August 08, 2005

In the Bubble (bottom up)

The Doors of Perception conference is perhaps one of the better named (and from a distance more fascinating) events out there. So perhaps its a bit of karmic balance that its director, John Thackara's latest book In the Bubble is so misleadingly titled. There is no dot com bubble in this book, nor any soapy stuff, merely one paragraph long anecdote that never quite relates to the book. Luckily the subtitle, "Designing in a Complex World" is spot on. Thackara's work and experience puts him in a highly privileged position to see what's going on in the design world and the book is something of his guided tour. It's a damn good walk.

I've got a sneaking suspicion that Thackara might be a fellow hypocritical luddite. He certainly has a healthy immunity to much of the high tech worship that strikes so much of the product and information design industry. Its not a traditional reactionary ludditism though, Thackara is concerned with design that works and works on a human scale. And much of the book is concerned with the navigating the multitude of contradictory challenges of "designing in a complex world".

The luddite movement predated Darwin's research and its somewhat unfortunate. The central symbolic act of the luddite, the throwing of shoes into the gears of the new machines is almost always seen as a reactionary act, but in fact it can just as well be seen as an evolutionary act. The luddites where in some ways the first hackers, when the machines where all in the hands of industrialists, gumming up the works was the only hack available, the only way to explore the mechanics. And more importantly to test the machines, break them apart with the goal of making them better. Like the luddites I have a deep fear of technology, particularly when its created for its own sake. But the hypocrisy emerges when a technology works, works well and most importantly works well for humans. This is the technology I love, embrace and sometimes propagate. And to get this sort of technology sometimes you need to throw some shoes in the works.

Design is a process of modulated hypocrisy. Thackara never reaches this conclusion, but he certainly illustrates in the course the books journey. The book is divided into ten thematic chapters, Lightness, Speed, Locality, Flow, etc, etc and, as fitting an exploration of complexity, they often contradict. The human mind of course is amazing at handling contradictions, to ignore the rules of logic is a fundamentally human act. In America liberals are pro abortion, anti death penalty, conservatives anti government, pro military industrial complex. Preachers make careers out of criticizing the very actions they discreetly carried out the night before. People argue for tougher criminal sentences and fight against building prisons near their homes, are militantly prorecyling until they found out it means building loud plants down the street, artists gentrify neighborhoods then fight the "yuppies" that they opened the doors for. Peruse any internet bulletin board and you'll inevitably find people typing messages telling other members to go outside and get away from the keyboard. And most telling people are happy to criticize others of hypocrisy, despite almost certainly being prone to it themselves.

A designer navigating a complex world inevitably needs to pick their focus, pick where their hypocrisy lies. Environmental architects rely on high speed computers filled with toxins to build zero emission buildings. Solar engineers suck massive power off the grid in an effort to build technology that ends it. The project needs to be bounded, a network can potentially, and often functionally does, stretch to infinity or fold recursively inward, fractal-like. If there is a designer, the designer is bounding the project, drawing lines and cutting off aspects to the network. The designer is applying directed energy, the product is not emerging, it is being designed.

In Thakara's "Mobility" section he cites a Swedish study of deliveries in Uppsala region. By optimizing delivery routes it seems "the results were startling" the vehicle fleet could shrink from 19 to 11, the total distance of delivery travel reduced by 39%, etc. Great for the environment, probably good for profit margins. But what about jobs, community and communication? Less delivery equals less work, and less networking. Community is in many ways an outgrowth of inefficiency, slowness advocated the chapter before, allows things to develop, conviviality (chapter 6) and locality (chapter 4). Both of which are probably served by more deliveries, done slower, with space for the idle chatter that lets information circulate across town, small ties to form and networks to grow.

Is it possible to address these contradictions continually? Humans it seems would rather just ignore them, our design choices perpetually solve certain problems and birth new ones behind them. And this is not necessarily bad, perhaps it's only human. Designers and the engineers, inventors and politicians who often play similar roles are in constant states of oscillation. Mass produced and cheap is in one day, handcrafted and intimate the next. A car plant is lauded for bringing jobs to the community and then five years later seen only as source of traffic and pollution. A freeway once liberated people, but now seems to destroy neighborhoods separating one side from another with a gulf far wider in effect then the block it occupies.

Thackara wanders the world where designers are questioning just where to bound their projects. He urges designers to expand their parameters, to think of broader connections and more locality, to watch energy flows and slow down. To design smarter but also go design free. "We are all designers" are his closing words, his books "premise" is "if we can design our way into difficulty, we can designer our way out". What is missing from it all is what design actually is. "Design is what people do" is the answer you can find on the first page, but that makes is pretty much everything human. And I'd actually agree, design can be everything humans do, but it can't be all of them at the same time. Rather design is the process of bounding and prioritizing around a particular set of focuses.

Most design decisions are directed actions that collapse our possibilities, guiding our focus. Often they open up new possibilities too, but only within a particular set of bounds. Picking up a hammer for instance reduces what our hand can do greatly. But it also opens up the possibility of driving in nails, breaking stone and shaping metal. This is a repeated cycle, collapse and release, a process that guides and sometimes directs us in actions. Thackara, along with other proponents of the 'design thinking' meme, wants to redesign design itself. And the book functions as a wonderful guide to the variety of potential spaces that design can enter. This is the back half of the pattern, the release. Design can be released into any number of spaces, but just how does one collapse them into a working process, a working product, not design thinking but a design itself?

Posted by Abe at August 8, 2005 01:41 PM


Actually, the luddites were not against technology per se, but rather the use of technology to supplant the power of the bosses and eliminate jobs and self-determination of workers. They were very concerned with the way technology was being developed and in whose interest. Not against innovation as a whole, but perhaps evolutionary in the sense of fighting to create a different path for it, on that didn't demand or suggest that workers be subordinated to technology and treated like machines.
the best cite I know for this is David Noble. His book is Progress without People:A Defense of Luddism.. there's an article or 2 but I can't place it at the moment.

so it's not wholly inconsisten with Thackera as you present him, but perhaps more directly political... not about human (vs. inhuman?) scale, but more about the idea that techonology/design is not a neutral process, but rather can serve the aims of different classes, different humans, against other humans.

(incidentally, the "Diggers" in england were similar, they were not resisting the supposedly innovative enclosure, but rather wanted to change the kind of ownership system that was being enforced by the state (against the commons) and be free to innovate in their own way on the land)