Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.
These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.
Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:
- Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
- Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
- Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)
Sunday morning I was talking with Zoe about different varieties of unattainable ideals, and further developing a distinction I made last week, when I criticized altruism for belonging to a misconception of being and relationship that produces ineffective practices and bad results, contrasting it with “impossible” ideals which can never be fully actualized but which are valuable, nonetheless.
Here’s the start of a glossary of unattainable ideals:
Sacred mirage: an impossible end is justified by intrinsically valuable means — so even though the goal is unattainable on principle (that is, progress even toward it is absurd) the effect of pursuing the ideal is intrinsically good.
Asymptotic ideal: an end can never be fully attained, but steady progress toward that end is possible — so the act of pursuing the ideal can be expected to produce value even if perfection is never reached. Rorty’s concept of progress as measured by movement away from a negative ideal is helpful in cases of asymptotic ideal.
Futile ideal: an unattainable end fails to justify means whose value is purely utilitarian — because the value of the means is contingent on attainment of an unattainable goal the act of pursuing the goal is a waste of time and effort.
Corrupt ideal: a misconceived end produces intrinsically harmful means — so, not only is the end impossible, the means employed to obtain it are damaging. A corrupt ideal is an inversion of a sacred mirage, a “desecrating mirage”.
I regard altruism in its myriad forms as a corrupt ideal. It does not produce relationship with real others, but intense feelings toward categories of person who exist primarily in the imagination of the altruist.
I see the illiberal fringes of progressivism as rejecting liberal democracy as a futile ideal, when, in fact, it is an asymptotic ideal, and desiring to replace it with a corrupt ideal, which ultimately undermines their leftism and enthrones them as the elite arbiters of justice according to their own corrupt ideal. The “illiberal left” is not leftist at all, but rather an alt-alt-right who wants to abandon the principles of both liberalism and democracy in order to administer its own moral vision on a majority who does not share their vision (even if they prefer it as a lesser evil to right-illiberalism).
The illiberal fringes of the right also subscribe to a corrupt ideal, antithetical to the left, but antagonistically cooperative with it. I call these antithetical pairings “Ares’s hand-puppets” because they are animated by the same kind of collective hubris that justifies the indignation and retaliation of the other. The illiberal right also pursues an ideal entirely incompatible with liberal democracy, based on scientistic convictions that have nothing to do with science, and which are unacceptable to the majority (even if they prefer it to progressivist-illiberalism).
Liberal democracy, as I said, is an asymptotic ideal, but it also has virtues of a sacred mirage, that is, liberal-democratic practice has life-enhancing virtues apart from the progress it effects, and the more I contemplate it, the more the intrinsic value of the ideal appears to surpass its contingent value. The intrinsic value might even serve as the source of the continent value, in that progress toward the liberal democratic ideal means that increasing numbers of people benefit from the intrinsic value of pursuing the liberal-democratic ideal.
Now that I’ve applied these concepts (informally prototype tested them), I’m seeing opportunities for refinement by categorizing unattainable ideals as having three dimensions:
- Practicability (practicable / impracticable): is it possible to progress toward the ideal’s goal?
- Intrinsicality (intrinsic / contingent): How much intrinsic value do the means have?
- Morality (positive / negative): What is the intrinsic value of the means?
I listen to other people speak of their experiences, and I also listen to their explanations of their experiences. The former is privileged knowledge: respect entails belief in the other’s testimony. The latter is not: our explanations for the experience belong to our own theories founded in our own philosophies. And here respect entails allowing each individual to hold their own beliefs on what caused the private experience.
Perhaps these two respects deserve different names.
If you experience God speaking directly into your ear, I must respect your testimony or risk disrespecting you — but you must respect my interpretation of your testimony or risk disrespecting me.
If my child throws a fit, I must believe she is experiencing real distress or I am failing as a parent — but I must interpret that distress and respond to it as an adult parent or I am failing in a different, perhaps worse way — a way that neglects the obligation of parents to teach their children to interpret their own emotions and to respond to them in a socially reasonable way.
What should these differing forms of respect be called?
- The respecting of direct testimony of experience, taken on faith as true.
- The respecting of interpretation of experience, taken as one of a plurality of arguable truths.
There is a third respect I have not mentioned, one in which I might be deficient. This is respect for rigorous comparison of experiences (at least empirical, sharable experiences) and interpretations (at least interpretations that are strictly logical) and their consequences, which means abandoning one’s favored interpretations when another is shown to have more explanatory power. This would probably be called scientific respect. Or… (see below) positivistic respect…?
But, then, there is the respect for precisely those experiences that are least sharable and conclusions that are reasonable but not determined by any logic fed by empirical data, one that recognizes that relevance is a function of framing and that reality infinitely exceeds our perception, conception, comprehension and understanding, and when reality is beyond not only our grasp but even our our touch, it is indistinguishable from nothingness — not that dark nothingness that announces its present absence with a shadow, but that absent absence, the blind nothing that looks like the expected somethings, the reality that can stare directly into each of our pupils and breathe the air directly from our nostrils, unperceived, undetected, unsuspected.
Some assertions are experiential, some interpretive, some positivistic, and these deserve their own kind of respect, but some assertions are none of these and aim at what is beneath and beyond all of them together — and this commands an enforceable philosophical respect. Or is it religious respect?
I wonder what it would look like if the bourgeoisie appropriated Marxism, and then deployed it against the working class.
Anxiety is an unpleasant type of inspiration.
Despising anxiety is not only a waste of inspiration, it is alienating.
The Golden Rule is not gold-plate — it is solid gold all the way down, and nobody finds the bottom. But a morally serious person follows the gold down as far as it goes, and further.
What does it mean to follow the Golden Rule deeper?
Starting at the surface: Do you want others to do do to you exactly what they want done to them? Would you like them to feed you only the food they want to eat themselves and make you listen to the music they would have played for them? Clearly this is not deep enough.
Further down: Would you like others to treat you justly, according to their own sense of justice, in disregard of what seems just, fair and good to you? Do you want them to privilege their own instincts and conceptions — their own conscience — which makes their justice seem as self-evident to them as yours is to you?
Do you want them to believe their anxious suspicions that you think and act in bad faith, and to do everything in their power to stop you and silence you if possible?
Clearly, we must mine deeper.
The more layers we dig beneath — and the more we undermine our own moral complacency by applying the Golden Rule as strictly to ourselves as we apply it to others — the more we discover not only changes in what we believe about morality, but we also change how we believe moral truths, and deeper still, why we care about morality.
When we make others anxious with our ideas, they are full of reasons why they ought to take their anxiety literally, give their paranoid suspicions full reign, and obey its logical consequences and shut us down in whatever way is most efficient.
And if we are willing to apply the Golden Rule symmetrically — as the Golden Rule implies we must — we find we do the same thing to others, all the time, constantly. We can find myriad reasons to silence others, if only in our own head, if only temporarily, if only through saying “maybe later…” It takes tremendous discipline and pain tolerance to do otherwise.
If we welcome anxiety as inspiration, interpreting what it says to us, letting it work on us, allowing it to be productive through us — everything changes.
Anxiety is how real transcendence feels before our understanding renders it immanent.
Anyone who wants religion to be an instrument for annihilating or banishing anxiety and having only peace — whether through outer-fight or through inner-flight — is looking for something other than religion.
Religion is for cultivating the fullest possible relationship with reality beyond our understanding. Religion is inherently anxious.
Liberalism is far deeper than authoritarians will allow themselves to know.
Maybe we need a Solid-Golden Rule: Apply the Golden Rule to yourself as you would have others apply it to themselves.
For some, justice is primarily a matter of determining guilt and proper punishment. For others, justice is also a matter of determining innocence and proper protection.
I remember back in the mid-2000s, when I was caught up in the general leftist panic about the underlying philosophy of the Neocons and decided to dig into the substance of their thought for myself. The panic turned out to be justified. The passage below comes from Irving Kristol’s Neo-Conservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea:
The main priority of a sensible criminal-justice system — its first priority — is to punish the guilty. It is not to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted. That is a second priority — important but second. Over these past two decades, our unwise elites — in the law schools, in the courts, in our legislatures — have got these priorities reversed. (Page 362, “The New Populism: Not to Worry”)
That is a pretty weird way to frame justice, but it rings eerily familiar is some conversations I’ve had with Progressivists lately. If you wanna make an omelette, you’ve gotta break some eggs.
People – especially empathic people – can sometimes forget that they, too, have a right to be persuaded.
They unconsciously assume the burden of persuasion, and feel that if they have not persuaded others to their belief, they do not have the right to their own beliefs, or at least not to public belief. They think that until they can argue a belief, they are obligated to keep it to themselves and suppress or conceal their doubts.
I think this can be harmful.
I consider it a liberal’s right, if not a duty, to express non-persuasion or even dissent when it exists, even when there is no strong argument to back up the belief. This practice is important for a number of reasons. If nobody disagrees or doubts, it creates an appearance of unanimity, suggesting self-evident truth. It can cause people to doubt their own doubts and worry that their questions are stupid or misguided. If this fear becomes widespread and habitual, and people stop raising questions and everyone becomes unaccustomed to unquestioning acceptance, a culture of conformity can develop where group-think is the rule and questioning is taboo.
Registering doubt at least keeps questions open. It also encourages other individuals with doubts to speak up. It keeps a society accustomed to hearing individual judgments and individual thinking that goes against the grain.
To a liberal these are concerns of the highest rank.
My conviction is that we can believe or not believe something even without strong arguments.
Of course, if we want people to agree with us, we’ll eventually have to produce some persuasive reasons. Until then it will be necessary to stand alone.
But we are allowed to stand alone. Some of us admire people for standing alone – as long as they also respect our right to be unpersuaded.
Advice to myself:
If I find myself in the midst of a group with whom I disagree, I will raise my hand and state: “I am not persuaded by what you are saying.”
I will openly admit it if I do not yet have counter-arguments. I will tell everyone I’m still thinking about it.
I will not be silent, and I definitely won’t be silenced.
As Christian fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Christianists, and as Islamic fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population are called Islamists, Progressive fundamentalists who wish to forcibly impose their views on a population should be called Progressivists.
And why shouldn’t they? They have had powerful conversion experiences that revealed the true Truth to them. Now they see the world in its totality with an undeniable intensity, clarity and coherence. They know, they know that they know, and they no longer have patience for those who have no desire to know. They cannot conceive of how they could possibly be wrong, nobody is able to show them to their satisfaction how they are wrong, and therefore they are right.
Some are “born again”, some are “enlightened”, some are “red-pilled”, some are “woke”, and all are naive realists who think they awoke from naive realism, and they are going to wake you up, too.
Conversations among progressives can be confusing.
When politics is the topic, everything seems very leftist. They regard exclusivity, privilege, elitism, inequality, unfairness and consumerism as abhorrent and are quick to call it out when they see it.
But when the talk turns to less weighty topics, egalitarianism goes out the window. It becomes a competition to see is most urbane, who has vacationed in the most exotic places, who has the best taste in wine, literature, cinema and art, who knows the most about the newest, most fashionable restaurants, who has a degree from the most prestigious university, who has what status in what airline, hotel and credit card. Who has the highest status?
It all seems very self-contradictory — unless you realize that political beliefs and social ethics is just another of these status qualifications.
To establish that one belongs to the progressive elite class one must have the best taste in food and drink, must vacation in the best places, must have the best educational pedigree and one must believe the right things and practice the best political etiquette most strictly.
Seen in this light virtue signaling is just another dimension of a larger class signaling.
Assuming a progressive elitist class exists, would progressive elitists be aware of the advantages they derive from their dominant identity? Would they be able to overcome the a form of motivated reasoning that sees unjust privilege everywhere but in its own identity? Wouldn’t they feel deeply uncomfortable when confronted by others, and perhaps feel some fragility and rage at having their dominance challenged and at the impudent demand that they share power with those who are different from them? Could they be quiet and really listen for a change, instead of lecturing and dominating the discourse? Could they accept the hard truth that, even with their deductions, counter-balances and privilege-checking they have refused to check the one privilege that dwarfs all the others combined?
Could they apply their own principles to themselves? Or will they use their power to dismiss, discredit, disgrace and punish attempts to speak truth to a power identity so powerful that it demands to be treated not as an identity but as truth and justice itself?
What is it about Rorty that makes him so satisfying to disagree with? Rorty’s mistakes and omissions make me like him even more. Maybe it is because his ultimate goals and tacit evaluations correspond to my own, and our disagreements are merely around facts and inferences.
Rorty was profoundly pluralistic, and you can feel it.
[I meant to just write about Rorty, but here the post takes a turn toward the theme of emergencies and liberalism, which appears to be my live problem right now.]
Rorty, as far as I know, never did that pseudoliberal move of piously nodding to the ideal of liberalism and then immediately finding reasons to betray it for the sake of saving it from those illiberal others.
Yes, there are illiberals. Yes, they attack liberalism from the inside when they attack it from the outside by forcing it to resort to illiberal measures to defend itself. But with pseudoliberals the eagerness to find necessities to resort to illiberal measures is palpable. Their faces brighten when they find the “yes, but… so…” that lets them have it both ways: appealing to liberal principles to support their own liberty, while finding themselves in the midst of an emergency that calls for privileging their own judgments over those who view things differently. “Yes, but people’s safety is at risk, so…” “Yes, but there is corruption (or conspiracy!) at the very root of the institutions we are supposed to trust, so…” “Yes, but the public is too deluded and stupid to judge for itself, so…” “Yes, but the USA’s form of liberal democracy was corrupted from the start, and the stain of sin remains, so…” “Yes, but we are being overrun by hordes of illegal immigrants, so…” etc., etc., etc.
Saturday, I tried to explain to a conservative friend that if we arbitrarily decide an illegal immigration problem (that is actually on a trajectory of improvement) is such an emergency that it justifies use of extra-democratic emergency powers, he has no right to complain in 2022 when President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declares an emergency over poverty or institutional racism or worker’s rights.
This passage from Rorty’s absolutely brilliant essay “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” made a very deep impression on my politics:
I turn now to the other big difference between Nietzsche on the one hand and James and Dewey on the other. Nietzsche thinks religious belief is intellectually disreputable; James and Dewey do not.
In order to defend James and Dewey’s tolerance for theism against Nietzsche, I shall sketch a pragmatist philosophy of religion in five brief theses. Then I shall try to relate these theses to what James and Dewey actually said about belief in God.
First, it is an advantage of the antirepresentationalist view of belief that James took over from Bain and Peirce — the view that beliefs are habits of action — that it frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview. If our beliefs are all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world, then they must all hang together fairly tightly. But if they are habits of action, then, because the purposes served by action may blamelessly vary, so may the habits we develop to serve those purposes.
Second, Nietzsche’s attempt to “see science through the optic of art, and art through that of life,” like Arnold’s and Mill’s substitution of poetry for religion, is an attempt to make more room for individuality than can be provided either by orthodox monotheism, or by the Enlightenment’s attempt to put science in the place of religion as a source of Truth. So the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as “symbolic,” and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims. The pragmatists’ romantic utilitarianism does drop this idea: if there is no will to truth apart from the will to happiness, there is no way to contrast the cognitive with the noncognitive, the serious with the nonserious.
Third, pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction, one that takes over some of the work previously done by the old distinction between the cognitive and the noncognitive. The new distinction is between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Intersubjective agreement is required for the former projects, but not for the latter. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation: the project of improving man’s estate by taking account of every possible observation and experimental result in order to facilitate the making of predictions that will come true. Law is another such paradigm. Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals — from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs — may be another such paradigm.
Fourth, the idea that we should love Truth is largely responsible for the idea that religious belief is “intellectually irresponsible.” But there is no such thing as the love of Truth. What has been called by that name is a mixture of the love of reaching intersubjective agreement, the love of gaining mastery over a recalcitrant set of data, the love of winning arguments, and the love of synthesizing little theories into big theories. It is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project, and thereby offends against the teachings of On Liberty. Such intrusion is a betrayal of one’s responsibilities to cooperate with other human beings, not of one’s responsibility to Truth or to Reason.
Fifth, the attempt to love Truth, and to think of it as One, and as capable of commensurating and ranking human needs, is a secular version of the traditional religious hope that allegiance to something big, powerful, and nonhuman will persuade that powerful being to take your side in your struggle with other people. Nietzsche despised any such hope as a sign of weakness. Pragmatists who are also democrats have a different objection to such hope for allegiance with power. They see it as a betrayal of the ideal of human fraternity that democracy inherits from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. That ideal finds its best expression in the doctrine, common to Mill and James, that every human need should be satisfied unless doing so causes too many other human needs to go unsatisfied. The pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness. They sin not by ignoring Mill’s inductive methods, but by ignoring his reflections on liberty.
An inclination to see emergencies — emergencies being states of affairs demanding extraordinary means to address an immediate dire threat of some kind — can often seem more motivated by a strong inclination to use extraordinary means than in the circumstances claimed to demand them.
And it is not uncommon to see this inclination to exercise extraordinary means appearing alongside a hubristic frame of mind: I/We, unlike those others, see clearly what those others cannot and will not see, because, unlike them, I/we possess special virtues they lack. I/We are [smarter/braver/profounder/greater/kinder/fairer/more rigorous/industrious/prophetic/etc.] than those [sheeple/unwoke/blue-pilled/liberals/pinkos/privileged/bourgeois/Establishment-flunkies/fascists/racists/sexists/cisists/etc.]”
The concern, obviously, is that the response to the emergency will position the emergency-monger in a position where justification and deliberation (behaviors normal among equals) are replaced by pure exercise of authority, where power is knowledge and knowledge is power and it all runs together into a privilege to judge and dictate to everyone what is true and right, on the basis one’s own personal criteria and justifications, despite objections to those who believe in different criteria and justifications for determining what is true and right. From this vantage point, anyone despicable enough to doubt what is plainly true and right (to those virtuous enough to know it) cannot be reasoned with and have forfeited their right to the niceties of reason, such as being allowed to present their case. To use the idioms of the George W. Bush era, if they won’t “support the troops” by keeping their Politically Incorrect doubts to themselves they must be deplatformed for the sake of considerations far more important than civil rights and due process. “The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact,” they #dittoed. Wherever folks all have the same borgy thing to repeat/repost/retweet/#rehash at each other, I get the creeps.
Complicating this suspicion of emergencies is the fact that emergencies requiring quick, procedure-free response do happen. This is where it is terribly important to look at the character of the person seizing power on the basis of emergency. Do they demonstrate a taste for pluralism, or do they seem preoccupied with their own special powers and the privileges these powers justify? If you are a true prophet who sees the future, or you have a special talent for discerning what is most moral, just or kind that permits you to see with clarity others lack who should sacrifice what rights to whom to restore the scales of justice, or your intuition provides you with special insights into discerning what is really real or truly true, or you possess extraordinary courage to look directly into possibilities that terrify smaller souls, or if you are a member of a vanguard who has history on its side — I’m sorry but all these beliefs strike me as varieties of microomniscience and symptoms of apotheoitis.
It is depressingly difficult to figure out exactly how much we are God, because the answer is neither 0% nor 100%, but an uneasy point between. I look for that unease in my political allies.
Just as one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, one person’s suppression or silencing is another’s deplatforming.
I know folks who were on the wrong side of 9/11 and now admit it, but are now making up for it by fighting on the right side of justice by deplatforming people who do not care about equality among all categories of person.
“But, Stephen… aren’t you claiming to have privileged insights into what is really going on?” — Oh, I do believe my efforts to understand what is going on have produced some valid truths, but I have caught myself being wrong too many times to want to impose the implications of my convictions on anyone else. I will argue them with anyone willing to engage them, which, by the way, is not the same as swimming into a logical conspiracy-theory vortex with them. Usually, such vortices are comforting Dervish dances for those who find an overpowering logical suction a suitable substitute for the up-down of gravity and magnetic North in the midst of pluralistic relativity. But to put it bluntly, such folk are entirely wrong to think they lack magnetic attraction to North… On the contrary, they are locked in and frozen in their negative current.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fron Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed:
The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But according to the documents I found, that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.
The movement against public shaming was already in full flow in March 1787 when Benjamin Rush, a United States founding father, wrote a paper calling for their outlawing— the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot.
“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death… It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth up on any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”
—BENJAMIN RUSH, “AN ENQUIRY INTO THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC PUNISHMENTS UPON CRIMINALS, AND UPON SOCIETY,” MARCH 9. 1787
In case you consider Rush too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, it’s worth pointing out that his proposition for alternatives to public shaming included taking the criminal into a private room—away from the public gaze—and administering “bodily pain.”
To ascertain the nature, degrees, and duration of the bodily pain will require some knowledge of the principles of sensation and of the sympathies which occur in the nervous system.
Public punishments were abolished within fifty years of Rush’s paper, with only Delaware weirdly holding out until 1952 (which is why the Delaware whipping critiques I excerpt were published in the 1870s).
The New York Times, baffled by Delaware’s obstinacy, tried to argue the state into change in an 1867 editorial.
“If it had previously existed in [the convicted person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the launt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”
—QUOTED IN ROBERT GRAHAM CALDWELL, Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post
If the practice of public shaming was abandoned for being a form of cruel and unusual punishment, isn’t it at least a little alarming that it is being used as an instrument of vigilante justice, without trial or oversight?
Yesterday, I opened a can of Johnny Letter on Fast Company, for running what I saw as an uninformed and blatantly bigoted opinion piece, “Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity”.
Rather than complain about the bigotry, though, I chose instead to focus on what I believe is the root cause of most lousy, unempathic design: the failure to research design problems before attempting to solve them. Far too often we reflexively impose our own perspectives and interpretations upon situations and assume we know what needs doing to improve the situation — neglecting the essential hard work of listening, observing and developing an understanding of people in their contexts.
This is a failure the author herself exemplifies in making reckless assumptions about the cause of the bad design she laments and her proposed solution to this problem. Here’s the letter I sent (with slight edits):
I am disappointed that Fast Company chose to run “Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity”. I’ve worked with many male and female designers, and have found that the difference between those who are able to empathize and design to the emotional and functional needs of other people has far more to do with willingness to investigate and to get over our own preconceived notions than anything else. In this piece Tillyer investigated nothing. She does not know who designed that airport gate. Instead, with no attempt to understand how the design happened or who did it she applied her preconceived notions about how men essentially are and how women essentially are and decided to blame men for a design she didn’t like. If I had written that article, I’d have begun by investigating the design process that produced that gate, and if I’d discovered my suspicions were correct — that nobody had looped passengers into the design process — I’d have written an article titled “Design needs more understanding, less toxic uninformed speculation”.
I think rhetorically the choice to deemphasize morality in favor of effectiveness was the right one, but that does not mean I do not see this as a moral issue.
Our social justice discourse has become hopelessly mired in questions of Who. Who is doing the wrong thing to whom? What category of person does it? What category of person suffers? But this is exactly how irresolvable resentments are formed, entrenched and intensified. Justice is traditionally depicted blindfolded for good reason.
If we want to live in a just society, we need to refocus on the How of justice: the How of learning, understanding, interpreting and responding to specific people in specific contexts.
This kind of investigation into particulars is difficult, tiring and uninspiring work, and it is no fun at all. In this work we constantly discover where we were wrong (despite every appearance of self-evident, no-brainer truth), because that is what truth requires.
In pursuit of truth, we lose our sense of omniscience, fiery self-righteousness and uncompromising conviction, and acquire more caution, patience, reticence, reflection, humility, self-skepticism and nuance. These qualities may not be rousing, inspiring, galvanizing, romantically gratifying or revolutionary — but they are judicious.
If we truly want justice — as opposed to revenge, venting of resentment and intoxication of table-turning aggression — we need to re-acquire a taste for the judicious virtues.
This passage from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1997) helps me pinpoint the shift from a predominant liberalism to illiberalism in the popular left:
The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of these surviving reformists. But it retains a conviction which solidified in the late Sixties. It thinks that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.
“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decisionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.
To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.
Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailerpark studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.
This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.
The key phrase is “the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century.” This resonates with my own understanding, and I believe that actually was the left’s mission until fairly recently. We were supposed to oppose the humiliation of other people, and most of all, from humiliating others on the basic of categories we have ourselves have assigned them.
But what I am seeing now is a very strong desire for the humiliated to finally get their turn to humiliate.
Most folks on the popular left see this counter-humiliation in terms of a financial metaphor — as a sort of “social capital” account, debited when praised, honored or granted of privileges, and withdrawn against when criticized, scorned or penalized.
I’m a little skeptical that many have even questioned this metaphor, which functions as a Kuhnian paradigm among subscribers of the left worldview, and which unconsciously guide all their thinking, judgments and even their perceptions. I have also seen little evidence many of them have questioned the either the scientific or moral validity of the sweeping generalizations they make and their applications of these generalizations to individuals to whom they assign to categories. This practice was once condemned by all liberals as as prejudice, but prejudice has been redefined to
allow encourage people of certain disprivileged categories to vent their resentments on individuals of other categories.
I don’t believe privilege functions like one fund that can be transferred to another through inflicting humiliation. Yes, there does seem to be short-term influx of visceral pleasure on one side at the apparent “expense” of the other, but the pleasure gains soon evaporate, while the anger of the humiliated lingers and festers, and ultimately the sum of the transaction is a red negative. In fact, there was no transaction, only an abusive interaction performed for the sake of getting to be the abuser — in other words, sadistic pleasure.
I also don’t believe individuals automatically get to draw from cultural capital held in common by social categories. There is no such thing as a quantity of “white male heterosexual” prestige anyone of that category can access and use or spend wherever they wish. Social capital just doesn’t work that way. Treating categories constructed on resemblances one has observed as realities capable of intention, moral agency, practical effectiveness is reification, a confusion of what a subject views as true and the reality beyond what a subject imagines. (And of course, the social or legal imposition of one’s own reifications upon real individuals who do not share one’s beliefs about the reality or the properties or the theoretical justifications of these categories, however much one is convinced of their validy, is one of the traditional core prohibitions of liberalism.)
And, finally, I don’t think people who lash out at various categories of person are actually motivated by a desire to improve the world, however much they pose as champions of the oppressed and however much they justify their attitudes and actions with social scientistic arguments, one-mindedness with everyone who matters, and memories of tearful moments of insight cuddled up with their favorite novels on Sunday afternoons.
All these highminded concepts, proud unanimity and empathetic sentiments are prettifying rationalizations for enjoying what liberalism has always forbidden on principle: hatred of the Other.
And they are most definitely not, as they claim, “punching up”. It is only their refusal to factor class into their assessments of relative privilege that permit this delusion of “speaking truth to power”. As Thomas Frank persuasively pointed out, they’re actually “speaking truth to weakness” from a position of superior class (remember class, fellow liberals?) and generating enormous resentment in a group that is becoming dangerously sick of being scolded. Pay attention to the actual educational pedigree, income bracket, actual, individual institutional position and relative vulnerabilities of who is doing the judgmental confrontation and who is being judged, and you’ll certainly find a power differential, but not the one doing the judging sees or wants you to see.
Everyone outside the ideological sphere of the pop-left and radical academic left sees it though, plain as day. And this number includes not only the awful elements of the right. It also includes leftists who still believe in liberalism, Moderate libertarians and most centrists. To us, this looks very bad, not only practically, but ethically. It is not only a matter of electoral consequences, it is a matter of where we stand on the most important matters, whether we can actually count people who carry on this way as allies at all.
If liberals do not renounce casual infliction of humiliation on despised categories of people, bad things are definitely going to happen, and those things will happen as a direct result of indulging prejudice, hate and sadism. There is no honor in such calamities, only disgrace and discredit.
Once again, I will quote one of America’s greatest liberals, Martin Luther King.
In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.
Liberals need to get back to the morality that alone justifies us, and we need to return to practicing what we preach. We mist stand up to prejudice, hatred and humiliation of all our fellow Americans, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the target, and whatever the rationalization.
Just because a person shouldn’t be believed, it doesn’t mean that person shouldn’t be listened to.
It is dehumanizing for a person to be judged as not worth listening to, and it is inhumanizing to make oneself the judge of whose voice is heard and whose is silenced.
People are astonished when I say nobody should always automatically be believed about anything, but that all people should always automatically be heard.
What? The right to a trial is a fundamental principle of liberalism!
And people want to give even more emphasis to STEM disciplines. As if the main problems of humankind are technical problems. As if even more technology will save us from our social problems.
When the goal of educating citizens is lost, and education becomes training employees for industry, or worse, credentialing employees for employment, this is what happens.
One of the great privileges of power is to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of powers, to judge what is just and unjust, and to define which entities are real and which are only imaginary.
To detect where power is — or where power believes it is — look for where matters of legitimacy, justice and ontology are asserted as self-evident without argument or persuasion, and protests are dismissed or ignored.
And to detect where war is developing look for where two parties each summarily judge the other illegitimate, unjust and deluded with no attempt at understanding, much less agreement.
The conflicting worldviews are a superficial symptom of a deeper disagreement on power: who is actually in a position to dominate the other? Such disagreements intensify to the degree the two powers are equal.
In an armed conflict the more equally matched the combatants the more protracted and destructive the battle will be.
When painless pleasurable existence is assumed to be the normal state of life, and pain and displeasure to be abnormal, pain and displeasure are compounded with metapain and metadispleasure — suffering — at the fact of pain and displeasure: something is happening that should not be happening.
If it is assumed that normality is natural and abnormality is artificial the question of agent automatically arises: who caused this suffering?
And unless we work hard to understand otherwise, we will naturally view all suffering in terms of the suffering we have suffered. We will look around and see some fellow-sufferers and many non-sufferers.
We can also look into history and find other non-sufferers of suffering as we know it.
My kind live like I do and suffer as I do.
“Others created and continue to create my abnormal conditions of suffering. Worse, they pretend that they, too, suffer, even though they do not know what suffering is.”
My view: existence itself causes suffering.
We diminish suffering and generate pleasure through collaborative effort.
Sustained diminishment of suffering is a miracle of human ingenuity — a glorious artificiality — which requires vast collaborative effort to sustain, much less expand.
The greatest threat to the continuation of this effort is the loss of understanding that our considerable (albeit imperfect) state of comfort is an accomplishment of centuries of collaboration, and the relapse into the imbecilic resentment of assigning blame to others in the present and in the past for the suffering one experiences and the failure to recognize the universality of suffering.
Instead of the compassion, solidarity and collaboration we live in a world of suffering collective solipsists glaring resentfully at those who do not suffer and who seem the likely culprits and beneficiaries of our suffering, my suffering, the only suffering that exists as far as I can tell.