Answer this question to experience sense of agency

For the past few months, as I make the fifteen-minute walk between my residence and my office in Edinburgh, I have interacted with a particular pedestrian crossing. You know the kind with a button which we are supposed to dutifully press and then wait until the signal (here in the form of a somewhat generic, slim, green, male stick figure) gives us permission to cross the road? Some enterprising individual has taken this ubiquitous element of the Edinburgh cityscape and added their social commentary, in the form of a sticker reading ‘press the button to experience sense of agency.’ And this got me thinking…

Many of the buttons that we are routinely invited to press as we go about our lives — from door close buttons in elevators to office thermostats — don’t actually work, but are artifices serving only to provide that experience of a sense of agency. Indeed, according to the BBC, ‘Edinburgh has roughly 300 traffic junctions of which about 50–60 are junctions where the green man comes on automatically.’ And this is the case in many other cities across the world. These buttons sometimes work, sometimes don’t, never work, work at varying intervals at different times, and so on. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the buttons aren’t ‘working’, but that they are doing a different sort of ‘work’ than what we might first expect. They provide a sense of agency. This is not unlike the ‘work’ done by social surveys. Continue reading “Answer this question to experience sense of agency”

Whose Unity?

sctoland mapThe people of Scotland are voting today to determine whether they should be independent of the United Kingdom or remain within it. (Watch this Guardian video for background). Bill Clinton recently encouraged Scots to remain within the U.K., asserting

Unity with maximum self-determination sends a powerful message to a world torn by identity conflicts that it is possible to respect our differences while living and working together. This is the great challenge of our time. The Scots can show us how to meet it.

His sentiment here, calling for respect “while living and working together,” is something that many of us desire. His reference to “unity,” though, becomes another instance of naturalizing a historical construction, much like my post yesterday about attitudes towards texts. The “unity” that he advocates obviously references the current international boundaries of the U.K. and the notion that those within those boundaries form a singular community. Those boundaries, of course, have shifted time and time again. Treating them as sacrosanct where they are now suggests a timelessness that conveniently forgets past shifts. This sentiment is not unique to the U.K. but occurs frequently with references to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Iraq, Turkey, India, . . ., as if those boundaries were automatic.

I am not interested in entering the debate over the unity of any particular nation-state or undermining that unity. Both separation and unity require significant blood, sweat, and tears. But we should also be mindful of whose interests are served when “territorial integrity” of contemporary nation-states is treated as if it should never be questioned.


Map of Scotland within the United Kingdom” by Peeperman – This file was derived from: British Isles United Kingdom.svg . Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.