Monthly Archives: October 2006

Network Theory [are we like telephones?]

Last week I tried to relate what we are doing to a biological system, using Richard Dawkins concept of a meme as a starting point. It was a fun exercise, and learning experience.

Tonight I’m going to see how this depletist project fits into network theory. Again, please bare with me as I am no expert in network theory, but I did spend a good part of the day reading up on it. If you by chance are an expert of network theory I’d love to hear what you think, heck even if you aren’t an expert I’d still love to hear what you think.

Here we go…

Environmentalism has always seemed like an all or nothing deal to me. I have found myself asking why should I stop driving when no one else is going to stop? Why pay more for green power if everyone isn’t going to?

This is dangerous thinking. This logic is seen when people buy bigger cars for safety (thus requiring the next person using this logic to buy an even bigger one, etc), also when countries have nuclear weapons (if country x has one then country y thinks they need one to protect themselves, so country z thinks they need one to protect themselves from x and y, etc.)

This phenomenon uses logic skewed through a lens of fear. What if we exploited this form of logic for a good cause. If we used this logic, but skewed it through a lens of faith, to create positive change. The faith I am talking about has nothing to do with religion, it is a faith in man to make a decision beyond short term gain. This made me ask, is it our lack of faith in others that holds us back from embracing environmentalism?

As I learned today on wikipedia there are two kinds of economic value to be concerned about when thinking of network effects:
1) Inherent – My value from my using the product
2) Network – my value from your using the product

The network value can then be subdivided:
2.1) Direct Network Value is an immediate result of others adopting the same system (i.e.. e-mail).
2.2) Indirect Network Value is the secondary result of many people using the same system.

Let’s look at network theory in context to this project. Economic value can be seen as positive environmental change, so an increase in economic value is an increase in positive environmental change. The product is the word / thought depletist, and the network is society. We can look at system as being analogous with environmental lifestyle.
What is the inherent and network value of this project? My value from using the word is that I have a tool to label both people and actions (of others and my own). This allows me to identify concisely when something is going against the system, giving me an opportunity to avoid or condemn the activity. The networks value increases because I am using a tool to forward the goal of the system.

This will (hopefully) create a positive network effect. The more people using the word the more powerful it becomes. A common example of a positive network effect is telephones. If one person has one, there is no value, but as the number of users increase the value (usefulness) of having a phone increases. There is also the possibility of negative network effects. In the case of phones, a busy signal is an example of negative network effects. This is a result of limited resources. I don’t think a word / thought can run into issues of limited resources, but feel free to prove me wrong…

There are a few equations (the most well known being Matcalfe’s law) that try to define the value of a network based on the number of users, but it seems to be a bit inconclusive as to whether it proves the actual or potential value of a network.

Are environmentalist like phones? If there is only one environmentalist they aren’t going to make a difference, but as their numbers increase they become more powerful. So how can we get people to jump on the bandwagon?

This got me wondering how bandwagons exist in western culture when we are all striving for individuality? Are the bandwagon just getting smaller than they used to be? Two things that are thriving in our culture are MySpace and the iPod. I think one of their keys to success is that they foster individuality. They both offer a space that can be filled with whatever the owner feels represents them.

The problem with bandwagons is that they require everyone to listen to the same band. How can the environmental movement foster individuality within certain guidelines. I think I’m started to veer of in another direction here, but it might be worth coming back to another day…

Back to network theory…

In network theory there is something called positive feedback, essentially the more people that use a product, the more people that want to use the product. This causes the network to grow more quickly as time passes. I gave an example of positive feedback when I talked about people buying increasingly bigger cars. That was based on fear, what if we created a positive feedback system on faith (I believe that if I do recycling other people will too). This will create a domino effect (the domino effect indicates that some change, small in itself, will cause a similar change nearby, which then will cause another similar change, and so on in linear sequence, by analogy to a falling row of dominos standing on end – wikipedia). I think in this case it has the potential for exponential change. Another example of positive feedback occurs when people vote for a politician who appears to be in the lead, thus increasing the voters odds of being on the winners side, and the politicians odds of winning. In positive feedback loops preference increases as popularity increases. 

I wonder how long this loop can sustain itself? Especially in our culture, where as soon as something becomes too cool it’s popularity quickly drops.

Does sustainability not deserve a sustainable solution?

I think this post might offer more questions then solutions (I suppose it would be stranger if I had more solutions than questions…)

I guess what I’m trying to say is have faith that your little (or big) changes have the ability to start the dominos falling, and as more people see the dominos falling the more they will want to be a part of it, thus creating a positive feedback loop and increasing the value of our network.

Love to hear what you think, good and bad.


ps. A few topics I’m going to be reading up on, and hopefully writing on in the next week or so; Tipping Point (Mark Granovetter), Media Ecology (Marshall Mcluhan), and Flock and Flow – predicting and managing change in a dynamic marketplace (Grant McCracken). I’ve really appreciated the suggested readings in the comments, I’d love to hear more.

Meme 2 [we are all cells]

Before I get into a this post I just wanted to share what a nice old eastern european lady said to me after seeing the video at the OCAD open house on Saturday. As she was leaving the room she thanked me, I asked her what for. She replied, “For exercising my mind.” To which I said, “Oh, did you like it?” Her response to this is probably one of the nicest things someone has said about any project I’ve worked on, “It is not a matter of liking, it was intellectually stimulating, it made me look at something in a new way, and that is what I desire from artist and students.” So good work everyone, let’s keep the intellectual stimulation going…

I’ve done a little more reading about the concept of memes, very interesting theory. I like that it relates the structure of biology to the structure of culture. I’m going to attempt to break this project down and explain it in terms of biology. Maybe looking at this from a different vantage point will shed a new light on what we are up to.
To start I’ll explain the analogies I’m basing this on.

Given that, here is my attempt. If you have a biology background, I would first of like to apologize for what I’m sure is an over simplification (and possibly out right wrong), also if you could help me tighten this up I would really appreciate it.

What we have created with our project is a gene. The only way we can have any influence over the organism is by introducing genes. The gene we have introduced will become part of a cells DNA. The gene will be one piece of the instructions that tell the cell what to do. We have the power to introduce the gene to any cell’s DNA we come in contact with (although in this case contact is not limited to the physical realm). Those cells are now capable of passing the gene on to any other cell’s DNA they come in contact with, and so on.
What we do not have any control over is whether the gene we introduce will in fact become a part of the cell’s DNA. The DNA must have a favorable combination of genes to allow this new one to join them in dictating the cells behaviour. We can control how many cells we try to pass this gene on to, but we can’t control whether (even if they have accepted the gene into their DNA) they will try to pass the gene on to other cell’s DNA. We also have no power over whether the gene will have a strong enough effect on the cell’s DNA to be able to perceive any noticeable change in the cell’s behaviour.
We are left hoping that the gene finds a favourable combination of genes in the DNA to have the desired effect on the cell’s behaviour. Once one cell’s behaviour changes, it will begin to have an influence in creating a more hospitable organism for our gene, making both other cells and the entire organism more likely to accept the gene into it’s DNA. Once enough cells’ DNA have been altered then we will begin to perceive change in the organism as a whole.
The gene will likely evolve along the way, trying to find the optimal niche in the DNA for it to affect the cell. We, as introducers of this gene have no control over it’s mutations and combinations, but we know that evolution will result in the fittest gene. Now we just have to hope that the organisms altered DNA is in line with our original intentions.

Well I hope I haven’t over complicated this, or made it more confusing.

So this meme we’ve created with the concept / word depletist will hopefully affect peoples behaviours, and once those behaviours start to change we will see a change in culture. In theory this all works. I’m really excited to see what happens in the much more complex environment of society. What mutations will this project take along it’s way to influencing culture, assuming of course society deems this idea fit enough.
I guess there are a lot of examples of scientist tampering with evolution, with mixed results. I personally think we should let evolution take this idea for a ride. What mutations will be necessary for it to become a part of our culture? What criteria does culture use to evaluate the ‘fitness’ of an idea? If you tamper with evolution will you create something that requires constant maintenance and supervision (I hear corn can’t even grow in the wild any more…).
Let me know what you think. Did looking at this from a different angle bring any new thoughts about what we are doing?



My new word of the day is Meme.

meme (memes)
1. Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples might include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, ethnicity etc.
2. A self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics).

As Steve Portigal has kindly pointed out, this is what we have created.

I am going to do a little more research on memes (as they are new to me) and write another post (hopefully) later today, and look at some ways that we can use the theory of memes to disseminate the word. From just skimming the wikipedia entry on memes, it looks really interesting.

Thanks again Steve for pointing that out.


The Project

So as I’m sure (or at least hope) those of you who frequent the Squeeze blog have heard of the project Lewis Nicholson’s 4th year think tank has begun. Robin encouraged me to start a blog about what we are up to, and to give those of you familiar with the project an update on where we stand and where we are planning on going.

In our think tank class we are examining the question “How can we make environmentalism the norm?” We spent the first few weeks discussing many possible ways of trying to tackle this question (as you can see on our forum). Coming from an advertising background, my mind jumped straight to the idea of branding. I think we can all agree that environmentalism could do with an image overhaul. How can we make it cool and sexy so that everyone would want to be associated with it. We soon realized that it’s a bit tricky branding a concept that doesn’t really belong to anyone, making it tough to keep a coherent brand message. I just finished reading Flock and Flow by Grant McCracken (blog) and in his book he writes about brands that had lost all meaning, which had remarkably been brought back to life by those in-the-know (hipsters). He reasons that once brands have lost all their meaning they are essentially empty vessels whose meaning is waiting to be formed. We explored the idea of trying to strip environmentalism of all it’s meaning and associations thus giving it to contemporary environmentalists to reshape into something new, but again, when this is not a product that you have control over trying to strip the word of it’s meaning is an impossible task (and possibly in this case undesirable).

This is where it gets interesting. When your first idea doesn’t work, try the opposite.

There are a few words that pop into my head (and more often then not slip of my tongue) when I see some one idling alone in their Hummer downtown, but they always felt much to generic to have the impact I desired. Calling the driver an asshole (although momentarily satisfying) never felt adequate in describing my feelings. There is a need for this word.
When you hear someone say something derogatory about someone’s race you don’t feel at a loss for what to call them. They are racist. We need a word that can be used in the same tone as racist, but in an environmental context.
Because branding environmentalism didn’t work, we found ourselves going down a much more interesting path of trying to brand the opposite.
In our research we found that the word racist didn’t even exist until 1933 (it was not in an english dictionary until 1936). We found this very surprising. We found that the idea of racism has been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t until 1933 that we had a tool to define this form of thought / action. By no means can the word racism claim responsibility for the drastic transformation in our society since it’s introduction, but I think it’s fair to argue that it was an essential tool to the civil rights movement. It gave activists a tool to label those who were against their cause. It gave that thought a life. Now there was a concise definition for what the civil rights movement was fighting. The villain now had a name.

We have named our villain.

1. An individual or group demonstrating apparent negligent or reckless disregard for the environmental consequences of their actions.
2. An individual or group that exhausts non-renewable resources and rejects positive environmental strategies.

The interesting thing about words like racist and sexist is that they have no antonym (other than generic words like tolerant). This leads us to believe that they are the exception. Either you are a racist or you are normal. We want to do the same for the environmental movement. Either you are a depletist or you are normal.

In psychology we find that the amount of time between action and effect is directly linked to how strong a connection we form between the two. When it comes to environmental issues the cause and the effect can often be a lifetime apart, which forms a very weak link between driving your SUV and global warming. This word can be used as an effect. Calling someone a depletist, which is undesirable, can be used to shortening the time between doing something that harms the environment (cause) and the effect (being called a depletist) which will strengthen the bond.

Robin asked me something that sounds very familiar to what I hear in my advertising classes. Now that you have this idea, how do you actually change behaviour?

Good question. We are still trying to figure this out, and there really is no easy answer, but here is my attempt at one, for now any way. It is very subtle, but since the word has been formed I’ve noticed that it has effected my behaviour. In the past when I would do something that I knew was bad for the environment, like getting my coffee in a styrofoam cup as opposed to my thermos, I would be conscious of it, but it ended there. Now when I do it, the word depletist pops in to my head, there is nothing ambiguous about what I am doing now. I am being a depletist. It is the same feeling I get when I think a sexist or racist thought, I regret it immediately and feel guilty about it, and because of those feelings, the thoughts never become more than just thoughts. We all make conscious efforts to not come across as prejudice. I think the same will happen with the concept of depletism. We may still have a depletist thought, but hopefully the guilt associated with the thought will stop it from manifesting itself. Also, looking at the word racist, we see that the word was necessary to form laws and policies to fight it, now we have a word to use in forming environmental laws and policies.

To recap, our class has created and defined the opposite of an environmentalist. Our hope is that it can be used as a tool against those who fit the definition (which currently applies to practically all of us). We hope that it will become an essential, yet invisible, tool in the environmental movement, just as the word racist was in the civil rights movement.

It took 33 years from the first time the word racist was used until the UN created the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Now you know where we are, now let’s talk about where we are going.



We are spending the remainder of the semester trying to come up with innovative and meaningful ways of introducing the language into culture. One example, that has been posted on a few websites already is the package we created for the guests who attended the Juice conference at OCAD a few weeks ago. The package contained a five dollar bill with the definition on depletist printed on it. The concept was that we were giving the recipients two tools. One being the word, the second being the money. In the package we quoted Joel Makower “Every time you open your wallet you cast a vote – either for or against the environment.” By placing the definition on the money we forced the owner of the bill to think twice about what they were buying. This was also a great way to spread the word, while at the same time creating no waste. We also created stickers with the definition printed on them (which were sized to fit into your dictionary), and to continue with the mandate of no waste we printed instruction on how to add the word to your computer’s dictionary on the back.

We are continuing to look for smart ways of getting the word out, please comment if you have any ideas.

We are also going to be spending some time documenting the spread of the word. We hope to create a case study of how a word becomes part of our language. I am posting all the links on tagging them with the word depletist, feel free to do the same. If you have any information about the spread of the word that you think we would find interesting please post a comment or get in touch with me. To share what I know about it’s spread thus far…There are 31 unique google hits, up from zero a week ago. It is in the Wiktionary. It is posted on blogs across Canada (from Toronto to Victoria) It was posted on Core 77 design blog. There are now two videos on YouTube. Robert Ouellette (a Juice speaker and editor of Reading Toronto) introduced the word at a United Nations Symposium on sustainable design in New York to some of the worlds most influential academics and politicians, and he reports that it was well received. Mary Jane Braide, who was in attendance at Juice, passed the word on to some of her colleagues at Bruce Mau Design and they intend on using it with some of their environmentally minded clients. Greg Van Alstyne (currently a Professor and Researcher at OCAD and former Director of The Institute Without Boundaries) mentioned to me that he used the word at a new media conference in New York over the weekend.
And all this happened only 7 days after the word was first used in public.

I think saying we are amazed at the incredible pace at which this is happening wouldn’t even come close to describing it. We’d like thank all those who have been using the word, and have as a result become a part of this exciting project.