Changing the language of climate change

Climate March photo

From, 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.

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.

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 »

And more about the Accessible Icon Project »


Technoschmerz, according to this Boston Globe article on neologisms, means,

“…the emotional pain (schmerz comes from a German word meaning “pain”) caused by difficult interactions with electronic gadgets or unhelpful websites. If you’ve ever felt your cellphone was out to get you, you’ve suffered from technoschmerz.”

This word is long overdue. (Thank you, Kate Greene, for the coinage.) I expect to use it often. If I take my personal experiences with digital technologies (and in running a web design company, I have plenty) and multiply these by the number of people in the world with dependent connections to contemporary digital gadgets, I can only imagine the amount of confusion, delay, errors, and the resulting stress from wrestling with technologies that keep changing, or don’t work intuitively or correctly must be global and massive. Has anyone analyzed the overall cost of this? I wonder what it would amount to when weighed against the overall benefits…

Bruce Sterling's chart of technological adaptation

Bruce Sterling In his book Shaping Things (one of my all-time favorite books, btw) examines the evolving interplay between objects and people. He divides the technosocial realm into several epochs, beginning with ARTIFACTS, which are hand-made, muscle-powered objects, such as spears. Then moving to MACHINES, which are artifacts with moving parts that rely on a non-human, non-animal power source, and require an infrastructure of engineering, distribution, and finance. Think steam engines. Next up is PRODUCTS, and they are mass-produced, non-artisinal, widely distributed, and operate over continental economies of scale. Think blenders. Since 1989 we have been in the age of GIZMOS, according to Sterling. Gizmos are

“…highly unstable,  user-alterable multi-featured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief lifespan. Gizmos offer functionality so plentiful that it is cheaper to import features into the object than it is to simplify it. Gizmos are commonly linked to network service providers; they are not stand-alone objects but interfaces.

Unlike artifacts, machines and products, gizmos have enough functionally to actively nag people. Their deployment demands extensive, sustained, interaction, upgrades, grooming, plug-ins, plug-outs, unsought messages, security threats,…

Sterling goes on to argue that we are moving into the epoch of SPIMES, which are already among us in primitive forms such as the RFID tag. But that’s a topic for another post. For now, GIZMOS are enough to deal with. And according to Sterling, we have long passed the Line of No Return on them. This is the moment when a revolutionary technology becomes the status quo, and a culture has become so reliant that it cannot voluntarily return to the previous technosocial condition, at least not without social collapse.

And dependent we are. Not just on the objects, but the networks that connect them. IMAP email that shows up at home, work, on my iPad, on my iPhone. Dropbox files that do the same. Writeroom for synched notes, BaseCamp for synched project management, FreshBooks for synched book-keeping. Compared with how I managed files and communications a mere two or three years ago, a revolution has taken place in my personal life, and I know it’s been mirrored in the lives of many.

Infographic by Randy Krum,

We are firmly in the age of the GIZMO. Thus I pledge allegiance to the new overlords, and I interact, upgrade, groom, and protect them from security threats whenever they demand it. Because if I fail to nurture these overlords, I become invisible and mute to anyone not standing directly in front of me!

The Journal of Universal Rejection

NOTE: Blue Mouse Monkey did not make this website! In case you were wondering. Since this is how I format images of our sites on this blog when I showcase them.

NOTE: Blue Mouse Monkey did not make this website! In case you were wondering, since this is how I format images of our sites when I showcase them on this blog.

It looks like a real online scientific journal, with the bland, conservative layout, the excessive line length, the pre-digital font (probably Didot), and that blue bar down the side! Hilarious! (Both the straight-from-the-tube color and the pathetic attempt at adding a decorative element). Not that I don’t like Didot or pure deep blues, but the combination works uncomfortably well in this parody.

Then there’s the journal’s policy: “The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected.” There’s an editorial board of over 20 academics from institutions around the world to do that heavy lifting.

According to the Instructions to Authors, “The JofUR solicits any and all types of manuscript: poetry, prose, visual art, and research articles. You name it, we take it, and reject it. Your manuscript may be formatted however you wish. Frankly, we don’t care.”

You can subscribe to the JofUR for £120 per year. I’m guessing it’s pounds and not dollars because pounds look more exotic and academic and fancy.

The quarterly online archive goes back a couple of years, and each volume is labeled (empty). Except December 2010 (Vol 2, No 4), which is labeled (lost when server crashed – presumed empty).

But really, the best part is the Reprobatia Certa blog. JofUR  likes to share rejection letters. The reasons for rejection are numerous and unpredictable, and often quite funny, especially when the submitter replies:

Editor’s note: We received a submission from Noam Shabtai, The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel.

Dear Noam,

We are rejecting your submission on the following grounds: (A) you are not Noam Chomsky, and (B) you live in Beer Sheva, but did not include any beer in your submission. I hope you can see how thorough and agonizing our decision process was.

Best regards,

Caleb Emmons, PhD
Journal of Universal Rejection

Dear Caleb,
I would like to thank you for the thorough review process, and for teaching me how to differ between right and wrong.
After revising the paper, it was submitted and accepted to the journal of universal acception (it is also known as the broadcast news on TV, in case you were wondering).

Best Regards,

I think I’ll send them some drawings. They probably don’t get much visual art. It might be refreshing for them to reject it.

Scrabble as creative aid

scrabble_as_creative_aidI am one of the few people in the world who doesn’t really enjoy playing Scrabble. And because I practice way less than everybody else, I’m not very good at it, which compounds my lack of enjoyment: I am guaranteed to be beaten.

But I like the Scrabble pieces, and tonight I used them to help me idea-generate nonsense-word names for a client. Their new business needs a new name, and one of the avenues we’re exploring is nonsense words. Think Etsy, Zappos, and Flickr. The Scrabble pieces were excellent raw material.

It was fun playing with the letters off the grid. I think it’s the grid that bothers me. (I don’t like crossword puzzles, either.)

Hypertext as Historical Hinge

12_nelson_ordhypertextSo what I’m doing now, i.e. creating a blog post, could have been different in a fundamental way, if Ted Nelson had insisted on not letting his model of Hypertext get dumbed down during a project her worked on in 1968?

Okay, here’s some context: Ted Nelson is an American inventor, software designer, usability consultant, systems humanist and visiting Fellow at Oxford. He is best known for coining the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia”, and pursuing a vision of world-wide hypertext from the early 1960s. According to Ted Nelson’s Wikipedia entry, “The main thrust of his work has been to make computers easily accessible to ordinary people. His motto is: A user interface should be so simple that a beginner in an emergency can understand it within ten seconds.” (Wouldn’t that be wonderful?)

According to a page on NewMedia History by Bill Atkinson, Ted Nelson was “one of the most influential figures in computing”, “on a quest to build creative tools that would transform the way we read and write”.

Nelson was particularly concerned with the complex nature of the creative impulse, and he saw the computer as the tool that would make explicit the interdependence of ideas, drawing out connections between literature, art, music and science, since, as he put it, everything is “deeply intertwingled.”

Nelson’s critical breakthrough was to call for a system of non-sequential writing that would allow the reader to aggregate meaning in snippets, in the order of his or her choosing, rather than according to a pre-established structure fixed by the author.

So nearly 50 years ago Ted Nelson envisioned something a lot like what we know as the World Wide Web. On his own site (which is one of the uglier sites on the Web, but that’s not my point) he says,

In 1960 I had a vision of a world-wide system of electronic publishing, anarchic and populist, where anyone could publish anything and anyone could read it.  (So far, sounds like the web.)

But what we’ve ended up with is a disappointment to him:

But my approach is about literary depth– including side-by-side intercomparison, annotation, and a unique copyright proposal.  I now call this “deep electronic literature” instead of “hypertext,” since people now think hypertext means the web.

In a letter to the editor of New Scientist, 22 July 2006, Ted Nelson wrote:

I coined, you say, the word hypertext in 1963 “while working on ways to make computers more accessible at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island” (17 June, p 60). But in 1963 I was a dolphin photographer in Miami, nowhere near Brown.

I had become inflamed with ideas and designs for non-sequential literature and media in 1960, but no one would back them, then or now. Not until the late sixties did I spend months at Brown, with no official position and at considerable personal expense, to help them build a hypertext system.

That project dumbed down hypertext to one-way, embedded, non-overlapping links. Its broken and deficient model of hypertext became by turns the structure of the NoteCards and HyperCard programs, the World Wide Web, and XML.

At the time I thought of that structure as an interim model, forgetting the old slogan “nothing endures like the temporary”. XML is only the latest, most publicised, and in my view most wrongful system that fits this description. It is opaque to the laypersons who deserve deep command of electronic literature and media. It gratuitously imposes hierarchy and sequence wherever it can, and is very poor at representing overlap, parallel cross-connection, and other vital non-hierarchical media structures that some people do not wish to recognise.

I believe humanity went down the wrong path because of that project at Brown. I greatly regret my part in it, and that I did not fight for deeper constructs. These would facilitate an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; showing the origins of every quotation; and with a copyright system for frictionless, non-negotiated quotation of any amount at any time.

This amazes me. All along I’ve been thinking XML is marvelous. But when Ted Nelson says, “I believe humanity went down the wrong path because of that project at Brown. I greatly regret my part in it…” I have to take notice. And that the World Wide Web is based on a “broken and deficient model of hypertext”, and XML is a “wrongful system.” Wow. Our lives have been momentously  changed in the last 15 years by an information system of enormous scope and complexity that most ordinary folks like myself never saw coming — and Ted Nelson says we could have had something even better if he’d just stuck to his guns about how a single academic project got built back in the late 60s?

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According to Urban Dictionary, a Mouse Monkey is “A person who repairs computers for a living.” The definition was posted in February ’09, and has two thumbs up and one thumb down.

Nuh-uh. The Blue Mouse Monkey is a small furry creature whose mission is to beautify the Internet one website at a time. She does not repair computers, neither for a living, nor as a hobby.