There is a peculiar attitude, here at the beginning of the 21st century: we agree things aren’t fine, but there’s also a widespread feeling that there’s nothing to be done.

This is unusual. Even a document as vague and aspirational as the Communist Manifesto gave people a sense that there was something — something huge — to be done. Similarly so at the dawn of modern democracy — with Common Sense in the US and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France — there was a great sense of something to be done.

I’d like to address this feeling there’s nothing to be done. Despite what activists say, I believe this feeling is somewhat justified. I believe it shows where our society is stuck. It’s not a simple story — it’s not just about apathy, or consumer comfort, or the rise of clicktivism, or whatever. We must uncover a deeper cause, before we can see what’s holding us back.

We get some help by looking at attitudes toward our institutions: elections, mass media, the global economy, representative government, public education, Facebook. Some have become counterproductive, and most are causing problems. Yet it’s common to think that, despite their problems, these institutions are somehow the end of the line.

Some believe they can’t be changed because they’re part of a deliberately “rigged” system, fashioned by powerful people to keep themselves in charge. A quick study of history brings this into question: often new institutions are rebellious or non-economic and seem to arise for idealistic reasons, from public libraries to constitutional conventions. Even if we imagine that “the system” is better today at suppressing change than in feudal or monarchic times, this doesn’t explain our feeling that there’s nothing to be done. That feeling is about a lack of vision for new institutions, not despair that such a vision would be suppressed.

A second kind of nothing-to-be-done view must be taken more seriously. That’s the view that human nature is fixed, and that our current batch of institutions — including markets, democracies, and social networks — represents a kind of final, unimprovable compromise between the different aspects of human nature. On this view, our current institutions make the best possible balance of autonomy against collective responsibility, of equality against opportunity, of consumer affluence against self-expression and public participation, and so on. Broadly, they’re the best way to balance individual incentives with our ideals.

This view, too, falls apart in the light of history. We find a breathtakingly different story: Human nature, far from being fixed, is read differently from age to age. These different readings give rise to totally new ideas for institutions. And these new readings and new institutions seem to reshape us. Often, what works out in practice would have seemed impossible on the previous views. Furthermore, the traits we are supposedly balancing — autonomy, collective responsibility, equality, etc — are themselves changing. They, also, are expressions of one view of human nature or another.

Indeed, each of our present-day institutions can be traced to a vision of human nature which swept through society. Each new vision led designers to focus on different features of a desirable society, and to recognize different approaches as viable. This made new institutions attractive.

The process looked like this:

Each of these arrows represents a design culture: a group of designers who thought of people and considered human systems in a particular way. It’s this shared vision which gave birth to institutions.

So what blocks the creation of new institutions? It’s not the greed of the powerful; it’s not some physics of balancing incentives.

We’re waiting on a new vision of human nature.

Until we have it, we’re stuck recycling old models (unions, co-ops, local currencies, whatever) or, worse, grasping at tech trends (blockchains, wikipedia, the “sharing economy”).

That’s like trying to invent voting by asking “so, fellas, what can we do with pencils?”

Believe it or not, it wasn’t new technologies that led to new institutions in the past, it was changing ideas of human nature and society. [1]

But we can’t imagine how that could happen again today. We can’t even see how our current visions shape our designs, lives, organizations, and our self-conceptions.

I’ll do my best to reveal the visions of human nature which underlie our designs, and how our design cultures keep us locked inside those visions. Once we see the culture we live inside, we’re ready to step outside and see new opportunities.

What is a Design Culture?

Designers often think they have a solid understanding of who they design for. But the truth is that this understanding is fragmentary, and that designers will see the same people very differently:

  • The organization designer imagines a team as motivated by competition and incentives.
  • The recommender system designer imagines consumers searching for a perfect match for their individual tastes or preferences.
  • The OS designer imagines users getting out their phones with goals and tasks to perform in mind.

What designers may not realize, is that each of these ways of understanding people arose at a particular historical moment and came to dominate new designs at the time:

Whenever we build anything — a city, a workplace, an Internet app, a social network — we carry into it an idea of what people are, what they need, and what’s good for them. And these paradigms continue to shape everything we make:

  1. Early computing was built on the first idea, and it still deeply shapes our operating systems: the idea of a tool-using, goal-driven person. Nowadays, if you still believe this—that serving people means addressing their individual goals and problems—you might build something like Google search.
  2. Facebook Newsfeed is built mostly on the second idea: that people are bundles of more-or-less fixed likes/preferences/tastes. If you believe serving people means satisfying their appetites, you’ll build something like Newsfeed or Netflix.
  3. Other social networks are more clearly influenced by the third idea. If you believe in a Darwinist competition for status, power, reproduction, or wealth, you might build more asymmetric, personality-driven networks like Tinder, Twitter, or Instagram.

These designs work because their users can think of themselves as defined by their goals, their tastes, or their competitive drives, respectively. And these systems could only be developed once these views were widespread enough for designers to adopt them.

So one way to see history, is it’s driven by paradigm shifts about human nature. Each leads to new designs and institutions. Each emphasizes a different aspect of human beings.

The six views above were responsible for most of our modern institutions. If we keep trying to create new institutions based on the same six paradigms, it stands to reason we’d get stuck. We may need to find a seventh view.

An Example

We can get a feel for the six cultures above by considering a design problem and how it goes differently depending on which culture the designer is in.

Design Problem. Imagine you run a conference or a social organization, and there’s a sexual harassment problem. How should the organization design a response to this community issue?

Let’s consider this design problem from the vantage of each culture.

If you think of people in terms of their beliefs, then you imagine sexual harassment comes from wrong ideas. Maybe people think it’s okay, or it’s how women deserve to be treated. The direction to go in is clear: designers from an idea culture would have everyone read a document before coming, that convincingly explains why it’s not okay, and that counters whatever other wrong ideas people have about sexual harassment.

If you come from a preference culture, you’ll be less optimistic. You might imagine that some people just have a taste for sexual harassment. Probably the best thing to do is just to make sure those people don’t come to your conference or organization. You can try to make sure they know that it just isn’t a good place for that sort of thing, that it won’t be tolerated. And you can start a list of sex offenders so that when people with that preference try to join, you can make sure to send them away.

If you’re a goal-culture designer, you’d imagine these people just have a normal goal — to connect, to make friends, or to have sex. The problem is that they’re going about it the wrong way. If they’re motivated by goals, you can probably just give them a training to show them a better way to pursue whatever goals they already have. You could run a consent workshop that focuses on navigating your sexual goals the right way.

What about a status-culture designer? They’re going to see this as a much harder problem. They’ll have an idea that sexual harassment is a product of a toxic, macho rape culture. They might figure that people do harassment to look cool in front of their friends; so the only way to stop it would be to go into all of those toxic cultures and change what’s cool. Until that’s done, it might be good to limit access to the organization or conference, to make it a safe space, only accessible to those from safe cultures where status comes from being socially decent.

Okay, what if you are a designer from a culture that emphasizes social standing? This is going to be a bit of a conundrum for you: on the one hand, people who sexually harass may come from a lower social class. In that case you’re likely to cut them some slack. You’ll say we need to hear their voice. On the other hand, the victims of sexual harassment may also come from an oppressed social class. You’ll presume that a society which gives them more voice will have less sexual harassment. In the long run, we need to make a society that doesn’t have such huge differences in social standing.

You will be similarly tolerant if you’re from an experience-culture, but for different reasons: people who sexually harass have probably had rough experiences. It’s not justice or equality that’s needed: We just need empathy for them. We should help them tell their stories so we understand their experience. By hearing each other’s stories, we can gradually resolve the isolation which causes these problems in the first place.

The Culture You Live Inside

It’s not obvious which of the above views is right. Indeed, all of them seem to be true; humans have beliefs, goals, preferences, drives towards status and social standing, emotional experiences, etc. All of these affect our choices.

But each of us is infected by one culture’s view of human nature more than others. One way to discover how we view human nature is to look at what puzzles us about society. Each culture has some things it understands about people and some things it misses. Each culture has phenomena outside its scope of explanation.

Do any of these questions puzzle you?

To design a better set of institutions and lives (and apps and businesses and devices) for the 21st century, we’ll need a more comprehensive view of how people are, of what they’re good at, and what’s good for them. We’ll need a view that answers these questions.

Why the Human Sciences aren’t Scientific

One reason people cling to their culture is they imagine it’s more clear-eyed and scientific than other’s views of people and society. We might be tempted to think that the sequence of cultures is a story of scientific progress: that each design culture was better at explaining human behavior than the one before it; that our science of understanding people is getting better.

I don’t think so.

Here is a table showing the human sciences, organized by which design culture they tend to support. A few things seem clear:

Design Cultures and Social Science Fields

First, the most sophisticated views, with the most behavioral evidence, aren’t the most recent.

Second, we don’t seem to be progressing through dialogue and experiment, the way science does, from one view to another. Instead, whole fields have spawned to support each design culture. Those fields have stuck around, continuing to support that culture, even after a new culture arises, without the process of invalidation and debate that characterizes science.

Third, none of the fields have made much progress in predicting or understanding human behavior compared to their predecessors. Each relevant field only claims to be slightly predictive, and only in certain classes of situations. There’s no science, yet, which predicts how an individual human being will act, or what they will choose, in general, in a wide variety of situations. Instead, these fields have simple models, always biased towards particular domains, none with much predictive power.

But there’s a fourth argument, more decisive than these:

Each of these fields is subject to another kind of test, besides its ability to predict human choices. Each field has a model of human beings which focuses on certain skills or abilities or activities of the human subject. I’ve tried to make a list of them here:

What are People Good at?

We can assess whether these fields get human nature right by asking whether these are the skills, the abilities, or the activities which seem to be the truest and most natural expression of who we are.

Why should social scientists focus on what feels natural or true for us?

Imagine an architect who believes humans are quadrupeds, at their best when they crawl on all fours. Perhaps because it’s more stable to walk on four limbs than two.

This architect will make uncomfortable buildings. And he doesn’t understand the human skeleton, or how we use our faces and hands in daily life.

It’s similar when a scientist models humans as creatures of belief-revision or of evidence-checking. Or as maximizing utility by fulfilling obscure tastes. Or as organizing life for prestige or dominance. Or voicing the concerns of their social class. Designers who imagine humans like this will tend to create buildings that don’t fit us. The activities they imagine as our truest expression will actually be exhausting. And their science is likely missing something more important than what it captures.

By this argument, the human sciences which focus on our beliefs, our preferences, our status, or our social standing are just plain wrong about what being a person is, what we’re good at, and what society’s for. If society was really for what they think it’s for, then we’d be much better at playing these sorts of games — around status, preference, standing, and so on.

There’s more evidence to support the culture emphasizing individual goals. That culture inspired our most famous institutions and protocols. We’ve done well with markets, collaborations, and plans. But a life lived solely around those activities—of accounting, negotiation, etc—neglects the core of our being. Surely it’s not quite right to say that goal pursuers are what we are — nor that these activities are what we are best at.

Why Some Visions Go Viral

So, the newer visions aren’t more scientific, and they don’t create “more comfortable buildings” by focusing on the activities or capabilities which express our true nature.

How, then, were they successful? Why did these six theories—and not countless others—rip through society, influencing designers and replacing institutions?

Not every new vision touches us, but these did.


Beliefs. We can imagine someone reading Francis Bacon for the first time:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.

The reader could begin to reconsider their own thought process, could find a great excitement in observing — internally — the convergence towards truths.


Goals. It’s similar, when Jefferson writes:

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.

Or Adam Smith:

The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations.

The reader starts to ask: what are my aspirations? What bold action is defining me? And so the reader comes to focus on a new aspect of their inner life.


Emotions. Skipping forward, imagine reading Alice Miller:

Genuine feelings cannot be produced, nor can they be eradicated. We can only repress them, delude ourselves, and deceive our bodies. The body sticks to the facts.

The reader might give a priority to experiencing their feelings that never occurred to them before.


It’s always powerful to discover a new part of ourselves. Or to retrieve a part we’d previously disregarded as important, as worthy of expression.

Each of these cultures surfaced an aspect of our inner experience of life which hadn’t previously been seen as important. But once pointed out, it was obviously important.

There are consequences to interpreting our inner lives differently. If we feel sad, it matters whether we interpret that as a chemical imbalance, or as a signal about our lives being broken, or as unfelt feelings from our childhood. Similarly, if we are attracted to someone, it matters whether we understand it as a signal about their romantic appropriateness for us, or about our desperation, or about our disloyalty, etc.

So if a new vision changes how we interpret our inner lives, or when it makes a new aspect of our internal experience into the main event, things change. We can’t help but have new ideas about what to design, and about what phenomena should be addressed by social science. [2]

A new design culture won’t arise due to any new science of human nature, or any new philosophy. Only with a new understanding of daily life, when a new aspect of each designer’s inner life is brought into focus, and that new focus changes their vision of what society is all about.

Why Cultures Form

When our inner focus shifts, that shift also changes how we communicate. We might say that it changes what it means to connect with others, or that it redefines intimacy as consisting of a different kind of sharing.

It seems people really do define intimacy differently, in ways that correspond to the six culture. You may know someone who defines intimacy in each of these ways:

What does this tell us about moving between cultures? It means cultivating new relationships, and practicing new kinds of sharing; maybe even finding new communities or media formats to engage with.

What’s to be Done

At last, perhaps, we can get a clear view of what’s to be done.

This seems hard. But judging from history, there are huge benefits. Each time we’ve managed such a change, new institutions became possible. People had new ideas about what society is for, and so they approached the design of every part of society with different key features in mind. With a new set of key features, every part of society was ripe for reinvention.

Our society is failing on many levels (at minimum: politically, economically, and ecologically). But there hasn’t been a grand new vision of how to rebuild it since the rise of communism and democratic socialism.

We can start to see the cracks by looking at the features that underpin our modern institutions — features like choice, freedom, affluence, and fairness. They were revolutionary when they first appeared: each was a powerful new idea about how to support people. But they’re based on an understanding of people as defined by their preferences, goals, status drives, and social standing. So choice, freedom, affluence, and fairness are narrow notions about what people need. [3]

What view of human nature would give a broader sense of what we need to thrive?

I’d bet the next vision will give an explicit place for our values. It won’t reduce values to personal preferences, to lifestyle goals, or to differing beliefs.

I’ll have to make this case in another essay. For now, I’ll just ask leading questions:

  • Does consumerism satisfy our preferences, but not our values?
  • When people share news on Facebook, is it more about uncovering truth, about gaining status, or about gathering around values?
  • What’s wrong with thinking of environmentalism as an economic preference that some people have?
  • When voting isn’t about truth or even self-interest, what is it about?
  • When terrorists blow themselves up, what are they trying to express?

These are urgent questions. The kind of questions that can only be answered by a new design culture.

So we await a new design culture.


Footnotes

[1] Economists and technologists (and marxists!) often guess that changes in material conditions must precede changes in ideas and culture. Deirdre McClosky (see below) has convincingly argued that it usually goes in the other direction—new ideas spread through a culture shortly before a large material / economic shift!

[2] This theory points towards a much larger space of possible design cultures than has been explored in this article. Every part of our internal experience that can be emphasized is a candidate for spawning a design culture. As a few examples: Daniel Kahneman, Tristan Harris, and Cass Sunstein have a design culture that emphasizes mistakes; Derrida, Goffman and many of the postmoderns have a design culture that emphasizes social performances; Timothy Leary had a design culture that emphasized states of consciousness; and so on.

[3] Fairness, in particular — whether defined in democratic terms (equal rights) or in communistic terms (to each according to their needs) — is a low-resolution idea about how we can help someone. It presumes there’s very little we can help each other with: perhaps we can help only by providing equal resources to each person, or equal government services and protections, or we can detect who’s suffering and provide more services to them.

Further Reading

This essay is a riff on three basic premises: first, that history is driven more by changes in ideas (i.e., that changes in material circumstance follow changes in ideas, they don’t precede them); second, that the changes in ideas which count here are in fact changes in “hypergoods” — the ideals by which we judge everything else we create and value; third, that acceptance of these new ideals means changing our self-definitions.

For the first premise, I am indebted to an economist at UIC, Deirdre McCloskey, who has tirelessly made that case in a series of books:

  • McCloskey (2010), Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World
  • McCloskey (2016), Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

For the second and third premises, it is to philosopher Charles Taylor my debt is owed. See especially his masterworks:

  • Taylor (1989), Sources of the Self
  • Taylor (1992), Ethics of Authenticity

Credits

The comic at the top is by KC Green (website, patreon).

These 7 remarkable people read my drafts and gave valuable feedback: Anne-Lorraine Selke, Chris Rodley, Brian Christian, Nicky Case, David Chapman, Michael Nielsen, and Venkatesh Rao.

I’d also like to thank, for their broad encouragement, Lisa Charlotte Rost, Lily Lamboy, Tristan Harris, and Susi Rosenbohm.

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