For my “Design for the Century class” we were asked to compose a final paper “extending your Design Manifesto into the realm of design at a very comprehensive scale: our century and planet. (…) In this text you will construct a critical design proposal for what you consider the most crucial challenge[s] we face across the century we are now 16 years into. You will explain why your design proposal is necessary; how it can be realized; who the design and user communities will be; who might fund it; what its lifespan will be [the entire century? a year? A decade?]; etc. You should include a summary overview of site, time frame, general economics, required technology, anticipated roadblocks, manufacturing needs, etc. ”
I started writing the assignment, kept writing and rewriting it. Felt growing discomfort, got stuck repeatedly and tried to dig my way of out if without success. So one late frustrated night at my friend Julianna´s – with the Freedom tower outside the window (a brilliant piece of architecture in my opinion) assuring me of my right to assert myself in this world beyond what I think others expect from me – I decided to oppose the framework of the assignment by queering it. If you don´t know what it means to queer an assignment, I invite you to read the entire piece. I did not know until I did it either.
I will post the introductory paragraphs of my final essay below, a link to the entire piece is to be found at the end.
DESIGNING OR NOT DESIGNING FOR A PLANETARY SCALE: rewriting the script for our final assignment
The title of a paragraph trying to make sense of the state of the world so that I can come up with a design intervention to address systemic issues on a planetary scale
In “Global catastrophic risks”(1) we are presented with an overview of various risks facing humanity at the moment – from climate change to asteroids, nuclear terrorism, pandemic disease, social collapse and biological weapons. We learn that “the most likely global catastrophic risks all seem to arise from human activities” and the text stresses the importance of recognizing “that the biggest global catastrophic risks we face today are not purely external; they are indeed, tightly wound up with the direct and indirect, the foreseen and unforeseen, consequences of our own actions”(1) We can add to this state of emergency a political, economical and social situation that seems more and more unpredictable and complex, fueled by a technological acceleration pushing and empowering various conflicting agendas – whether it be social movements for justice and equality, commercial surveillance logic employed by Google or Facebook (2), the totalitarian top-down technocratic efficiency ideals of a government or state authority (3), or growing right-wing nationalist sentiments across the globe.
Is this true?
When attempting to describe the state of the world in a cohesive way or according to a single narrative, my inner alarm bells go off however, knowing there are large groups of people who have lived under the threat of annihilation and catastrophe for a long time, whether by racial/gender/sexual orientation/physical or mental disposition oppression, colonial imperialism, or civil war. Perhaps the state of risk in our present moment in time is more equally distributed. The conflicting agendas, that were always there, merely more visible on a surface level.
Is this true? How can we possibly claim something like this as true on a planetary scale?
If I were to choose any one narrative – for the sake of creating a starting point for constructive change work and exploration – it would be the one of a world struggling to deal with complexity, plurality, conflicting perspectives, co-creation across mental, social and disciplinary barriers, and finding a common ground in the midst of seemingly irreconcilable world views.
The title of another paragraph trying to make sense of the state of the world so that I can come up with a design intervention to address systemic issues on a planetary scale
Framing the problem this way I believe directly relates to the overarching “shared” state of risk and catastrophe that we now live in as a human species. To respond to these challenges, whether environmental, social, political or economical, to understand how they came to be and how they connect to each other, indeed requires a collective effort across the divides and “social/cultural/disciplinary bubbles” that normally separate us from each other. It also requires radically new strategies in the face of that which we do not agree with, or that which we feel overpowers us or leaves us with little agency. It requires a careful scrutinization of all the things we hold true, in search of new systems both inside and outside of ourselves, an equally reflective and active approach to social change.
The title of a paragraph trying to navigate away from the grandiose task of designing for a planetary scale devoid of any sensibility to context and process
To address issues of the magnitude I have touched upon is certainly not an easy task, and not one that is going to be solved through another master plan or a singular genius delivering a one-size-fits-all solution to transformative change. It is a task that is going to require a multitude of, sometimes conflicting, actions, ways of seeing, coalitions, strategies, and thought models, working in a type of synergy that can only be upheld through a careful alignment of each actor to the specific part that they are capable or suited to fill. It is a situation that I believe requires a collective opening up to an inner sense of purpose and timing, guiding each actor or collective to the roles and circumstances where they can best serve, at the point when they are most ready to do so.
Am I ready for the grandiose task of designing for a planetary scale? Will I ever be and why should I ever be? Should anyone be? We go on to another paragraph trying to navigate away from the grandiose task of designing for a planetary scale devoid of any sensibility to context and process
It is also a task that cannot be governed by the modernist search for a utopia, but rather, as game artist and activist Mattie Brice pointed out in her D4TC lecture: “be seen as a gesture towards a preferred state”, as “any utopia turns into dystopia when you arrive”. (4)
The title of a paragraph trying to reconnect to myself and my own sense of purpose within the framework of an assignment pushing me to commit to the grandiose task of designing for a planetary scale devoid of any sensibility to context and process
I do believe however, that as an agent in this web of wicked problems, seemingly overwhelming challenges and uncertain circumstances, it is important to carefully think through and start formulating starting points in terms of preferred state/s and theories of change. As mentioned briefly in the previous paragraph, I believe in the importance of searching for a theoretical foundation that strives to understand the relationship between the inside and the outside – or our internal “systems” (in the form of beliefs/assumptions/world views/mindsets) to the external manifestations of human consciousness in the form of political, social, economical and technological systems. Without acknowledging these links, I believe a lot of change work stays on the surface of things, shuffling around resources or band-aiding symptoms, instead of getting to the root of the problems. As Mattie Brice put it in relation to identity politics as a solution to systemic issues of social injustice: “Simply throwing more bodies of “new colors” into a preset non-changing ideology is just going to make new people turning the same wheel.”(4) Or, in the words of Robert Prison: “If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government but the systemic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves…” (5)
How to build systems anew is a situation opening up for more questions than answers at this point, and most certainly a situation that requires new types of spaces, platforms and conditions for reflective practice to happen and unexpected perspectives to meet.
Read the continuation of the piece by downloading the entire paper here.
(1) Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Cirkovic, Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press, 2008).
(2) Shoshana Zuboff, Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization, accessed
December 2016, doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5.
(3) Shannon Mattern, “History of mediated cities, networks, archives, placemaking” (Lecture, D4TC, Oct 6 2016).
(4) Mattie Brice, “Designing power dynamics & identity for ourselves & others online”, (D4TC Lecture Sep 22, 2016).
(5) Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems, (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2008).
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