A month or so back I gave an overview lecture on critical design at Kingston University's design MA. The lecture was pretty intensive and could have easily run on for two hours. This week (Wednesday 4th) I'll be giving a shortened version of roughly the same lecture at Central Saint Martins design MA. A couple of folk have asked for notes since I put up the flickr set so to the best of my memory here's what I said.
Some of the slides are videos and I've provided links to the online copies as and where.
Some of the slides are videos and I've provided links to the online copies as and where.
Note: This shouldn't have to be said, but please don't lift this lecture and use it for yourself as has happened previously. I'm perfectly happy to send material in return for an email and credit.
Note: I'm just sort of spewing as I would talk here, pardon the bad writing.
Note: I'm just sort of spewing as I would talk here, pardon the bad writing.
So this whole lecture is going to be a really fast and intense overview of critical design as I see it. I mean 'as I see it' in the sense that some things I say are design, you might say are art and there artist I might call critical designers. And designers I might call artists, or you might call designers. Really it's quite interpretive and I'll touch on that later.
We'll start with some boring slides of quotes and diagrams and then we'll just rocket through a load of projects because I tend to believe that learning by example works better than some theories. We'll look at projects and artists and designers as well as some tools and methods, and some examples of bad design just to sort of set some bars.
You don't get critical design without Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The field was sprung into life with the words 'towards a critical design' and has developed since then over the last 15 or so years. This is a quote from the Q&A on their website and Hertzian Tales which is core reading for interaction and critical design nowadays.
Because of Dune and Raby's influence on the field, a lot of the discourse around critical design, design fictions and so on focuses on the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art. This is kind of the primordial soup from which this thinking comes but because of the global nature of the student body there's now some bases in New York, LA, Berlin, Korea, Tokyo and Brighton's pretty kicking right now.
So you can read the book or you can turn to this handy manifesto which I find more useful. If there's something you can learn from even the format of the thing it's that critical design situates itself against the mainstream of design, this is the devil's advocate of design practise. Sometimes that means being the bad guy.
I'm not sure I'd agree with everything on this, in fact there are one or two things that are backwards, but I think an important part of being a critical anything - positioning yourself against something else, is knowing where you are in the first place. And at least here's an attempt to do that.
So, Dunne and Raby project one. Robots. But not as we know them. And that's the point. The idea here is to challenge your assumption of robots, to look at that exceptional as the antithesis of the popular so that there's some medium point in your mind. To try and disrupt that overwhelming image of 'robot.' So, for example, the black robot is the neurotic robot that shies away nervously but stares at us. The lamp one isn’t a lamp it needs attention, it has a cable, it needs to be plugged in, we have to care for it.
And now you're thinking 'I know robots, walking metal men with LEDs' or even like the Big Dog and those scary military robots but...
This is the biggest selling intelligent commercial robot in the world. Japan has this ageing population problem which is obviously prime market for robot developers who have figured out that what old people want is something tactile to touch and talk to and so Paro ends up beating all the walking metal men to the punch on the robot market.
And there's something sinister there about the fact that it's a de-robotified robot. That the only way we could be comfortable with artificial comfort is to suspend the lie that this is a real seal pup and not moving metal parts covered in fur.
Quick project: The excellent photographer Vincent Fournier looks at our uncomfortableness with robotness in his Man Machine series. He's posed all these prototype robots in their 'natural habitat' in an attempt to sort of dispel the myth of this robot future that we'll always live in. It's the same thinking process as Dunne and Raby - that there's something unsettling about the dominant future vision - but it's broken by these uncomfortable images.
A nod to history here where critical practise probably began with the Italian Radicals in the late 60s. At this time of global revolution and change, they felt that the world didn't deserve new architecture and new designs and so produced things like Superstudio's Continuous Monument to break the consumer grip of design.
And where do other fields place it? I came across this diagram while teaching a summer school this year and found it both strangely comforting and offensive at the same time. There's critical design hugging the top-left corner, jealously and arrogantly guarding its expertise. I was asked why critical design doesn't branch out and work with others and I could only think that it would be hypocritical to work with the things you were critiquing.
But the diagram is kind of broken. That green one in the middle - design and emotion - as if design is above emotion. I suspect they may mean 'art.'
So futures. Design fiction, critical design, speculative design and all that stuff tends to be based in the future, or a futures, or futures. Why? Because it's a fertile playground and fair game. We're open to the suggestion of future images. It's how advertising works. It's evocative, it compounds hopes and fears and it's malleable. Most work isn't about the future, it's about now, but you can explode the now into the future to make it much more visible and understandable.
The archetypal quote. This is one of the cornerstones of futures work. Somewhere, someone else has your future, and right now, your iPhone is someone else's future.We have to understand there's no kind of absolute rule for 'the' future. There is no 'the' future. There's just a bubbling and propagating mess of technologies and hopes and fears that sometimes arrange themselves into 'a' future.
So this is kind of where you aim at when thinking about the future. This is the futures cone, another one of those tools or symbols that comes up and over and over again. Uncertainty tells us that the future opens up to possibilities. The Google Glass future vision sits in that green preferable part but is unlikely to happen. Where it becomes interesting is exploring some of those wild cards that sit right on the outside. You lend that perspective to people and you can blow their minds. 'Hey there's this new technology and they say it'll do this, but what if it did this instead.'
Here's a great example of this. This is the Big Dog, another robot. As far as we know, the most advanced military robot there is. It's really quite scary, it can throw a cinder block across a room. Very Terminator. But because we don't understand it, and it sits firmly in that 'military' category, it has a fear and wonder is sort of compounded by uncertainty and unfamiliarity.
This is a Photoshop painting that's been doing the rounds recently. Suddenly you take that Big Dog away from the scary high-tech military context and dump it in some sort of weird normality field where it becomes nothing more than a rusty shopping cart and we begin to see it differently. Not only that, but we start to think about how and why that might have happened and then extrapolate a future from it. This is a diegetic prototype. More on that later.
That's not to say that it's necessarily all futures. Sascha Pohflepp's Golden Institute is based in an alternate present where Carter defeated Reagan in the 1980s and established the Golden Institute as a research department to find ways of integrating climate change mitigation and environmentally-friendly energy generation into the American way of life. This car chases lightning storms to collect energy.
Part of the point here is that our present was shaped by decisions we made in the past just as our future is shaped by decisions we make now. Not only in minute ways but in quite massive ways.
This is a project I did to help me think about the future. I'm fascinated by power, all forms and structure of power. I wanted a way to visualise the history of power since the advent of the Roman Empire right up to a future 200 years ahead. By exploring the past I got a sort of run up on designing my future from which I then extrapolated a couple of scenarios that became their own projects.
This is an aside about normalcy. Normalcy is super important. Bad design relies on fireworks and spectacle to create engagement. Good design uses the normal to build a relationship. Or a version of the normal, perhaps a kind of uncanny normal.
The normal is kind of in flux, just as futures are unevenly distributed, so is normal. Or at least relative to where you are normal appears to be so. Venkatash Rao of Ribbon Farm says:
“There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions. My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.”Anab Jain, founder of Superflux took this idea and kind of applied it to futurity and design at her NEXT13 talk:
“google glass, the second wave of nuclear proliferation, organised large-scale protests and extreme weather events. All these trends are pointing to what my friend Scott Smith might call a 'moment of superdensity' where chaos, uncertainty, rapid change and realignment of power are becoming the new operating parameters. We thus find ourselves in a situation that is far from the popular notions of normality, and have entered the domain of the NEW NORMAL.”The normal is vital because it's what we're living in, there's no point gripping the spectacular when the normal is so weird anyway. Also, as a designer, the normal is significantly more rewarding. Here's some quick principles from Nick Foster written in Core77:
1. The future mundane is filled with background talent
Stop designing for heroes, they’re not real and even if they are, the fall right outside the bell curve (bear this in mind for the next bit) he goes on ‘Perhaps we should look past Bruce Willis and design for the 'man at bus stop', 'girl at bar' or 'taxi driver.' While this approach is less aspirational or sexy, these characters are much closer to the humans to whom you are telling your story. When your goal isn't entertainment, you don't need a hero.’
2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space
- the future isn’t just new tech, “an LED TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 60's vase, an iPad in a leather bag. If industrial design is in the business of making stuff, then we need to understand that this stuff piles up, favela-like”
3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space
“for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it.”
Bear that stuff about normalcy in mind as we dive into Design Fictions! Very hip, very cool right now but there are definitely bad and good ones, and all that stuff about normalcy will come back round. This slide is Richard Dryfuss as Roy Neary in Close Encounter from 1977. He becomes obsessed with this mountain where the aliens are meant to land. He starts making it out of mash potato then the scale of his model becomes bigger and bigger until it becomes real. Read what you want into why I chose to show that under a thing about design fiction.
Right this is a corporate design fiction. Microsoft's popular Future Vision from 2009. These get a couple of hundred thousand hits at least on YouTube. You might notice that there's normalcy here but it's pretty thin. It's what futurist Scott Smith might call a flatpack future. Everyone's happy, nothing is broken or smudged. There is infinite wi-fi with infinite bandwidth, no batteries run out, no traffic no delays. This is the preferable future bit of the futures cone - at least to some. And it totally lacks in humanity. The people are props for the technology.
Right so this is two years later. Same company, same idea, a future vision, but two years later. It looks pretty much the same. The interfaces are identical, the world is the same. I'm just going to read you some stuff. So the first video was produced in June 2009, the second in October 2011.
Between those dates the US and UK evacuated nationals from Yemen over terrorist fears, earthquakes killed 2000 in Qinghai China, 525 in Chile, 1400 in Indonesia, that’s two earthquakes, one in late 2009, one in 2010 (indonesia also suffered a volcanic eruption, killing 300), there was also that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that erupted grounding flights across Europe. The Haiti earthquake is particularly memorable, destroying the island and killing 316,000. Later an earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima in Japan killing 15,000 and leading to the meltdown of a nuclear power plant which has now contaminated the entire pacific ocean.There were revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, Niger and Honduras. Swine Flu - remember that?
The North Korean navy sank a south Korean ship killing 46 and also decided to shell a load of islands, they also conducted at least 4 nuclear tests. The Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded killing 11 and beginning the world’s largest oil spill.
The Greek economy collapsed leading to riots, the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn and successive Euro deals totalling around €200bn. Portugal also received a €78bn loan and Ireland received an €89bn loan.
There were 5 significant air crashes with casualties of more than 100. Craig Venter invented the first synthetic cell. Wikileaks published 90,000 internal cables dealing with the war in Afghanistan, then the 250,000 diplomatic cables that sparked diplomatic crises around the world.
Floods killed 1600 in Pakistan, 903 in Rio de Janeiro, 815 in Thailand (displacing 12 million) and 500 in Taiwan.
December 2010 saw the beginning of the Arab Spring with revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen the Syrian civil war that began in March 2011 and major protests in Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan and Saudi Arabia
The Arab Spring also spiked oil prices by 20% leading to an energy crisis.
Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. Anders Brevik killed 77 people in a terrorist attack in Norway. Compared to an unbelievable 19 mass school shootings in the US that killed a total of 75.
Mars Curiosity gather evidence of possible liquid water on Mars.
Occupy Wall Street began in September 2011, a month before the release of this video. By the time of it’s release the movement had spread to 82 countries.
Here in the UK we had the Iraq War enquiry, the Riots, the student protests and riots and our own branch of Occupy, the phone hacking scandal, resulting in the prosecution of News International management as well as the shutting of News of the World and the Levenson enquiry that we’re still battling over. The super-injunctions scandal was another good one not to mention the MP expenses scandal of late 2009.
Design fiction also suffers its own demons internally. Particularly when reaching out to people to experience a technology. There's something out of place in this Google Glass promo. Sure, it's a classic case of everyone suddenly being an ice sculptor and flying around in balloons or with their kids on the beach which is of course the life we're all likely to lead in the age of austerity, but what's more notable is the fact that beyond the trapeze artist in the middle, no-one else is wearing Google Glass.
How you read that is kind of up to you. To me it's tacit admission from Google that Glass is an awkward and uncomfortably obtrusive object. So much so that actually showing us the object would put us off it. There's a reason they call them glassholes.
So what's the standing difference between sci-fi and design fiction. Well not a huge amount potentially. A good, well designed science fiction like Minority Report or 2001, go on into the annals of history as great works of design. Where it becomes sinister is in the purpose. Film is meant to suspend our disbelief for the purpose of entertainment. While those Microsoft future visions do the same for the purpose of convincing us of our future. The crossed-language has blurred the readings such that there's a crisis of people so dazzled by gorgeous design fictions that much like Hollywood, as long as the plot-holes are closed, they won't question it.
This has bred it's own problems. Minority Report has done more for technology journalists than Silicon Valley's best PR departments could ever dream up. How this pans out will be interesting to see, but this blurring of fiction for entertainment with fiction for sales and their crossed purposes should lead to conscientious conflicts.
This is a brilliant design fiction. Did you know that the Post Office invented Skype in 1969? This is the direct equivalent of Microsoft's future visions done forty years early. It's brilliant for one particular line. When he rings through on the video phone it doesn't work. The first thing that happens when we see this glorious new technology spring into life is that it's just as flawed as phones are nowadays, with a dodgy connection and a flickering image. This is the normalcy thing, remember? Even forty years later, at a considerate thought level, this is much more objectively powerful than Microsoft's shiny glass-fest.
Again, an excellent design fiction by design fiction legends Near Future Laboratory. In Corner Convenience they wanted to talk about how various new technologies might propagate but used that intense normalcy of the corner-shop to do it. No airport lounges and limos or balloons and ice sculpted tigers. Not only that, but the setup is relatively cheap. They got a few friends, some stickers and a shop and made a really powerful film. The other thing that works is humour, it's very funny film. Microsoft executives must be relatively humourless saps.
So, diegetic prototypes. Much like the Post Office and Skype, Arthur C. Clarke via Stanley Kubrick invented the iPad before Apple existed.
David Kirby first coined the term in his book Labcoats in Hollywood but Bruce Sterling took it on to design fictions. It means literally 'prototypes from another world.' The idea being that by experiencing object from another world, we can sort of extrapolate in our minds what that world must be like. The object is our 'in' to a different way of thinking.
Children of Men is one of the greatest diegetic design fictions of all time. You can just about to see the pig hovering above Battersea power station. Even the simplicity of that symbol of talking about what kind of world this is is immensely powerful. Films have been doing diegetics much longer than design but design is catching up.
This is a recent project I worked on with Dunne and Raby where they wanted to explore alternative and massively speculative political systems. The problem with that is how you compress that scale in a way that people can easily grasp it. So they decided to use vehicles as literal vehicles of these crazy ideologies they invented. These cars belong to the Digitarians. The Digitarians are entirely governed by algorithm; processing efficiency is number one and nothing else matters. So the cars are designed to reflect this, with seating arrangements reflecting status and colour and symbols for the benefits of the systems controlling the cars.
This is Life Support by Revital Cohen, not only is it a great example of a diegetic prototype for getting us to think about things like our relationship with animals and health requirements but it's a great example of a definition of design I like - design is a trap. This an idea that design never creates anything, we simply rearrange existing behaviours and object for a favourable outcome.
So, we know that dog pumps blood around it's aerobic system. We know that dog will chase rabbit, we know that the running board will mean the dog will run after the rabbit until it gets tired. All these things are known behaviours, but when arranged with a dialysis machine all these behaviours take on a new meaning and we have a new idea.
This project also plays with the idea of the arrangement of objects. The Prophecy Programuses scientific language to kind of re-engineer the outcome that we might want from an experiment. The creators were interested in the looseness of the machines around science and how they influence behaviour, particularly in behavioural experiments.
It was based on the Milgram experiment which was very cleverly designed to deceive the subject that they were even the subject and incite unpredictable behaviours. Simply through design, perfectly normal people were forced to electrocute (or so they thought) another human.
Another amazing diegetic project. Phillipp imagined a world in which technology had taken a different course. In which the Internet happened on radio waves on TVs and GPS used seismic sensors instead of military satellites and 'the cloud' was actually data encoded in the DNA of bacteria dumped in the sewer. The elegance of this project is that it kind of parodies the weaknesses and fractures in our own systems that we forget about or take for granted: The Internet is a vast securitised cable network, the 'cloud' equally so and we rely on the US military to know where we are.
Bruce Sterling again has a pretty useful definition of objects, both diegetic and non-diegetic of the roles they play in our lives or could play. Both conventional and anti-conventional objects are important and can make us think in different ways.
Right, fear. Fear's important because we have it, and there's a lot of it about and we should talk about that but we're not. So let's. That's a military drone which I'm using here as a stop gap symbol for fear, both of what it represents and what it does.
James Bridle has a bit of a reputation for dealing with drones directly. The object itself possesses an unreadability that's difficult to penetrate. For a start, because we're never near them and they have no human references - no seat, no cockpit or whatever - it's hard to understand them physically. The Drone Shadow projects look at drawing the outline of them on the street as a way of bringing people closer to them. This one is in Washington DC, up the road is the White House.
Dronestagram is another project looking at these weapons. Reported drone strikes are geolocated on Google Maps and then uploaded in a filtered screenshot to Instagram. We have Instagram which is this massively exposing media where people share the most menial crap everyday and then we have drone strikes killing hundreds of people that we're never allowed to see. Some of the places that have these strikes aren't even on the map. So how do you talk about that, how do you force it into the public arena?
Bridle was also the founder of the New Aesthetic blog that kicked up a bit of a storm last year. He was interested in collecting artifacts that showed where the digital started to penetrate into the physical. How we're adapting our world to become robot and machine readable and he ended up amassing this massive collection of stuff.
Little Printer, you're probably all familiar with this. Is it an agent of fear or is it a cute gadget? This is a device that sits in your home, that you accept into your home, on the terms that you won't ever have full control over it. That it is just the mouthpiece for a much larger and more centralised, vertical operation. The cutesy little output does a lot to belie the sense of foreboding about the future of our objects that that thought should illicit. This is the Internet of Things, and we recently found out that the Internet is this massively securitised and surveilled thing. Now we're going to bring that into our homes.
Climate change is this other massive fear that we're really struggling to deal with on a human level. It's hard to do a project about it that doesn't over-politicise the issue and so alienate people from it. It's the single biggest threat facing humanity and we're singularly unable to deal with it as this existential crisis. It's just too big, too massive and too intractable, so approaching project about it is hard. Liam Young's Silent Spring started looking at this by examining how our soundscape might change with climate change.
Space is indeed the place. We never really stopped looking and now we have dozens of private corporations trying to get up there for various purposes and through various means and we kind of genuinely have to stop and think about what it means to be a human in a future of space travel where we're probably going to start colonising and living in orbiters soon.
Vincent Fournier again with his excellent Space Project. The photographs are beautiful but a lot of it is simply about examining the humanity of space flight. Like this one, space is big and scary and unknown, and all that equipment feel suddenly delicate and weak.
Into Orbit from Joseph Popper is another excellent look at that feeling of man in space. This guy replicates or attempts to replicate the feeling of weightlessness using a child's playground. This falls into Popper's category of 'zero gravity, zero budget' where he's also looking at our perceptions of space in relationship to special effects in cinema.
Larissa Sansour has a more political take on this stuff in Space Exodus. We're in this age where companies will be the next people in space, which was once the exclusive reserve of states. So here she puts Palestine on the moon. Could the Israeli-Palestine conflict be solved if Palestine got to the moon? Would that make Palestine a state? If it had a flag on the moon?
An excellent book by the Peckham Outerspace Initiative, Ships not Shelters makes the case that as a race we need to get used to living in transit, that shelter, and stationary dwelling was only a temporary blip in human history and we must sever out attachment to the Earth.
This is now pretty popular. Afronauts was this exploration of the short-lived and unsuccessful Zambian space program of 1964. They're now making this into a film, but it's a nice example of this idea of 'afrofuturism.' The dominant technological narratives we have revolve around a predominantly white, western tech eco-system. What happens once the fastest growing economies catch up and begin developing tech in their own image? What if they already had?
And then put that in Wales and you get the Welsh Space Program. This isn't another land grab for the Moon on the part of the Welsh but was more about celebrating and showing the abilities and skills of the Welsh, of sort of giving them a national project. So the outfit is made from Welsh cotton, the backpack from Welsh copper by Welsh plumbers and so on.
Leading neatly on to materials. That's a couple of SR-71s being built there in the background. Finest vehicle of all time. Designed to spy on the Russians, built entirely out of imported Russian titanium.
Right so 3D printing. Pretty obvious, in the news a lot, largely useless. It's interesting and it's getting a lot of attention but at the moment it's hard to find applications for it. There's the 3D printed gun of course that fire one shot and broke but that's about it really as far as actual things made of 3D printing go.
But no-one's really interested in what 3D printing is so much as what it might be one day. So this is Markus Kayser's Solar Sinter which uses sand and light for 3D printing and nothing else. The cool thing here is that the type of place where this will be useful is the type of place that has a lot of sand and light and not a lot of much else. So suddenly this is more than just a technology but actually opens doors to the kind of futures this technology enables.
We also have to start looking back at existing processes of manufacturing and the way we use materials at the moment. Thomas Thwaites' Toaster Project is a great example of this. He set out to build a relatively cheap toaster from Argos. And it costs him a few grand and took the best part of a year. The point here is that the object itself, the toaster with the £10 price tag kind of obfuscates and hides the history of the object from us. We don't understand its history and we're not allowed access to it.
Another good one, Jeremy Hutchinson's Err. He sent emails to manufacturing plants asking for intentionally faulty objects to be made. The disruption of this well-established manufacturing process was unfathomable to the manufacturers and kind of started this wonderful feedback loop of misunderstanding where decades of consumerism are unravelled. You really have to read the email chains to understand.
Cohen Van Balen's recent project 75 Watt is also a sort of examination of manufacturing. They designed an object that existed solely to choreograph a dance down a manufacturing line and this raises all sorts of interesting questions about control and the relationship we have with our products when it's very construction forces physical action on others. Also it's a kind of perverse celebration of the process, turning it into a dance.
Transhumanism. Although not necessarily. We're living in this age where we're starting to put machines in and on our body and again, we probably have to think about what this mean. This is Stelarc with his famous third arm.
In Prospectus for a Future Body Choy Ka Fai is looking a lot at control again, much like with 75 Watt. He's modelled the dance moves of famous dancers and then forces another dancer to perform them through electrodes on their body. Then it's a question of who's in control here, the absent dancer? Choy Ka Fai? His software? The dancer themselves? With these machines in our bodies we have all these questions of agency over decision making and responsibility to consider.
Sputniko's brilliant Menstruation Machine. At it's core this is about a device that allows a man to experience menstruation. But there's so much more to it than that. For a start she's a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman which is like three layers of sexual confusion in Japan's notably repressed culture. Secondly, instead of just making this object and then putting it in a museum, she injects it directly into Japanese pop culture by making it into a music video. Full on assault.
This is more recent, Agatha Haines' Transfiguration looks at a future in which designer babies are the norm but actually kind of readdresses the values we might want in our children beyond 'tall and good looking.' So the guy in the bottom-left has big cheeks for faster caffeine absorption in a high-stress job. The guy with the pointed nose is going to be more aerodynamic. The guy with the skin flaps will cool faster and the one missing a toe will get infected with a worm making it less prone to disease.
Liam Young again. Specimens of Unnatural History looks at this fictional island where a load of technology has washed up and animals have sort of grown in tandem with it. We're spending a lot of time looking to protect and secure endangered species but if the world is changing then perhaps we have to look forward to what kind of new species might evolve and begin to embrace them. Remembering that 99% of species that have ever existed are now extinct.
Ai Hasegawa's project I Wanna Deliver a Shark. Clues in the name. If we're overpopulating the planet but sharks are becoming endangered and you want a kid, why not give birth to a shark? Well, why not? Exactly.
Leading neatly onto synthetics. This whole field of synthetic biology has a lot of promises but should we be looking at life like a reducible computer?
New Mumbai is a project I did a few years back. I wasn't so interested in the science itself, this idea of rapidly growing proteins which could result in larger life forms, but in the political and social ramifications of how this technology spreads and propagates. So these guys in the slums of Mumbai end up getting access to these giant mushrooms and use them as a source of electricity, like a potato clock, and this has ramifications for their political independence from the Indian state. To understand technology, we don't just look at how it's used, but how it might be abused.
Common Flowers is a project looking at the legal ramifications of genetic engineering. Georg and Shiho took a copyright chrysanthemum that had been bred to a purple colour and are trying to reverse-engineer it to the original white. There's lots of questions about ownership and legal rights here. If the original was natural and found everywhere then how many deviations from the copyright DNA do they need to go before they end up with a free version? Is it technically still copyright if it's cut and then legally dead?
David Benque's New Weathermen was also looking at the legal ramifications of synthetic biology. He was trying to take apart this whiggish mythology around the GM battle. The pro-GM firms and politicians and the anti who are often as misguided. It's a very political issue in which the science kind of takes a back seat, so he invented this fictional terrorist organisation that hijacked biological processes as weapons. So they breed a diesel bug that can poison fuel supplies, and a species of grass that infect golf courses and lawns. One of the interesting things that came up were the moral effects of basically developing a how-to guide for eco-terrorists. How, as a designer do you deal with that?
Right and then this is kind of where I am. This idea of a new geopolitics, of genuine change, of addressing the reformation we find ourselves in and finding ways to deal with that or fight it. We live in this age of changing and fluxing power and we need to find ways to talk about it because these battles are happening at a level that may be too high for us to comprehend.
88.7 was another one of my projects looking at a speculative future in which the state begins to collapse and the neo-liberal super-fast trading ideologies win out. So I created this bank on a boat as a symbol of this ideology and the kind of inventions and world's it might open up. The thing navigates the world around the north pole every 24 hours and it's kind of a hack on state control over the market. It begins the dissolution of the power of the state and regulation. I wanted to create a single, understandable symbol that we could look at as an image of this way of thinking and of these changes that are happening to our world to think about whether we'd be happy with that or not.
Commoditised Warfare is a project looking at a similar affect. With all the money poured into militarisation and these border conflicts, how could we make them into a spectacle so that the muscle-flexing and political power plays could still happen but no one would get shot? So he invented these vehicles that these conflicts could sort of be 'acted' on. These trucks meet on the India-Pakistan border and perform a dance which kind of re-establishes the relationship between the two countries but there's also North-South Korean baseball on a boat and Falklands mine-sweeping.
Another really great project. The Intel-Cyprus merger was this strangely prescient project looking at a future where Intel and Cyprus conduct a merger to become a new country. It's sort of questioning and looking at these relationships between states and corporations and thinking about what it would be like if they were much more explicit and revealed. Are we in the dying days of the nation state?
And then Stacktivism and Infrastructure thinking are on the cards at the moment as far as the thinking goes. We're in this new, strange, subversive geopolitics where the great powers of the world aren't elected or put in place or even talked about, they just happen to own what might be called 'the means of not-dying.' These giant stacks, these companies have a stranglehold either directly or indirectly over the world's control mechanisms and it's hard to see or understand that.
Another one of my projects, Mercenary Cubiclists was examining the future of labour, or in fact, the present state of labour. I took a lot of the stuff we've been hearing about Amazon recently as well as how labour is valued, or mostly undervalued, digitally and wanted to again, much like with the boat, make it physical. These cables reflect the heavy physicality of the Internet, the ghost-like figures unaware of the work they are performing for people who will never pay under the guise of play and this kind of subverted city all reflect growing trends in the way the digital feudal capitalist system is imposing itself on us.
Finally, Julian Oliver's Transparency Grenade. It's a great way of talking about how data has become or can become a weapon. It sucks in wi-fi data, and then, when the pin is pulled, explodes it out over the nearby area. We forget that all this invisible stuff carries value and that value can damage in quite a significant way.
Right, so this is the end and I want to leave you with some questions that I don't have answers to, having seen all of that stuff.
First up, 'Yes, but is it art?' Most of the projects I showed end up in a gallery. They're not sold in shops or made into real products, so how is this not art? There are cleverer people than I that could answer that question. I believe on some fundamental level that it's design because it uses the language of design to try and attract an audience. Because like I said earlier, it rearranges existing phenomena we can understand to give them new meaning and because it's for other people, not for the creator.
Secondly 'What if? ... Then what?' Critical design poses difficult questions and forces us to confront them, but then what? Once we have the questions and we have the provocation how do we deal with it, individually and societally? I don't know, I'm trying to figure that out.
'How do you measure success?' A question that is coming up more and more. You can measure the success of a normal design project by it's kickstarter funding or by units sold, but here we're not selling units or launching startups, we're trying to get people to deal with difficult things so how do you measure if that works? Well, there's a good spread of projects that get a lot of media attention so I guess that's a success, but is it enough?