In our little New England village, voting takes place at the local Town Hall, a small building on Main Street with two entrances that lead to one large room containing a single voting booth. In the last primary, local officials placed banners over each of the entrancesone marked democrats, the other, republicansan oddly prurient gesture in a town where anonymity is virtually unheard of. Then again, our local paper annually publishes the names of the 10 biggest taxpayers, alongside the hefty tax liability of each, so why was I surprised?
An article in today's New York Times raises the question of partisan leanings to a new and considerably worrisome level. By alleging to "put the science back into political science" neuroscientists at UCLA are using magnetic resonance imaging (aka MRIs) to understand the brain's response to political images. The idea of "reading" reactions to visual stimuli as a litmus test for determining political choices is at once fascinating and horrifying. It seems to present all sorts of ethical, moral and even legal questions: where, for instance, does privacy begin? Where does freedom of speech begin? And if technology can be called upon to harnass both the power of the visual and the vicissitudes of the psyche, then where does this leave design, and perhaps more importantly, the designer?
I am reminded of the research conducted by Mario Garcia and Pegie Stark of the Poynter Institute, which involved real people wearing oversized headgear connected to wires that ultimately determined that there was, in fact, an order to the way people look at news. Early findings suggested that pictures spoke louder than words (and big surprise, large type pulled readers in faster than small type) though recent research done in collaboration with Stanford University suggests that text trumps graphics as the preferred mode of entry.
In either instance, technology is being celebrated for its ability to detect what people think as a consequence of what they see. What's thrilling is the idea that visual matter is so intrinsically connected to social behavior. What's chilling is the notion of the lie-detector test writ large: if the designer clasically employed empirical research to determine the characteristics of a target audience, then what happens when brain scans do this for us? Surveillant technologies do this all the time online traffic patterns are detected by the sequence of clicking through a website, for instance but the Poynter and UCLA research differ in that they pierce the veil separating the body and the machine. Will any of this change the way we think, practice, theorize, experiment, probe, analyze, examine, produce, reconsider, collaborate, delight, engineer and/or surprise our audience(s) along the way? To the degree that both experiments isolate visual imagery as pivotal cues in behavior, the presence of these protocols in our work may come sooner than we imagine.
Voting may be more a science than an art, though at the end of the day, I suspect it is a function of both and depending on who's voting (and maybe more importantly, who's running) it's not clear how the percentages skew. To a similar degree, graphic design involves some combination of determinism and divination. As for the former, we know bigger type is easier to read. And the latter? We may not want mystery where our Presidents are concerned, but in the world of visual phenomena, I'm not so sure.