Design Fictions About Critical Design

MoC1-CT-DFiction1
At the beginning of 2015, some researchers took the physical components of the design duo Dunne and Raby Foragers exhibition to Liberia. The imagery and texts that accompanied the original exhibition of the ‘fictional’ artefacts were not included because their art direction contained too many unquestioned class and ethnic assumptions. At the time, Liberia was recovering from being in a state of emergency as a result of Ebola. Food production was limited and the imaginary of Liberians was filled with the ‘space age’ suits and equipment of wealthy white people trying to contain viruses. As a result, the Foragers designs were an immediate scandal. Riots ensued. The Liberian government, believing it had evidence of an anti-African plot by Europeans and Americans, expelled all foreign companies and committed to becoming self-sufficient in organic produce and local economies.

——————————

CTonkinwise-SCD1

——————————

Investigators have found that a spate of tragic drone-related accidents had a common source. The operators had been inspired to DIY their devices after seeing what they believed were real examples in a shopping catalogue. Instead the catalogue was the ‘design fiction’ project of the Near Future Laboratory. A court found the Laboratory culpable for the accidents. The presiding judge expressed disbelief that the Laboratory could have imagined such evil devices. The Laboratory argued the ‘it was just art’ defense but the judge refused to accept this because the ideas had been rendered at such a high level of fidelity. “It was criminally negligent of the Laboratory to have designed these provocations without making any preparations for the consequences of releasing these ideas into the world,” the judge said in a statement. “The Laboratory could not explain to the court even their best case scenario for how productive reception of this ‘artwork’ was expected to take place.”

——————————

“Yes, Hello, thanks for taking my call. My design magazine is very interested in publishing stories about your Speculative Critical Design. To be frank, I was told about your work by some of our most dedicated and well-paying advertisers. I wasn’t familiar with your projects, but our clients – from some of the most expensive furniture companies to some of the most exclusive fashion houses – knew all about it. They were saying that your work is radical and critical – really disruptive – but that it is still really great design, very clearly demonstrating the power and sophistication of Design. They love how it makes design look so cutting edge. One of my magazine’s most prolific advertisers was saying that he has been waiting so long for this. For decades now leftist cultural critiques have been vilifying design as the source of all consumerism. But now you are using design to critique everything else. At last design looks like the savior rather than the villain. It reaffirms the world’s faith in the value of design. All our advertisers want to position their products alongside articles about your work. Design schools too. They love that you are driving student interest in forms of designing that they are already teaching – no need to retool. So tell me – what have you been ‘critically designing’ recently?”

——————————

A new leak from Edward Snowden points to a complicated conspiracy. For some time, design research laboratories at universities, such as the one associated with the design researcher Bill Gaver at Goldsmiths University, have used funding from tech companies to produce what appeared to be provocative propositional products about the social implications of future technologies. Investigative journalism revealed 18 months ago that these projects were not the cultural critiques they claimed. They were instead versions of an old design strategy that the industrial designer Raymond Loewy once called MAYA – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, in 1951. In this approach, designers produce extremist speculative designs on their own time in order to move the ones that more conservative designs clients might choose further along the innovation spectrum. Vice News showed that what appeared to be arm’s-length funding for ‘ambiguous’ explorations of design possibilities, such as Gaver’s, were in fact deliberate attempts by tech companies to work with design researchers to ‘soften up’ the public for new technologies or new uses of technologies. Snowden’s leak reveals a further twist. The NSA in the USA channeled money to Speculative Design researchers through tech companies to generate projects that would make the public think that radically life-changing new technologies were just around the corner. The intention appears to have been to make the public believe that increased technological reach was an inevitability.

——————————

The product designer James Auger is facing disciplinary action by his university for his role in ‘industrial sabotage’ of genomics research. Auger began working with genomics scientists as part of an ‘Art-Science’ initiative at his university. The original aim was to explore how designers could help scientists better communicate the implications of their work. Initial collaborations involved Auger using what is known as a ‘Speculative Design’ to imagine ways in which the scientists’ research might be commercially deployed. Scientists were apparently appalled by the resulting designs, discerning for the first time the great dangers of their work. Shocked by the realism of Auger’s exploitative propositions, the scientists committed to ending their work. It is alleged that it was Auger, drawing on what he had discovered from his design research about the media ecology sustaining the credibility of this science, who proposed how the scientists could effectively ‘suicide-bomb’ this field of research. We now know that the experiments that the scientists claimed to be doing, which led to widespread public outcry and consequent outlawing of such work, were never in fact conducted – they were merely stories that the scientists put about to provoke the very reaction that ensued. Auger’s defense invokes ‘the precautionary principle.’ On his way into the disciplinary meeting at his university, he refused to comment to reporters apart from saying repeatedly: “Google ‘Post-normal Science’!”

——————————

The New School in New York City, which includes the Design School, Parsons, announced a new degree program that combines Design and Journalism. Part of this unique, innovative and urgently needed degree program is the possibility of majoring in Discursive Design. The Director of the Discursive Design major spoke at a MoMA Design and Violence forum saying, “Speculative Design is pointless unless it is active in giving form to the speculations it stirs up. You can’t just make provocative products and then throw them over the wall into the existing media landscape. For instance, tech journalism at the moment is an embarrassment. If you really believe in the importance of design as a shaper of the future, you must also construct the media that can be the forum for that shaping. We will teach Discursive Designers how to build up the audiences they need.”

——————————

Design researchers at a number of Art and Design Schools are concerned that about possible terrorist threats against them. Many have received versions of messages saying things like:
CTonkinwise-SCD2

Some of these Design Researchers suspect that the messages have in fact been written by their colleagues more committed to Social Design and Participatory Design.


Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 1 (2015).

Click to Comment