Designers develop hybrid systems

Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.

In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to La tour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…

Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.

If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:

Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.

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I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.

Version 1

An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.

A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.

The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).

But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.

Version 2

Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.

Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.

From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.

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