[-empyre-] Hactivating Design

nicholas knouf nak44 at cornell.edu
Sat Nov 21 07:38:17 EST 2009

Brooke, Ricardo, and everyone,

Thanks for your interesting points regarding notions of design,
designing, and designers.  This has also been on my mind recently,
especially as a result of my position within a traditional
human-computer interaction program.  Here there is no questioning the
role of the designer: the designer is to be subservient to the "needs"
of the "user", where the user is defined as that constructed by
corporations and the market.  Researchers actively seek out
relationships with corporate sponsors and corporate research labs.  As a
result, there is no discussion regarding broader societal issues,
excepting where they intersect with present corporate priorities, as in
the rhetoric of "sustainability"---and of course there the limits of the
conversation are already set, again by the market.

This situation caused me to write a polemical paper for the main
conference in HCI, ACM SIGCHI, called "HCI for the Real World"
(http://zeitkunst.org/publications/hci-real-world).  In it, and this is
the main point of my post, I draw heavily on on the work of Victor
Papanek, an industrial designer who wrote, for me, a very influential
book originally published in 1970 entitled _Design for the Real World_.
 He focuses on the role of the designer, not only in the composition of
the products made, but prior to that, in the very selection of projects
to work on:

"...I must agree that the designer bears a responsibility for the way
the products he designs are received at the market place. But this is
still a narrow and parochial view. The designer’s responsibility must go
far beyond these considerations. His social and moral judgment must be
brought into place long before he begins to design, since he has to make
a judgment, and a prior judgment at that, as to whether the products he
is asked to design or redesign merit his attention at all. In other
words, will his design be on the side of the social good or not" (66).

This is one of the key, but unasked, questions within HCI.  There is a
general agreement on the relationship of HCI to corporations, the
market, and "users", yet there is no questioning of the very assumptions
that underlie that agreement, and thus what are the important problems
that students and faculty spend their time on.  Of course there are
complicated interrelationships here between funding agencies,
professional societies, methods of reward, the system of publication (in
HCI, emphasis on yearly conference papers versus less-frequent, but more
in-depth, journal articles or monographs), and so on.  Yet these are the
very conditions that should be at the forefront of debate, especially in
a "discipline" that is relatively young like HCI---but they are not.

Returning to someone like Papanek, writing a similar polemic for
industrial design and at the height of an earlier "ecological" movement,
is key to foreground the continuities between different aspects of
design, different time periods...and to suggest transdisciplinary
connections.  Design can be more than ICT for development, more than
"sustainable consumerism", but only if designers take responsibility for
their choices of what to research and what to design (and where they can
have a decent amount of control over that choice, such as in the
academy), and if they instill in their students a similar ethic.
Designers in academia would have to push against the notion that they
have to teach their students "marketable skills".  (And, I would argue,
that if the designers really wanted to teach skills that would improve
the "bottom line" of companies they would allow for much more creative
activity on the part of their student-designers, but that is the topic
for a longer post on the interrelationship of interrelationship of
contemporary "cognitive capitalism" and modern technological
development.)  Undertaking projects such as Brooke's "hactivating
design" and "undesigning" and Ricardo's "garageScience" opens up spaces
to address these questions and suggest possible alternatives.

Nevertheless, I want to additionally point to the ways in which
Papanek's project is an explicit critique and condemnation of
contemporary (both then and now) processes of consumerist capitalism.
Thus this approach is not to encourage design to necessarily create new,
more "hackable" "products", but rather to question the very system of
consumption and the manufacture of desire that creates a system of
"products".  This is the potentially radical implications of following
in the wake of Papanek: of using design not to create a "more just"
capitalism, but rather to create the conditions of possibility of real
alternatives through an engagement and reconfiguration of our material
world, of understanding how design methodology can construct different
ontological realities (following the work of someone like John Law in
_After Method_) with different political implications.


Ricardo Dominguez wrote:
> Hola all and Brooke,
> I really enjoyed "undesigning" poster Brooke and it would be really great
> to slip into classrooms from pre-k to post-grad spaces. (I will work on
> that.)
> I do think that the tactical re-engineering is an important gesture and
> one that has been important in my thinking since I first encountered
> the community research initiatives that ACT UP/SF - Golden Gate established
> in late 80's as a response to the viral politics of therapeutic state at
> the time.
> And by creating a "hactivating design" gesture of smashing popular
> toothpaste with the politics of the question that can become viral - which
> at the core of its performative matrix is that anyone can do it. Now that
> I have a young son everything becomes amplified in terms of toxicities at
> all levels. We are encountering particle capitalism(s) clouds at every
> scale of being. Which, is an important theme for the *particle group* as
> well (http://pitmm.net).
> As, part of video mediation on Open Fabrication systems, the attempted to
> bring together EDT/*particle group* and the other gestures that
> criss-crossed each other under the sign of “science of the oppressed”
> (which I came to understand came from Monique Wittig – really fantastico)
> - here is a section of the text that I thought might fall into the sphere
> of “hactivating design”:
> [science of the oppressed and garageScience]
> We can imagine Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Chela Sandoval’s
> Methodology of the Oppressed, Critical Art Ensemble’s tactical science,
> Natalie Jeremijenko public experiments and what the Electronic Disturbance
> Theater has framed today as the “science of the oppressed” – each of these
> parts of a wide area call for a re-framed relationalilty between
> spectator, poesis, praxis, experimentation and Sandoval’s differential
> consciousness of the “la conciencia de la metiza”.  Each gesture diagrams
> alternative social forms of life and art that fall between the known and
> unknown, between fiction and the real, between clean science and dirty
> science – each a part of a long history of an epistemology of social
> production which privileges the standpoint of the proletariat, the
> multitude, the open hacks of the DIY moments, and of autonomous
> investigators who stage test zones of cognitive styles-as/and out of –
> concrete practices as speculation and speculation as concrete practices –
> at the speed of dreams.
> What the artivist adds to this circuit is the ability to stage potential
> rehearsals for the now-and-future community laboratories, for the
> nanoGarages to come, for the current empirical speculations of new
> ecologies of social formations that can create a space for the agency of
> actor-spectators – that can route around the neoliberal walls of “venture
> science” as only protocol for “scientific” research and instead offer a
> counter-frame/unframe of a science for and by the people. As Boal stated,
> “we must move towards a rehearsal-theater and away from a
> spectacle-theater.” The “science of the oppressed” for EDT is type of
> “rehearsal-lab” that imagines community laboratories blooming from the
> always/already “lowrider” robotics of East L.A., from the Zapatista “Open
> Seed” an assemblage Open Wetware lab(s) – each garage a “rehearsal-lab”
> for new agency(s) defined by the people/the citizen/the nomad to “resume
> their protgonistic function” between/within/without art and science.
> The whole video is here:
> http://medialab-prado.es/article/nanogarajes_especulaciones_sobre_fabbing_abierto
> Also, some other thoughts on these themes by *particle group*'s
> Nanosférica presentation:
> http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/particle-group-intro
> nano nano,
> Ricardo
>> 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
>> toothpastes.
>> 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
>> degradation.
>> 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.
>> _______________________________________________
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>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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