Design augury

The assumptions about human life at the heart of our design practices which shape our products and our daily experience of the world are exactly the same assumptions that shape our political life. Design, however, moves faster, which means we can sense where our politics are headed by observing where design has arrived. 

When I become angry about giant corporations using their own cloud computing ecosystems to outmaneuver other rival cloud computing ecosystems and dominate the market and ignoring the impact their strategic jockying has on users who have to live and work in their platform battlefield, it is because I feel and smell the politics inside this phenomenon. 

The same is true when I become enraged at dealing with the consequences of startuppity hubris — with the consequences of individual microomniscient geniuses obsessing over their masterpieces, thinking about the contant improvement and perfection of a product they think of as their own personal property, and forgetting the users who have to deal with the constant tinkering, rethinking, pivoting, etc. not just with this one product but pretty much all products. 

…And the weird sameness of so many product innovations, all in lockstep inside a narrow product paradigm, treating minute tweaks as revolutionary breakthroughs. Witness the dozens of variations of Hi-Tec C pens spwarned by Pen Type A. 

…And also when I suspect that most product designs or updates are motivated less by how it will be to use them than how it will be to read about them (or watch videos about them) on tech blogs, unboxing videos, kickstarter profiles, etc. 

…And when I see mass embrace of Helvetica and Swiss Grid design systems. A longing for regularity, order, conformity to relentless logic inherent in that approach to design. 

…And then there’s the Industrial Age relapse known as Lean Startup. 

  Etc. 

These trends feel very much as though they belong to this political moment, and also to what I fear is gathering force behind the present wave of history. 

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Of course, another name for “assumptions about human life at the heart of our activities” is philosophy. Getting at those ethical, ontological, epistemological faiths that direct our attention and guide our actions — most of all when their effects are unconscious and indistinguishable from truth and of reality itself — and seeing what possibilities emerge when they are detected and questioned is philosophy’s central task. 

I am surrounded by folks who know that philosophy is a pointless intellectual exercise in opinionated speculation, an inferior and primitive approximation of science. The philosophy behind this attitude which produces this belief as well as the myriad other political and practical beliefs remains entirely unexamined because according to itself, this activity would be pointless. It is better to just develop one’s beliefs strictly through scientific method and practical hands-on doing — never mind that all this activity is guided by philosophy and what is noticed as significance is filtered by philosophy. 

I’ve said this for years, and I’ll say it again: what ails this nation is bad philosophy. Neglect of philosophy has made us too stupid to be good Liberals. This is why most of us are illiberal right or left, or just checked out. 

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