Chapter 9 discussing the differences between specifically design thinking, social design, spec design and then captology made me consider how optimistically or pessimistically charged speculative design is. The definition Dunne and Raby give is that speculative design is “dissent … by alternative design proposals”. Is the nature of dissent naturally pessimistic, and do we consider criticism or new thinking this way? How much room is there naturally in speculative design for optimism about our future? Are our practices as pessimistic or optimistic as speculative design should be? What are all the confounding variables?
My experiences so far this semester would impulsively give me over to the opinion that our version of speculative design has a dark tint, but I suspect that my view is largely based on how scared I am that the changes we seem to be heading toward are ones I won’t like. I’m not a great judge on how objectively or subjectively “bad” the future we regularly discuss sounds, but the consensus seems to be there are more things to be scared of than excited about. This may also be rooted in our efforts to problem-solve with design, which isn’t necessitated in speculative design, but habits made by our experiences with design thinking (problem solving) and social design (fixing things with more complex human problems). Problem-solving involves focusing quite a bit on the problems.
Tonkinwise, in Just Design, gives great hope in that “design makes futures. What designers make becomes the future we inhabit”. Hopefully, while understanding that one of the steps involved in speculative design is evaluating futures and critically considering realities, there is still room for optimism. Not ignorance or oblivion, but choosing to consider all the possibilities and use design to shape the probabilities into a future we’d like to exist in.
Otherwise, I really appreciated the blunt one-liners delivered in Just Design, such as:
“A designer who does not have a clear sense of the wider future world is not only unconvincing but irresponsible”
“Compared to speculative design, design futures are more within the horizon of current expectations”
and “Designers fetishizing ‘noir’ embarrassingly belies their film auteur wannabee-ness”
Envisioning Real Utopias has been one of the most realistic and optimistic approaches to speculative post-capitalist thinking that we’ve read so far. Wright himself says that this type of thinking creates “Utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potential of humanity” (pg. 6).
This reading was comforting at times, to know that those thinking about the future of our state are so completely understanding what it takes to make systematic change and not underestimating the unforeseen chaos that will inevitably accompany even our best ideas since we can’t count on the perfection of humanity. In fact, Wright recognizes that the unintentional consequences of intentional consequences can become quite grand. He doesn’t agree that the negatives are greater than the positives, but admits that they can’t be totally dismissed as we idealize. Here, we have to be honest with ourselves and Wright says “incremental tinkering may not be inspiring, but it’s the best we can do” (pg 7) and in his online lecture asks “can a capitalist state contribute to eroding capitalism?”. If we’re admitting that systematic change is necessary, we can’t just talk about what this will look like in 2038. We need to consider what being anti-capitalist looks like today.
At the end of chapter 2, Wright introduces the structure of thinking that he delves into in the lecture:
- Diagnose and critique
- Formulating alternatives
- Elaborating strategies of transformation
Wright says that his work with Imagining Real Utopias was largely focused on the second step of brainstorming alternatives (some he lists in chapter 1, like participatory city budgeting, Wikipedia, mondragon worker-owned cooperatives, and unconditional basic income).
The part that spurred the most questions for me was his discussion on social justice, absolutely not the intention or rights of human flourishing, but the worry of the ways we might struggle to put into legal terms such a subjective place of contentment and satisfaction. How far can we go to define what people really need? From an honest and emotional standpoint, I worry that humans have a way of constantly failing to find satisfaction. The best we could reasonably do is ‘good enough’, which is just that, admittedly, completely good enough. But I feel we tend to strive and desire much more than that.
Wright compares finding our best potential as people to an acorn containing an oak inside of it. We can work towards equipping people to grow, and hopefully make that acorn to become an oak tree. I worry, what if the acorn decides it also wants to be artificially blue, and synthetically glittery, and wants the state to also support a branch cosmetic surgery and falls into a cycle where we work to support and supplement the oak? I think after each support beyond the full growth of the oak tree, the emotional state of the tree will somehow still leaving some level of emptiness.
It’s a vulnerable, sad, and honest thought to discuss this looming emptiness we tend to feel and live our whole lives feeding as humans, and something others might not feel, but my concern all in all is just that we will move towards a healthy and positive movement of social justice, and poison and abuse the system by trying to make the state feed our souls. We can absolutely ask to be treated well enough, but to be satisfied by this, is potentially a black hole we cannot fill.
The Palmer Phone
“I’ve been experimenting a lot with vestibular implants for virtual reality—being able to stimulate the inner ear in a way that allows you to feel a sense of motion. You can use the same hardware to pipe sounds right into your skull. As we were playing around with this stuff, we threw together a quick project. We called it the Palmer Phone. The idea was we’d set up the red phone in our office and link it to my vestibular implants. You wouldn’t need to call me; I wouldn’t need to answer; there wouldn’t be any ring. You’d just pick up that phone and start talking, straight into my head.”
While reading up on WIRED’s nominated projects and people for who’s going to impact and change the technology of the next 25 years, I started reading about Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus (virtual reality software company) and Anduril (national security technology). The interview talked about his experiments and hopes for virtual reality, bypassing a nervous system mechanically for quicker reflexes, and his efforts in keeping our national security technology at a globally competitive level, I was intrigued by the side note of the Palmer phone: working with implants to some how connect a phone to someone’s inner ear. Reports are that only some of the parts are working so far, but reading about Palmer’s other work, I have faith this could be technology shaped and figured out in the near future.
QUIP Dental Care
Quip is a toothbrush brand based online motivated by reinventing the practice of other oral care providers: ignoring basic habitual problems in favor of selling expensive gimmicks. Design is simplified, middle men are cut out by the online base, and taking care of your mouth is made simple by inexpensive, automatic refills.
The model was born out of the fact that “years of toothbrush ‘innovation’ had barely improved the humble toothbrush and, instead, had only served to overshadow the far more damaging, habitual problems that still persist.”
Creating the cheapest electric toothbrush on the market with the correct design according to dental professionals still supports our need for oral care but the culture of quip brushing moves cleaning your teeth into the ‘self-care’ group where it belongs.
The greatest value I’ve found as a user is the education that’s partnered with the upkeep of subscription: the pamphlets that come with my head refills, the original instructions with the brush, and the once-monthly blog emails that tell me more about oral hygiene than check ups with my dentist have ever provided. The information is user-centered, relatable and compelling. Even though the program is still capitalist functioning, the motivation is less around profit and more around function and ethics of serving people with fairness instead of manipulating business for profit.
More, from the founders on why Quip does what it does:
“As my dentist passionately explained, I was far from alone! With most of us brushing too hard, for closer to 1 minute than 2 , over 75% of us not replacing our brush heads on time , 40% not visiting the dentist even once a year, and 50% not even brushing twice a day, the statistics are worrying. His answer as to why was more worrying. He felt that dentists stood no chance trying to get across the huge impact that simple good habits have on your oral health, when only communicating with patients once a year (at most!). Worse still, he discussed how the problems are amplified by daily bombardment by advertisements claiming that certain product features and ingredients were somehow magic shortcuts for these basics. We are being convinced every day that buying this year’s hottest gadget with “1,000 more rotations “or “10,000 more vibrations” will somehow guarantee better oral care when the truth is, it may make little to no difference at all. Even more worrying is that these features were not only glossing over the importance of the basics, but in many casesamplifying bad habits, feeding misconceptions like “the more power” or “the harder I brush,” the better the clean. Or that by simply using these products, it somehow allows us to brush with less care, less often, and go to the dentist a little less. Simply put, he felt this type of marketing was compounding already damaging misconceptions, and the dental message didn’t stand a chance against it.”
Discussing dark matter and strategic design puts words to something we already know as designers but aren’t being actively trained in as our basic curriculum in school. Understanding the context or “meta” (pg 45) and the way it impacts our design is something we take into consideration, but often not as intentionally since our personal tastes and ideas largely influence the outcome. In the fashion program at DAAP, I’m taught over two semester courses (so far) how to research, understand, anticipate, and trends that are influenced by our societies’ and world’s meta. Following, I try to design garments based off that research but whether the outcome is only inspired by the research or rather really driven by it is usually dependent on whether I’m compelled by my own perception of what would be successful or the duty to please the needs of someone besides my own satisfaction in the final product.
I don’t feel confident that my education in trend research truly let me understand and know how to research the dark matter of my industry and the complete world that is impacted by my professional actions as a designer—the apparel industry is just beginning to be conscious of practices in their own organizations and manufacturing partners that are ethically disgusting but have been so established as a normality that our society at large knows its existence and doesn’t value it over their personal cost. We had a single class period in Fashion History II to learn and talk about the realities of production in other countries and under major brands that we grew up wearing and knowing—an hour and twenty minutes to cover the way that the American garment business has been built on slavery, and understanding the lives undervalued and even lost because of it. If we’re characteristically able to choose ignorance to this so easily, how do we really see ourselves being conscious of and intentional about the dark matter? Is it different because the dark matter is something which influences our end of the design process, and our profits?
The dark matter of strategic designers is listed by Dan Hall as “organizational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models/other incentives, governance structures, tradition and habits, local culture, national identity, the habitats, situations and events that decisions are produced within.” (pg 83)
I see organizations and brands that have been huge empires built over two to ten decades time beginning to misunderstand how to compete in today’s market—with the younger generations understanding that they want something different from their products: conscious of environmental, social and cultural responsibility (or at least, they can settle for the illusion of it) dark matter need not only be more heavily considered and comprehended, but the brand itself needs to be reborn. Strategic designers can’t just propose prototype artifacts, but redesign the organization, systems and cultures that would, upon reinvention, bring systematic change. (pg 85) While companies like Outdoor Voices, created recently and initially in the light of today’s market, culture, incentives, habits, national identity and influences, have an advantage in reflecting current dark matter, brands established on older traditions and influences habitually feed on that culture and instead spend new energy only on further profit or singularly innovating their product. Upon looking at who else was talking about strategic design, I found sources like the Lisbon Strategic Design & Innovation convention to advertise the school of thought with goals like “differentiation and competitive advantage” and “helping people in organizations improve the way they face uncertain and turbulent contexts”.
Without a complete change in thinking, culture, system and way of thinking, goods and services fail to really create change and newness since “productions have their attendant bureaucracy embedded within them. (pg 95) Or as put by Dan Hill, “One could attempt to shunt and pull the ship with a floatilla of tug boats until it stops resisting and is knocked off course, but it’s far better to be in the ship’s bridge with your hand of the tiller”. (pg 96)