Uncertain Futures | Design in the Face of Disaster (A Manifesto)

Last semester, we were asked to create a personal “design manifesto” laying out our essential take on design and technology as they relate to the issues we face as 21st Century citizens.

I wrote the below manifesto in response to this prompt, seeking to better understand what the role of future designers will be in solving (or more importantly re-imagining) wicked problems that face us today.

Summary

My core design values at the time of writing this, or my manifesto on how we can do better is summarized below:

DESIGNING FOR UNCERTAIN FUTURES (MY MANIFESTO)

Although the digital revolution started in the 20th century, its social implications are only just being realized today. Governments, institutions, corporations and the global elite are still coming to terms with the opportunities and challenges this fundamental shift has provided.

  1. This lag provides a unique window of opportunity for designers to identify and address the signs of cultural and societal stagnation and decay that perpetuate our present reality.
  2. Science fiction and fantasy in all its forms: literature, video games, movies, tv provides designers a critical lens to identify these signs and possible future outcomes if they are allowed to play out. It represents a “…a symptom of narrative fantasies rooted in a dissociation of the private and public, the subject and the object, the personal and political, which has characterized the social life of capitalism.” (Jameson, “Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?)
  3. We must embrace new hybrid man/machine/networked/digital identities and work to design systems that perpetuate democratized knowledge and leverage collective social capital and ingenuity.
  4. While all of the above enable us to develop solutions to our current sociopolitical, geological, and cultural issues, we must NEVER forget that these very solutions often cast long shadows in unexpected ways. These consequences and externalities must be taken into account at every stage.

The Full Manifesto

Please note that the full version of this manifesto contains several footnoted citations that will not work with the format of this blog. I included authors name and publication name in place of the original footnote, but left out full citation for readability.

Please access the PDF version by clicking on the below title for a correctly cited version.  I will also list a brief work’s cited at the end of this blog-post

UNCERTAIN FUTURES| A MANIFESTO FOR DESIGN IN THE FACE OF DISASTER

DANA MARTENS, DESIGN FOR THE CENTURY – FALL 2015

 

THE WAY THINGS ARE NOW

Our future is being rewritten at the speed of light. The glow of billions of screens reflecting in captivated eyes, once cast to the heavens for guidance, now turn within yet without, retinas seared with information streams, synapses firing to compile, return and reply. We have been captured by a “technocapital singularity”, our interconnected, increasingly complex human condition first borne aloft on an enlightenment founded rationality, spread across the globe on tradewinds, then on crosswinds, now on electrons. (Nick Land, Meltdown) As Tainter notes, our history has been defined “…by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control, processing of greater quantities of energy and information, formation of ever larger settlements, and development of more complex and capable technologies.” (Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies) It seems like progress is persistent and exponential, accelerating into uncertain futures.

Over just the last hundred years we have seen the rise of an industrial world economy founded on oil, jacked up on electrification, and projected through new media. We beheld the dark reflection of these advances in the mass destruction first witnessed in World War I and the shadow parody of our new efficiency through the assembly line murders of World War II. For the first time, we realized destruction could be total and imminent at the push of a button, superpowers playing a dangerous game of chicken with the fate of every life on the planet.  Dilnot speculates that for us, the future has disappeared as an affirmative possibility. We feel that our future is no longer secure after witnessing that possibility for self-annihilation, only made worse by a series of financial crises, and increasingly disturbing evidence that price for the last century of progress was potentially irreversible global climate change at scales that “[threaten] a severe break with patterns of climate, ecology, and settlement that we have known as a species since the end of the last ice age.” (Clive Dilnot, Reasons to be Cheerful, 1, 2, 3… Or Why the Artificial may yet Save Us)

Yet we have also charted new territories through digitization, the conversion of our information, our history, our experience into digital zeros and ones, allowing us the capacity to preserve, transmit and communicate information in new ways. (Preface from The Digital Age) We created a global network allowing us to transcend new boundaries, borders, communication styles, languages, cultures and beliefs. Everyday technology advances, allowing us to more creatively and accurately interface our imagination with the tangible world and redefining our sense of what it means to be human. Digital technology embraces uncertainty and possibility, allowing us an ever expanding new language of creation and communication with the artificial we have come to embody.

These historical transformations set the stage for a unique twenty-first century, the conditions of a new age of human history, where “…what we are experiencing…is not just…a continuity with what was only with newer technology, but represents a qualitatively new historical condition.” We are at a crossroads where our current actions, both individually and as a civilization “contain an acute potential for disaster” but also “other possibilities for acting and becoming”. (Clive Dilnot)

THE WAY THINGS MUST BECOME

“The fall of Empire, gentleman, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity – a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop”. (Isaac Asimov, Foundation) We are deeply self-aware of the symptoms of our world’s potential decline, as recognized through a pervasive undercurrent of doom in our cultural products, yet we fail to take action. Only by embracing uncertain futures and potential disaster can we find new ways to act and become that can fend off the stagnation and inertia Tainter postulated is the doom of complex societies. We must stop tolerating a diminishing return on our individual and collective social investment. (Joseph Tainter) We must stop tolerating marginal happiness. We must stop feeling powerless in the face of complexity.

Designers must now leverage our unprecedented access to information and networks immersing ourselves in a new language of man and machine. We must embrace our dual virtual/real nature and the very real possibility of universal demise (or at least a kickback to an unimaginable dystopian dark age) as the core of a new politics of human/machine interaction. We must look into that dark glass and stop cringing at the cyborg reflection before us, but revel in our meat avatar, an image we know to only be a small part of our new identity. For we are now “condensed image[s] of both imagination and material reality,” of “mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism…” and that is true power. We as designers, as humans, must embrace this identity, allowing us to shift our paradigm and unify in the face of rising global inequality and domination,  “better enabll[ing] us to contest for meanings, as well as for other forms of power and pleasure in [our] technologically mediated society].” (Donna Harraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century)

I firmly believe we are at a tipping point. We still have an opportunity, not to prevent the fall of perhaps our last empire, but to recognize the signs of its decay and like the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation, harness technology to digitize, analyze, demo, refine and redesign our future to mitigate the worst effects of its unwieldy “decline”, paving the way for more connected, equitable and universal techno-future. Although we may have created the problems that besiege us, we have also developed the tools for our own salvation.

DESIGNING FOR UNCERTAIN FUTURES (MY MANIFESTO)

Although the digital revolution started in the 20th century, its social implications are only just being realized today. Governments, institutions, corporations and the global elite are still coming to terms with the opportunities and challenges this fundamental shift has provided.

  1. This lag provides a unique window of opportunity for designers to identify and address the signs of cultural and societal stagnation and decay that perpetuate our present reality.
  2. Science fiction and fantasy in all its forms: literature, video games, movies, tv provides designers a critical lens to identify these signs and possible future outcomes if they are allowed to play out. It represents a “…a symptom of narrative fantasies rooted in a dissociation of the private and public, the subject and the object, the personal and political, which has characterized the social life of capitalism.” (Frederic Jameson, Progress vs Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?)
  3. We must embrace new hybrid man/machine/networked/digital identities and work to design systems that perpetuate democratized knowledge and leverage collective social capital and ingenuity.
  4. While all of the above enable us to develop solutions to our current sociopolitical, geological, and cultural issues, we must NEVER forget that these very solutions often cast long shadows in unexpected ways. These consequences and externalities must be taken into account at every stage.

FAILURES OF THE PAST & POTENTIAL DESIGN INTERVENTIONS

The End of the Industrial World Economy

We are at the end of the industrial era. As Rifkin notes, oil and other fossil fuels are running out and the technology and ecosystems that rely on their use are massive, antiquated in disrepair. This depreciating design has resulted in diminishing marginal returns: record unemployment, debt, declining living standards, and its continuation will bring about social collapse. However, we are also at the beginning of a new era made possible by digitization, where “…collaborative behavior, social networks and professional and technical workforces…”(Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World) are becoming the new norm for many people, leading to localized and distributed business practices, collaborative commons and potentially “the first new paradigm-shifting system since the introduction of Capitalism and Communism”. (Jeremy Rifkin, Implications of the Third Industrial Revolution Interview)

Designers must work to dismantle the trappings of the last industrial revolution at every opportunity. Small and local networks for energy, communication, and resource production should be prioritized. By designing systems that are organized laterally and in a networked fashion, we can prevent the stagnation and collapse that goes hand in hand with increasingly complex systems of resource production, distribution and consumption. As Rifkin notes, systems interconnect, and by working to democratize knowledge, energy, and communication, economic and manufacturing benefits can follow. New technologies such as advances in manufacturing e.g. bio-manufacturing and 3D printing should be explored in depth as localized, distributed energy becomes more common.

Designers can look to Germany for inspiration on where to begin. With the support of institutions such as banks and local/municipal governments, Germany has created a micro-commons for electricity. The big four power companies are only producing 7% of new power, the amount decreasing every day. Traditional vertically integrated, resource-reliant, massive utilities will not be able to compete with a horizontally integrated and networked business model. When big utilities no longer make a profit, they will fail, finally enabling a possibility for rectifying climate change. (Jeremy Rifkin, Implications of Third Industrial Revolution Interview)

Global Climate Change & The “Myth” of Progress

Ours is the first generation to be confronted with daily evidence that attempts to master nature have consequences. Our obsession with progress, measured by increased productivity, larger economies, and a surplus of material goods, is the final death knells of a myth written centuries ago. This myth is failing, our actions do have consequences, and we know it. As natural resources deplete and the effects of global climate change intensify, clinging to the idea that we can progress indefinitely will increasingly contrast with a reality of scarcity, breeding uncertainty, anger, despair and violence. “The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost free. Each is intensely bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world…which we have now triumphantly subdued”. (Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto) We can no longer afford the hubris of believing ourselves nature’s master, but must consider the rights of its other participants in our pursuit of progress. Designs that uphold this myth are inherently flawed and we must reject them, clearing the space for a new model.

In short, we are fucked and no amount of progress, technological or otherwise will solve it. Massive change (potentially the collapse of society as we know it) is coming, but we can have an impact on mitigating the dark ages that follow. The only way to do this is to reject our myth of progress as the goal for humanity. Designers can lead that charge. We need to stop thinking that ecological and economic collapse are a temporary problem, a glitch that can be solved by applying a patch to our current situation. Designers must work to illuminate that we are “on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it”, helping individuals and governments alike face our fears of annihilation, so we are actually inspired to actually face the issue. We must stop designing interfaces and temporary solutions that let people “deal with it by going shopping…giv[ing] up in despair…[or] work[ing] frantically to try to fend off the coming storm”. (Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto)

Designers can harness the power of digital technologies and the massive amounts of data that have been collected through digitization to help correct this myth. By analyzing our accumulated metadata as a system, we can more accurately identify how the myth of progress has failed, and what potential solutions may be possible. As described in Donatella Meadows “Leverage Points: Place to intervene in a System”, one fascinating example of this was a computer model designed to explore how major global problems such as environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, poverty, and unemployment may be related and solved. Growth came out as a clear leverage point, a point of power that can affect change, but it was actually being pushed in the wrong direction! The program found that growth was actually the problem, the symptoms above the costs of progress. (Donatella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System)  Designers must continue to explore new methods of analyzing and visualizing big data to overturn the myth of progress and identify leverage points that focus on mitigating potential future collapse on the basis of smaller, simpler future.

Accepting Artificiality & Embracing New Digital Identities

Finally, designers must lead the way in embracing our new artificial and technologically mediated identities, taking care to ensure the momentum of the digital/technological revolution. As Dilnot explains, we have surpassed the traditional idea of technology as a relationship between humans and artifacts in a utilitarian division of labor. The concept that we operate, command, and work our machines is a bygone of the industrial era, and like all designs from this era, must be eschewed. Instead, we now find ourselves mediating with technology, interfacing with it, speaking to it through increasingly natural and semiotic ways. Code involves programming languages, and we now speak to our machines. Yet as our machines become increasingly complex, we are confronted with our own inherent artificiality, for what are we but machines, logic, processes, electricity, wrapped up in wetware, in meat? When we accept and embrace this artificiality, we can finally begin to attune this realization of our own “…artifice to subjects, worlds and nature. On that basis destructiveness can be accepted and incorporated without illusion and without mastery.” (Jeremy Rifkin)

Part of this acceptance is a realization of our new digital identities and rights as digital citizens. Designers must preserve newly minted digital commons so vital to transforming how we share knowledge and seek to explore our artificial world. Yet, increasingly, digital commons are created by capitalist corporations like Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Rifkin believes this model will fizzle out by mid-century naturally as the marginal cost of production shrinks to zero (copy and pasting is free after all), but I believe that this won’t be the case. The commodification of our information and behavior for advertisers makes a lot of money. We must continue designing public digital commons public such as Wikipedia, not allowing them to be subsumed by corporate interest – like YouTube. Designers must work with nonprofits, communities, and municipalities to create new digital commons and platforms for collaboration that don’t come with the price tag of data-mining for the purpose of selling things. Designers must also seek new methods of gamification that don’t use technology to prey on human psychological tendencies, but rather create pathways to new paradigms of work and play that allow us to contribute towards the social good.

One possibility for how we might design this future  is explored in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. Here we are presented with a -not so distant- future where digital advances allow and require everyone  to contribute to and interface with global information in complicated collaboration and contribution networks. By contributing knowledge and creative elements, payment and prestige are generated, allowing individuals to harness their skills and leverage their cyborg-like relationship with technology to achieve seemingly impossible ends. People, games, virtual/augmented reality, data, work, and play become commingled in a new techno-future. (Vernor Vinge, Rainbow’s End)

If in fact, nothing human makes it out of the future (Nick Land) I’d like to think that this is what we could instead become.

Work’s Cited

  1. Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Swarm 1. Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. <http://ccru.net/swarm1/1_melt.htm&gt;.
  2. Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge UP, 1988. 3. Ebook.
  3. Dilnot, Clive. “REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL, 1, 2, 3 (OR WHY THE ARTIFICIAL MAY YET SAVE US).” Design as Future-making. Ed. Susan Yelavich and Elio Caccavale. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. 1. Ebook.
  4. Preface. The Digital Age. Comp. H. W. Wilson. New York: Grey House, 2015. Xi. Print. The Reference Shelf.
  5. Asimov, Isaac. “Part I, The Psychohistorians.” Foundation. New York: Bantam, 1991. N. pag. Ebook.
  6. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century.” The International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments (2006): 117-58. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-a-cyborg-manifesto/&gt;.
  7. Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future? (progrès Contre Utopie, Ou: Pouvons-nous Imaginer L’avenir)”. Science Fiction Studies 9.2 (1982): 147–158. Web…
  8. Rifkin, Jeremy. The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 2. Ebook.
  9. Rifkin, Jeremy. “Implications of The Third Industrial Revolution.” Interview by Lars Mensel and Max Throll. The European. N.p., 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. <http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/jeremy-rifkin–2/9652-implications-of-the-third-industrial-revolution&gt;.
  10. Kingsnorth, Paul, and Dougald Hine. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.” The Dark Mountain Project. 4, 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. <http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/&gt;.
  11. Meadows, Donatella. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.”Donella Meadows Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/&gt;.
  12. Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. New York: Tor, 2006. Print.

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