So it’s been a big week for this blog. Firstly, it is on tour in Northern California – and if you want to immerse yourself in the world’s current prevailing view of progress, whether technological, cultural, ethical and environmental, this is where you want to be right now. I am also currently staying somewhere that looks roughly like this, which will tend to help give you some good perspective on just about anything.
Secondly, and just as importantly down in the long tail of the blogosphere, my stats have gone crazy. After several months plowing a steady furrow in worthy examinations of technological progress, I wrote a piece airing my point of view on the peeling of bananas and racked up about 1,000 hits in the last week. About 95% of this is thanks to a link on the blog of one of my favourite books of recent years, Nudge.
For those that have not had a chance to read Nudge, one of its major preoccupations is with ‘choice architecture’ – broadly speaking the effects on human behaviour that can come from relatively small changes in the way that choices are laid out in front of people.
Putting California and Nudges in the mental blender with my wife’s eagle eyes for intriguing minutiae, and my mind is on the choice architecture of rubbish bins.This particular bin is from the thoroughly inspiring Exploratorium in San Francisco:
I have never seen a bin like this before, but now I cannot work out why every bin in the world doesn’t look like this. I defy you to want to put anything in the slot furthest to the right. Because the choice being put before you is a simple one – do you want your rubbish to organically decompose, to be turned into something else, or to be buried in the ground for future generations to sort out? Your choice!
The fact is, of course, that this is ALWAYS the choice in front of you. And whilst I know the recycling issue is not as simple as the banana-peeling issue (see below) this choice is in fact pretty damned simple. But it is almost never the one that is presented. Normally the choice is something like ‘recyclable waste’ (poorly defined list of plastics etc) vs ‘general waste’ (a default choice for whenever you aren’t sure, or in a hurry, which if you are in front of a bin is almost always.)
And that’s if you get any kind of choice. In Britain we are generally still so pleased that people don’t just drop shit on the ground that you still see this fella in quite a lot of places…
Now don’t get me wrong. This bin didn’t have it all cracked. As is customary, they still managed to make the ‘Recycle’ option look a bit like a man trap, as remains customary. And no amount of ‘Choice Architecture’ is going to over-rule irrational fear of losing a hand, or the ability to resist a great big gaping hole when you have rubbish in your hand. As also evidenced by this fine example at the launching dock for Alcatraz:
But what’s great about the choice between Compost, Recycle and Landfill is its ability to look at a set of legacy behaviours and language through a completely new set of eyes – and come up with something that reframed the action in a way that was nonetheless 100% honest and direct.
On a related ethical subject, I was immediately put in mind of a fantastic South Park moment, which speculated on the effects on the veal industry of a little bit of renaming as the ‘little baby cow’ industry. The same job on foie gras might be a good idea too (though they can leave black pudding as it is, thank you)
I think genuine innovation in language is often underestimated, compared to innovation in gadgetry for example. The real experts tend to be marketers or demagogues. Supporters of religious and racial harmony in the US had no answer to the brutal linguistic elegance of ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (in reality not a mosque, and not at Ground Zero.) Perhaps a fresh, honest look at some of the language around political, ethical and social issues, big and small, would help us to rethink some things.
For today, I am just happy that California keeps nudging me to remember to question little legacy phrases of an age of greater carelessness – like ‘throwing away’.