Can design & tech question modernity?
Design and technology exist under capitalism. How can they challenge their master?
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There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
You've likely heard this before. It's part of a commencement speech by author David Foster Wallace, taken from an old parable. For Wallace, it represented a pernicious truth: normative contexts seep into ubiquity without any awareness on our part. And that which is, that which we hold and cherish and think 'this is the only way it can be’, is ultimately the conditions that mediate what we do, say, and think.
But unlike the water that forms the fishes universe, the normative context that we exist with in are conditions which are intrinsically conditional. The way that things are, the ways of modernity, appear to us as given - natural, as it were - but in fact are ultimately changeable.
It can be hard to fathom the notion that our habits, beliefs, our most cherished, taken-for-granted ways of being are conditional. The story that is history seems so correct. It appears to bend toward justice. The idea of progress entails a kind of inevitability and teleology. Civilisation as it stands appears as the only way it can proceed, and the right way to proceed.
Words like 'progress', 'modern', 'civilised' and even more abstract ones like 'better' and 'good' mask their own contingency. Hidden is their dependency upon an intertwining mix of pre-existing conditions that are themselves dependent on further pre-existing conditions. But this linguistic sheen of modernity envelops our language so fully that that there is little room for non-modernity to offer alternatives.
In Design for the Pluriverse anthropologist Arturo Escobar discusses how modernity has occupied our way of thinking. Escobar calls this out as a colonisation, in what he terms the One-World-World (OWW, or ‘oww’ as he says):
The oww signals the predominant idea in the West that we all live within a single world, made up of one underlying reality (one nature) and many cultures. This imperialistic notion supposes the West’s ability to arrogate for itself the right to be “the world,” and to subject all other worlds to its rules, to diminish them to secondary status or to nonexistence, often figuratively and materially.
This OWW might be seen as what we call modernity, which follows from the Enlightenment. Within modernity rests the idea of positivism: that there is one, knowable world out there, with language and logic being able to accurately and precisely represent it. The world exists prior to any interaction between different elements; things are stable separate entities that exist as such prior to our description of them.
Cartesianism, the idea originating from René Descartes that the mind and world are separate and distinct entities, is also closely related. Cartesianism sees the world as consisting of subject and object. The subject - the rational mind, the neutral observer - is separate from the body and the world, which the mind can represent for analysis. This then encourages a sort of individualism - we are responsible for our own actions, or at least the rational mind is, and those who best exemplify the rational mind are those that we see as the most right and good.
The object, separate from the human mind, can be quantified and calculated by the subject. Ironically, the human mind, though metaphysically separate, can also be bodily quantified into a calculable subject, as it is ultimately predictable and rational. ‘Homo economicus’ is the term economists use.
And if it’s not self-evident why the OWW and all of its constituent notions should be questioned, here are some reasons:
We emphasise the objectification of the natural world, extracting it as resource, causing untold damage in the process. We treat the study of humans as only truly rigorous if it is supported by mathematical logic (despite the fact that experimental studies on humans are often biased and tend not to replicate). We pay little attention to the knowledge of situated, local peoples and instead use rationalistic thinking to impose de-localised and de-situated products anywhere and everywhere.
Hustle culture, the self-quantification movement - hell the idea of progress - are driven by modernist beliefs about the sanctity of the measurable. ROI is the way we operate. It is as though the most meaningful, important and resonant things in life are those that can be separated, measured and evaluated by an objective mind.
Perhaps the epitome of the OWW is capitalism, which embodies many of these features - quantification, individualism, objectification (and related ideas like extraction and incessant growth) and constructs a series of guiding principles out of them based on a de-contextualised ‘rational’ self-interest. Growth is vital to capitalism, in very specific terms of creating more and creating more that we control.
Capitalism, and the OWW is our version of the fishes water, our invisible ubiquity, which demands questioning.
In my last newsletter I discussed how design cannot be fundamentally directed toward generating free time or helping us to understand what to do with free time because of the nature of capitalism. The bottom line of capitalism means that design’s ultimate priority is the goals of capitalism - maximising wealth and profit, often through new technologies that allow this, or through new goods or ways to access goods. Under capitalism everyone must work and purchase, and design must obey this mandate.
But this doesn't necessarily mean we can't consider how design and designed technology can shift and question the established notions that undergird the OWW.
And indeed there are many designers working on shifting the OWW through methods such as transition design, speculative design or futuring. But these are very specialised forms of design that generally aren’t the kinds of design that businesses expect or want. It’s vital that those of us with jobs that exist under a more traditionally capitalist structure have methods to challenge or shift the OWW.
Usability, which to me - as UX designer - is very important, is an area in which the OWW can, perhaps surprisingly, be challenged.
Usability is often seen as an objective criteria. But any evidence will show you that this is simply not true.
The dashboard in a plane’s cockpit is usable to a pilot, but highly unusable to the average person. The buttons and dials aren't explained, nor is when they should be pressed. In other words, usability is a property that is emergent, contingent on the skills, goals, and context of the user. It cannot be calculated as an objective measure. Organisations, however, often require an ‘objective’ measure as all organisations exist within the context of the OWW, and are only impelled to act if they are supported by that which has a quantity attached.
But challenging this, highlighting the highly subjective and emergent nature of usability can help reframe the world away from one that presents objective priorities readily amenable to calculation, and instead reframes the world as subjectively imposed. This disempowers the positivistic mindset, helping us to see that ‘right’ and ‘good’ are relative to the speaker.
A second method within design that can challenge the OWW is the running of workshops. (Good) workshops involve a collective, egalitarian sense-making that leverages the skills and lived experience of each participant - in a sense of form of co-design. Workshops don’t rely on supposedly rational economic actors making decisions about products and services, but rather are directed toward collective decision making based on a collective interpretation of the situation at hand.
Those that use designed objects have little power to control how designed things are shaping them - their localised, subjective knowledge is often ignored in favour of pre-fabricated solutions that force the user to fit the design. Workshops can help to avoid this problematic outcome - if they are done well - and include potential or actual end-users of prospective products or services.
Looking at design theorist Cameron Tonkinwise’s spectrum of how design has changed over time to be more disruptive of modernity’s pernicious effects, we can see how it moves from traditional artisanal techniques to top-down approaches to co-design.
Finally, the OWW can be challenged by design via an understanding that technology and the human are immersed in a web in which a division of the subject and object is blurry at best. We think with things - cognition is layered within and throughout our world, and especially within technology. Better design thus results in ‘tools for thinking’ rather than tools for doing.
The idea that we are so reliant on technology may seem off-putting, but it is a necessary recognition - and one that is less about reliance than simply a statement of how we exist in the world. Indeed this has always been the case; we offloaded our thoughts onto clay tablets 5000 years ago, and now we offload our thoughts into browser tabs, and form new thoughts from them through their association with one another. As Stephen P. Anderson and Karl Fast say in Figure It Out: Getting from Information to Understanding:
Sometimes our thinking happens outside the head because it can be faster, or easier, or just plain better to do the work out there. This isn’t the brain being lazy. Instead, it’s more like the busy executive who effectively delegates certain tasks to the people around her rather than doing all the work herself
We see tools that recognise this. Tools like Miro, Notion and better designed browsers such as Vivaldi recognise that humans have a situated, interwoven existence with the world. Their functions allow you to externalise, move, chunk and associate content in different ways. Better software recognises that it used not just for consuming but for cognition.
Do any of these approaches truly challenge the OWW? Or are they themselves just subsumed by the OWW? They operate under the conditions of capitalism, and as I said, design has to be directed toward capitalism. But short of a revolution, change must be iterated on by affecting mindset changes.
A movement towards understanding that we are always situated within an environment, that we are in actuality constituted by it, helps us to drive the kinds of mindset changes which challenge the notions within the OWW. “Design regulates the regular” Cameron Tonkinwise states, meaning that design tends to operate within the sphere of the functional, legal and acceptable.
A way forward may be to regulate the regular in ways that upend modernity. De-centering our own rampant individualism as defined by the rational, objective mind can catalyse this. As Arturo Escobar notes, decentering ourselves and our belief in a OWW will reveal the meshwork in which we exist:
A meshwork made up of interwoven threads or lines, always in movement. As much as any other living being, humans are immersed in this meshwork.
We need to draw attention to this meshwork by any and all means, so we don’t end up - or stay - like the fishes in Wallace’s parable.