Tag Archives: design

expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for (‘think about the box’, redux)

The excellent Alexis Lloyd observes that the road to hell has in recent years been paved with “user-centred” design; while well-intended, it’s also pernicious.

… in effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them.

This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.

Note my emphasis there: user-centred design is part of the prestidigitatory process, the front-of-house flourish of consumption that distracts attention from the concealed systems of extraction, production and distribution. Provision ex nihilo; it’s not a bug, it’s THE feature.

So what’s the alternative?

To begin with, we need to expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for. We can take some tools and models from forecasting, like STEEP, to map the social, technical, economic, environmental, and political systems that our product touches upon. Instead of focusing on one or two types of end users, how might we look at all of the participants in our system? Who uses the software? What labor does the software require? What tradeoffs are inherent to the business model that supports the software?

Personally I would underline “to begin with” a couple of times. STEEP is a step on from a lot of commonly-used foresight frameworks, but more often than not the ‘S’ component ends up being a gesture or genuflection in the direction of some currently fashionable shibboleth such as “wellbeing” or “resilience”; ditto the use of some rough quantitative estimate of “sustainability” in the environmental column.

These are points that I started trying to make a long time ago, though I was almost laughably bad at making myself understood, in part because I lacked (and indeed still lack, to some extent) a complete language with which to map this way of seeing the world in order that it might make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in my own brain-pan. (A curse that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, etc etc.)

Indeed, it’s what I was grasping toward with my early exhortation to “think about the box”, in my first (and painfully stilted) public presentation of any significance, way back in 2013 at Improving Reality:

Back to Lloyd:

If this starts to feel very big, it’s because it is. Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see.

To reference another Douglas Adams idea, where might we find the Total Perspective Vortex? I’ve never believed that I have all the right answers, nor indeed many of them; rather, my whole point is that no one can have all the right answers, and thus matters of design need to be approached from a plurality of subjectivities and transdisciplinarity.

However, I do believe I have (some of) the right questions. I’m just not yet able to articulate them all in a useful way… and that is the labour of theory, at least for me.

resisting both purity and progress

Anne Galloway on more-than-human design:

… I’m not a believer that technology under capitalism will be the planet’s salvation, and I tend to part ways with (commercial?) designers and technologists who aim to design more “precision” agriculture through “intelligent” machines, and I’m constantly watching for bad omens. The ethos of the More-Than-Human Lab draws on Donna Haraway’s “staying with the trouble” and tries to go beyond the design of human-nonhuman interactions to reimagine human-nonhuman relations. For me, this means not trying to “fix” the world, and resisting both purity and progress to live well together through uncertain and difficult circumstances.

The deep irony (?!) is that indigenous cultures all around the world and many non-Western religions have always understood that nature and culture aren’t separate, and that humans aren’t superior in our abilities or experiences. Western intellectual history and industrial capitalist societies have not allowed this kind of thinking to take hold except for amongst a fringe few, and I think this has played a pivotal role in the current climate crisis and the impoverished range of corrective measures on offer.

Amen.

“Man-made, artificial, mutable” — Dunne (2005), (In)human Factors

Chapter 2: (In)Human Factors (pp. 21-42)

from Dunne, A. (2005). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. MIT Press.

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Paradigm of user-friendly design generates “enslavement […] to the conceptual models, values and systems of thought the machines embody” (p21)

“By poeticizing the distance between people and electronic objects, sensitive skepticism must be encouraged, rather than unthinking assimilation of the values and conceptual models embedded in [electronic objects]. I am not arguing for a way of designing that is free of ideological content but, rather, for one that draws attention to the fact that design is always ideological. User-friendliness helps conceal this fact” (p22); values and ideals in designed objects not natural, objective or fixed, but “man-made, artificial, mutable” (ibid; emphases mine)

“poeticization” can be generated via “estrangement” and “alienation” [note Suvinean / sf-nal connotations of those terms – critical design as related to the cognitively estranging “novum”?]

“Once the computer became a successful mass-produced object, innovation in interactivity shifted from hardware to software…” (p23) [in terms of trialectic model, hardware becomes infrastructural, software layer seizes the interface layer almost completely]

“To use the existing patterns of knowledge to define a new technology’s possibilities for conveying meaning is not far from the Victorian use of Corinthian columns to support beam engines; design holds back the potential of electronics to provide new aesthetic meanings …” (pp29-30) [relation to skeumorphism? Think also of perpetuation of old and established service models in infrastructural systems; through consistent service design, novelty and power of supporting infrastructure is effaced; persistence of magicality]

“The easy communication and transparency striven for by champions of user-friendliness simply make our seduction by machines more comfortable.” (p30) [equivalence to patter and misdirection of the illusionist? complicity of design in the Spectacle; comfort of familiar metaphors]

domesticity, “pet” technologies; at the other extreme, “alien” technologies

“constructive user-unfriendliness”, NOT user-hostility (p35) [analogy made to foregrounding of language in poetry and literature; poetic function brings an opacity, a playfulness, a drawing-attention-to-itself-ness…]

Design-as-text: “Similarly [to the text as defined by Barthes], in the case of the design object as text, designer and viewer [and user?] play equal roles.” (p36)

Weil’s 1980s radios as “objects about objects in the age of electronics” (p37)

Functional estrangement: “… a form of strangeness that lends the object a purposefulness […] found in the category of ‘gadget’ that includes antique scientific instruments [Newton’s cradle?] and philosophical toys […] objects that self-consciously embody theories and ideas” (p42)

“The fit between ideas and things, particularly where an abstract idea dominates practicality, allows design to be a form of discourse, resulting in poetic inventions that, by challenging laws (physical, social or political) rather than affirming them, take on a critical function.” (p42)

Instant Archetypes: 21st Century Tarot from Superflux

As acolytes of the Cult of Ellis may already be aware, the Kickstarter campaign for the Instant Archetypes card deck has just gone live. If you’re interested in futures, the occult, hypermodernist semantics, lush and unique artefacts, or some mix of all four of those — and if you’re still reading this blog, I figure you’re interested in at least one of those things — then I invite you to pop on over there and pledge for a deck.

Those of you reading here because of an enduring interest in my own perspective on institutional dynamics and tactical foresight might be further interested to know that you can also pledge for a consulting session with yours truly, in which I’ll work with you and the cards to think through whatever question or issue you’d most like to explore. (Apparently they decided to ignore my suggestion that this be billed as “consult a scruffy academic wizard about teh fewtch” — which only goes to show you how smart those Superfluxers really are.)

It’s really satisfying to see this project finally come to light; we first floated the concept during the lobby track of FutureEverything 2015, which for a variety of reasons, both personal and contextual, feels like a different aeon entirely… though somehow this feels like exactly the right time for it to emerge, too. The fashion for futures’n’ design folk producing decks of cards was just starting to pick up a head of steam; as I recall it, I made some fairly flippant comment about how you could just dig out an old tarot deck and achieve much the same thing, or even use Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Anab and Jon asked me to explain further, and so I rambled on about archetypes and sortilege and Jung, and Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens (which is perhaps the most formative cornerstone of what passes for my personal cosmology), and how I’ve long used the tarot as a writing prompt or creative disruption device, whether for fiction or non-fiction work, or simply just for life in general. Anab suggested we should make a reboot of the tarot specifically for futures-y folk, which I thought was a wonderful idea, albeit one that would most likely go the way of so many lobby track brainstorms. But it seems it stuck… and in fits and starts, taking advantage of gaps between Superflux projects and the demands of my doctoral studies, we thrashed out rewritten names and definitions for the Major Arcana, and found an amazing artist in Amelie Barnathan.

I still feel a twinge of guilt over the art phase of the project. Amelie asked me quite a few times for further interpretations of my little scripts describing the cards, or for suggestions as to how she should bring the symbols to life, and every time I told her that she should just go with what her own head and heart were telling her in reaction to my writings — which was clearly frustrating for her in at least a few cases. But I had an intuition that the deck would only have a proper visual unity and a genuine freshness if I stayed out of the art side as much as possible. (I was also mindful that I didn’t want to do a Crowley and browbeat an artist into channeling my own ego through their skills; Crowley was a great mage, but also a manipulative douchebag, and I don’t believe that the latter is essential to the former.)

As mean as it seemed at the time, I think my instinct was right: when the PDF of the finished designs came through, I actually cried, because they were just so *right*. The strongest magic comes from people finding their own way through the maze, and the resulting cards are so much better than they would have been had I tried to come up with more detailed prompts for the visuals. Think of it as an alchemy, if you like; I certainly do. (And thank you, Amelie, for enduring my refusal to guide you; I hope you agree it turned out for the best.)

And because it’s a Superflux joint, not only is the artwork fantastic, but the production values are off the freakin’ hook: designers are perhaps the ultimate details people (more so even than mages, if there’s any substantive difference), and every little aspect of the cards has been obsessed over and refined in prototype after prototype. They don’t just look amazing, they feel good in the hand — and that tactile aspect really amplifies the ritual vibe that’s essential to getting your head in the right space for thinking at angles to the actual. The Instant Archetypes are a genuine artefact, an object that expresses all the obsessive attention and passion poured into its creation, and I’m ridiculously proud to have played my part in bringing it to being.

As far as I’m concerned, this is my first book — and best of all, it’s a book that contains every story ever written, and all the ones that have yet to be written. I hope you’ll enjoy exploring them.

Dispositionally or structurally retrograde

… typically as designers, and in broader culture, we’re looking for the right answer. As designers we’re still very solutionist in our thinking; just like righteous activism that pretends to have the right answer, dispositionally, this may be a mistake. The chemistry of this kind of solutionist approach produces its own problems. It is very fragile. The idea of producing a ‘master plan’ doesn’t have a temporal dimension, and is not a sturdy form.

Having the right answer in our current political climate only exacerbates the violence of binary oppositions. Our sense of being right escalates this tension. I’ve been trying to think instead of forms which have another temporal dimension that allow for reactivity and a branching set of options—something like a rewiring of urban space. They aren’t vague – they’re extremely explicit – but they allow for responses to a set of changing conditions.

[…]

Regardless of spectacularly intelligent arguments, the bending of narratives towards ultimate, teleological ends – and the shape and disposition of these arguments – doesn’t work for me. Dispositionally or structurally it seems slightly retrograde.

I just don’t see change as singular or ultimate. It doesn’t come back to the one and only answer, or the one and only enemy that must be crushed.

There are many forms of violence, and it almost seems weak to train your gun on one form of it. There isn’t one singular way in which power and authority concentrate, and there’s not one giant enemy. Such thinking leaves you open to a more dangerous situation.

Keller Easterling interview at Failed Architecture, riffing on her latest book, Medium Design (which is apparently only available in print if you get a copy mailed from Moscow). Easterling is among the brightest of lodestars in my personal  theoretical pantheon; her Enduring Innocence not only rewired how I thought about space, but also rewired my conception of how an academic text could be written.