21 Oct 2010

A different type of determinism

My colleague in ManTowNHuman Alastair Donald makes a very compelling argument in favour of rejecting 'happy clappy architecture' in his blog at The Independent today.

'Happiness is the latest Big Idea amongst policymakers and social scientists.  And given architects now justify design almost entirely in terms of delivering social policy, it was probably only a matter of time before attentions turned to shaping our feelings.'

'Ultimately, it seems there’s little genuine interest in creating the possibility for people to pursue their own happiness, but rather using design to cultivate conformism with other agendas. It’s surely time to reject happy clappy architecture.'

Alastair also echoes an argument that I made several times, most recently in my essay on happiness in architecture, that the popularity of 'designing behaviour' accepts a form of environmental determinism. When I accused David Harvey of pandering to environmental determinism by suggesting that there's 'geographic subconscious' at play in modern society, I was flooded with a barrage of pedantic comments claiming that I misunderstood Harvey who had indeed made his own critique of determinism. Someone even hit back by suggesting we discuss 'the effect of suburbia on the political impotence of the middle class in the US'. To my mind, this is the clearest example of determinism I can think of.

But an important distinction must be made here: we are not talking about evolutionary determinism but about a form of social determinism that is even more problematic. The acceptance of 'nudge' policies is a good example of this, as Alastair rightly points out. Evolutionary psychology has been utilised to provide the theoretical framework for this new paradigm and to give it a scientific gloss. Many 'social determinists' are critical of this 'scientific' approach but they seem oblivious to the convergence between their own thinking and that of evolutionary psychology. Namely, that they agree on limits to human agency that they see as beyond our control.

The most patronising and dismissive manifestation of this argument is the 'brainwashing' idea: people are too taken by the system to realise what their own good is. Not surprisingly, this idea is more popular with the left, but this popularity is a clear expression of the left's failure to connect with large sections of society. Rather than being self-critical and understanding how it lost touch with the masses, it turns to blaming the people for being too stupid or brain-washed. Of course, the idea is rarely expressed in this vulgar form, but the assumptions behind many of the arguments we hear today stem from those exact sentiments.

The convergence between evolutionary psychology and social theory finds its expression in behavioral design. Let's call that spatial determinism.


  1. I believe in a weak form of statistical determinism, which can be broken.

    Now tell me, does the word "determinism" the way I just used it sound awful? I mean, for people with political interests, a term is quickly assigned some eternal connotation, which depends on which side of the argument they are.

  2. I don't believe anything has an 'eternal connotation', everything has a specific historical meaning. That's why determinism today is different and more sophisticated to the past. Before people used to say awful things like 'Arabs are lazy because of the heat.' now they say 'Arabs are too lazy because their governments know how to control them and bribe them.' Neither of those is true. People make their own choices based on their understanding of the world and we can't say they are stupid or ignorant because they don't agree with our views. That was my idea.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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