We live in peculiar times. The times that seem to be, consciously or unconsciously, heavily influenced by what has already turned out to be prophetic books. As all holy books, these literary fortune-tellers consist of fictional narratives of an abhorrent nature, which unfortunately are already realities. Or what could be more Orwellian that the latest story forged together not in the dirt of underworld, but at the most pristine places of our society: the intellectual monasteries of academia? Now, in the technologically most advanced times, it is actually possible to publish a scientific article claiming that diet soft drinks are better for losing weight than clean water. The article underwent a peer-review process, that is true, but let’s not pay attention to the fact that “the research was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Europe, whose members include drinks giants such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo“ 1.
I started with a dystopian story of our dystopian times in order to point out the universal truth we can find in the works of masters of dystopian prose such as Orwell, Huxley or Zamyatin, that high-tech culture does not guarantee best outcomes simply because, in the words of historian Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” 2. Any given technology is political but flexible, as it always exists in excess of the purposes for which it may have been designed. 3 We can therefore dismiss with confidence that strange notion portraying technology as an organism somehow existing outside time and space, in a metaphysical realm where everything is neatly determined in the Newtonian fashion. In other words, the notion of technological determinism has been rendered invalid not only by our common sense, but also by academic arguments of people like the great sociologist Manuel Castells who writes that:
„We know that technology does not determine society: [technology] is society. Society shapes technology according to the needs, values, and interests of people who use the technology.“ 4
But whose needs?, we shall ask. Historically, those needs and values were of course dictated by the ruling classes of the time and even though this has radically changed in the 20th century due to the democratization and “humanization” occurring in the field of design and its methodologies — of which I am going to talk later — it remains truism that the political attributes of large-scale and extremely expensive technological projects are shaped largely by those in power, whoever that might be.
And it is the latent power of technology to transform the world for the better on which Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams build the whole premise of their latest book Inventing the Future. On technology they write:
“The internet and social media are giving a voice to billions who previously went unheard, bringing global participative democracy close than ever to existence. Open-source designs, copyleft creativity, and 3D printing all [promise] a world where the scarcity of many products might be overcome. New forms of computer simulation could rejuvenate economic planning and give us the ability to direct economics rationally in unprecedented ways. The newest wave of automation is creating the possibility for [numerous] types of boring and [humiliating] work to be permanently eliminated. Clean energy technologies make possible virtually limitless and environmentally sustainable forms of power production. And new medical technologies not only enable a longer, healthier life, but also make possible new experiments with gender and sexual identity.“
Some of the technological advancements listed above are uncontroversial since they are already in place, others waiting to be tapped and developed further. But why should we be afraid to exercise our creativity and base our political strategies on what at the moment still seems to be beyond the reach? Is it not the case that the human brain oftentimes comes up with visions of technologies whose actual construction will inevitable take place some time in near future? Did we forget to re-read the old dusty book called History where we may find that it was in 1908 when:
“Nikola Tesla foresaw a technology that would allow ‘a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere’ and would allow global access to ‘any picture, character, drawing, or print.’” 5
“thirty years later, when the prolific writer H. G. Wells articulated his idea of a “World Brain” as “a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared.” 6
I could also mention the seminal essay As We May Think, written in 1945 by the US engineer Vannevar Bush, in which the reader finds description of gadgets that predate Google’s search engine, Google Glass, Wikipedia, iPads and the modern human-computer interaction.
In every single case all the great ideas which eventually became reality were at first deemed unrealistic, impractical, utopian. Yet it is exactly this utopian thinking that Srnicek and Williams want us to embrace and foster.
Although I started my essay giving an example on how corporatism infiltrates even the most sacred institutions, the authors vehemently proclaim: enough of dystopian and defeatist thinking! But there is a lingering question mark in the air, asking how we got into this negative mindset in the first place.
According to the authors, we can primarily blame the capitalist realism, which Mark Fisher describes as:
“the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. Once, dystopian films and novels were exercises in such acts of imagination – the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living.” 7
Indeed, even the science fiction authors par excellence find nowadays difficult to ponder an alternative to the current hegemony of neoliberalism and capitalism, which only deepens the marasmus in the collective imagination
But contemporary Left did react, challenging the status quo by employing various political tactics and conjuring up political movements with mass popular support, yet achieving dubious results. In the core of such thinking is, however, a faulty reasoning stemming from the logic that if technological progress leads to capitalism, then in order to negate capitalism, Left has to negate modernisation as well. In reality, what this thinking of the Left entails is a rejection of all forms of domination, a strong adherence to direct democracy and a decision-making process based on consensus. Srnicek and Williams call this stance folk politics.
The name is derived from customary meanings of the word “folk”: folk as local and small-scale. Folk politics embraces the notion that immediacy — that is no political mediation through third parties — politics of horizontalism, local communities, intuition, face to face communication and ethical consumption are more authentic, better and thus preferable.
And here is the root of the problem inherent in folk politics: its approach to solving the current economical, social and ecological problems is to scale-down the whole world to the “human level” of local politics so as to be easily manageable. It ignores many crucial points, however.
Firstly, far from being only an asset of the Left, many features of folk politics, especially the focus on the local, fair-trade are already parts of the mainstream, happily integrated in the daily routine of capitalist exchange. This fact was famously expressed by Jodi Dean when she said that „Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens“ 8, which can be translated as saying that small, albeit well-meaning alternations at the edge have no potential to alter substantially the whole system. For that, broad, systemic thinking, taking into account the whole ecology of a problem, is necessary.
And that is the second argument the authors make why contemporary praxis of Left politics is incapable of transcending capitalism into post-capitalist society. Although local politics is necessary, as they claim, since all politics starts at the local level, the book proposes that to make meaningful changes, the Left has to end its antagonism towards any hierarchical structures, abstract analysis or mathematical modelling without which any attempt to comprehend and manage complex problems is bound to fail or omit important details which are deeply intertwined with other issues.
One of the complex problems the authors portray in the book is Capitalism itself. Who is able to say that understands it? Is it not the reason behind arguments against any social planning that economy (and the society) is so complex that we have to let the individuals and free markets “run the show”?
Nick Srnicek writes in his essay in the book Object that a problem with capitalism is that it is beyond our phenomenological experience, that it evades any perceptual or empirical representation, therefore it is essentially a non-object. How are we to deal with it? And how do we feel about it?
Here I have to borrow from Gilles Deleuze in Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism where he calls Franz Kafka a prophet of distributed, decentralized, cybernetic power. 9 Fisher then writes that in capitalism:
“the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it […]. It is not that there is nothing there – it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility” 10
the system is everywhere, but nowhere, there is no central authority to blame, just the Law (Capitalism)
Furthermore, Josef K in Kafka’s Trial is very much aware of his condition that he is not responsible for himself, the higher, invisible hand (the pun intended) governs his life, nevertheless there is no central authority to which he could plead, just an endless bureaucratic stream of higher or lower clerks, without necessary power to change anything.
How can we make sense of imperceptible network of capitalist relations propagating all around us? How can we escape it? Or, should we escape at all?
Nick Land through Nietzsche argued: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‚accelerate the process,’” 11 of merging with the system. The contemporary Left on the other hand seems to feel excited about succumbing to a certain form of anarcho-primitivism. Is there a third, middle way?
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams write that:
“If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position. Any postcapitalist project will necessarily require the creation of new cognitive maps [… and] technological interfaces […]”
In order to understand the complex non-object such as economy, we need a cognitive prosthesis that would enable us to see better the individual components and more importantly interrelations of the system. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue for re-purposing technology, emphasizing long-term, mission-oriented thinking rather than the current neoliberal common sense where technology is predominantly created with short-term profits as the sole purpose.
Despite the widespread belief, it is the public which through the State funded the most innovative and crucial technology of last century, be it microchips, development of graphical interface, the Internet, World Wide Web. Quite rightly, the authors call for democratic control over government spending, steering technologies towards socially useful and sustainable goods. Having learnt that technology is intrinsically embedded in society, such re-purposing of the technology means that we need to know exactly how any potential technology will fit into the existing socio-cultural context. Therefore cognitive mapping is required not only for understanding the economy, but also the entire society. What are the actual working methods and processes that can be utilised, without starting from scratch? It turns out there is a field that has been gaining momentum in recent years, and which is perfectly equipped to fulfil these demands: it is design, or more specifically the growing field of fusing formal rigour of cybernetics with human intuition: the field of systemic design.
For all those who have not heard the news, we have entered into a new age called anthropocene. This new epoch is defined as the age of humans. For some commentators latest buzzword, for scientist mostly a new taxonomic item for categorizing the world in the Aristotelian tradition, whereas for humanities and arts it is a potent metaphor, a new great meta narrative showing us how the accumulative consequences of human actions are so vast that Mother Nature is telling us: “go my children, go, you have matured, you are on your own now”. Indeed, it seems we have superseded Mother Nature in the leading role and now we have the power to shape our world according to our own image. We live in a ‘man-made’ world—a world that is predominantly shaped by human activity, and therefore we can re-name the anthropocene as the age of human intention, or the age of design.
We interact with physical and biological systems in the way that we can already manipulate them and re-define what is possible. For instance, the field synthetic biology where the leading academic and designer, Neri Oxman, creates 3D printed skins for interplanetary travels with before never-seen materials;
or the artist and real cyborg Neil Harbisson who, being colorblind, uses a sensor-antenna attached to the back of his skull in order to transcode visual images into sound waves which his brain learnt to interpret as visual stimuli. But he went further and can “see” infrared and ultraviolet spectrum, thus expanding the normal human capabilities.
If the human activity is now the dominant planetary force and influences the physical and biological systems, why talk about these systems separately? Where the concept of Anthropocene is most powerful is in realizing that all systems are social systems of which we are both objects and subjects — agents of great power. Researches have accepted a consensus (Stockholm Memorandum, 2011) that human intervention has intervened in all aspects of the planetary ecology, rendering even natural and ecological systems socially influenced. But are we willing to take the responsibility for our actions? And if Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams demand that we re-purpose the technology, how do we ensure that we will do that correctly, without destructive unintended consequences of unwise decisions?
Architect and professor of design Harold G. Nelson writes:
„As scientist or humanities scholars are looked to for advice on preferred actions in response to large scale and complex issues they are essentially being asked to become design consultants. Unfortunately descriptions and explanations — the role of the sciences and the humanities — do not prescribe. And predictions and control — the contributions of technology and applied arts — do not justify action. The formulation […] and justification of intentional actions comes through designers creating designs on behalf of others.“
Perhaps before we proceed to answer why designers seem to have a privilege status over others, we should clarify what we mean by the word design.
Defining design is essential, since there is still mythology and many falsehoods around the word. The cause is the ingrained misunderstanding of design as being solely about objects and the artistic, subjective and mystical process called creativity. Although creativity is involved, such description is an immense simplification.
The late Czech-born philosopher Vilem Flusser asserts that design creates a bridge between soft and hard sciences, being an internal link between art and science. This understanding of design has been severed since Renaissance, making the designer “only” a craftsman or artisan. It was the famous German school Bauhaus where re-unification of design as the link between art and technology took place.
Nigel Cross compares design with science and writes that whereas scientific method describes a pattern of behaviour for solving problem which science uses for discovering what in nature already exists, design is a pattern of behaviour or thinking for creating things that are not yet in existence. He concludes that science is analytical, design constructive or synthetic.
The dichotomy analysis/synthesis calls for explanation. By analysis we mean the classical paradigm of scientific reductionism which tears apart any system to its atomic elements which are analysed in isolation through their properties. In other words, analytical approach treats any system as a mere sum of individual elements.
Synthesis, on the other hand, is a paradigm emphasizing the holistic approach, which gains understanding of the given system by looking at the relations and connections between individual components, acknowledging that systems exist in a broader, changing context, possibly with feedback loops.
Moreover, in systems exist synergies of elements that give rise to the emergent properties. We find a well-known example of emergence in water. While it makes no sense to talk about wetness of hydrogen or oxygen, it is their combination that gives rise to such emergent property.
Therefore, under synthetic or systemic thinking, the system is not a mere sum of its parts, it is more than the sum of its parts. This design, systemic thinking is in fact something that is also called soft systems thinking.
Given that we find ourselves in anthropocene where all systems are social systems and given the systemic approach of design, it is no coincidence that we can see designers promoted to positions where they create complex business strategies, organizational structures and are often used for complex social systems, policy-making and community design.
This shift from artifacts and communication to designing organizational and social transformation is best visualized by Jones and van Patter in their graph of four dimensions of design:
- Artifacts and communications:
- Products and services: (including service design, product innovation user experience)
- Organizational transformation (complex, bounded by business or strategy): change-oriented, design of work practices, strategies, and organizational structures
- Social transformation (complex, unbounded): design for complex societal situations, social systems, policy-making, and community design.
These four dimensions do not exclude each other. It is a commonplace that designers working on higher dimensions will draw from experience and knowledge of lower ones.
Having visualized the four dimensions of design, we can finally see why conceptualizing design as an activity producing tangible objects is an extremely limited view. Such definition would incorporate approximately first two dimensions.
The better definition of design is to propose that design is a synthesising process of defining relationships and making connection between things, humans or ideas, so that they function as a system.
What we called systemic design is not a design discipline per se (in a sense that would generate a tangible product), but rather integration of systems thinking and design methods which bring human-centered approach to complex problems at the third and fourth dimension of design. By complex problems we mean situations where it is nearly inconceivable that any single expert or manager can understand the entire system, let alone suggest a solution. Such problems have emergent properties, rendering it impossible to make design or management decisions based on sufficient individual knowledge (which practically means that any politician has almost zero chance to solve any significant problems).
These complex design problems received its own name. Theoretician Horst Rittel called them “wicked problems”, because they cannot be analysed or reduced with classical analytical problem solving methods and techniques. Apart from their sheer complexity, one of the reasons being that wicked problems consist of a human element, so it is necessary to negotiate between frequently conflicting demands. However, calling these complex situations “problems” might be misleading, because the most difficult part in solving wicked problems is to know what they actually are, and that requires mapping and visualizing the whole ecology of a system. Otherwise we may not realise how they are interrelated to other components of the system and due to the feedback loops, changing one component can yield catastrophic results in other places.
Definitions of wicked problems, Source: Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems, Peter H. Jones, PhD
To consider human activity and concerns in a social system is necessary for several reasons. They contribute to understanding of the system, but are also valuable information for designers, because having real human needs and values in mind, designers can suggest solutions that are relevant, as opposed to imposing arbitrary solutions based upon personal preferences.
Totalitarian modernist architecture of the first half of 20th century suffered tremendously from not taking the human being into account. One canonical example that should deter anyone is the work of famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier who was commissioned to re-design Paris. His vision had little to do with human needs, instead he created technocratic solution deprived of organic elements, which epitomises a city we may find in any dystopian literature.
The idea of human-centred design is not new, Scandinavian designers have been using participatory design methods, involving extensive cooperation with potential users, since 1970s, but it was the US design agency IDEO that pushed HCD into mainstream as a tool for solving complex business and social problems.
Although there are interesting cases where HCD is used at the level of government to improve social services, one such case is the Danish design agency Mindlab, nowadays, even according to academic literature, HCD seems to have become a buzzword sold by companies as a new thing just to improve company’s image.
Furthermore, the creativity of design profession has been in last decades again diminished into making small, incremental changes, fearing to change the status quo of products that are selling. With the increase of virtual reality, there is also a chance that designers will work as “master designers” of a personalized virtual word, designing our virtual avatars and the whole virtual experience: safe virtual havens where we can hide from the harshness of reality.
But that was to be expected. If technology is inherently political, the same holds for design, since it is design whose methods are applied to developing technology. Repurposing technology must be inevitably preceded by repurposing design.
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams suggest that we need a tool for cognitive mapping of the intangible, non-object, that is the economic system. Why not appropriate the tools that design already has?
At Oslo School of Architecture and Design, the current epicentre for the research in systemic design, they developed a tool for mapping super-complex problems called GIGA-mapping. Created by designers with strong visual skills, these GIGA-maps provide a visual guide through the full context of a problem. They reveal unexpected relations between multiple layers, scales and design dimensions, from individual objects and humans to society.
Are GIGA-maps the cognitive mapping the authors call for? Or did they have in mind genuinely new tools, expanding our perceptual apparatus to unprecedented capacity of cyborgs? Or did they think of just more powerful, more brutal data-mining of Big Data?
GIGA-maps have been used at the forefront of current design praxis. Although still in development, they already help designers to cope with wicked problems. If not powerful enough to map the whole socio-economical system, the technique can be used for mapping smaller parts of our lives: voting system, system of taxes, relations between governmental bodies, the flow of money in public spending etc. Whereas rigorous mathematical modelling might be unpopular among the Left, this so-called “soft” approach to systems is certainly more accessible, not only to the theoreticians, but also the general population.
Systemic design should not be viewed as a new political salvation, rather it is a set of conceptual, formal tools and methods that could bring creative, yet systemic, abstract thinking and reasoning about capitalism to the contemporary Left politics. Something the Left desperately needs. Because knowing the opponent certainly helps.
Final question: why do we not hear the word “creative” in connection with politics?
(the text was presented on 21. 1. 2016 at Skolska28 Gallery as a part of Diffractions Lecture Series)
Melvin Kranzberg, ‘Technology and History: ‘‘Kranzberg’s Laws”’, Technology and Culture 27:3 (1986), p. 54 as cited in Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the future, p.152 ↩
Ibid, p.152 ↩
ED. BY MANUEL CASTELLS and GUSTAVO CARDOSO. The network society: from knowledge to policy. 2006, p. 3 ↩
KLEINROCK, Leonard. An Early History of the Internet, p. 26 ↩
Ibid, p. 26 ↩
FISHER, Marc. Capitalist Realism Is there no alternative?, 2009, p. 1 ↩
as cited by SRNICEK, Nick and Alex WILLIAMS. Inventing the future: postcapitalism and a world without work. 2015, p. 25 ↩
FISHER, Marc. Capitalist Realism Is there no alternative?, 2009, p. 25 ↩
Ibid, p.64 ↩
LAND, Nick, Robin MACKAY and Ray BRASSIER. Fanged Noumena: collected writings 1987-2007. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Sequence Press, 2012, viii, p. 449 ↩