WORKSHOP | Design after the Subject

Posted on 10/09/2009

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I’ve attended another Design Futures workshop and presentation with Tony Fry. Titled Design after the Subject, it was the fourth I’ve attended with another scheduled in a few weeks. Primarily, these most recent discussions were concerned with ‘speed’, particularly the acceleration of modes of production and consumption. The overall exercise was intended to take the idea of ontological design to a complex level – the level of speed. I should first recap on the idea of ‘ontological design’. I need to constantly recap and familiarise, as unlike others in the seminars, I am not enrolled in Fry’s Design Futures Program at QCA. As I understand it, ontological design concerns the relationship between designing and being designed. That is, when we arrive into this world we come into contact with the designed and become human through our encounter with things – we come to be what we are through the designing agency of things. The implication of ontological design is that design continues to design and what it designs is us.

Fry correlates the rate of production with the rate of destruction, stating that the creation of goods results in the destruction of resources. Unlimited and perpetual growth in a finite system, the basis of capitalism, is inherently defuturing. The acceleration that Fry refers to is intrinsically bound to technics and the televisual. Here ‘the world within the world’, the world of our creation, is in opposition to the world it relies on, consuming and destroying it. Fry’s criticism of normative approaches to sustainability is that they only slow down the destruction rather than abate it.

The binarism of futuring and defuturing is pivotal in Fry’s formulation of Sustainment. In his recent book, Design Futuring, he proposes that the acceleration of capitalist modes of production and consumption is resulting in time being taken away, specifically the future is diminishing. He names this process ‘defuturing’ which he describes as:

… we humans live a contradiction. In our endeavour to sustain ourselves in the short term we collectively act in destructive ways towards the very things we and all other beings fundamentally depend upon. Such longstanding and still growing ‘defuturing’ needs halting and countering.

The workshops and seminars ordinarily expose a problem – Fry is adamant that we must first ‘face THE problem’ before anything can be done to address it – then set a task. Here we endeavour to see speed and recognise it in order to subvert it. At present, we are losing time because the time in which we live is sacrificing the future for the present and, according to Fry, this means we are taking the time of others. We need to be able to ‘make time’. Statistics reveal the precariousness of the current human condition: carbon emissions are increasing, the ecological footprint of each person is generally increasing, deforestation is increasing, wars are increasing, military spending is increasing, the number of displaced persons is increasing and natural disasters are increasing. Fry stresses the idea is not to ‘go back’ to some other way of doing things – this is clearly impossible – but to face an imperative for change, a need to tell a new story. A bygone era cannot be inhabited – an imperative can be acted on and practice can be redirected. However, nor can we (as in the collective ‘we’ of humanity, particularly the west) ignore the defuturing of our current path. It is naive to think that, he says, that a technological or technoscientific fix will arrive in the nick of time. Yet, ‘things’ are being cast into the future, particularly new technologies, without deep understanding of their impacts. Technology is particularly problematic in the manner it has become naturalised. I often see the term ‘technological futures’ and I must admit that I find the isolation of the technological future from human futures disturbing.

After outlining a theoretical framework, the participants usually address some specific problem. In this workshop, the framework is set out through the theoretical writing of Heidegger, Virilio, Kern and Steigler. We (being a group of seven that reduced to five over the duration of the workshop) initially put together a picture of speed, then ontologically designed against that picture. First, we identified ways in which speed affected environments, sectors, industries and services such as cities, health care, education, capital, economy, work, tourism, leisure and the like and then considered practical design strategies for slowing things down. Practical, in this context, means not causing the system to collapse, so it’s not feasible to simply remove the cars from the city in order to slow it down as the city is fundamentally reliant on cars. ‘Slowing down’ does not merely mean consuming slower, as many formulations of sustainability would suggest, it redirecting, recognising a non-utopian way of dealing with a problem so that the proposal has a chance of arriving.

In the end we looked at Health, Economy, Work, Education, Society and Culture/Recreation, discussing the impacts of speed and the movement towards entropy. The propositions we arrive at are equally radical and ordinary and, as Fry said, potentially cause a ‘rift in the system’. For me, they present a process that engages complexity responsibly while also ensuring the possibility of exchange. For example, urban agriculture has potential to develop community while also enhancing nutrition and health and the reinvention of craft potentially creates meaningful work for people while also ensuring skills are maintained. In most instances, slowing things down or subverting speed is an intermediary stage in the process of bring ‘the world within the world’ (the world we’ve created) into alignment with the world.

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