This lectured was delivered to the Humanities and Language program at Michigan Technological University, March 31, 2010.
In February 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for offenses against Islam committed by his novel The Satanic Verses. Politicians and intellectuals hurried to Rushdie’s defense. Among the throng, Kurt Vonnegut spoke on a panel of distinguished writers on Donahue, a popular morning television program. He made some brief remarks on Rushdie’s behalf but quickly shifted his speech in a surprising direction. He recounted some statistics about the number of Americans with library cards and about those who claimed to have read a literary work within the past year. Unsurprisingly, these numbers were not only low; they were shockingly low. His point was made. The freedom they were all there to protect was, at best, an underutilized freedom. Norman Mailer made a similar point in a different way a few years ago, just before he died. As a young man, he said, he had set out to become the great American novelist, as the years passed however, he found that Americans had essentially stopped reading novels.
Recent statistics present a more comforting picture of cultural consumption in America today. The latest survey of reading trends conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities found an increase in reading reported for the first time since 1982. Fifty percent of those polled claimed to have read at least one novel, poem, play or essay in the past year. A poll conducted by Harris Interactive also found an increase in library usage. More Americans have library cards in our recessionary era than in the recent past and more Americans are using them, or at least visiting the library to check out DVDs or access the internet. Sixty-eight percent of Americans have library cards. Of those, according to the poll, thirty-nine percent use them to check out books, presumably including at least one novel, poem, play, or essay. This is not bad considering that only eighty-six percent of Americans reportedly satisfy the most basic standards of literacy. In other words, a mere eighteen percent of literate Americans don’t have a library card. Were Kurt Vonnegut alive today, he might for a change have been pleased.
Still, the standards used in these polls are rather low and the findings somewhat overstated. The National Endowment for the Humanities is satisfied to count as readers individuals who have read only one novel, play, poem, or essay in the past year. What kinds of works were these? In 2006, three of the top ten best-selling novels (for adults) were by James Patterson, two were by Stephen King. In 2007 again, three were by James Patterson, two were by Janet Evanovich. Fun books, but hardly Homer. In 1998, books published by university presses accounted for .77% of the total market.
My point is not to cry “barbarians at the gates” but to rather suggest that maybe we are measuring and even valorizing the wrong things about our culture. The phrase “our culture” may be anathema to many readers (who is the “we” implied in this “our” anyway?). And yet, no matter how diverse our communities may be, they are still animated by energies directed by individuals making choices. We undoubtedly need to develop a more complex understanding of human agency in our mediated world and in order to do so we need to look at the ways that people actually live rather than continuing to focus our gaze on objects and energies that were invented and made popular in the early industrial era.
Are we, in short, a culture of readers? The studies I’ve just quoted implicitly suggest that we should be, even if we are not. But if ours is not a culture of readers, what kind of culture is it? An answer – any answer – to this question obviously has far-reaching implications, and not just for librarians.
Before proposing an answer to this question, let’s complicate it a little further.
Consider the prehistoric painted cave known as Chauvet.
Chauvet fascinates me in part because the cultural apparatus surrounding the cave is as telling about our culture as the cave itself is of the cultures that created it.
The cave is in the mountainous Ardeche region of Southern France and the paintings in it date to about 34,000 BP making it one of the oldest of the painted caves. The quality and quantity of the images also make it among the most remarkable. Chauvet was discovered in 1994 by three spelunkers who were at the time looking for painted caves. They knew what they were looking for and they knew the care that they had to take in order to preserve it. The cave is located on private land and it has never been opened to the public.
The French government sponsors an excellent website devoted to Chauvet, as they do for many other painted caves and national historic sites. A website obviously cannot really give you more than a vague sense of a place like Chauvet, where the experience of getting there, up the mountain then down into the cave, matters almost as much as the images on the walls. But Chauvet is close to the public and access is granted to only a few researchers and “witnesses” every year. “Witness” is the word the administrators of the site use to describe the handful of people not directly involved in research on the cave who have been granted access to it. The website explains: “During each field season, scientific or artistic personalities are invited to visit the cave and share their sensations, emotions and perspectives with the research team. They are specialists of the art of ancient or sub-contemporaneous peoples from various continents, art historians, or artists from France and other countries.”
The Witnesses are scientists who specialize in prehistoric art, art historians, and artists. None of us is likely to be let inside to experience the cave as its painters themselves would have experienced it. Even if we were permitted to enter the cave, we would be wearing protective clothing and be required to stand on special walkways that have been installed to protect the floor, which is a field of debris with archeological and anthropological relevance. These laudable efforts to preserve and protect the cave shape our experience of it.
My question is: Who should have access to Chauvet and toward what end?
The cave was most likely painted as part of a religious ritual with personal as well as communal significance. Would it be absurd for us to want to approach the cave toward the same ends?
Short of that, but related to it, historians of religion and theology are conspicuous, I think, in their absence from the list of “witnesses” invited to experience the cave. The paintings in the cave have almost nothing in common with the products of the modern tradition of Fine Art, yet artists and art historians have been welcomed into the cave.
Who should be invited to witness such a space? Let’s run through our academic disciplines: Philosophers? Psychologists? Sociologists? Historians? Novelists? Who in short are the symbolic knowledge workers who might most benefit from such an experience and who might benefit us – the rest of us – most by having had it?
If we take a step back from Chauvet we can situate this question in a wider and perhaps more productive cultural frame. In 1959, C.P. Snow famously described a chasm that had developed between two different kinds of knowledge workers in modern societies and in modern universities in particular: the sciences on one side and the Humanities fields on the other. The scientists use quantitative measures to answer questions, members of the Humanities fields use qualitative measures: they put valuation into evaluation. Each side is intensively skeptical about the methods and goals of the other.
More recently, the self-described “cultural impresario” John Brockman has promoted the notion of a “third culture”: The work of scientists and science journalists who have taken on the task of asking wide-ranging and penetrating questions of central importance to human life; scientists and science writers who, in other words, have come to fulfill the traditional purposes of the arts and humanities.
At this point the Humanities fields have arguably all but ceded their social relevance to Brockman’s “third culture”. The best-selling books of “ideas” in our day are being written by scientists, social scientists, and journalists. Here I’m thinking of Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Jared Diamond’s books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and Naomi Klein’s No Logo among others.
Advanced writing in the Humanities fields, on the other hand, rarely sells. Remember that only .77% of books sold are published by university presses. It is often weighed down by jargon that is impenetrable to lay readers and concerned with what is perceived as minutia by readers outside a specialized subset of a specialized field. It is hardly surprising that academic presses struggle to say in business. If there is an intellectual debate going on in our culture today is it not going on in the Humanities.
Intellectually, academics in the Humanities fields may cling to an Arnoldian ideal of higher learning, but, as numbers dwindle, it may soon be time to be more realistic.
Before we let this go we should observe that still another culture is active in our world today, a culture that is equally suspicious of both science and secular humanism, and that is the culture of religious Fundamentalism, Christian, Muslim and otherwise. Fundamentalism is dangerous and destructive in many ways and its adherents are largely immune to the discourses of both science and the Humanities. In partial anticipation of what follows, I’d like to suggest that design education may offer a positive way out: a means of educating Fundamentalists in the processes and responsibilities of civic life and of engaging them in the actual realities of our shared daily concerns.
All this in mind: What kind of a culture do we live in? What kind of access do we have to it? Who makes it? Who catalogs and contemplates it? Who can tell us the most about how we actually live today? And toward what end: why do we need this information?
My proposal is that we live in a culture of design, a culture created, with our help, and essentially at our behest, by designers. From the soils beneath our feet to the shelters over our heads, everything has been – or can now be – created by design. Our communications technologies, city streets and even genetic code can be and is given form by design, through purely human intentionality.
This observation is almost banal in and of itself, and it has been made before. But we – all of us: designers and design writers, consumers, citizens, students, teachers, users, makers – haven’t really done much about it. It just doesn’t seem to sink in. Most importantly we haven’t begun adapting our social institutions, including our educational institutions, to the ubiquity of design and to the changes in our culture that have resulted from it.
Given the ubiquity and significance of design, it is surprising that we have yet to really begin a social discussion – or even to open up a space for such a discussion – in which the impact of design on our everyday lives might to be understood and I think ultimately enjoyed.
This is not to say that we are not talking about design. We are. Many of us are and in many ways. But these discussions have yet to coalesce into a common stream wherein creatives, critics, and consumers might discuss and debate the meanings and merits of particular design systems and objects.
Many discussions of design are misdirected or rigidly circumscribed:
Popular discussions – like lifestyle magazines or cooking shows – aren’t taken seriously.
Designers themselves tend to undersell the cultural significance of their work for complex professional reasons.
Design historians limit design to its functionalist and utilitarian aspects.
Cultural critics – on the left – denigrate design as complicit with corporate capitalism: they throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Science writers associate their area of interest with science rather than with a broader discussion of design and design culture.
Literary and cultural critics in the academy pay inadequate attention to the delivery platforms and communications technologies that shape preferred genres.
Historians interested in “material culture” tend to downplay the aesthetic aspects of design objects.
Design is betwixt and between, at once functional and aesthetic, useful and cultural, and it is caught in a web of creation than cannot transcend its time or situation. The design fields are special fields within culture: they are eminently immanent, caught within a complex web of purposes, traditions, and values but also and at the same time shaping the future of those purposes, traditions, and values.
In the 1970s, the word “designer” – applied as an adjective – came to suggest something “fancy” or ornamental, though the noun still just referred to the individuals who make patterns that will be manufactured or established by others. Today designers of many kinds – architects and clothiers, but also industrial designers and graphic designers too – are celebrities in their own right and “designer” goods are everywhere. But I am using the term more broadly.
When I use the word design, I’m talking about a specific type of object and by extension of a specific type of culture composed of those objects. Designers in the modern sense of the term actually don’t make things: they create a pattern for a thing that is then manufactured by other people according to that pattern. The pattern is a design. In a craft economy, a craftsperson typically planned the form of the object he or she was making, generally following local and traditional models. Designers emerged in the early industrial era – at different points in different professions – as manufacturing became mechanized and creation and conception could be separated. Designers might heed local and traditional models in their work but they don’t necessarily have to do so and those traditions need not necessarily be their own. Designers might just as easily and in fact in some cases more easily follow an entirely different process in conceiving their creations. Designers start with a problem and think it through, critically analyzing the situation that gave rise to the problem and solving it creatively with a new design.
This process of integrated and synthetic, critical and creative thinking, also includes several other steps and they all matter to us and to the culture in which we live. The design process almost never starts with the needs of a consumer. It starts with the goals of a client of some kind: a manufacturer that wants to market a better mousetrap, an institution that wants a new building, a company that wants to present a new graphic identity to its public. The designer responds to this client-generated initiative by thinking about it. Here research of one kind or another might help: empirical surveys of the perceived needs of the intended consumers, close study of related designs, and other things besides. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Designers create several potential solutions to the client problem. These solutions are then winnowed down and refined in dialogue with the client and even with potential consumers through focus groups and other forms of feedback.
The success of the designed object in the marketplace is itself determined by a wide range of factors. Government regulation determines what kinds of things come to market in the first place. For any given type of goods, distribution chains stretch around the globe, but they are ultimately far more restricted than they at first appear to be. And of course consumers respond to things in different ways for many different reasons: they are motivated by ideology, by tradition, by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste as well as by the power of advertizing, which is of course another design discipline.
We all participate in the culture of design at one point or another, or maybe even, some of us, at several points. We participate as consumers – remembering that the choice we exercise by not purchasing something is still a consumer choice – and we participate as voters, or citizens, electing governments that will ideally at least act in our own best interest when they establish manufacturing and trade regulations and other consumer protections.
I emphasize the bound or constricted role of the designer and the nature and complexity of the design process because we ignore these things both foolishly and at our peril. We ignore these things out of fidelity to the ideal of a Heroic creator, the mythic, solitary Romantic artist, and out of genuine ignorance: most of us don’t really know much about design or the design process. Nevertheless, recognizing that people – including us – are involved in the design process and that that process is in fact a process might just be the first step in opening up a public dialogue on all manner of topics that threaten our safety and the safety of our children.
Our social discourses about culture, our cultural institutions – our schools, our museums, our professional fields and disciplinary specialties, our government agencies and agendas – have yet to account for many of the most fundamental shifts in the way we actually live. Put bluntly, everyday life has changed enormously since the 1920s, but our institutions and our ideas about life haven’t.
This is of course an unfair generalization. Our schools, museums, and governments have changed in significant ways in the last half-century. Individual classrooms have become more inclusive, and course content has changed in important ways, again with an emphasis on inclusion. By inclusion I am of course talking about a species of representation. Our institutions in general have become more evenly representative of our social body as a whole even as that body has become ever more diverse. But the disciplinary structure of our institutions has not changed. Nor has the social discourse that supports that structure. We universally reject the notion of universality but defend our faith in Art and the Individual.
In short, the material structure of everyday life has changed enormously over the last eighty years but the disciplinary, philosophical, and even to some extent the psychological structure of that life has changed relatively little, and this despite the radical critique of Western civilization conducted by the most progressive of our thinkers. Whether or not one is willing to accept the various tenets of that radical critique – the rejection of a range of chauvinistic priorities, of the unitary concept of the autonomous individual, of essentialist epistemologies, among other notions – one must, I think, accept the fact that we simply live differently now. I believe that we live differently enough that we need to rethink many of our most basic means of understanding the way that we live as well as the social institutions that apply these means as actions.
Most significantly, we no longer live in a world predominately organized by structures or technologies of representation, by images and texts, certainly not by the types of images and texts that are often valorized in our discourses about ourselves, by which I mean those of art and literature. This is not to say that we aren’t surrounded by representations, even drowning in them: our world is saturated with images and information. We obviously still need to improve our ability to interpret and create them. But most of the images and texts we encounter on a daily basis were created by graphic designers. These assemblages might include texts and photographs or illustrations, drawings or even paintings but they are rarely discreet. Rather they are part of a complex network of images and texts that reflect and comment on one another in restless synergy. They appear on billboards and posters, in magazines and newspapers, and even in books. It was fully one hundred years ago that the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire proclaimed handbills, catalogues and posters the poetry of his times. Now even the moving images that splash across our screens – our televisions and computers, our iPods and mobile phones – owe much of their vitality to the creativity of designers, who should be understood as creators who work under client constraint to create meaning contextualized by complex networks signs. Why do we spend so much time talking about art and literature, or even film, when these other forms of cultural production clearly dominate our lives?
We should also notice that these structures and technologies of image transmission, presentation, and memory are only a part of our world and they aren’t even the most pervasive part. They aren’t the most pervasive part – the determinative element – because they do not determine their own platforms and contexts of delivery. Images and texts circulate in and on a world created by design. Urban planners map our city streets, architects build our buildings, landscape architects reintegrate our cities into nature and nature into our cities, graphic designers label our environment with signs telling us where we are, showing us how to reach our destination, and marking our destination. Fashion designers make our clothes, industrial designers make our objects – our toothbrushes and toasters, our tables and chairs – and interior designers help us arrange these things in a functional and pleasant way. Graphic designers design the books, newspapers, and websites that we read. We live in a world created by designers.
Never have human beings controlled so much of the environment so completely as we do now. Never have we been able to select from so wide a variety of sources for materials and goods. Once upon a time cities and neighborhoods grew over centuries, through the combined efforts of generations upon generations of inhabitants. Now they can be created by a small team of developers working with a single architect in a matter of months. Suburbs sprawl like mushrooms overnight and fade as fast as last year’s clothes. Conspicuous consumption can’t be confined to the leisure class and “living without” is not an option. Our only real choice is to opt in with as much wisdom and information as we can. To do that we need to have a better sense of the role design decisions play in shaping our lives.
One challenge is presented by the fact that it’s difficult for us to conceive of design as an isolated part or element of our world. Design describes the process of engagement that created the entirety of the way that we live. Representations can be isolated from the whole, categorized, and organized: understood apart. But design can’t. It’s too diffuse, too pervasive and it is also never quite fully present. Design decisions can of course be isolated, one from another, but design as a total context and process consists of so many decisions and elements that our minds quickly recoil before its complexity. Design is not one thing, it is a world within which we live, and we’d rather not think about it.
The shift from a culture of representation to a culture of design matters for several reasons. To understand it we need to understand what the culture of representations was, where it came from, and where it went.
Representations – art and literature, for example – served and in some ways continue to serve significant personal and social functions. They formed a field apart from the world, a corner of calm amidst the chaos in which an individual might contemplate him or herself and his or her world. Representations were relays and delays for self and society, a pause in presence. And they were much more than that. Collected and collated they were consciousness congealed, history packed in ice, personal and communal memory. Structures and technologies of representation are also structures and technologies of selfhood and society, with their attendant social institutions: structures of government; libraries, museums, and schools structured as repositories of representations. The end of the age of representation signals the end of subjectivity as it has been conceived in the West since Augustine’s Confessions. Obviously this does not mean that people – individuals – will cease to exist. Only that our individual and social discourse about ourselves, our means of thinking about ourselves, of interacting with ourselves, indeed of being ourselves, will change. Thirty years ago, Michel Foucault said the same thing in his writings and lectures about “technologies of the self”. Today design provides the structures and technologies of communication that structure our experience of ourselves.
By technologies of representation, I mean communications media. All communications media create a kind a subjectivity appropriate to them, whether a listener, a reader, or a viewer. And of course listeners, readers, and viewers might eventually become speakers or singers, writers, or filmmakers. Communications media can and sometimes do work both ways. Senders can become receivers and vice versa.
Since communications media create subjectivities they also create communities, groups of people who interact via the medium, whatever it may be. As creators of community, communications media regulate a specific kind of self-social bond, they determine the nature and pace of self-social interaction, they delimit what can be said, when, by whom, and how. Beyond this, but as an extension of it, communications media also imply pedagogies, methods that not only train subjects to interact via the media but also essentially create those subjects by shaping their biological propensities, by providing literal channels through which we can express our desires. But of course the power of speech is closely guarded, a function of class, economics, ideology, and, most of all, connection. Enculturation ensures that those entrusted with the power of speech won’t let the cat out of the bag, won’t burst the ideological bubble or inadvertently deflate the discursive balloon.
Eric Havelock made these observations in his brilliant book, Preface to Plato, and Marshall McLuhan extended them across his career. McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) charted the emergence of the modern “typographic” individual, while Understanding Media (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967), most famously, followed the breakdown of that form of subjectivity through the rise electronic media: television and radio in the postwar era.
And today: Media saturated we may be, but design nevertheless creates the context of our everyday lives. What’s the difference? Media disseminates content, of a kind, while design creates form. The form of the media may determine the nature of the content, as McLuhan claimed, and hence also the nature of the receiving-sending subject and of the ensuing self-social bond, but design serves a more fundamental function in culture today, it creates the context in which the media may function. The media are in fact essentially a element of design, which does much more besides.
McLuhan’s “typographic man”, the subject who lives in the Gutenberg Galaxy, is the autonomous individual subject theorized during the European Enlightenment, the hegemonic communications media of which was of course the printing press: a machine used for making Bibles, novels, and newspapers, most significantly. The typographic man (following McLuhan’s usage) is the self-reflective subject possessed of and created by his critical self-consciousness, itself a function of the imagination. The typographic man reads narratives and consumes images that are themselves representative microcosms of his own critical self-consciousness: whirlpools of self-reflection isolated from the totality of the world. Reading texts and images takes time, but this is ok, beneficial even. The typographic man is a rational and linear thinker, living in a period of history conceived in terms of linear progress. He is a mechanized man for a mechanized, industrialized time. He understands how representations work, at least in general, and thus has faith in representative politics and in conspicuous consumption, which is a correlate of the same basic structure.
McLuhan anticipated the collapse of this system. He anticipated the hegemony of a new communications media – the media – and a new from of subjectivity to go with it. Typographic man prioritized the eye over the ear, vision over hearing. His environment was directed rather than immersive. His attention intensive rather than extensive, delayed rather than instantaneous, individual and autonomous rather than tribal, local rather than global. McLuhan’s new model of subjectivity would of course reverse all of these priorities.
And of course McLuhan was a prophet of media in a time when television had three channels, radio was still predominantly AM, personal computers were more than a decade away, and personal audio devices like the SONY Walkman more than two decades away. A revolution in communications media has occurred since McLuhan’s death in 1980 and even that revolution pales in comparison to the revolution in design of which it has been a part.
Looking back, we can see how we got here; we can trace our cultural steps, in terms of communications media, from Gutenberg to Google, though it might be more helpful if we started the story a little earlier in time. A very brief history of communications media might begin with the symbolic forms created by Paleolithic peoples, neatly divided as they were between the movable and the immoveable. Portable forms included everything from small symbolic statuettes and carvings to clothing and body art and ornamentation. Non-moveable forms included parietal images, within caves and without. Surprisingly, the Paleolithic media offer some of the best analogies for understanding our world of design today. Though Paleolithic images may often be representational, the representations do not rely on narrative and their effects are situated within and intended for a specific total environment. As with design today, the images serve to mark individual identities within the social group or to provoke a specific experience in a specific space. These are images designed for interaction rather than contemplation. Despite the immersive environment the images and other elements do not cohere into anything resembling an organic whole.
Communal spaces were at the center of the next revolution in communications media, that being the rise of symbolic architecture, whether funerary or religious. Tombs and temples were constructed to tell us something about ourselves and to stand the test of time, which they did. Writing was also a relatively early invention of the urban revolution, though the transition from orality to literacy did not occur, in the West, until the classical age in ancient Greece. Literacy did not however threaten to become anything akin to prominent until the end of the Middle Ages, when the printing press made books more common and thus less symbolic in and of themselves.
Across these latter periods, the codex form succeeded in part because it could be carried. Gutenberg and the graphic designers that followed his 1439 invention only intensified the effects of that fundamental form. Newspapers and novels appeared more or less simultaneously in the early seventeenth century as vehicles of information produced by moveable type. Oil paintings emerged as the functional image-based analog to these printed texts. Unlike woodcuts or engravings, oil paintings possess a richness and depth of color that satisfies the contemplative eye. They can be moved, and therefore sold. The Fine Art tradition shared a parallel history with the novel and newspapers as a companion of contemplative typographic man, who could carry his communications media with him.
The mass media only began to emerge in the middle of the nineteenth century with the commercialization of the telegraph and the perfection and popularization of photography in the 1840s. Telephones and phonographs followed in the 1870s and motion pictures in the 1890s, by which time city streets where emblazoned with large, multi-color posters promoting all manner of products and entertainments. Industrially produced goods needed all the help they could get in differentiating themselves from their competitors, and the advertising industry was born to provide that help. By the 1890s, the newly founded advertising agencies began to establish their own design departments. Radio and television were late-comers to the scene. Commercial radio did not begin to spread until the early 1920s, and television not until the late 1930s and 1940s, in Europe and America. When McLuhan published Understanding Media in 1964, network television had been broadcasting for less than two decades in America. It was still a cool new topic.
Communications technologies in this era of mass media were technologies targeting masses of people: film, radio, pre-cable television, each in their way, served to create communal experiences for nations as a whole. And I use the word “targeting” intentionally. McLuhan’s media sent its messages down a one-way street. There was no way to talk back, no real way to participate without becoming part of the machine. Today’s communications technologies on the other hand emphasize our participation, within certain limits, while simultaneously isolating us from others, and they do these things in many different ways. Mobile phones, iPods, and portable computers plugged into a wireless internet are ubiquitous and private. Television, whether satellite, cable, or online, can be tailored to personal preference with TiVo, and now offers such a plethora of choices that we can no longer count on the community implied by watching one of the same three channels our neighbors are watching. The VCR was essentially unknown to McLuhan but it already represents an archaic stepping-stone to this era for us.
When did our era of individualized-interactive communications media begin? Can we blame the Kodak Instamatic, first marketed in 1963, the camera that made photography so easy and affordable? Single lens reflex cameras began to democratize a more serious kind of amateur image-making later in the decade. Video games, personal computers and mobile phones were all developed from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the decade in which cable television began to spread and SONY introduced its first Walkman. In 1984, Apple debuted its MacIntosh, the first personal computer to use a visual interface and a mouse for navigation rather than a text-based command line. During these same years Adobe Systems developed software capable of describing all the elements on a page – lines, texts, images – in a homogenous way that made home desktop publishing a reality and that ultimately transformed the professional practice of graphic design. A decade later, Netscape Navigator made interconnectivity via the internet a viable and indeed exciting reality and smart phones let mobile users send email and browse the web on hand-held devices.
Our world has become still more interactive in the decade since then with, among other things, the introduction and popularization of TiVo, the spread of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), and the new generation of interactive video game systems, lead by Nintendo’s Wii. Of MMORPGs, World of Warcraft, which was released in its most familiar form in 2004, reports 11.5 million monthly subscribers worldwide. While this is a lot, it represents only 62% of the 18.5 million member market for MMORPGs. These figures are of course monthly. Nintendo, for its part, sold 13.4 million of its Wii game consoles in the United States alone between November 2006 and November 2008. Wii is at present the bestselling interactive home video game system. Its motion sensitive controllers let multiple players physically interact by miming game motions. According to their own promotional figures, Nintendo has shipped 77 million Wii consoles to date. By contrast, note that 459,972 people visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York between October 18 and December 31, 2005 to see Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, a show that everyone involved would agree was outstandingly successful. When I suggest that we redirect our analytic attention to the material facts of the way that we live, these are the kinds of facts that I am talking about.
The mass media were extensions of the culture industry rather than extensions of individuals. They extended the power of previously empowered speakers rather than transforming disempowered listeners into speakers. In our era of participatory media, the media are not extensions of subjectivity but rather dissimulators of it. They are channels that conduct our energies without creating or maintaining our subjectivity beyond the thin veil of a digital avatar.
Communications media create forms of subjectivity, subjects and communities by providing a field of self-reflection, a means of self-recognition via representation, a stable space in which one may say “I am that”, whether that be a Homeric hero, a Spanish hidalgo, or some other icon of identity. These media have evolved in our time from forms of representation, operating on a mass scale a century ago, to forms of participation in a special sense of this term. Participatory or interactive media structure our engagements with them without necessarily structuring the subjectivity that is engaged. We don’t mistake ourselves for our avatar nor do we stare contemplatively into the screen of our iPod as we watch videos.
Significantly, this transition has taken place while our cultural institutions – our schools, libraries, and museums in particular – have remained focused on and organized around older forms of representational media and, lately, fixated on expanding or “diversifying” the range of representations represented. Such gestures are symptomatic of our continued fetishism of representational cultural forms and of our unwillingness to change the basic structure and orientation of our thought.
What would happen if we redirected our fetishism of cultural forms away from forms of representation – paintings, sculptures, novels, poems, plays, and the like – toward the immersive, process driven total environment of design? My point is not to say that the older forms are no longer pleasurable either as historical artifacts, or in some instances contemporary expressions, but rather to suggest that the longstanding cultural cache granted them might be tempered by the reflection that none of these forms continues to serve the social function that it once did. No matter how much we may enjoy these forms, they no longer occupy the same cultural space.
The base media of our world have changed from mass media to participatory or interactive media and these new forms of media have emerged within a total context determined by design. The paintings, poems, novels and newspapers valued by typographic man reflect historical conditions that have not been ours for since at least the end of World War Two, if not in fact earlier. As I have already observed, these forms were invented in the early modern era, the seventeenth century. The novel arguably reached its peak as a cultural form as long ago as 1813, with Pride and Prejudice, or perhaps in 1881, with The Brothers Karamazov. It has been even longer since poetry was widely celebrated as the central bearer of cultural codes.
The solitary early modern citizen was replaced by the shocked and alienated late modern masses in the early twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, the masses themselves were replaced by an entirely new form of subjectivity, the subjectivity created by and at work in a culture of design. From contemplation to mediation to participation, this is the motion of our culture over the last four hundred years: from the contemplation of representations to an immersion in design.
Participatory media and design are not representational forms they are relays that function by deferral. Graphic design may occasionally use representations but these representations are imbedded within a total context that is the essential product of design. Paintings, photographs, and poetry fall under the aegis of design, rather than the other way around. Design structures the space and the pace of our lives. It shapes the disposition of our energies like a vortex, in Ezra Pound’s sense of this term: a point of maximum energy shaped by multiple and intersecting material and ideological forces of input, constriction, and output.
The design disciplines establish the total context for human life in our time. Design decisions even regulate our interaction with and preservation of the wild. If the wilderness is to be preserved, as it must be, it will be preserved by design.
The word design in the sense I’m using it does not describe a single phenomenon, a singular mode of cultural activity, but rather a diversity of related phenomena and cultural activities, pursued, promoted, and understood in myriad ways. If culture is a complex of behaviors and material objects, design can be understood as the activity that creates the context for those behaviors and that creates those objects. Design, in this sense, creates culture, as frivolous or fulsome as this might be.
Design decisions give form to the way we live. They create the material context in which we exercise our judgment and our passions. They give material shape to our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and even desires.
Design only functions in concert with human desire: it activates human desire, harnesses it, channels it, and may ultimately even have the power to transform it. Design can shape desire. This should not strike us as a horrifying thought. Design culture is a culture of give and take in which no one – neither designers, their clients, nor the members of the community of consumers – has absolute power. Design always expresses itself against resistances, in a space that offers myriad micro-freedoms rather than any single or overarching ideal freedom.
Economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein have demonstrated the power of design to affect desire in their book, Nudge. A “nudge” is a design solution to an aspect of human behavior that is unlikely to shift without the nudge. Images of flies were etched into the urinals in the men’s room at the Amsterdam airport, for example, right near the drains, to offer users a target of sorts and thereby to discourage “spillage”. Unsurprisingly, the solution worked and spillage dropped by 80%. The nudge, in this case the painted flies, shifted human behavior by exploiting human desire and channeling it down a more “productive” path. Significantly, nudges don’t involve education or training, they don’t offer or require incentives, and they don’t make you do anything that you don’t want to do already. Nudges aren’t ideas that require the support of complex arguments nor are they didactic in any way. Nudges don’t nudge you by changing your ideas about the world. Nor does a nudge exploit an if-then theatrical scenario, it doesn’t ask you to perform a role. Nothing is fake. The nudge simply offers you a chance to do what you want to do anyway. It does however exploit that desire toward the best possible end, within a limited situation. The nudge is a good example of the way that design culture works in general.
To calm our fears: A few general observations about the culture of design:
Design culture is not singular, unified, or totalizing.
Design culture is simultaneously both material and meaningful: it is inherently heterogeneous.
Design culture is nodal, networked, and open, rather than hegemonic, hierarchical, and closed.
Design culture is never fully present nor ever absent, it is structured with relays and deferrals.
Design culture is immersive rather than representational, though it may include representations.
Design culture requires personal and communal participation. But design culture does not exploit, create, or imply a critically reflective autonomous individual. Nudges help us follow constructive desires and he help shape nudges by shaping design.
Design culture is fluid and inherently unstable. Design is a process rather than an ideal: it denies the very notion of an ideal state.
What is left for us to do?
We must rebuild our educational institutions not as a mirror of the world beyond the walls of our ivy-covered ivory towers but as a partner to that world. We must educate ourselves in the products and processes of design culture. And we must educate our designers in the nature and implications of their tasks. We must demonstrate that scientists and engineers are themselves working within the design fields and that these fields are part of culture. Design programs in the United States generally lack cultural and historical components. They seek to isolate design as a specialized function within society without reflecting on the social and contextual character of design decisions.
In order to return to relevance, humanities education must ask questions about the way that we actually live without reducing that life to a series of representations fit for study.
Our knowledge must become process oriented and purposeful: not a collection of facts about the past but a gathering of strategies oriented toward the future.
One hundred years after Edmund Husserl’s invention of phenomenology, I’m proposing another return to the things themselves, asking cultural questions informed by science rather than science questions that take culture for granted.
We need to focus on materials: what is in our things? Where did these materials come from? What extraction and production processes and costs are entailed in manufacturing the object? How did this thing get here? What distribution chains and networks brought it to me? And where will it go when I’m done with it? Can it or its parts be reused or recycled? What ergonomic impact will my use of this thing have on my body?
We also need to rethink our relationship to our home places, about where and how we live, about our buildings, towns, cities, and the infrastructures that link us to other towns and cities. Where does our energy come from? How much energy do our buildings use? Where does our water come from? What are our personal traffic patterns? How are our cities organized? How far do we travel to our destinations and by what means? How much time do we spend traveling to do something rather than doing something?
And we need to think about the symbolic landscapes we navigate every day. How are the objects, buildings, and images of our world meaningful to us? What symbol systems animate our architectures, clothes, images and texts? Why do we buy this couch instead of that one? What ideologies organize these symbol systems? Who created them and how can we engage with and shape them ourselves?
We also need to learn to see the political infrastructures that shape our lives and these too are products of design. The laws of a land are not god given. They are shaped by human authors toward human ends. A civics class is a course in design. Approaching it as such and within a broader context of design education might help break the deadlock of contemporary American politics, inspired as it is, by so much disinformation.
The historical archive and the archive of aesthetic production across the arts can be harnessed with these questions in mind. Aesthetic objects are sensual and symbolic; they can be used to teach us how to see and to touch as well as how to interpret cultural codes and contexts. Some art objects also explicitly engage with the problems and topics of design culture: they reveal the problematic history of our human engagement with our planet, from the inadvertent record of ancient extinctions captured in cave paintings to ancient ruminations on the relationship between nature and culture in Gilamesh or Euripides’ Bacchae and modern reflections on nature and industry, like Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s Moby Dick. Multidisciplinary courses could be organized around notions like urbanism, transportation or food, analyzing concepts like “home” across cultures, historically and in terms of an architectural problem.
We need to stop expanding the Encyclopédie of representations, stop trying to serve every race, class, and gender with a separate course, and every media with a separate major, and start trying to see where and how and why we live the way we do and what exactly we can do about it.
I’m not suggesting we eliminate academic jobs, only that we reorient many of them toward an understanding of the role of context in creation, the communal nature of the process of creation, and the impact of design systems – hard and soft – on our everyday lives.
The critical tools for these types of inquiry already exist and indeed these questions are already being asked. Momentum is, I think, gathering behind them. Connections are being made. A paradigm is shifting and if we watch closely we might catch a glimpse of a new world begin born; we might even be among those who usher it in.