Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Agency Through and Within the Grid

There is, in some circles (that even I sometimes run in), the assumption that nudges (or "hidden persuaders" or "the power of suggestion") somehow render the nudged less active and less critical, and that nudges undermine individual human agency. If you got tricked into eating healthy food, the argument goes, then you were not exercising any critical agency. I have argued elsewhere(s) (and sometimes until I was blue in the face) that rather than a challenge to critical human agency, the presence of nudges (and I would argue that they are ubiquitous and unavoidable) should compel us to redefine just what we mean by and count as agency. Nudges remind us that human agency is imbricated in larger social, cultural, technology, and biological ecologies. Human agencies (those we like and those we don't like) have never stood apart from such ecologies, whose nudges cultivate the very agencies we come to count as part and parcel of who we are.

This imbrication is discussed (or suggested) in a July, 2010, National Geographic story on "The 21st Century Grid." One of the arguments built into this discussion of the evolution of the "smart grid," complete with new nudges, is that a smarter, more automated power grid can mean savvier, active consumers. Currently, our individual use of electrical power is difficult to monitor. In most places, the feedback consists a person coming to your house at intervals and reading your meter. Then, you get the bill in the mail. That's the one nudge you get. I would argue that even sparse nudges are nonetheless nudges. The current grid is not a no-nudge environment but a bad-nudge environment. Moving away from this nudge model, which is basically the same as it was the 1960s, new nudges would include smart meters "that allow consumers to program their appliances [...] at off peak hours, when electricity is cheap." This is similar to the way some cars today allow drivers to their current fuel consumption rates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such feedback nudges drivers to be more fuel efficient (my father has made this into a game, for instance). The article thus proclaims, "In the 21st century we'll become active participants in the management of this vast and seemingly unknowable network that makes our civilization possible."

Certainly, this will strike most of us as optimistic if not naive. However, there are two key points to be made here with respect to nudges and agency. First, the electrical grid itself cultivates a series of agencies not possible without it (computing, film, television, and ice cream consumption whenever). Second, and related, such nudges do not eliminate something like agency; what they do is cultivate agencies. I'd argue that agency is always already nudged and cultivated. The running agent is made possible by legs; the driving agent made possible by a car. The car nudges us to drive it (it suggests, in other words, that we drive it). A car, however, does not impede upon agency because it "tricks" us into driving it. The car defines an agency that does not exist apart from it.

I thus see nudges as just such technologies. Having a "smart grid" does not make us uncritical un-agents (zombies?). It could very well produce agencies we do not like, but, then, we'd have to argue about that particular agency (without prematurely boiling down a debate about what and why to whether or not). To assume that a "smart grid" impedes upon agency is to presume agency does (or has ever) existed apart from, to borrow from Burke, acts, scenes, purposes, agents, and attitudes. Nudges (re)define the conditions of possibility for human agency. The gird as is is not more empowering because it appears to leave us alone to decide as autonomous agents whether or not to turn the lights off. It simply enables another kind (or quality) of agency--a quality of agency that seems to be increasingly problematic if we hope to increase the efficiency and sufficiency of our power grid, itself the ultimate nudge that cultivates us as the electrical-technological agents we have become: not more or less active or passive, but differently and, thus, debate-able agents, active and wise.

1 comment:

  1. "Prices," in a free market, were always the necessary nudges that facilitated agency. In our current mixed economy, as you point out, the process of nudging has become far more complicated and (therefore, I think?) subject to more ideological manipulation.

    If I wanted to buy a house in a market economy, I would look around and see if the price was right. If I want to buy one now, I have to look at that indicator, and then also try to judge whether the government is going to offer a new tax-incentive (or end an old one). The nudges are becoming more difficult to predict, which makes behavior more difficult, doesn't it?

    What's that italicized bit in your last paragraph: nudges (re)define the conditions of possibility for human agency.

    It's the "(re)" part there that's making me jittery. What was wrong with the way conditions were defined at an earlier time? And who says?