Tag Archives: behaviour

Why You Secretly Hate Cool Bars | Wait But Why

Why You Secretly Hate Cool Bars | Wait But Why.

The word “bar” can refer to a variety of places—a handy rule is, the cooler the bar, the more horrible the life experience it will provide. And on a weekend night, the quintessential cool, super-popular, loud, dark city bar becomes a place of genuine hardship.

The problem begins because you have this idea in your head that a cool bar is a fun place to be. You think to yourself, “It’s time for a big weekend. Excited to hit the bars!” without what should be the follow-up thought, “Oh wait no, I remember now that weekend bars are terrible places to go to.”


If you want to understand how a cool bar thinks, just take the way every other business thinks—”please the customer and they’ll come back”—and do the opposite.

I call it the You’re A Little Bitch strategy. Being forced to stand in line like a tamed snail—often when it’s cold and even sometimes when the bar is empty—is your first taste of the You’re a Little Bitch strategy.

While you wait, you’ll watch several all-girl groups walk to the front of the line without waiting, where the bouncer opens the rope and lets them in. Ahead of you. Because you’re a little bitch.

When you finally get to the front, you’ll notice there’s no sign with the bar’s name anywhere, because the bar likes to watch its little bitch customers go through extra trouble to find them.

You’re then asked for your ID by someone who may not have been the biggest dick in your high school—but he was the biggest dick in someone’s high school.

He then shuffles your little bitch ass along to the next stage, where they show everyone how desperately you want to be their customer by charging you $10 just to come in. They cap things off by stamping their logo on your undignified hand, just because they can.

An uninformed observer would only assume, after seeing everything you just went through, that the place you were about to enter would be some coveted utopia of pleasures. They’d be pretty surprised to see you walk into this:

The first moment you walk into a scene like this brings a distinct mix of dread and hopelessness. It’s an unbearably loud, dark, crowded cauldron of hell, and nothing fun can possibly occur here.

I’m not sure when it happened or why it happened, but at some point along the line we decided that the heinous combination of Loud/Dark/Crowded was the optimal nightlife atmosphere.[1] Maybe it started because clubs were trying to imitate the vibe at concerts, and then bars started imitating clubs to seem hipper—I’m not sure. But where it’s all left us is a place that disregards the concept of a human, and there you are in the middle of it.


Activity 1) Getting a Drink

After wedging your coat into a nook in the wall and saying goodbye to it for the last time, it’s time to go get your first drink. You were the first one of your friends to walk in the door, so you’re in the lead as your group works its way through the crowd, which means you’re the one who’s gonna drop the worst $54 a human can spend on a round of drinks no one will remember. But that’s the end goal—first, you need to figure out how to get through the three layers of people also trying to order drinks:

It’s a sickening undertaking. And depending on your level of aggressiveness and luck, making the worst purchase of your life could take anywhere from 3 to 20 stressful minutes. I’ve spent at least a cumulative week protruding my face forward, vigorously locking my eyes on the bartender’s face and still not being able to make eye contact.

You finally get back to your friends with drinks, just in time to start the primary bar activity—

Activity 2) Standing there talking to no one

Standing there talking to no one is a centerpiece of any night at the bar. If you don’t look carefully, Loud/Dark/Crowded will give you the impression that everyone in the bar is having fun and being social. But next time you’re at one, take a good look around the room, and you’ll see a surprising percentage of the people looking like this guy:

Standing there talking to no one

Just 30 minutes earlier, this guy was at dinner with his friends—talking, laughing, and sitting comfortably. Now, luckily, the real fun has begun.

Activity 3) Holding something

Almost as ubiquitous as Activity 2, holding something—usually a cold drink—is popular in bars around the world. The thing we all ignore is that holding a cold drink is shitty. A) Holding anything up for an extended period of time is shitty, B) A cold, wet drink is especially unpleasant to hold, and C) because bars are insanely crowded and people are constantly moving, your elbow will be bumped about once every 30 seconds, continuously spilling the drink on your hand and wrist. If you were in a restaurant and someone told you you had to hold your drink a few inches off the table while you sat there, you’d leave.

Unfortunately, putting it down isn’t really an option, because holding nothing at a bar frees up your hands, which has the side-effect of making you suddenly aware that you’re just standing there talking to no one, and you might panic. The solution is to quickly hold something else, usually your phone, which whisks you back into hiding.

Activity 4) Yelling out randomly to let people know you’re having a good time

Desperate to maintain the “This is fun!” narrative we’ve all been sworn to, you’ll sometimes hear a person yell out to no one in particular. They won’t yell an actual word—just something unendearing like “Woooh!” or “Ohhhh!” Relative to other activities, this is one of the most fun moments you’ll have in the bar.

Activity 5) Screaming words toward a person’s head

At some point you’ll decide to try to interact with your friends, since you’re in theory having a night out together. There’s no chance of presenting information in a nuanced way, so the conversation stays crude and basic—I’d estimate that 20 minutes of bar conversation accomplishes what roughly 1 minute of restaurant conversation does.

You might even get ambitious and decide to start accosting strangers. This tends to be an upsetting experience for both sides of the interaction, and almost never leads to anything fruitful. The irony of all this is that the Loud/Dark/Crowded cauldron of hell vibe is there in the first place for single people who want to meet single people, and bars don’t even do a good job with their prime purpose. Bars are a terrible place to meet someone if you’re single. You can barely see what people look like, let alone any subtle facial expressions that convey personality. And because it’s so crowded and hard to hear anything, mingling doesn’t really happen, which leaves aggressive conversation-starting (i.e. accosting strangers) as the only real way to get things off the ground.

Once you’re in a conversation with someone new, you’ll spend 6 minutes getting through the first nine lines of small talk and still have no idea if the stranger has a sense of humor—not a good environment to build chemistry.


Activity 7) Crying

A lot of people cry in bars.


Activity 10) Engaging with filth

Bars are a great place to really soak up the collective sludge of humanity. From the sticky floors to the vomit to the strangers making out to everyone breathing on everyone else to the bartender handling money and then shoving a lime into your drink, it’s a quality of living only drunk people could create and only drunk people could endure. The most disgusting exhibit is the men’s bathroom, where 120 drunk men have each sloppily peed 1/4th on the floor—which makes it a similar place to a bathroom where 30 men have peed only on the floor, and a place you’ll have to visit at least twice.


Suddenly remembering that food exists, you’re reenergized and work your way to the exit through the closing-time crowd of ultra-horny guys making furious last-second attempts at meeting someone. You’re pleasantly surprised to actually find your coat and then you head out the door, making sure to forget your credit card behind the bar.

And you’re done. Almost…

There’s one more critical step—the moment that propagates the bar species onto the next night: You need to convince yourself that the night was super fun.

Of course, loud, dark, crowded bars are not fun. But drunk usually is fun—no matter where it is. Go to the grocery store drunk with a bunch of friends, and you’ll have fun. Go ride the bus around town—if you’re drunk, you’ll probably have fun. If you had a good time at the bar, what actually happened is you were drunk and the bar was not quite able to ruin it for you. If something is truly fun, it should still be at least a little fun sober, and bars are not even a little fun sober.

Some people aren’t even conscious of the fact that they hate these bars and for them, the self-convincing is an automated process that takes place all through the night. For others, the delusion is a bit more forced and takes a week or two to take hold. A few people won’t ever twist the memory, but enough of their friends will that they’ll need bars for another purpose—avoiding FOMO—and they’ll be back before long.

We have a problem here, with no foreseeable solution—and until something changes, the weekend streets will be lined with little bitches, patiently waiting.

If everyone’s an idiot, guess who’s a jerk? – Eric Schwitzgebel – Aeon

If everyone’s an idiot, guess who’s a jerk? – Eric Schwitzgebel – Aeon.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. Imagine the nature-documentary voice-over: ‘Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian restaurant situation…’ And second – well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet.

As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word ‘jerk’ can refer to two different types of person (I set aside sexual uses of the term, as well as more purely physical senses). The older use of ‘jerk’ designates a kind of chump or an ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one.


The jerk-as-fool usage seems to have begun as a derisive reference to the unsophisticated people of a ‘jerkwater town’: that is, a town not rating a full-scale train station, requiring the boiler man to pull on a chain to water his engine. The term expresses the travelling troupe’s disdain. Over time, however, ‘jerk’ shifted from being primarily a class-based insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a term of moral condemnation. Such linguistic drift from class-based contempt to moral deprecation is a common pattern across languages, as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). (In English, consider ‘rude’, ‘villain’, ‘ignoble’.) And it is the immoral jerk who concerns me here.

Why, you might be wondering, should a philosopher make it his business to analyse colloquial terms of abuse? Doesn’t Urban Dictionary cover that kind of thing quite adequately? Shouldn’t I confine myself to truth, or beauty, or knowledge, or why there is something rather than nothing (to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser answered: ‘If there was nothing you’d still be complaining’)? I am, in fact, interested in all those topics. And yet I suspect there’s a folk wisdom in the term ‘jerk’ that points toward something morally important. I want to extract that morally important thing, to isolate the core phenomenon towards which I think the word is groping. Precedents for this type of work include the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’ (2005) and, closer to my target, the Irvine philosopher Aaron James’s book Assholes (2012). Our taste in vulgarity reveals our values.

I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests. The bumpkin ignorance captured in the earlier use of ‘jerk’ has changed into a type of moral ignorance.

Some related traits are already well-known in psychology and philosophy – the ‘dark triad’ of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, and James’s conception of the asshole, already mentioned. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The asshole, James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. That is one important dimension of jerkitude, but not the whole story. The callous psychopath, though cousin to the jerk, has an impulsivity and love of risk-taking that need be no part of the jerk’s character. Neither does the jerk have to be as thoroughly self-involved as the narcissist or as self-consciously cynical as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common enough jerkish attributes.


The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart. The sweetheart sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, stops to help the person who dropped her papers, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right.

The moral and emotional failure of the jerk is obvious. The intellectual failure is obvious, too: no one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude – a fact about which, as I will explain shortly, the all-out jerk is inevitably ignorant. Which brings me to the other great benefit of a theory of jerks: it might help you figure out if you yourself are one.


With Vazire’s model of self-knowledge in mind, I conjecture a correlation of approximately zero between how one would rate oneself in relative jerkitude and one’s actual true jerkitude. The term is morally loaded, and rationalisation is so tempting and easy! Why did you just treat that cashier so harshly? Well, she deserved it – and anyway, I’ve been having a rough day. Why did you just cut into that line of cars at the last minute, not waiting your turn to exit? Well, that’s just good tactical driving – and anyway, I’m in a hurry! Why did you seem to relish failing that student for submitting her essay an hour late? Well, the rules were clearly stated; it’s only fair to the students who worked hard to submit their essays on time – and that was a grimace not a smile.

Since the most effective way to learn about defects in one’s character is to listen to frank feedback from people whose opinions you respect, the jerk faces special obstacles on the road to self-knowledge, beyond even what Vazire’s model would lead us to expect.


Still, it’s entirely possible for a picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. ‘So what, yeah, I’m a jerk,’ he might say. Provided this label carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk’s moral self-ignorance remains. Part of what it is to fail to appreciate the perspectives of others is to fail to see your jerkishly dismissive attitude toward their ideas and concerns as inappropriate.


All normal jerks distribute their jerkishness mostly down the social hierarchy, and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road – these are the unfortunates who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognises that the perspectives of those above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration. Often, indeed, he feels sincere respect for his higher-ups. Perhaps respectful feelings are too deeply written in our natures to disappear entirely. Perhaps the jerk retains a vestigial kind of concern specifically for those whom it would benefit him, directly or indirectly, to win over. He is at least concerned enough about their opinion of him to display tactical respect while in their field of view. However it comes about, the classic jerk kisses up and kicks down. The company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it’s no great mystery among the secretaries.

Because the jerk tends to disregard the perspectives of those below him in the hierarchy, he often has little idea how he appears to them. This leads to hypocrisies. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student’s or secretary’s document, while producing a torrent of errors himself; it just wouldn’t occur to him to apply the same standards to himself. He might insist on promptness, while always running late. He might freely reprimand other people, expecting them to take it with good grace, while any complaints directed against him earn his eternal enmity. Such failures of parity typify the jerk’s moral short-sightedness, flowing naturally from his disregard of others’ perspectives. These hypocrisies are immediately obvious if one genuinely imagines oneself in a subordinate’s shoes for anything other than selfish and self-rationalising ends, but this is exactly what the jerk habitually fails to do.

Embarrassment, too, becomes practically impossible for the jerk, at least in front of his underlings. Embarrassment requires us to imagine being viewed negatively by people whose perspectives we care about. As the circle of people whom the jerk is willing to regard as true peers and superiors shrinks, so does his capacity for shame – and with it a crucial entry point for moral self-knowledge.

As one climbs the social hierarchy it is also easier to become a jerk. Here’s a characteristically jerkish thought: ‘I’m important, and I’m surrounded by idiots!’ Both halves of this proposition serve to conceal the jerk’s jerkitude from himself.


As you ascend the hierarchy, you will find it easier to discover evidence of your relative importance (your big salary, your first-class seat) and of the relative idiocy of others (who have failed to ascend as high as you). Also, flatterers will tend to squeeze out frank, authentic critics.

This isn’t the only possible explanation for the prevalence of powerful jerks, of course. Maybe jerks are actually more likely to rise in business and academia than non-jerks – the truest sweethearts often suffer from an inability to advance their own projects over the projects of others. But I suspect the causal path runs at least as much in the other direction. Success might or might not favour the existing jerks, but I’m pretty sure it nurtures new ones.


In failing to appreciate others’ perspectives, the jerk almost inevitably fails to appreciate the full range of human goods – the value of dancing, say, or of sports, nature, pets, local cultural rituals, and indeed anything that he doesn’t care for himself. Think of the aggressively rumpled scholar who can’t bear the thought that someone would waste her time getting a manicure. Or think of the manicured socialite who can’t see the value of dedicating one’s life to dusty Latin manuscripts. Whatever he’s into, the moralising jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else.

Furthermore, mercy is near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything that everyone does falls short of perfection: one’s turn of phrase is less than perfect, one arrives a bit late, one’s clothes are tacky, one’s gesture irritable, one’s choice somewhat selfish, one’s coffee less than frugal, one’s melody trite. Practical mercy involves letting these imperfections pass forgiven or, better yet, entirely unnoticed. In contrast, the jerk appreciates neither others’ difficulties in attaining all the perfections that he attributes to himself, nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralising principle therefore comes naturally to him. (Sympathetic mercy is natural to the sweetheart.) And on the rare occasions when the jerk is merciful, his indulgence is usually ill-tuned: the flaws he forgives are exactly the one he recognises in himself or has ulterior reasons to let slide.


He needn’t care only about money and prestige. Indeed, sometimes an abstract and general concern for moral or political principles serves as a kind of substitute for genuine concern about the people in his immediate field of view, possibly leading to substantial self-sacrifice. And in social battles, the sweetheart will always have some disadvantages: the sweetheart’s talent for seeing things from his opponent’s perspective deprives him of bold self-certainty, and he is less willing to trample others for his ends. Social movements sometimes do well when led by a moralising jerk.


Instead of introspection, try listening. Ideally, you will have a few people in your life who know you intimately, have integrity, and are concerned about your character. They can frankly and lovingly hold your flaws up to the light and insist that you look at them. Give them the space to do this, and prepare to be disappointed in yourself.


To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found? In other words, how familiar was the vision of the world I described at the beginning of this essay?

If your self-rationalising defences are low enough to feel a little pang of shame at the familiarity of that vision of the world, then you probably aren’t pure diamond-grade jerk. But who is? We’re all somewhere in the middle. That’s what makes the jerk’s vision of the world so instantly recognisable. It’s our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.

Why odd numbers are dodgy, evens are good, and 7 is everyone’s favourite | Science | The Observer

Why odd numbers are dodgy, evens are good, and 7 is everyone’s favourite | Science | The Observer.

We can explain the popularity of 7 as a favourite number by looking at a classic psychology experiment. When asked to think of a random number between 1 and 10, most people will think of 7. Our response is determined by arithmetic. The numbers 1 and 10 don’t feel random enough, neither does 2, nor the other even numbers, nor 5, which is right in the middle … So we quickly eliminate all the numbers, leaving us with 7, since 7 is the only number that cannot be divided or multiplied within the first 10. Seven “feels” more random. It feels different from the others, more special, because – arithmetically speaking – it is.


We learn at school that numbers are tools for counting, but our relationship with numbers is quite clearly a deep and complex one, dependent on many cultural and psychological factors.

In the far east, superstitions about numbers are more noticeable than in the west. For example, 4 is unlucky for speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean because the word for “4” sounds the same as that for death. Brands avoid product lines with a 4 in them, hotels don’t have fourth floors and aircraft don’t have fourth rows. (This is more disruptive than western fear of 13, primarily since, being smaller, 4 occurs more often than 13).

Eight is a lucky number in east Asia, however, because it sounds like the word for prosperity. A study of newspaper adverts in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong showed that 8 is by far the most popular non-zero digit in a price (for example in ¥6,800, ¥280). If you put an 8 in your price you make the product seem much more alluring.

These superstitions are not lightly held. Indeed, the association of 4 with death has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. US health records show that, for Chinese and Japanese Americans, the chance of suffering a fatal heart attack is 7% higher on the 4th of the month than would be expected.

East Asians hold deep superstitions about numbers, yet outperform western nations in the international league tables of mathematical performance, which suggests that strong mystical beliefs about numbers are not an impediment to learning arithmetic skills.

Glancing ETech 2004

Glancing ETech 2004: slide 1.

1 – Eye contact is a polite way to start conversations

Erving Goffman in his book “Behavior in Public Places” studied the way people interacted in twos and threes and small groups and looked at how people move from unfocused interactions, where they’re in the same place but not together, to encounters, where they’re actually talking to each other.

He saw that people didn’t just start talking but used ambiguous expressive communication to ask if it was okay to start talking first.

Hang on, expressive communication? Right, he made a division into two kinds of messages:

Linguistic messages are your spoken ones. You speak about whatever you want, and deliberately communicate the meaning you want to communicate. Like me giving this talk.

Expressive messages are the ones you – you’re the message receiver – glean about me. The fact I chose to use this particular word rather than another. My body language. The fact I’m here at all! A nervous laugh.

Expressive messages are usually involuntary, but you can pretend if you want: that’s like a poker face.

The great thing about expressive messages is that your intention of sending them is usually unclear — or at least unprovable! The reason I’m talking, and talking is linguistic communication, is to give you information, so much is obvious, but if I look in your direction am I trying to get your attention, or just staring into space?

So Goffman found that a person would try to start a conversation with a glance that is…

“sufficiently tentative and ambiguous to allow him to act as if no initiation has been intended, if it appears that his overture is not desired.”

Which makes sense. It’s a good way of saving face. Rather than being a person other people ignore, you can just say their thoughts were on other things. Letting people save face is really important if you want to keep them happy.

Howard Rhiengold in his book Smart Mobs gives a good example of text messaging being used for this. He talked about kids in Sweden after a party. Say you’ve seen someone you quite liked and you’d like to see them again, but don’t know if the feeling’s shared. You’d send them a blank text message, or maybe just a really bland one like “hey, good party”. If they reply, ask for a date. The first message is almost entirely expressive communication: tentative, deniable.

So what usually happens in cyberspace, if I want to approach someone? I could send them an email to see if it’s okay to start emailing… it’s all quite blunt, and although I can be tentative in what I write in that email it’d be better if it was built into the software itself.


2 – Healthier small groups

So the way eye contact works as a tentative conversation opener is you look at someone, and they give you a clearance sign for that conversation by meeting your eyes. The reason this works, says Goffman, is that the very fact we’re using a sense, that fact can be noticed. And the way we notice that is by using those very same senses!

If two people look at each other, they can see each other and simultaneously see that the other person has seen them. It’s really efficient.

This visibility is used in small groups. Whenever you have more than two people together, there’s the chance that a pair of them might be carrying on with their own secret interaction, just between the two of them. They’re being disloyal to the gathering.

This is no problem in the real world because if it gets too bad then everyone else in the group can see what’s going on. That visibility moderates the behaviour and keeps everyone concentrated on the main activity.

No such luck in cyberspace. If there’s a bunch of us chatting, it’s usually really easy for a couple of people to start a direct connection, to start talking without anyone else noticing, even about the same subject. It doesn’t feel impolite, as it would in the physical world, because nobody’s going to notice, even though it still shifts their attention from the main event.

In the real world, people generally opt to stick with the group and feel uncomfortable about not doing so.

In other words, they’re polite. I’m quite up for this idea of politeness. Number one, people want to be polite. Number two, people don’t want to put other people in the position of having to be rude.

You can see this in software.

There’s an example here in a piece of software called Montage which a research group developed to help a team of people work together even though they were in geographically distributed offices. Montage simulated popping your head into someone’s office to see if they were busy, and if they’re free, you can ask them a question.

The way it did this was to have a button on your computer that brought up the video from a webcam on somebody else’s machine. Looking through this webcam, they called a glance. Glances were reciprocal, so if you looked into someone’s office with the webcam, a video of you fades up on their computer.

It worked pretty well as it happens, but people did say they felt more obliged to let those video glances turn into encounters than if someone looked through the door.

Why? I’d say it’s because there’s no plausible way to pretend you didn’t notice the video approach. You’re working on an Excel spreadsheet when bang a video pops up on your screen. No way you’re not going to notice that. In fact, it’s so obvious that you can’t not notice that, the person who’s glancing in must have a really important request! So either you ignore them, and implicitly accuse them of frivolously wasting your time, or you take the message. People take the message.

So. People want to be polite, in general. In a group situation they’ll moderate disloyal activity and join in with the whole group instead of carrying on with a side-interaction. That’s why, in Glancing, you glance not at individual people but at the whole group. Because in real life, politeness would encourage you to look at the whole group. The software default is to assume you want to be polite.

This isn’t true, for example, with email. It’s all too easy to reply only to the sender on a cc’d email. Even if this doesn’t happen to you, you’re not sure whether anyone else is doing it. There’s a lack of visibility.

Incidentally, I’ll come back to the question of why software doesn’t generally give you visibility of sense use in a bit. But for the moment I’m talking about why eye contact is good, so,

3 – Recognition

When you look at someone, you’re recognising they’re there.

Recognition is important because it helps with human bonding.

Why is bonding important in this context? Well, it’s because in small groups we’re dealing with people who are closest to you, and these are the people who you need to bond with the most.

Here’s a tool to help think about this kind of thing. Transactional Analysis is a psychological tool from the 1950s. It models communication between people in terms of transactions, a request and response. The smallest unit of a transaction, the basic unit of human recognition, TA calls a stroke.

It’s a nice way of thinking about it: recognising someone, making eye contact with someone, is a stroke: think of protohumans on the African savannah grooming one another, swapping strokes.

Now, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, talked about grooming in his paper on neocortex size and social group size in primates. He said we have a maximum cohesive social group of about 150. That’s the maximum stable size of your community in a given context — so, we find that scientific research specialities have a size of about 150 people. My mum has about 150 people on her christmas card list. It was the size of early villages across the world 8000 years ago, and in comparable cultures now. It’s been the size of army units through the ages. It’s the maximum number of buddies the AOL instant messenger server allows you to have.

Actually, 150 is the number of people the social computing centres of your brain can work with. You know, if you’re keeping track of who you owe favours, who nicked your berries last time you climbed a tree, that kind of thing. 150.

But actually that number is dictated by how much time you spend grooming your primary network. Primary network? This large social group is made out of many smaller networks.

Dunbar found that the primary network, the small group, they’re cohorts. They protect each other, stand up for each, against the big group as a whole. Individuals in too large a social group get stressed; it’s important to have your supportive primary network around, and you maintain that by expending effort on them.

Grooming, for chimps, is picking fleas and lice, but we have a way which is more efficient: conversation. Whereas you can only pick fleas from one other person at a time, you can talk to several at once. One of the key characteristics of this kind of grooming, however, is that it’s public.

This can be seen in the exchange of text messages in Alex Taylor’s paper looking at 16-19 year olds in an English school. They send each other quite mundane messages, with their mobile phones, but what’s important is the reciprocity. They establish their peer networks and social status, inside their community, by who sent what to whom, and who replied. Taylor said it resembled descriptions of gift-giving cultures in Polynesia.

It’s important you can see who’s grooming who because it’s like a public assertation of “don’t mess with my friends”. It’s meaningful when you publicly put your neck on the line for someone.

The kids simulate visibility of the grooming, the strokes of recognition, by showing each other the text messages. They treat them as things of value to show off.

So SMS is brilliant. The two most important things for what it means to be human: figure out the pecking order in your community and getting dates.


These three together tell us what attributes of eye contact we need to support for small groups. We need use of eye contact to be:

  • unconscious or involuntary (but deliberate if you want)

  • visible to other people in the group

Out of that, as we can see with SMS and mobiles, you can grow the tentative requests for encounters and social grooming.

Two other aspects. You need to feel the presence of people around so you can decide to make eye contact.

And I’d prefer it to be polite.

That’s the why. That’s very roughly what we’re aiming for. Now for the How.

Done in two ways:

1 – Presence

Telepresence is a huge topic I wish I had time to go into more here. As it is, I’ll just point you towards At The Heart Of It All which summarises different kinds of presence and why presence is good.

In a nutshell, we’re interested in the subjective feeling there are other people nearby, and that you all feel like the same people are there. That’s social copresence. And presence is good because it does things like improve social judgement and improves learning ability and memory.

All you really need for presence is to be able to detect the actions of another person on your computer. It can be anything above seeing whether the other person has turned the application on or not. Realism, little avatars or faces, isn’t important.


2 – Interface needs to be close to unconscious, visible, and tentative

To make it so the interface to Glancing is almost backgrounded and to encourage perhaps unconscious use, there’s a number of tricks we can use:

  • it’s small, both physically, and how much it stands out among other application. It got a tiny icon and it operates in a very Mac-like way, sitting where these sort of applications usually sit. Looking at the icon and opening the menu is a familiar gesture, so there’s a low cognitive overhead in looking at who’s online, made even lower by the fact you don’t actually choose to glance — it’s a side-effect of seeing the list of who’s in your group. And seeing that list is only a single click away from whatever you’re doing, because that menu is always available.

  • it’s slow. The icons are deliberately very similar so that when the glancing activity changes it doesn’t immediately catch your attention. If it did, that might mean each person in the group would decide to reciprocate, and suddenly you’re all in an encounter situation you didn’t want. So the icons are different enough to tell you the activity level, but not different enough to be distracting. Given the fact people might not notice the level for a while, Glancing is a slow application. A glance persists for 2 hours — that is, two hours after you’ve done a glance, the eye will still be open a little bit.

  • ambiguous. These two contribute to the feeling that you don’t know whether people have deliberately opened the menu or not, or whether they’ve even noticed you’ve been sending glances. It brings in that ‘tentative’ aspect I was talking about earlier, hopefully addresses that problem we saw in Montage. Something that adds to this is that you don’t glance at a specific person, you glance at the whole group. Just to restate this politeness thing: if you were sitting round a pub table with your mates, you wouldn’t just keep on looking at a single person — that’s a subactivity and frowned upon. Besides, everyone else would see you doing it and think you were weird. So to be polite you’d distribute your glances, your little strokes of recognition, around the entire table. What Glancing, the application, does by glancing at the entire group is assume in the first instance you want to be polite and just do that instead.


We can place ourselves in the middle of two long-term trends.

The first trend is the mixing of cyberspace and the real world, which has tides in two directions.

Coming from cyberspace we expect to be able to manipulate objects and automate that manipulation. That requires giving things handles and names. Coming into the physical world, we find it’s not like that: it’s a continuous world, we can’t get handles on it. So we end up creating handles for things: MP3s for Music, GeoURL for locations, email addresses for people. Look at how much effort the social software community is spending talking about Identity, which is just moot, not important, when we socialise face to face. Not only do we create handles in the real world, but we get upset when we can’t make full use of them. Why we get upset about that I’ll come back to at the end because I think it’s important.

This isn’t unique to cyberspace. We do the same thing with scientific models, or any way of talking about the world. We externalise our mental models. This process is named constructivist, this way we have to partition and name the world around us in order to interact with it. Now, I’m not saying this is new: it’s the industrial mindset (the conduit metaphor) — the ability to be able to break down a process into discrete steps is

(a) what gave us the ability to make production lines, to commoditise goods, and to complete the second half of the industrial revolution. That was Fordism, early twentieth century

(b) and this is the same as being able to program. That is, to decide that you can represent a process using only numbers and simple manipulations. You break it up into performable steps.

The problem being that to name and identify things is contentious. In cyberspace we’ve limited the number of people who can name things (have ontic powers), who can bring things into existence by contributing to the naming. So we can’t all create webpages, create new email protocols, or whatever. I’ll come back to this, because I want to talk about the other direction of this tide.

Coming into cyberspace we’re bombarded with data. In the physical world we’re used to handling this with our senses, peripheral vision. So we demand to not just read the data about the stockmarket or our social network, but to convert it into a format where it can be gleaned, experienced.

This is what Mark Rantzer has called supersenses: new communication senses to understand the huge mass of information that confronts us.

The idea is that by compressing complex data and presenting it in a way that minimises cognitive overhead, we can have a kind of background awareness of otherwise difficult to understand qualities.

This is the idea behind the Ambient Orb, which glows different colours depending on different variables. So it could glow red if the stockmarket was falling. Once you’d gotten used to the device, you wouldn’t even notice it was there, it would just be sitting there quietly white or green in the corner of your eye. Then one day it glows red and suddenly you become really aware of it: you’re losing money!

What I really love about the Ambient Orb is that it takes advantage of its presence in a physical world to do things I’ve been complaining are hard online. Other people nearby can tell if you’re looking at it, there’s a visibility of use. You can catch it in your peripheral vision, take it for granted, and never really focus on it until you see it’s red.

I think what’s missing from it is an aspect of how we process complex data normally. It doesn’t have an aspect of “look closer”, you know, you don’t examine harder it to get a better representation of the stockmarket.

It’s the same with the Dangling String, which is a device that hangs in your peripheral vision, a piece of string hanging from the ceiling, and it jiggles about the more network traffic there is on your local network. It’s a terrific example of what Mark Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing, calls “calm technology”. In fact, I think this kind of calm technology is the future of public computing in general. But let’s say it’s jiggling really badly one day and you want to see what’s going on — so you look really close, but what do you see? Just more string!

That ‘look closer’ bit is missing. What we’re finding with these new supersenses – the Ambient Orb, Dangling String and Montage – is that we can’t use our normal computer-world metaphors of objects-and-messages to approximate how human beings really work. How we actually use our senses, not just looking and hearing but our social senses too.

That is, before now we could think about the email and the email client as being separate things. We didn’t have to consider what it really means for one person to send an email to another person, not in the social sense. It’s all abstraction layers, afterall. An email client receives an email: why should the program care who it’s from, whether it was expected or not? They’re orthogonal issues, surely?

Well what we’re finding is that with small groups the abstraction layers break down. From a design perspective we can’t just think about discrete events, we have to enable [garden] the dynamics processes of ongoing communication too. And that’s part of the second big trend.

The second big trend is the gradual improvement of our models for understanding dynamic processes.

A very brief history.

The computing world comes out of first-order cybernetics. This way of looking at the world came from the 1950s and was all about controlling systems with loops and feedback. From that came the idea of sending messages, of systems responding to messages and sending more messages out. If we could structure the world into objects and information, all in messages, all nicely abstracted, that’s all we’d need to do, we’d be sorted.

That’s the worldview that produced the computer chip, programming, and cyberspace. It’s all request and response, messages being sent between boxes.

We’re now confronting issues already identified by the more mature second-order cybernetics which arose in the 1970s, but it was pretty vague so not so influential. It’s all about human processes and instead of looking at individual objects and messages, talked about systems which self-created and changed. For this we need to allow fuzzier edges. There should be visibility of those messages being sent around so nearby objects can alter their behaviour and adapt. Systems should be able to complexify, simplify.

Now the reason this is so important, this second trend, is the constructivist nature of cyberspace I mentioned earlier. We use our mental models both to understand the world, and there’s feedback too: we use our mental models to create it.

If we understand the world through the lens of first-order cybernetics, that means we model the world in terms of people being objects sending messages to one another. That’s the world in which all we care about is that person A can send an email to person B.

On the other hand, if we understand the world in terms of dynamic processes, then we’re more interested in how people band together into small groups. We’re more interested in make email work better to send to people you’re really close to. To help defuse arguments, help people save face.

And that’s the world we’re gradually moving into.


What Floridi points out is that cyberspace is still relatively simple. The actions of a single individual can disproportionately effect the composition or evolution of the society that exists online. What’s more, the composition of the environment quite directly affects the kinds of actions people can perform: the existence of the email protocol allows a new form of interpersonal communication.

This combination – of being powerful and having clear consequences – puts us in a similar situation to what’s happening in the real world with the environment. When humans became powerful enough to affect the environment on a global scale, a new kind of ethics emerged, one that gave value to things which might inadvertently be damaged: the atmosphere, rainforests, rocks. We give these things intrinsic value. Actually it happens even on a small scale. Geologists have a code too, where the rocks have an intrinsic worth: you don’t bore holes into them in obvious places, you don’t leave paint splashed around.

In the context of cyberspace, Floridi calls this cyberethics.

Information objects themselves, he says, have moral worth. The more able we are to manipulate and use an object, that is, the more handles it has, the more valuable it is, the more worthy it is. If you improve the information, you’re doing a good deed. That’s wiki gardening, the concept of idly improving a website just as you wander by. If you leave the object open to be used in as many ways as possible, to be more manipulable, you’re doing a good deed. Well, that’s the free software movement.

Floridi underpins with a simple, graspable concept, what we who have lived with the internet feel instinctively is good and bad.

So from this perspective, concepts like adaptable design, and designing for hackability and unintended consequences aren’t just design rules of thumb, they’re aspects of how to be a good person and create a just society.

From Floridi’s environmental cyberethics, wiki gardening and free software are the cyberspace equivalents of respecting rainforests and biodiversity.