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Being Human
Feeling Our Way in This New Millennium

by DK Holland

Stimulating the selfishness of the masses meant that their contentment would allow leadership to take control. In a stunning irony, Bernays, who was Jewish, also inspired the leaders of Nazi Germany. Freud, who was also Jewish, became indigent and fled to England as the Nazis threatened to invade Austria. Bernays became Freud's promoter and benefactor, popularizing his books in America to support his uncle in exile and to enhance his own fortune.

XD is neutral, and so its impact depends on who is using it: for good or evil. Giudice observes a new check and balance, “XDers start way upstream. They understand the customers’ needs and desires having learned from observation and research that the customer is in the driver’s seat. Companies are becoming more and more aware of this reality. Anyone can find out about a brand. There’s no insulation of the company anymore. And since word of mouth is still the best way to build the brand, you connect with the people and products who agree with you.”

At the Exploratorium visitors interact with experiments that are phenomena-based, exploring many aspects of the physical world, like evaporation, light or gravity. Exhibit developer Eric Thogerson says, “When we start work on a new theme we typically spend several years in research and collaboration. We play with the ideas that resonate with us most.” As with The Tactile Dome, The Mind (also a permanent exhibit), the phenomena takes place in the mind of the visitor. For instance, Poker Face reveals how to read the facial expression of the person you sit across from. And, at the same time, this provides insights into your own reactions. The Emotion Reader charts how the skin responds; one person reacts to a slightly uncomfortable question read aloud by a companion (friend, family member). Thogerson says, “We provide props: a photo of a foot with a bad sore, questions like ‘Tell me who you have a crush on.’” The players are related, so there is a social dynamic. The Emotion Reader measures feelings, judgment and attention. Trading Places is based on a technique for studying stereotyping. It’s a card game that can reveal how hidden assumptions affect the way you see the people around you.

In the development phase of The Mind, it was suggested that people might have a strong reaction to drinking out of a toilet. So Thogerson prototyped a toilet fountain he later named Sip of Conflict. He hauled it out onto the floor of the Exploratorium, which provides endless willing subjects for the research and design staff—that would be the envy of any student of XD. Thogerson says, “People were fascinated. Everyone wanted someone to give it a try. It provided a great photo op—you know, mom drinking out of the toilet. I think it’s the combination of porcelain, which is very clean as is your sink (but in a different shape), and the psychological dirtiness of using a toilet that confounds people’s reactions.” So Exploratorium-goers see and understand they have had an irrational emotional response.

Joyce Ma, a cognitive scientist and researcher at the Exploratorium, says, “People are rarely oblivious to their feelings and reactions. We look at the role of emotions and learning, encourage people to play and explore in a safe environment.” Ma adds, “The toilet fountain was a home run. It didn’t even require research. The conversations were predictable. They felt embarrassed and grossed out. A lot of people ‘got’ the conflict.”

People need to understand their motivations, irrational reactions—in order to learn when to trust their intuition with intelligence and awareness. We don’t want people to think “I've always been bad at science.” They need to feel
“I can find out new things for myself.” Otherwise they’d give up. Josh Gutwill, who is acting director of visitor research says, “You learn quickly how hard it is to change entrenched beliefs. Our goal is to provoke curiosity, a sense of wonder.”

Gutwill says, “The devil is in the details. A really small change in directions on an exhibit can have a huge effect. We use an iterative process; make a change, watch people, make a change. And we pay a lot more attention now to language. The word ‘turn’ means ‘gentle’ whereas the word ‘crank’ sounds more vigorous. By asking and watching we find these things out.” Some visitors are asked to participate in more documented research, by being video- or audio-taped. This way the team can study reactions that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Gutwill has learned how to learn. He says, “Celebrate failure; foster open-ended, in-depth inquiry. It’s a forking path that sometimes has a dead end. You back up, but that’s OK. That’s all part of the process.”

Bernays was hardly a humanist. He was not warm and fuzzy. He could not even see the individual, but he had an uncanny sense of the mass unconscious. If he were working today (he retired in the 1960s), wouldn’t his clients still include manufacturers, politicians, celebrities? Is an empathetic approach to a Bernays-type strategy possible or even desirable (i.e., manipulation of the masses for the greater good)? Isn’t that what Bernays deluded himself into thinking he was doing?

If we can believe polls, the exciting news is that millennials are redefining their American Dream as non-materialistic. Surveys show 81 percent of 18-29 year olds won’t be easily fooled. They have a heightened savvy; they trust the leading brands they feel are authentic, distrust the ones they see as disingenuous. They are passionate about experience. Most advertising is simply irrelevant to them.5 These are among the new survival skills. These are the early adopters.CA

1  James Lovelock, Gaia, a new look at Life on Earth.
2  Chris Anderson: “How Web video powers global innovation,” TedTalks.
3 “Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous,” Slate.
The Century of the Self, BBC. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.