Whoops Apocalypse

Alastair Somerville
5 min readAug 10, 2019
Nuclear bomb exploding

The problems of Normal today are embedded in history.

This is not unique.

It’s worth looking at how professional and scientific systems have had embedded problems that affect how they try to create positive change but are trapped by foundational myths that divert them into supporting negative norms.

I’ll talk of four systems here:

  • Anthropology
  • Psychology
  • Neuroscience
  • Service Design

The first three have long histories of embedded problems. The last one is modern but has foundations in the first three. To some extent, this post is a warning to Service Design about what it needs to think about to prevent or minimise what went wrong with Anthropology, Psychology and Neuroscience. Good people today can get trapped by errors made in the past and it’s worth considering that problem.


Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. It grew out of the European-centered Age of Exploration — the realisation that not merely were there different lands and people but their social and political arrangements were radically unlike the modes of thinking in Europe.

Anthropology was however, a fellow traveller with Imperialism and Darwinism.

Anthropologists were specifically employed to understand other societies in order to enable colonial control. The work in Africa on tribal systems and mapping of political power was used to find the social levers to successfully manipulate compliance to colonial power with minimum force.

Anthropologists also were caught up in the imperialist reading of Darwinism. As with what happened with the mathematics of Normal, Darwinism shifted from research and understanding of natural diversity to a measurement and ranking of worth anchored to a sense that White Maleness was optimium. Research looped back on itself to justify the racist viewpoint that Black people were somehow below White people in a fake historical of hierarchy of human development.

This may seem merely historical but the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System shows that the past never quite goes away.


I talk about the history of psychology a lot in Post Normal workshops as it is the most relevant science to the digital and service design audiences I most often encounter.

As with anthropology, the desire to scientifically measure and rank people was a goal. As with anthropology, understanding compliance was also an early interest.

However, those Victorian and early 20th century obsessions are not the crucial problem with psychology.

It’s Eugenics.

The social darwinist nightmare of controlling human development to get the right humans, the best humans. Who, as with anthropology and darwinism, are a specific class of White people.

Eugenics is embedded in psychology because its early leaders were leading eugenicists. Galton (who I talk about in Post Normal workshops) was both. Psychology was how worth was tested and ranking was clarified for further action.

As with anthropology and imperialism, the science itself might be in some ways ethical but it allowed its methods to be used to justify deeply unethical actions.


Neuroscience is the most modern of the three sciences with embedded problems but, again, it has its roots in late 19th Century scientism. With roots in both anatomy and phrenonology, neuroscience has problems with naming certain sections of the brain as being specific to certain behaviours (a bias which get miniaturised with genetics and DNA). It also has never quite escaped the gravity of Christian epistemology about Mind/Body division. That the person is the mind inside the brain and that the body, and the world it exists in, is corrupt and weak.

The wrongness of human bodies and the solitary perfection of the mind contaminates ideas about Transhumanism and Disability.

Embodied and extended cognition are modern attempts to reflect upon the value of the body and the people around us socially but neuroscience, especially with its tools like FMRI, still wants to talk about the brain as special, unique and divisible from bodies and societies.

Service Design

Finally, Service Design. This is a modern practice (maybe 40 years old). It is concerned with human-centered design of systems that deliver services.

My fear about Service Design is twofold.

Firstly, the research and tools it uses to be human-centered are anthropology, psychology and neuroscience. Service Design is at the nexus of 3 sciences that have serious historic problems with oppression, exclusion and violence. It seems to have no real controls in position to prevent those problems flowing into the future design processes.

Secondly, Service Design has been rapidly assimilated into government. The use of Service Design in digital design of existing and new government processes and products is simply assumed now. The history of how entwined anthropology became with imperialism shows that this may not be a good thing. Goverment is often about power and privilege in allocating resources to those without either: powerful people commanding, privileged people seeking gain, powerless and unprivileged people requiring compliance. Service Design is in service to power (as anthropology was) and that has serious consequences.

Doing good with Service Design presumes a lot. The danger is that the design systems and processes, enfused with anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, are unable to prevent their use for bad. This is already visible in behavioural design, nudge and gamification becoming attentional design, addiction and dark patterns.

Recognising the embedded problems in the sciences we use today and consciously creating tools and processes that prevent or minimise deliberate and accidental design for bad are two goals for today that we might consider.

Here’s Eugene O’Neill to finish.

There is no present or future - only the past, happening over and over again - now.


This is a polemic so I haven’t bothered with too many references. Here are some books that matter to me tho. They are linked (especially Biased, Invisible Women and End Of Average) by how much research that is foundational to accepted sciences, like anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, have deep roots in racism, sexism and ableism.

Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez

Indigenous Research Methodologies by Bagele Chilisa

Neuropolis by Robert Newman

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

The End Of Average by Todd Rose

Anthropology by Peter Metcalf

Bodies by Susie Orbach



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX