The Secret Life of Electronic Objects
NotopiaBeneath the glossy surface of official design lurks a dark and strange world driven by real human needs. A place where electronic objects co-star in a noir thriller, working with like-minded individuals to escape normalisation and ensure that even a totally manufactured environment has room for danger, adventure and transgression. We don’t think that design can ever fully anticipate the richness of this unofficial world and neither should it. But it can draw inspiration from it and develop new design approaches and roles so that as our new environment evolves, there is still scope for rich and complex human pleasure.
Corporate futurologists force-feed us a “happy-ever-after” portrayal of life where technology is the solution to every problem. There is no room for doubt or complexity in their techno-utopian visions. Everyone is a stereotype, and social and cultural roles remain unchanged. Despite the fact that technology is evolving, the imagined products that feature in their fantasies reassure us that nothing essential will change, everything will stay the same. These future forecasters have a conservative role, predicting patterns of behaviour in relation to technological developments. They draw from what we already know about people, and weave new ideas into existing realities. The resulting scenarios extend pre-existent reality into the future and so reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it. Their slick surface distracts us from the dystopian vision of life they wish for. By designing the props for the videos produced to show us what the future could be like, design works to keep official values in place.
An occasional glance through almost any newspaper reveals a very different view of everyday life, where complex emotions, desires and needs are played out through the misuse and abuse of electronic products and systems. A mother shoots her son after an argument over which television channel to watch; a parent is outraged by a speaking doll made in China which sounds like it swears; the police set a trap for scanner snoopers—people who listen in to emergency radio frequencies illegally—by broadcasting a message that a UFO has landed in a local forest, within minutes several cars arrive and their scanners are confiscated. Many of these stories illustrate the narrative space entered by using and misusing a simple electronic product, how interaction with everyday electronic technologies can generate rich narratives that challenge the conformity of everyday life by short-circuiting our emotions and states of mind. They form part of a pathology of material culture that includes aberrations, transgressions and obsessions, the consequences of and motivations for the misuse of objects, and object malfunctions. They provide glimpses of another more complex reality hidden beneath the slick surface of electronic consumerism.
Amateur subversions and beta-testersSome people already exploit the potentially subversive possibilities of this parallel world of illicit pleasures stolen from commodified experience. They seek out (ab)user-friendly products that lend themselves to imaginative possibilities for short-circuiting the combinatorial limits suggested by electronic products. This ranges from terrorists fashioning bombs and weapons out of mundane everyday objects, many of which are listed in the Anarchist Cookbook, to Otaku magazines showing Japanese gadget geeks how to modify standard electronic products to squeeze extra functionality out of them. There are no futurologists at work here. The main players in this world are beta-testers, tweaking and adjusting reality on a day-to-day basis. They are dissatisfied with the version of reality on offer, but rather than escaping or dropping out, they adjust it to suit themselves. They challenge the mechanisms that legitimise the conceptual models embodied in the design of the product or system and demonstrate behaviours towards technology that invite others to follow.
Beta-testers have learnt how to derive enjoyment from electronic materiality, from rejecting the material realities on offer and constructing their own. They display a level of pleasure in customisation currently limited to home DIY and custom car hobbyists. Many specialist magazines and books are already available that show readers how to modify or tweak everyday electronic products. An ever-growing number of home improvement magazines and TV programmes thrive on the pleasure people get from modifying their environments themselves—of customising reality.
Electronic product as neglected mediumThe unique narrative potential of consumer electronic products has received surprisingly little attention from artists and designers. Even though industrial design plays a part in the design of extreme pain (e.g. weapons) and pleasure (e.g. sex aids), the range of emotions offered through most electronic products is pathetically narrow.
When the Sony Walkman was introduced in the early 1980s, it offered people a new kind of relationship to urban space. It allowed the wearers to create their own portable micro-environment, and it provided a soundtrack for travel through the city, encouraging different readings of familiar settings. It functioned as an urban interface. Nearly twenty years on, there are hundreds of variations on the original Walkman, but the relationship it created to the city remains the same. Product designers have accepted a role as a semiotician, a companion of packaging designers and marketeers, creating semiotic skins for incomprehensible technologies. The electronic product accordingly occupies a strange place in the world of material culture, closer to washing powder and cough mixture than furniture and architecture.
Product genresThis is just one approach to product design, one genre if you like, which offers a very limited experience. Like a Hollywood movie, the emphasis is on easy pleasure and conformist values. This genre reinforces the status quo rather than challenging it. We are surrounded by products that give us an illusion of choice and encourage passivity. But industrial design’s position at the heart of consumer culture could be subverted for more socially beneficial ends by providing a unique aesthetic medium that engages the user’s imagination in ways a film might, without being utopian or prescribing how things ought to be.
Electronic products and services could enrich and expand our experience of everyday life rather than closing it down; they could become a medium for experiencing complex aesthetic situations. To achieve this, designers would have to think about products and services very differently. There could be so many other genres of product beyond the bland Hollywood mainstream: arthouse, porn, romance, horror—noir, even—that exploit the unique and exciting functional and aesthetic potential of electronic technology. Although many products already fall into genres—Alessi products attempt design as comedy, designs for weapons and medical equipment can shock and horrify, sex-aids are obviously a form of design porn and white goods express a wholesome and romantic idea of settled domesticity—they do not aesthetically challenge or disturb.
Design NoirIf the current situation in product design is analogous to the Hollywood blockbuster, then an interesting place to explore in more detail might be its opposite: Design Noir. As a genre, it would focus on how the psychological dimensions of experiences offered through electronic products can be expanded. By referring to the world of product misuse and abuse, where desire overflows its material limits and subverts the function of everyday objects, this product genre would address the darker, conceptual models of need that are usually limited to cinema and literature.
Noir products would be conceptual products, a medium that fuses complex narratives with everyday life. This is very different from conceptual design, which uses design proposals as a medium for exploring what these products might be like. Conceptual design can exist comfortably in book or video form; it is about life, whereas conceptual products are part of life. With this form of design, the “product” would be a fusion of psychological and external “realities”, the user would become a protagonist and co-producer of narrative experience rather than a passive consumer of a product’s meaning. The mental interface between the individual and the product is where the “experience” lies. Electronic technology makes this meeting more fluid, more complex and more interesting.
Like in Film Noir, the emphasis would be on existentialism. Imagine objects that generate “existential moments”—a dilemma, for instance—which they would stage or dramatise. These objects would not help people to adapt to existing social, cultural and political values. Instead, the product would force a decision onto the user, revealing how limited choices are usually hard-wired into products for us. On another level, we could simply enjoy the wickedness of the values embedded in these products and services. Their very existence is enough to create pleasure.
The Truth Phone, a real product produced by the Counter Spy shop, is one example of how a Noir product might work. It combines a voice stress analyser with a telephone, and shows how electronic products have the potential to generate a chain of events which together form a story. If you consider products in this way, the focus of the design shifts from concerns of physical interaction (passive button pushing) to the potential psychological experiences inherent in the product. Imagine speaking to your mother or a lover while the Truth Phone suggests they are lying. The user becomes a protagonist and the designer becomes a co-author of the experience, the product creates dilemmas rather than resolving them. By using the phone, the owner explores boundaries between himself and the paranoid user suggested by the product, entering into a psychological adventure.
Design is ideologicalMost designers, especially industrial designers, view design as somehow neutral, clean and pure. But all design is ideological, the design process is informed by values based on a specific world view, or way of seeing and understanding reality. Design can be described as falling into two very broad categories: affirmative design and critical design. The former reinforces how things are now, it conforms to cultural, social, technical and economic expectation. Most design falls into this category. The latter rejects how things are now as being the only possibility; it provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values.
Critical designCritical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers. Being provocative and challenging might seem like an obvious role for art, but art is far too removed from the world of mass consumption and electronic consumer products to be effective in this context, even though it is of course part of consumerist culture. There is a place for a form of design that pushes the cultural and aesthetic potential and role of electronic products and services to its limits. Questions must be asked about what we actually need, about the way poetic moments can be intertwined with the everyday and not separated from it. At the moment, this type of design is neglected and regarded as secondary. Today, design's main purpose is still to provide new products—smaller, faster, different, better.
Critical design is related to haute couture, concept cars, design propaganda, and visions of the future, but its purpose is not to present the dreams of industry, attract new business, anticipate new trends or test the market. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the aesthetic quality of our electronically mediated existence. It differs too from experimental design, which seeks to extend the medium, extending it in the name of progress and aesthetic novelty. Critical design takes as its medium social, psychological, cultural, technical and economic values, in an effort to push the limits of lived experience, not the medium. This has always been the case in architecture, but design is struggling to reach this level of intellectual maturity.
(Un)Popular designDeveloping a critical perspective in design is made difficult by the fact that the design profession, and product designers in particular, see the social value of their work as inextricably linked to the marketplace. Design outside this arena is viewed with suspicion as escapist or unreal. At the moment, the only alternatives to the Hollywood genre of corporate design are design consultancies promoting themselves to corporate clients with slick mocked-up products that are never intended to be developed any further. These objects are purely about PR, they are designed to sell the consultancy’s potential for innovative and creative design thinking.
To be considered successful in the marketplace, design has to sell in large numbers, therefore it has to be popular. Critical design can never be truly popular, and that is its fundamental problem. Objects that are critical of industry’s agenda are unlikely to be funded by industry. As a result, they will tend to remain one-offs. Maybe we need a new category to replace the avant-garde: (un)popular design.
Complicated pleasureWe believe that in order for conceptual design to be effective, it must provide pleasure, or more specifically, provide a type of experience that Martin Amis has called “complicated pleasure”. One way this could happen in design is through the development of value fictions. If in science fiction, the technology is often futuristic while social values are conservative, the opposite is true in value fictions. In these scenarios, the technologies are realistic but the social and cultural values are often fictional, or at least highly ambiguous. The aim is to encourage the viewers to ask themselves why the values embodied in the proposal seem “fictional” or “unreal,” and to question the social and cultural mechanisms that define what is real or fictional. The idea is not to be negative, but to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about electronic technology and everyday life. This is done by developing alternative and often gently provocative artefacts which set out to engage people through humour, insight, surprise and wonder.
The suspension of disbelief is crucial—if the artefacts are too strange they are dismissed, they have to be grounded in how people really do behave. The approach is based on viewing values as raw material and shaping them into objects. Materialising unusual values in products is one way that design can be a very powerful form of social critique. The design proposals portrayed in value fictions derive their interest from their potential functionality and use. One of the main challenges of using value fictions is how they are communicated: we need to see them in use, placed in everyday life, but in a way that leaves room for the viewer's imagination. We don’t actually have to use the proposed products ourselves, it is by imagining them being used that they have an effect on us. Value fictions cannot be too clear or they blend into what we already know. A slight strangeness is the key—too weird and they are instantly dismissed, not strange enough and they’re absorbed into everyday reality.
Is this a role for “academic” designers? Rather than writing papers and seeking conventional academic approval, they could exploit their privileged position to explore a subversive role for design as social critique. Free from commercial restrictions and based in an educational environment, they could develop provocative design proposals to challenge the simplistic Hollywood vision of the consumer electronics industry. Design proposals could be used as a medium to stimulate debate and discussion amongst the public, designers, and industry. The challenge is to blur the boundaries between the real and the fictional, so that the conceptual becomes more real and the real is seen as just one limited possibility among many.
From: Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby
Design Noir. The Secret Life of Electronic Objects, Birkhäuser 2001