[-empyre-] Hactivating Design

Brooke Singer brooke at bsing.net
Wed Nov 18 10:01:22 EST 2009

Hi everyone,

Thanks to Renate and Tim for inviting me to participate in this thread. When
they mentioned the theme "hactivating design" I got excited since
interrogating the role of the designer and who/what gets designed in the
process has been on my mind a lot lately. Tim and Renate were unaware of
this new direction of mine (so one of those happy coincidences...) & my very
early attempts to address this topic are online at undesigning.org. The work
comes out of my long-standing commitment (both as an individual artist and
with my collaborative team, Preemptive Media) to understanding systems --
mostly technological and bureaucratic -- and forging entry points into them
for publics to explore, insert their voices, twists and turns etc.

So a little background here. After three years plus of producing
Superfund365 (http://www.superfund365.org) and my ongoing documentation
(mostly large-format photography at this point) of toxic contamination sites
across the US, I decided I wanted to do something that brought the issues
closer to home for most people. That is why I went into the home and opened
up the medicine cabinet. And the doors under the kitchen sink. Even though 1
in 4 Americans live within 4 miles of a Superfund site, I realized my
audience often did not feel intimately connected. That was not the case when
I took a hammer to a tube of Colgate and asked the question "why is there a
pesticide in my toothpaste?" at the start of an undesigning/undo workshop.

As researcher Sarah Vogel states, "we all have became a little plastic." She
is not referring to surgery (if that is where your mind leaps!), but the
fact that at least 700 xenobiotic pollutants are present in the fatty
tissues of the general population of the United States, and many of these
are some kind of plasticizer.

These are some of the specifics I am dealing with, but I am interested in
this general premise: if design is about intention and if we want to create
change through design then we have to design with a broader set of
objectives in mind. Reverse engineering our everyday products is a good
starting point. And when I rebuild with broader objectives as I define them,
financial considerations are part of the equation but not top of the list or
the lead imperative as with mega-corporations that are designing popular

I came across this paper a few weeks back by Scott Burnham called "Finding
the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking" that is quite relevant to
this discussion (http://scottburnham.com/?p=521).

A brief sample from that paper:

    * Hacking creates new engagements between the product and the consumer
    * Hacking mandates relevance and necessity in design
    * Hacking is resourceful
    * Hacking creates abundance from limited resources
    * Hacking finds the truth in systems

And, I leave you with a short essay of mine (this is actually text from a
poster you can download here: http://undesigning.org/cmos.html) for those
who want to read more.

Best, Brooke


Our Chemically Modified Organisms (CMOs)

Industrial chemistry is a 20th century phenomenon. During World War I,
military demand for war gas was a great boon for the burgeoning industry.
But, in 1925, with the signing of the Geneva Protocol that banned chemical
warfare, industry had to look for other markets. The production of nerve gas
(a phosphorous-containing chemical) gave way to a new line of insecticides
and the chlorine used in weapons such as phosgene and mustard gas became
feedstock for newly designed solvents, PCBs and, eventually, plastics.

The chemical industry really took off after World War II. In the United
States, synthetic organic chemical production has grown more than
thirty-fold since 1940. Today industry produces billions of tons of
chemicals per year of approximately 90,000 substances. These man-made
chemicals are the foundation of our built environment. They form our
plastics, cosmetics, household cleaners, pharmaceuticals, resins,
pesticides, food packaging, paper, clothing, flame-retardants, electronics,
solvents, paint, automobile parts, mattresses, lumber, pigments,
refrigeration, detergents, PVC, silicone, dry cleaning, disinfectants,
lubricants ­ the list is truly endless.

Many of these chemicals and the byproducts produced during their life cycle
are stable and persist in the environment. These chemicals also
bio-accumulate, meaning they increase in concentration as they move up the
food chain. Chemicals can travel great distances on currents of wind and
water, making remote regions like the Arctic just as susceptible to

New research demonstrates that some of these pollutants, even at very low
doses, can cause serious health problems. Previously it was thought that
decreasing the concentration of a substance would mitigate its impact.
Dilution is no longer seen as the pollution solution. Timing of exposure is
crucial and sensitivity is particularly high when exposure occurs in utero
or early development.

For many years, cancer was the primary health concern. Today, laboratory
studies and wildlife observations demonstrate that chemical dangers are
extensive. Chemical exposures disrupt endocrine, reproductive, immune and
nervous systems as well as contribute to cancer and other diseases.

In its first scientific statement published in 2009, The Endrocrine Society
-- an international body with 14,000 members founded in 1916 -- stated:
"Results from animal models, human clinical observations, and
epidemiological studies converge to implicate EDCs [endocrine-disrupting
chemicals] as a significant concern to public health."

The United States government does not require manufacturers to prove a
chemical is safe before use and companies generally do not voluntarily do
so. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only required testing
for some 200 of the 90,000 chemicals already in circulation. In response,
many groups and concerned citizens are promoting the precautionary
principle, which states that the manufacture of certain products should
cease even when there are only hypothetical and untested risks. This places
the burden of proof on the industry to show that a substance is safe rather
than on society to demonstrate there is a specific risk.

Some scientists are creating new frameworks, citing the failure of the
scientific method alone to sufficiently protect human health and ecological
effects. Funtowicz and Ravetz, for example, have introduced postnormal
science, which is useful when facts are uncertain, the stakes are high and
decisions are urgent. These scientists encourage dialogue and participation
with a full range of stakeholders since scientific objectivity cannot
provide all that is needed for decision-making on high, risk issues.


More information about the empyre mailing list