November 15, 2014

Design to what End? Socio-technical Design in an Era of Neoliberal Capitalism

"Psychologists have said that man's neurosis comes from too much contact with other humans. This won't happen in my city." - Le Corbusier

About a week ago I was participating in a workshop with some graduate students from Parsons and they were tasked to make rough prototypes in the realm of speculative design.  Their products were to additionally embody a degree of enforced moralism within the design (see delegated morality). Moving between teams to assist students in this task, I spent some time listening to the conversations held by one team in particular who was determined to redesign the heroin syringe into a tool for recovery.  The team continually focussed on one kind of user, the addicted person seeking recovery, and did not address the array of actors within the recovery process.

I asked "So how does this benefit other stake holders, like medical professionals?"

"Like doctors?" asked one of the students.


"They already use syringes so nothing changes for them."

It was a fair answer, but I challenged her, "so what incentive is there for the doctor to use this syringe vs the traditional device? Your device will cost more and require a lot of new systems to implement. Your new device also provides feedback to the drug user to facilitate recovery, how does the doctor benefit?  In fact, medical professionals might have a problem with this."

Then I was surprised as she tilted her head at an angle and said with annoyance: 
"Why? Because it takes away jobs?"

This was not my thought at the time. I was curious if the product could also be designed to provide feedback to medical professionals so that the medical community can gain a deeper insight into addiction.  Yet I've thought much about this discussion since because I've been disturbed by the confrontational annoyance that replacing people with machines is somehow a petty criticism.

Of course people have been frequently replaced by machines within capitalist economies.  My teenage job of working a cash register has been replaced by "U-scan" kiosks in drug stores and supermarkets. Architecture firms only require one CAD designer  vs fifty draftsmen.  I once worked in an office that was staffed by 200 individuals in the 1960s and is today occupied and operated by less than 30 individuals, most of whom are fairly young and inexperienced but generate a volume of work several thousand percent higher than in previous decades.  Just the other day I witnessed a presentation on robots that can plaster walls faster, cheaper, and better than a professional plasterer. One robot can do the work of 50 men in an hour, with overall better quality and lower cost.

This trend is a direct byproduct of unfettered capitalism. Humans are secondary to the efficiency of production for the sake of maximum gain.  Thomas Pickety has found that the process of then redirecting the profit into capital, such as real estate, rather than into the human workforce accelerates wealth accumulation at the cost of social capital. Yet the efficiency of production is reliant upon the expertise of technicians, giving rise to the engineering class, and thus today we see more money in the operations of Google than in any form of business that is tactile and wherein employment is accessible at scale, such as within a chain of hardware stores.  Nearly 100 years ago this process was predicted by Thornstein Veblin, and today is codified by the likes of Peter Theil.

So where does design come into this?  Design is an opportunity to revisit the systems of production regardless of the economic framework so as to prioritize humanity within the technological landscape. It is in no way unique in this endeavor and many disciplines are pursuing this same trajectory, yet I'd argue it has constructed a lineage (perhaps in a revisionist manner) that suggests a disciplinary opportunity. In short, if designers fixed a maligned socio-economic system before, they can probably do it again.

In the era of the industrial revolution there was a movement by public health professionals, architects, and social activists for improved work conditions and higher standards of living.  Public health codes were founded and urban zoning emerged to regulate land use.  Machines were designed to be safer. These changes were much needed at a time when most streets were covered in horse manure and a single water spout infected much of London with cholera.  This transformation was embodied and institutionalized within Harvard's Landscape Architecture program for city planning, where "the first graduates were trained as designers... not policy wonks."

Jump forward to the mid-20th century and the Dutch Socio-Technical Systems approach enters the space of economic production. In the Netherlands it became clear at the time that technological development was not only shifting the composition of the workforce, but effectively undermining the long term social interests.  People do not feel good when they are no longer useful. Everyday new markets are created and others die, but most people are not agile enough to shift rapidly across markets.  In the Dutch model, similar to previous area, attention was given to both the organizational model and the technologies of production so that the participants of the socio-economic system enjoyed ownership of their own economy.  In other words, laws were made so that people would not suffer under capitalism and machines were designed so as not to marginalize people. These tools were created in the service of people, rather than people needing to adjust to the demands of these tools. In the example of the cash register becoming a "U-scan," such a device would never be implemented. In contrast, a business would be organized under law to value the employee, yet the technology would be designed to make the employee more efficient. The employee would also receive training on the technology so that the interactive human/machine relationship held a competitive advantage in the market place.

Coming back to the initial problem, in the current iteration of global neoliberal capitalism, there is no priority for humanity.  Its sprawling pervasiveness undermines the ability to transform this neoliberal condition to something more humanistic. What can be done, however, is to design technology with the interest of people. In the most direct instance, we should design products, experiences, and environments that facilitate satisfactory human living - not take away jobs - which effectively does the opposite. We do not need or desire a "machine for living" in the sense of Le Corbusier. We do not even need to design a world of human transcendentalism in the vein of Husserl or Heidegger, but rather, we can benefit from designing the earth on which we live by recognizing the internal drives of humanity as part of the earthly system.

For this to happen, a cultural shift needs to happen in the realm of technology creation. To create a technology or environment that takes jobs from people needs to be understood as a moral infraction. It is not an unfortunate externality to be ignored in favor of efficiency. In contrast, social capital must be weighed with the same gravity as financial capital and fuel efficiency.

I've heard some individuals say that "Design is the 21st century humanities," which is fine, but typically the humanities are something only accessible to particular social classes so I'm not really a fan of this sentiment. I prefer to think of Design as 21st century engineering with the potential to become 22nd century populism. We can elevate our technical sophistication to accommodate and elevate humanist principals. Of course these arguments are simply two sides of the same coin. Effectively it doesn't matter what side of the argument you prefer, it just depends on how we invest it.