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Re-Imagining Value

The recent scandal by the minions of Murdoch had me thinking about the value of honesty and if in fact, that was even a value to media moguls. We certainly know it was not important to the banking system, which still honest dutiful citizens are paying the price of. But now in the midst of seeing another industry fall fray to the question of honest work, more and more it seems a pervasive distrust in all of the bigger systems that run our world is warranted. Only now when Murdoch’s $12 billion takeover of British Sky Broadcasting is threatened do we see people act.

The NYTimes described New Corp as “once seen as such a powerful force that politicians and police officers walked in fear of it, fearing its disclosures and courting its support.” Frightening! It’s no surprise that this is the case with much of the corporations that dictate our economic system. Should any system be designed in such a way that civil leaders out of fear, fail to mitigate the greed and vanity of a few? The problem stems from systems put into place based on the assumptions (not truth) that: limitless growth is praise-worthy, consequences do not exist, and business leaders are immortal. It should not take rocket science to figure out that in an ever-changing world of complexity, effectiveness and efficiency are going to take more than relying on assumptions from a bygone era.

I do not think all of the onus should fall onto Design to “change the world!”, but I certainly think that specific methodologies can be learned from Design that can help to re-shape and reverse the fallacies of larger systems dependent on big-business industries. ‘Design thinking’ might be thought of as a sort of tactic for a bottom-up approach to demanding the creation of new-types of value, perhaps even honesty. Can we not think of honesty as a preferred mode of acting and use tools such as ‘prototyping’ to try to think of systems that act in this very way? Can we, as John Thackara points to, push the thousands of grassroots projects around the world to create a restorative economy? It is happening on the micro- level, but I wonder what type of systems thinking will be needed to push these initiatives to the macro-level. We need interventions on all levels of a system. No paradigm shift can occur from a single source. With all of the effort from the various bottom-up projects across the world, consultancies that are charmed by the idea of ‘design thinking’ could put it to use by not making better business for their clients, but better our world. Transformation is going to take a lot of re-imagining where we place value; and values change systems.

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Design and Sustainability

The meaning of Sustainability has bended and stretched in such an inclusive way that we are not sure how to even talk about it. We know it matters, but what is its relationship to Design and how will it be possible to create a political project around it? Is ‘sustainment’, as Tony Fry calls it, design’s specific project? It is a complex question that is impossible to tackle without first having an understanding of the capabilities of Design and to know what Sustainability is for the twenty-first century.

I tend to think that major system changes must occur to make sustainability a performative reality, but after listening to some of the ideas put forth by Cameron Tonkinwise, I’ve now begun to think about how we can reverse our values within the system. To root solutions back into our relationships with objects and each other. Objects have a pull on us, a powerful one, which tends to decide the concepts we value and the infrastructure of our culture. Think of the pull of ‘car culture’, the design of the car eventually deciding the infrastructure of our cities and therefore the behaviour of our culture. We are pulled into the objects we design. But many of us are not aware of this, we are in some ways inept in understanding human relations and our relations with things. If we want to change our culture into one that is considerate of the environment, of living well with one another, in many ways it will have to be through a change of social decisions. For example, giving more value and meaning to ‘borrowing’, ‘sharing’, or ‘lending’ of objects over the high valued notion of ‘brand new’. Part of the pull of objects is the momentum of the practices that are integrated into our everyday life. These practices are also built upon assumptions, including that humans are much more sustainable than we actually are.

If policy is slow to change, in the meantime Design can make a project of its own to create a critical consciousness, which will make a critical consumer,  ultimately changing policy. Could it be possible for the consumer to demand sustainment? It is not just a simple choice of buying organic at the supermarket or recycling your milk cartons, but making the choice to support sustainability, to support the policies that put it into place and to make a life choice to value sustainability. It is about questioning the social values that capitalism itself put into place: Is comfort really what we think it is? Are we really all that pleasure driven as we believe? Do we really prefer the private over the collective? These are the types of questions that begins to drive sustainability as a politics.

Sustainability for the twenty-first century needs to be about redirecting our value flows, to re-root them in the social and not in the abstract world of the economy. Design can help this process by reconfiguring our everyday practices. For example the idea of Zipcar for my professor made him realize his behavior towards the car. It made him aware of perhaps how little or how much you need a car. It can make something often thought of as a given, such as “I need a car,” feel like a luxury.  Or businesses, like Snapgoods, which allow consumers to borrow something that they might only need for a temporary amount of time, rather than buying a new one.

In many ways Design can be the change agent we need for sustainability. Instead of lobbying for the status quo, it should begin to ask why we place value on certain things. To not just put things in the world, but understand its sequence and growth in the world. It should begin to break down the quantifying systems that dictate our values and behaviors, which in essence mean it must be political. Sustainability is not going to just happen all of a sudden, it will have to be learned. We will have to learn a new way of making and doing that is sustainable.

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Thinking Philosophy for Design

I have started ‘mapping’ thoughts from philosophy for design. In what way does Philosophy inform design, tell us about design, and also not tell us about design? When is philosophy not intelligent about design? An essential question for me is: why we are drawn to philosophy when we seek to explain Design? I started investigating insights from as early as Plato/Aristotle, moved to Kant, and continued on to reading some contemporary sociology and philosophy by Vattimo, Herbert Simon, among others. I tried to approach such dense questions, in a strategic way, so that I could connect reoccurring ideas and play around with the evolution of theories. A very messy timeline ensued.

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The Work of the Blog

I cannot deny the irony in posting this bit of writing on a blog, though I am somewhat critical of the blogosphere I am also inclined to think positively towards its power in redefining our thinking in the 21C. This essay was based on an assignment that asked us to emulate Barthes as he tackles material culture in Mythologies. This is about the blog’s incredible hold on twenty-first century imagination. Consider this as almost a curious ode to a powerful artifact of our time.

The Work of the Blog

A form of communication, the blog is a believed symbol of free public space. As an oscillating combination of text, images, and media it functions as interactive commentary within an external network. It gives a political voice to the individual user, constituted by the desire to reveal experience. Belonging to a horizon not yet fully known, it hovers in a fetishized space, one that is part of the mystical fiction of pure uncontested democracy. A fiction held true by the powerful schizophrenic nature of a web of digitalized information deemed ‘accessible’ to all. The ideology of constant and open communication has us praising it as the apogee of the First Amendment, for we believe we are granted emancipation in the discursive space of the web.

No longer confined to the inert materials of everyday scenes, political voice is amplified through active virtual space. The form of this supposed democratic platform is absent of defined walls. It is imagined to grow simultaneously, while remaining contained within the hardware of a computer; systematically pumped with verbiage. Through a screen, its visible interface adopts numerous looks from the fading material world: a journal, photo album, book. The exact locale of its expression is unknown, lost in a labyrinth of code and displaced origins amongst a sea of reveries; however, its location in some imagined space is of no immediate interest. For the blog tantalizes us by inviting acts of democracy formerly felt restricted.

An abstract depository for the mind; the blog provides storage and access of data. The political economy extends itself to a remote database server, belonging to a shared network called ‘the web’, which transmutes our experience for us. Finally, the private interior space becomes a network open to the public. Coming closer to our eventual transformation to cyborgs, our psychological interiority is displaced by the psychology of open connected networks. Consequently, the inner is indiscriminately made outer unfettered by those debilitating human emotions. In this evolutionary unfolding the human mind is an accessible cross-fertilization of global ideas, with expression no longer limited by the sober decorum of social contracts. Globally synchronized networks mimic the combinatorial possibilities of the atom and the electron. At any desired time, the user produces narrative, tracks her readers, links to friends’ blogs, invites comments, all by the external commands of clicking and typing. Manipulation of discourse, now accepted, grants the ability to self-imagine and reconfigure society against the sovereign of History. Playing puppeteer with one’s own life has never been more desired; with the death of the Author the human regains power to bring into being the ideal self, however fictional.

Further contributing to the ‘desacrilization of the Author’, the blog transfigures authors out of the Author. In vain the blog writer believes herself transformed into Author as she partakes in self-making, yet merely is filling an empty role. Hands incessantly press down on the keyboard in an act of performance. In the century of the Image the blog writer wishes to create, but is in fact only translating signs drawn from a library of images. Signs, which are no longer read with an Enlightenment sentiment, are clouded with an immense sense of cultural and ideological mixing in a diasporic public realm, produce multiple translations. Faced with the complicated images of our world, the blog writer desperately seeks to identify herself, yet in the blog space she is never truly Author only reader. As she ‘cuts’, ‘crops’, and ‘pastes’ she is not creating anything new, but using the functions of a computer to read herself in the present.

Modernity requires instant gratification in its transitory moments. The attraction to the blog is its ability to validate a thing through an instantaneous state of presence in the present. Computer computation retrieves clusters of content from a serving database, in a matter of seconds. Identification of the self is then contingent on the materialization of this content through a reflecting screen. Though sincere in what she claims to do, the blogger gives no thought onto the present configuration. What sudden panic besets us when our wired saviors ‘crash’ and turn mute. We are confident the desired freedom prize is floating in this alternate dreamy world, yet it is kept distant from us and only visible through a designed screen. The debauching hardware and systems required for its use, belies the claim to freedom. The computer screen becomes the window into a fantastical world strictly kept leveled, intertwined among moderating systems.

Cultural institutions have helped to ensure the free-for-all myth. Conveying an image of decentralization, chaos, bottom-up creativity is in fact, however still bound by its Domain Name Servers and IP Addresses, which are run by the centralized mechanisms of corporations. Without any necessary understanding of its devices, the ‘cloud’ tantalizes us with its impalpability in delivering a service. Institutions maintain its dynamics made possible by thousands of hidden fiber optic cables running across the world. Keeping information flowing across wide expanses of area does in fact, require tangible transfers. Still, its physicality is of minimal concern in comparison to the chimerical world of its merit. The more beautiful the world imagined by the encouraged human has produced an ambiguous world kept in check by powers of systems and hardware. The play of self-imagining, an extended voice, and value of shared ideas though liberating, are never independent of a network and its chargers.

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Food for Thought from Adorno

I absolutely love the poetic writing of Adorno, which seems nearly impossible to emulate. His insights offer some interesting propositions for rethinking the conditions of the twenty-first century. We can choose to blindly go on with our everyday lives or choose to be more cognizant of our ability to reconfigure that which is set before us. Consider this passage “Do Not Knock” from Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life

Technology is making gestures precise and brutal and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects. Thus the ability is lost, for example to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves, imposing on those entering the bad manners of not looking behind them, not shielding the interior of the house which receives them. The new human type cannot be properly understood without awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret innervations. What does it mean for the subject that there are no more casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden? And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment. Not least to blame for the withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus, either in freedom of conduct or in autonomy of things, which would survive as the core of experience, because it is not  consumed by the moment of action.

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