Just an Idea

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If there’s one law everybody seems to think they’re above, it’s the law of unintended consequences, writes Mark Eltringham. But the world would be a boring place if people didn’t routinely subvert the things sent to influence their behaviour.

The story goes that, when Rem Koolhaas was appointed to design the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2003, the legendary architect noticed how students had created their own pathways between the buildings on the site. The site of the new building included a field on which their footprints had worn down the grass to such an extent that distinct grooves had been carved out that reflected their movements. Given that his brief was to create a new building that serves as a central hub for student life and that he had already been offered an organic design blueprint for the way students used the campus, he decided to reflect this in the layout of the new building. The result is an irregular floor plan with diagonal corridors of differing widths linking the parts of the interior in a way that reflects the number of students who use the paths
they create.

This tale could be interpreted in a number of ways. About how Koolhaas was able to use his powers of observation to look at a problem in a new way. About how lazy some people are when getting from A to B. About the need to create organic designs that reflect how people move around. But also about how people are likely to subvert the intentions of designers and all of those who think they can influence their behaviour.

The law of unintended consequences seems to be one of those laws from which everybody thinks they might be exempt. Yet barely a day goes by when some endeavour, idea or piece of legislation isn’t subjected to the free thinking, preferences, whims, idiosyncracies and mischievousness of human beings. In recent weeks these include Microsoft’s attempt to introduce the world to a Twittterbot called Tay as a way of showcasing the latest developments in artificial intelligence. Launched on March 23, within 16 hours the good people of Twitter had taught Tay to be a misogynistic, racist, genocidal bigot, prompting Microsoft to send Tay to bed for an early night and a long think about her new friends.

…within 16 hours the good people of Twitter had taught Tay to be a misogynistic, racist, genocidal bigot…

Then, last week, we found out that in the 12 months since British men acquired shared parental leave rights, just 1% had taken up the chance offered them by the new legislation. It’s true that the research included all men and women rather than just parents, but there was a great deal of devil in the detail of the report, including the fact that the majority of women were not generally keen on sharing their parental leave rights and that, in any case, parents made decisions on the basis of a range of practical considerations, including career opportunities, personal preferences and financial considerations.

This kind of thing is worth bearing in mind whenever you hear anybody suggesting that they understand the links between cause and effect before a human being is added to the mix. This is the tiger in the rough; the capricious, unpredictable, limiting factor that makes everything so fascinating and every idea so nebulous.