Ran into this quote from Whitehead:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.

From Alfred North Whitehead’s An Introduction to Mathematics, p. 61.

There is an echo of this sentiment in Turing’s approach to artificial intelligence. In any case, I found this quote on the Nudge blog, based on a book by Thaler and Sunstein. A nudge is any environmental cue that disposes a person to a particular response. They describe it like this:

By a nudge we mean anything that influences our choices. A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. We think that it’s time for institutions, including government, to become much more user-friendly by enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people and by gentling nudging them in directions that will make their lives better.

They call their position ‘libertarian paternalism’ (ugh), and it is all about limiting control in particular ways without compromising freedom of choice. More specifically, it is about how to design environments that foster intelligent decision making. This might be one of those dangerous ideas, but when have you ever had a reason to distrust a Chicago economist?

Some examples and a lecture below.

Social cues are particularly salient nudges, but our machines are getting better at providing motivational feedback. I really like traffic examples as a case of almost seamless human-machine-infrastructure integration, which works really well in the ‘nudge’ vocabulary. For instance:

If white lines are removed from the centre of a road, this also causes traffic to slow down. Removing the footways and sharing the space between car drivers and pedestrians also causes the traffic to slow down. In both cases, this is due to the fact that traffic is no longer being given permission to drive along the road –uncertainty causes a reduction in speed. It also makes the road look better. |link|

Nissan’s “ECO Pedal” system — promoted as being both green and safe — makes the gas pedal press upward when it senses motorists are speeding up too quickly. Nissan said in a news release Monday the system, which will be available next year, can help drivers improve fuel efficiency 5 to 10 percent.

The system calculates the most efficient rate of acceleration in a vehicle based on how fast fuel is being burned and other factors and causes the gas pedal to push back to alert overzealous drivers. A special meter on the dashboard flashes and changes colors to help drive the message home. |link via AP

Here is Thaler’s Talk@Google that goes into more examples. Thaler refers to Google as the King of Nudges, and points to the “Did you mean…” feature as a key example. I was rather disappointed with Google’s Q&A, and it seems like Thaler should get in touch with someone like Sterling that is specifically interested in the idea of smart design and machine-aided infrastructural planning.


  1. Do you really think feedback routines like “Did you mean…” or Energy Consumption indicators are a step towards fascism?

    I mean, its a common reaction, but it seems wildly disproportionate to the design choices Nudge is talking about. In fact, given the kinds of examples Nudge works with, you could argue that this isn’t a slippery slope towards fascism at all, but just a legitimate improvement on behavioral shaping routines that are already a common feature of everyday life.

    In other words, this isn’t movement on any line fascism lies on. If you see fascism in these strategies and are surprised, its your own damn fault for not already seeing it everywhere else around you.

  2. I was responding on the first part of the post. That fau-Libertarian group. My point is if somebody is manipulating things including an environment to create a result in the behavior of another person then that, to some degree is a kind of fascism. It happens in marriages in working relationships and all sorts of things to be sure. But on a larger scale is when it starts becoming a problem. I still think that the general populace is best approached with a transparency in domestic governmental affairs. Hiding social policy in the way a lunch counter is designed is not cool.

  3. Its not about forcing a particular behavior, but just about nudging people towards behaving in a particular way. The best examples of this are traffic examples. The red light disposes people (who know how to drive) to stop. It doesn’t force you to stop, but you know you are better off stopping than running the intersection, and so you get a kind of conformity of behavior without any real restriction of freedom.

    I think you are right about transparency in government, but transparency alone isn’t enough. Consider, for instance,, one of the best recent examples of government transparency. Sure, you can find things if you are searching for it, but how do you know what to look for, or how to interpret the information you find? Making the information available is step one, but the next step is to show us what to do with the information once we have it (step 3 is profit).

    The idea is not just to make the information available, but is to use that information to motivate behaviors that produce desirable results. Sure, you can impose and enforce behaviors, but what is interesting about nudges is that it explicitly takes care not to compromise freedoms in the process. So for instance, you can tell how much energy you are using on your monthly bill, but think of how much easier it will be to manage your energy consumption if you knew exactly how much energy your fridge or A/C or washing machine was using, and at which times, and could get instant feedback from that process? The result is that you end up regulating your own behavior because of the improved feedback, which is the result we want, without forcing you to do anything.

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