick Wise says, “Everyone’s a bit of everything.” Few people are all creative or all analytical. But I have been lucky enough to build my skills in both realms to a point where they are balanced and integrated.

Mostly from being in the right place at the right time, I’ve been blessed with abundant opportunities for education. My first degree was in visual art, a BFA from the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington , D.C. It was a marvelous experience that I still treasure years later. But after that first degree, I was too curious to call it quits on tertiary education. Next up I studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Auckland, and received rigorous training in analytical reasoning. It was sometimes difficult and dry, but I knew I needed the skills. Then after that experience, I went back to art, and did an MFA at Portland State University.

Now, as a business-owner and strategist/designer, the combination of inspired+creative  and rational+analytical is an enormous asset. I am able to help clients strategize their brand and website to fit their organization’s goals, I’m able to meticulously plan timelines and budgets, and I’m able to maintain big-picture perspective during a project. In this analytical realm, decisions get made based on looking at premises, and following them to their conclusion. This is what we have now. Over there is the outcome we want. This is what will happen if we change what we have by doing X. Will that give us the outcome we want? No? Return to the premises and start over. Maybe? Tweak the variables until an acceptable level of probability is achieved.

But during the project, I will switch gears and be the designer. It’s a new set of decisions to make, but they mostly happen on the visceral level. Color palette? Hmmm. Uh. Er. Oooh…. Ah!

Choosing photos? Too gloomy. Too cute. Too green. Almost, but too wide. Will it crop well? No. But this one will…nice.

Creative decisions are made split-second fast, and it’s later that I go back and find reasons for them — which I need to do when presenting design decisions to clients.

Client: Of the three color palettes you’ve shown us, which do you think is the best for our organization, and why?


Me: Option three is the best. The intensity of the palette visually supports the vibrancy of your organization. You fund organizations that educate children in energy-intensive ways. However, your website audience is adults, not children, so while the colors are bright, it’s a sophisticated adult palette, not a play-school or candy-bright palette.


Client: “I see what you mean, yeah…” 

The FastCompany post focuses on how Design Thinking is done at a particular firm, Lippincott, which is much larger than Blue Mouse Monkey, with eight offices worldwide. Design Thinking impacts not just client strategy, but how their whole company is structured and how staff are coached, and how they are paid. I can only say as a creative and as a business-owner, am inspired by Lippincott’s priorities and strategies.

However, Design Thinking has its critics. When taken as not simply a vague label to describe the ability to blend “left-brain” and “right-brain” problem-solving (over-simplified terms in themselves) and is used instead to mean a specific methodology or process to “get more value” from staff, then it can become a mere trick, applied externally to people situations to provoke them to be different from how they are. A type of provocation that can easily fail. Bruce Nussbaum, also in a FastCompany blog post, outlines his criticisms of Design Thinking, and calls for a new conceptual framework he calls the “Creative Quotient.” His recent book is Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire.

I have not read the book so can’t comment. But all this talk of finding the right way to “harness” creativity makes me a just a tiny bit queasy.

As Thomas Frank says in his article, TED talks are lying to you, “The creative class has never been more screwed. Books about creativity have never been more popular. What gives?”

He goes on: “Those who urge us to “think different” … almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.”

Creative minds, says Frank, are treated like they can be “harnessed” and then are supposed to “do their nonlinear thing” and out of that flows “epiphanies and solutions” that make corporations rich.

Thing is, creativity doesn’t work that way.

Not to say that corporations haven’t gotten rich from epiphanies and solutions arrived at by creative people. As Frank says, “Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature.”

But it can’t happen by applying a formula. What the writers on creativity fail to mention is the role of intuition. And that intuition can’t be forced. Sure, it can be encouraged and developed, but it can’t be imposed. It simply doesn’t work that way.

The corporations that get rich from some creative insight are lucky. They had the right people at the right time. Other corporations might have the right people at the right time, or they might not. When it works, it’s not because of the application of a formula, it’s because of a serendipitous set of circumstances. As much as corporations want to control variables, and “harness” intangibles, there is no way to reduce the creative process to a repeatable formula. You might invent the Swiffer, or you might not.

Keep trying, sure. Don’t give up. But don’t expect to corral the ethereal, evanescent, weightless nature of creative inspiration like you might a cow that you expect to give milk at will.

I always knew there was a damn good reason to read good books!

 

An article in the November 2, 2013 issue of Science News. It’s so short I am copying the whole thing.

Reading high-brow literature may aid in reading minds

Immersion in fiction boosts social insights

By Bruce Bower

Think of it as the bookworm’s bonus: People who read first-rate fiction become more socially literate, at least briefly, a new study suggests.

Researchers randomly assigned nearly 700 volunteers to read excerpts of “literary” novels by recent National Book Award finalists and other celebrated authors, to read parts of fiction best sellers or popular nonfiction books, or to not read anything. Those who read literary works then scored highest on several tests of the ability to decipher others’ motives and emotions, say David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

One test asked volunteers to describe the thoughts or feelings of one or two individuals shown surrounded by various items in a series of images, based on written and visual clues. In another test, participants tried to match emotion words to facial expressions shown for two seconds on a computer screen.

By prompting readers to ponder characters’ motives and emotions, literary fiction recruits mind-reading skills used in daily encounters, Kidd and Castano propose October 3 in Science. The researchers don’t know whether regularly reading literary fiction yields lasting mind-reading upgrades.

Net Neutrality at risk: the Internet as we know it will change

What’s about to happen will affect us all in ways we can’t yet imagine.

The current nondiscrimination principle of “network neutrality” forbids phone and cable companies from blocking or even discriminating between or entering in special business deals to the benefit of some sites over others.

For example, as Suzanne succinctly puts it on plumbersurplus.com “Net neutrality is the idea that all information is created equal, therefore, it should be available to all users of the internet without the interference of big companies stating what can or can’t be viewed. For example, if there was not net neutrality then Google could choose to not allow any Gmail users to receive emails from Yahoo accounts and vice-versa. Also, wireless carriers could sell tiered services that would allow some people to get information faster than others.”

I found this image uncredited on another blog. If you know the author, contact me via the main Blue Mouse Monkey site.

However, net neutrality is “dead man walking”, because the DC Circuit Court is about to rule probably in favor of Verizon.

As Marvin Ammori writes in Wired, “Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.”

“The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others. This means large phone and cable companies will be able to “shakedown” startups and established companies in every sector…”

Read the whole article on Wired »

Short term greed is killing us all

An excellent article by Henry Blodget  (CEO and Editor, Business Insider) examines the implications of a tweet by a Twitter user who lashed out against his suggestion that McDonald’s should increase the wages of its restaurant workers and pay for this by making a bit less money. (Blodget was arguing that McDonald’s employees should not be treated as “costs,” but instead as valuable members of a successful team who shouldn’t have to work that hard and still live in poverty.)

The tweeter responded:

offensive tweet(The tweet is quite articulate for Animal from the Muppets.) But as Blodget points out, this is not a unique opinion, and many senior managers think this way.

And it never ceases to shock me. I’m a business owner, but I’m also a human being, in fact a human being first. Strip away my business ownership and I’d still be a human being. And the people who work with me, for me, and for whom I do work are all human beings. Each one of them carrying a birthright that means they deserve to be treated with fairness, respect, honesty, and as people with hopes and dreams of their own.

I have never understood hope some people lose site of this. It’s just so obvious. It’s a given. In fact, it feels strange even to write it out, like I’m writing something obvious and unarguable like, “The sky is blue except on cloudy days when it is gray”.

To my mind, a person would have to be psycho to think of other human beings are merely “costs”. That’s not far from thinking of other human beings as less-than-human. As expendable. And we know where that kind of thinking can lead.

And guess what? ALL employees of a company are “costs”, including the higher management. Including the CEO. If you wanted to look at the structure of workplaces this way, you could argue that ALL employees are trading their labor for money. Even the CEO is laboring as a CEO. And her salary is a cost on the company’s books. She’s laboring with her head rather than her hands, but she’s still spending dedicated time in service of the company.

My company, Blue Mouse Monkey, Inc., is a corporation. My project manager’s wages are a cost to the company. My salary is a cost to the company. My subcontractor’s fees are costs to the company. If I hire a temp, that’s a cost to the company. We’re all costs. And we’re all much, much more. We all depend on each other. Without my employee and my subs, I wouldn’t be able to serve my clients. Without me (as the founder of the company), my employee and subs wouldn’t have the money my company provides in exchange for their labor.

We’re all valuable members of a successful team, and like any workers, we shouldn’t have to work as hard as we do and still live in poverty. (Which we don’t).

Now I’m not arguing that the work of a McDonald’s employee is equal on the marketplace to the work of a website developer. I understand that the level of skill and education and life experience necessary to be a good McDonald’s employee compared with that needed to be a a good developer (or copywriter or UX designer, etc. etc) is very different.

But no one should have to work that hard, give over than many hours of their life, and still live in poverty. They should make a living wage. Everyone should make a living wage. The alternative is a dying wage.

As Blodget points out,

“The real problem is that American corporations, which are richer and more profitable than they have ever been in history (see chart below), have become so obsessed with “maximizing short-term profits” that they are no longer investing in their future, their people, and the country.

and

“American corporations can afford to pay their employees better, hire more employees, and invest more in their future and the country’s future.

But American corporations aren’t doing that.

Instead, American corporations are choosing to divert as much of their value as possible to their owners and senior managers.

Doing this is not a law of capitalism.

It’s a choice.

And it is a choice, unfortunately, that is destroying America’s middle class, robbing American consumers (a.k.a., “employees”) of spending power, and, ironically, hurting the growth of the same corporations that are making this choice.”

 

Considering it doesn’t have to be this way, it’s a real shame that’s the way it’s turning out for so many many people. The best I can do, personally, is be a fair and honest employer.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

A side note: the tweeter’s use of “full stop” instead of “period” strongly suggests he is not from the United States. An interesting detail, considering Blodget was talking about American corporations and American workers. But many American corporations are also multinationals, and economic neoconservative attitudes are international in scope and spread, so it’s perhaps not all that surprising to see the non-Americaninsm in such a virulently capitalist response. (But it casts doubt on the veracity of the tweeter’s photo — I always thought Animal was American.)

Boxy but good

Remember Dudley Moore, the ad man who goes crazy in the 1990 movie, Crazy People? He switches to using honesty, and comes up with campaigns like, “Volvos. They’re boxy but good.”

Parisian design collective Maentis is doing something similar in their reimagining of famous logos with a dose of added honesty. Check out their Universal Unbranding portfolio. A couple of examples are copied below to whet your appetite.

BP oil soaked bird

 

 

 

Ikea kitset logo

Kaggle: what you can do with big data!

Kaggle website screenshotAs the grim news of the NSA’s data mining sinks in, I’d like to shift gears on that topic and highlight the up side of big data.

Kaggle is a website that hosts competitions for data prediction. Data wizards compete to come up with solutions — solutions that elude experts in all kinds of industries — and so far are beating the experts hands down.

When given the chance to play with data (and write algorithms to analyze it), data scientists are able to see solutions without being distracted by industry assumptions or specialist knowledge. As Kaggle’s Jeremy Howard says, “Specialist knowledge is actually unhelpful.”

Competitions include developing an algorithm to grade student papers, developing a gesture-learning system for Microsoft Kinect, and predicting the biological properties of small molecules being screened as potential drugs. Kaggle has approximately 95,000 data scientists worldwide, from fields such as computer science, statistics, economics and mathematics. The data scientists rely on techniques of data mining and machine learning to predict future trends from current data. Companies, governments, and researchers present data sets and problems and offer prize money for the best solutions.

As Howard says, “Winners of Kaggle competitions tend to be curious and creative people. They come up with a dozen totally new ways to think about the problem.” (New Scientist vol. 216, No. 2893)

Way cool!

 

Guerrilla art is changing perceptions of agency for the disabled

guerrilla art handicap stickerIt started out as a piece of guerrilla art, and now it’s changing official handicapped accessible signs.

Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren started to “modify” existing symbols of accessibility to change public perception about disability several years ago. After the project gained the attention of New York officials the revised symbol is becoming officially recognized within the city.

“Initially, Glenney and Hendren’s aim was to generate conversation. Though the ISA symbol had generally been a huge boon to disabled individuals over the years, it’s easy to see how the symbol itself was less than ideal. Compared to the bathroom sign stick figures we’re used to, the one on the ISA looks frail and immobile–more an outgrowth of the chair it’s sitting in than its own distinct entity. … the goal [of the new symbol] was to show a more humanized depiction of the disabled. That meant reorienting the visual focus of the symbol from the chair to the person, and replacing the rigid, static representation with something more dynamic and active.”

old and new accessible iconsRead the full story at fastcodesign.com »

And more about the Accessible Icon Project »