The Architecture of Choice

Abracadabra! Human rights appear! – Abracadabra! Human rights disappear! But this time, these human rights that have disappeared, aren't hiding in some invisible drawer, set to magically reappear in time. They have truly disappeared, with no return, forever, just like the money for exercising a number of cultural, healthcare, social and other rights has. And part of the magic is that we are actually unaware of this process – that is, until we want to exercise these rights. Every (next) government claims it provided for and protected our rights better than any of the previous governments ever did, all the way back to the very first or the other. But when it actually needs to provide something for its citizens, like paying for a job done, guaranteeing that hard-earned salaries will be deposited to workers’ bank accounts or reimburse the costs of an event, we – the people – have to tighten the belts. Meanwhile, some (other) people “earn” an annual labourer’s wage in two-day time, and in one month they earn 10 or 15 times that amount. The government however, would like to reward these “benefactors” – for being so kind that they only take this much money and not more – by limiting the highest possible amount these “benefactors” pay to the state in taxes – by the so- called “social cap”. In other words, this social cap works in such a way that  “the benefactors” don’t have to pay more than what is considered “decent” (and it is certainly not enough for what would be considered social justice). Moreover, the government will make sure, that this “cap” on rich people's head is made from the socks, which it took off of the feet of all these (other) deprived people, like freelancers in the field of culture, project workers, the self-employed and a whole variety of others, whose belts need to be tightened again and again while these same belts have long been torn with every new hole.

The discrepancy between the kind of image of our state and society that is depicted to us  by those in power, and between the real, everyday life as lived by people, reminds one of illusionist tricks, used by the new “elites” who arbitrarily create public policies and then present them to people ready-made as if they were people's own choice. “We did this because this is what you wanted” is an age-old motto of the propaganda machinery that is nowadays complemented by another, much more artful one: “You made the right choice because you chose what we believe is good for you.” In short: “You chose what we want.” The aim of the architecture of choice – an emerging “creative” branch of the propaganda industry, which is reflected in the above-mentioned motto – is to structure the world in such a way that the powers that be always win. In other words, when an architect designs a building, he has to make a lot of decisions with regard to the locations of, for example, the doors, the elevator, the individual rooms. These seemingly  irrelevant decisions fundamentally affect the way the building will be used by its residents. In the same way the architects of choice deliberately influence our choices by structuring the very environment in which we have to make our choices every day. As a matter of fact, they consider themselves to be the modern “benefactors”, who care about us and “help” us make the right decisions. They assume (ordinary) people often make bad choices that are not in their best interest and therefore have to be guided, stirred or even pushed into the direction that will lead them towards what they really want. The “benefactors” believe that the state can help people make decisions that they would make anyway if only they had the power and will and intelligence they lack to make the right ones. Moreover, the state doesn’t make decisions for us, but only squeezes us a bit so that we make them ourselves. It's an effective way to preserve the illusion of the freedom of choice.

The theory behind the architecture of choice is behavioural economics, which claims the following: people nowadays don't have time to ponder over every single choice so they make wrong decisions. They are enticed by things that are bad for them and obviously need help in making the right choices. Namely, the brain functions in two ways: in the automatic way which provokes “irrational” decisions, and the reflective way, based on reflecting on issues. Behavioural economics assists the “automatic” brain to make better choices in order to spare the reflective one. These choices then seem to be what we want and no one asks for approval; it is assumed that we have already given it since the provided solutions are so intelligent and so good for us. In the event we don’t want something, we have to explicitly say so – otherwise, our approval is taken for granted.

It is all about generating desired choices through negative conditioning, illustrated by theory in the case of a panopticon. An invisible guard forces the inmates to make decisions which are favoured by the prison management: if the inmates make “wrong” decisions, they get stale bread and stagnant water. Conditioning the access to financial social rights is part of the architecture  of choice, aimed to make people always want to choose labour, or rather – what is good for the state and the powers that be. Pushing people in the direction of their “desired” choice is becoming an integral part of political systems. The authors of the architecture of choice are among the most popular experts, hired by governments as consultants in various fields, including social and healthcare policy, with culture being no exception of course.

All in all, the governments all over the world have restricted the social dialogue, stopped discussing (how to improve) human rights, stopped thinking about creating opportunities for its citizens and severed the links with the very people they're supposed to represent. Instead, they ponder on how they can keep making fools of the rest of us and make us believe that their choices are really ours. This year’s festival will illustrate these processes in a singularly unusual performative manner that transforms men into women, reflects on the criminalisation of bodies that are not white, able, fit and slim, and questions the power relationships, established and perpetuated by such norms. Despite the fact that this year again we cannot guarantee that the festival will be an opportunity to carelessly waste your time and save your brain – by choosing what “you actually want(ed)” – we do hope that this festival will be enough of a challenge as well as a lot of pleasure.

Vesna Leskošek, Honorary President of the Association for the Promotion of Women in Culture – City of Women