DESIGN | Of stories and memes

Posted on 09/01/2012


I’m taking a small liberty with the idea of design fiction (or architectural fiction), as a kind of literary figuring or rhetoric. In general, a design fiction is an approach to design drawn from speculation; a story we can tell ourselves or a metaphor we can contrive about how things could or should be. Even a provocation. As Bleecker says, “design can be a kind of fiction making.” There’s a riff between fact and fiction, present and future, imagined and real. That riff can render the current reality obsolete. The future is already among us, unevenly distributed and pooling with culture.

There’s a tight relationship between this kind of figuring and memetics. Memes are understood as a kind of ‘cultural DNA’, and memeplexes are understood as meme complexes or as memecomplexes. A design fiction doesn’t do much until it joins a network of signs, symbols and representations. There are other ways of talking about cultural tranmission e.g. social pyschology, sociology etc. Futuring is part of this picture; not just in the sense of casting things and ideas into the future but in terms of ‘making time, making a future’. The material and the semiotic are tangled.

I was watching Kevin McCloud’s Slumming It on ABC. In this two-part documentary series, he spends some time in Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai. There’s a tendency in some commentaries to valorise life in the world’s slums and informal settlements – that despite the deprivations and chaos, there is a sense of ‘community’ – there’s television, safety, education, culture, opportunity and enterprise. That it somehow works as an ecology or system as a village might, as theorists Saskia Sassen, Jeb Brugmann and Mike Davis explore. Watching his reactions to the place and the people is both interesting and telling. As he (un)settles into living with a largish multigenerational family residing in a small house, he is aghast at the lack of space, sleep and privacy, the nightly encroachment by rats and the excess of risk (disease, fire). He is hypersensitive about his whiteness. He is confronted by the living and working conditions. In particular, the recycling and reconditioning industry where consumerism begins and ends, barefooted and unprotected for less than a pound per day. This is our supply chain; this creates our comfort.

Watching this mediation of Dharavi (or perhaps a simulacra), McCloud seems trapped in western design/architectural fictions about home and place (the stories we tell ourselves), and the power of the meme it produces (expectation and cultural preference). Other design fictions – not just scenarios or plans – are required. A history of town planning in London reads like a fairytale somehow delivering a deterministic happily ever after. A design fiction of London, the design fictions of world cities and world slums, a world of urban stories (Saskia Sassen). The design fiction of world suburbs too? The rise of the ‘slumburbia’ meme in the wake of the mortgage and environmental crises; another narrative for recounting urban poverty. In community consultations for urban development, opposing residents reject higher density and social housing proposals in suburban areas – it creates slums, they declare. The meme of slum travels in strange ways to unlikely places.

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