Photo by Jay Lee on Unsplash

A Reckoning

We are complicit in manufacturing our capitalist dystopia

I have written several articles that explore the growing realization that designers are no longer focusing work on designing physical artifacts. We are designing living systems.

I tend to have more contrarian, counter-cultural views about the directions that industries, institutions, governments and corporations are pursuing, probably due to my upbringing in a biracial, Christian family.

Since the early 1990s, I have been exploring themes of media criticism that arose out of my studies in Fine Art and Communications at Trinity Western University. As with most Christian educational institutions, the posture toward the surrounding culture tends to be critical, through the lens of the effects and influences of technologies on social systems and hierarchical power, often with the goal of finding ways to create parallel institutions as alternatives to pursue a different set of priorities in contrast to the secular culture.

Media Criticism

  • Noam Chomsky
  • Marshall McLuhan
  • Neil Postman
  • Jacques Ellul
  • Walter Ong
  • William Leiss, Stephen Kline, Sut Jhally

I have been particularly interested in the history of the Bauhaus, because of a manifesto that stated the goal as the creation of a new faith based on the fusion of art, science, craft and industry.

So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.

From its conception, the modernist design project has been an effort to break down the walls between the silos and fragmented disciplines of knowledge and practice.

Having lived and worked within a religious culture, I have explored the concept of design as religion.

IDEO is a sort of modern, secular church of design with its own seminaries and missionaries, spreading the gospel of design thinking and human-centered design as a way to save the world: to solve the most challenging problems the world is facing.

I am one of its parishioners and evangelists.

The Elephant in the Room

However, design has been complicit, whether inadvertently or not, in actively supporting a system of capitalism that is turning design into a commodity, undercutting its value by outsourcing it, and actively replacing it with artificial intelligence that makes the designer obsolete. It is also actively supporting the consolidation of power and the accumulation of wealth for undemocratic, authoritarian corporations who are using their capital to purchase political power around the world.

To learn more about how a capitalist system has been designed to replace humans with machines for the sake of efficiency and profit, read the book by Louis Hyman, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary.

Meanwhile, in Canada, our Premiers and Prime Ministers now serve as public relations representatives for American oil companies, purchasing pipelines to bail them out of failed investments, taking on debt that cannot be repaid with our existing infrastructure. We actually bought a bridge from someone who doesn’t own the bridge.

Christa Avampato is a writer for the Washington Post, the producer of NYC’s Secret & Lies, the author of Emerson Page and Where The Light Enters, and a product manager, and she will soon be returning to school to study Biomimicry.

She is leaving product design because of a realization that Silicon Valley is predominantly concerned with creating apps to marginally increase the efficiency of the lives of the excessively wealthy.

Christa Avampato

There are so many things that annoy me about the technology industry, despite the fact that I work in it. Again, I love it. But it is very much this love/hate relationship, for sure, that is really palpable. One of the things that I hate about the tech industry, specifically in the U.S., is that most of the tech that’s developed is for the one percent.

Josh Chambers

We are making products that make rich people’s lives marginally more efficient. That is the tech industry, and it just grosses me out.
(49:00)

By participating in the exploitative system of corporate power, we are perpetuating the dismantling of our democracies and civil liberties.

Fine Art and Communications

I am looking back over 50 years of my life, growing up evangelical in Canada. In the early years, I felt confused and fearful. Now I am disgusted and angry, coming to terms with a social identity that is unravelling in light of a growing awareness of a wider reality, an evolving perspective as I try to compare my point of view to the lived experiences of others. Here is what I was writing about when I was studying fine art and communications in the early 1990s.

Design and Media

If social media is ripping society apart, then by encouraging engagement with the platform, designers are complicit in undermining civil conversation, mental health, economic equality, and democracy.

The Ezra Klein Show: Whitney Phillips explains how Trump controls the media

If the whole point of capitalism is to amass capital, and then you have these business practices that help you do that, there is almost no incentive not to keep doing that in precisely the ways that are destroying democracy. This really calls attention to the ways, at least within the institution of journalism, that capitalism is not great for democracy. It just isn’t, because it is always going to float to the top the most sensationalist [content].

(1:38:00)

Here’s a fun fact: The best training for understanding the president’s media strategy is to have studied internet trolls for years and years.

Okay, maybe that fact wasn’t so fun. Maybe it’s incredibly depressing.

At any rate, Whitney Phillips did exactly that. She was one of the earliest scholars of online trolling (yes, that’s a job). She was studying trolling when it was a tiny sideshow. And she was there, studying it, as online trolling got amplified by algorithmic platforms and a click-hungry media. As Gamergate made it a political movement. Then, most importantly, she was there, watching, as the media manipulation tactics that she had seen perfected by the trolls became the playbook for how Trump controls the media’s agenda, and the national conversation. I’m in the media. I’m inside this machine looking out. It can be hard, from inside, to understand what the hell is happening. But Phillips is outside the machine looking in. And she understands, better than anyone I’ve talked to, what’s gone wrong, and how hard it will be to fix.

Recommended books

  • Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
  • Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble
  • Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespie

Podcast

The Ezra Klein Show: Ask Ezra Anything

The tendency to be training ourselves into complete and utter and constant distraction, for most people — that is about our choices and how those choices are being manipulated and architected by giant corporations and our built environment.

(10:52)

The Daily: The Human Toll of Instant Delivery

There is a very real chance that most of these jobs, no matter how good they are or how much better they get, will eventually be replaced by robots. It’s already happening.

(24:00)

Reality Entertainment

The Hunger Games is not a dystopian future. It is our current reality. According to Neil Postman’s media criticism, we are amusing ourselves to death.

“In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment.”

She thinks audiences for “both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination. I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me.

On the Media: Whose Streets?

Peter Norton is a historian in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. As he surveys the media landscape, he’s seeing a glimpse of one possible future and practically a scene-for-scene remake of the past. The salesmanship behind autonomous cars, he says, ‘harkens to the earliest Detroit strategy of cultivating discontent with the mere status quo.’ In 1929, auto tycoon Charles Kettering actually preached, “Keep the consumer dissatisfied.” And consumer marketing has heeded him ever after.

Crimes Against Humanity

Facebook isn’t just a relic of the past, it’s a symptom of the lack of ethics and regulation in technology that’s driving society in the misuse of algorithms. At the end of 2018, we’re all questioning how monopolies like Google, Facebook and Amazon conduct themselves as responsible corporate entities. For the most part, they are failures in accountability. It makes you wonder about the ethics of capitalism to create value that’s not dangerous and disruptive in a negative way.

This particular document seizure comes ahead of an “international grand committee” set for Tuesday that will address fake news, disinformation, and election interference. Will Facebook ever pay for its crimes against humanity? It’s rather unlikely, as corporations shrug off fines and bulldoze through legal situations like these. There’s no real justice when you are a monopoly.

Designers should be the first to leave the platform and encourage clients and students to denounce its usage, but designers, developers, marketers and agencies are the ones who have been benefitting from the advertising business model. We are the problem. But we are effectively shooting ourselves in the foot.

Design for Truth and Reconciliation

After hearing Angela Bains of TransformExp speaking at the Jim Rimmer Scholarship event, A Night of Type, Truth & Design, where she spoke about her work as a designer in freeing Nelson Mandela and ending apartheid in South Africa. I am even more convinced of the role of design to engage in the work of social justice and political, social and human rights activism.

Design for Transformation and Transcendence

The new role of the designer is that of the social architect, a person who understands living systems and processes and seeks to facilitate and guide the activity of individuals and groups to better align with the health and function of the entire ecosystem.

Design Education

To understand our new role as designers will require new ways of thinking about design education. This is what I believe will define this moment in history.

We cannot leave to the politicians what we need to do ourselves. The reality star, the wealthy celebrity does not have the empathy to lead a design process. Their training is in the art of distraction, focusing our attention on that which is least important, or worse, self-destructive.

Like cells in a body, we each have a role to play in the function of the whole. It is this model of interconnection and interdependence that must guide our activities and the value that we hold for each other.

So, lets begin by thinking about the way we can learn and grow to become a people whose identity is defined by the level of care that we have for each other and for our world.

Welcome to the design challenge of the human experience.

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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