What exists? What is good? What is possible? — Critical Making

How do we allow for the possible in design? How and when do we admit to the possible? In his talk on “Political Ideology in Electronic Objects” given to the FSU Digital Scholars Reading group, Rob Duarte will ask the audience to consider the relationships between people and their technologies, and additionally what ideologies or potentialities are embedded within the ways objects are engineered.

Design is often clandestine in its accompanying ideologies or critical implications. The surreptitious and quiet ways in which potentialities can be lurking within design can be hard to surface and hard to articulate. In the documentary on the font Helvetica, a graphic designer states that asking someone what they think about a font like Helvetica is akin to asking them “what they think of off white paint.” Duarte lays bare the sneakiness of design and simultaneously plays with the literal naming conventions of design blueprints and patent applications in his project titled “Prototype for a Machine that Inserts Razor Blades into Apples” (2012) for the Critical Making handmade book series. Duarte presents the design for a machine that will, as described, insert razor blades into apples. The object has a seeming pointlessness but it also jabs at the ways in which potential harm is often ignored or submerged under the guise of utility. Can we imagine if the Samsung phone was titled “Machine that may explode on a plane”? There are affordances and constraints with all tools, but there are also potential benefits and potential dangers that we may need to be critically aware of.

Oliver, Savicic, & Vasiliev offer the “The Critical Engineering Manifesto.” (2011) along these same lines. The ten point manifesto lays out a philosophy of vigilance and skepticism in regard to the role of the engineer who “considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat” and who “notes that written code expands into social and psychological realms, regulating behaviour between people and the machines they interact with.” The critical engineer maintains vigilance about the potential affects of a design and, as I describe it, subscribes to a type of “care-fulness”. This emphasis on care echoes a previous talk earlier this semester when Anais Noony discussed how “Putting an ethics of care into operation” was crucial as we move forward into a world where data prediction and cloud computing create unparalleled relationships between man and machine,

Noony warned against the dangers of not recognizing the relationships between man and machine, and thoughts of the future bring me back to the question I began with “How do we allow for the possible in design?” In “Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming,” (2014) Dunne and Raby introduce us to the concept of speculative design. In fine art, we regularly see imaginings of the possible—abstract paintings, fictional novels, universes within science fiction, etc—but where does this happen in the world of design? In imagining design in other worlds, we would have the opportunity for play with alternate worlds that could eventually make landfall among us humans.

Dunne and Raby paint playfulness and experimentation in a positive light. Through experimentation, values can be laid bare and ideal realities can be imagined. This could be a re-imagining of interfaces as Emerson and Dunne point to. Our re-imaginings could also be things like redefining things like music or speech as Charles Dodge did with “Speech Songs,” an early electronic music piece that used samples of speech to create musical pieces. What is speech? What is music? The technology Dodge utilized allowed him to push at these fundamental questions and do so in a way that was aesthetic and delightful to listeners. Additionally, BPNichol used early tools like the Apple Ile, an early desktop computer, to create kinetic poems, altering the relationship a user would have with a desktop computer.  

BpNichol’s kinetic poetry was influential to other artists and poets, but his means of implementing his poetry on a desktop computer posed problems when the machine he used became obsolete. This begs the question “what is possible and for how long?” We often think of the digital as permanent, but obsolecense complicates the relationship between humans and machines. We run against another challenge of how do we choose what to preserve and what do we do about the translation from one machine to the next? What is lost? How do we allow for growth and for persistence of forms?




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