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Fog Enveloping Deception Pass Bridge, Whidbey Island — Adobe Stock

Water

Water is the source of life. It can also kill us in a myriad ways. For example, a large body of water accelerating toward a human being at 9.8m/s² can inflict serious physical damage.

On the Deception Pass Bridge spanning the distance between the continental United States and Whidbey Island, a bicycle leaned against the railing. In the fog, 180 feet below, there was a splash in the water.

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Photo by Joel Swick on Unsplash

The islands of Hong Kong are separated from the mainland of China by a thin ribbon of the South China Sea. Water made the difference between democracy and communism. It was the British lease on the land that had made the difference, in fact. The city state was a British military outpost that became one of the primary economic powerhouses of Asia and the envy of Beijing.

Envy turned into the sincerest form of flattery. Beijing learned everything it could about economic prosperity and stability. Now, the democratic activists of Hong Kong filled the streets and occupied the airport to protest the incursion of authoritarian state power on the city state. Beijing lined up their forces along the border in Shenzhen. State capitalism is flexing its muscles, and there are few who are willing to face the threat of violent opposition to resist the typhoon mounting its assault upon the population.

Max Weber has famously defined the state as a political community or human community where an ensemble of actors have a monopoly over the use of force. However, we all know that no state can rule for any length of time exclusively by force. There have to means by which to persuade people to actively consent to the form of rule that exists. Antonio Gramsci calls this hegemony.

I had just been listening to a podcast called 2038, exploring what the world could look like in 20 years. It was started last year.

I met with the founder of a design agency situated in the creative district of the city. He used to be my employer. Now, we occasionally meet for coffee at Starbucks. Twenty years ago, his company was a small office of web developers. Now, they are engaging in matters of civic, institutional, and corporate governance, applying design thinking and systems thinking principles to the transformation of organizations. This is a challenging time to champion participatory design in a time when democratic principles are acquiescing to the power of the market and the wealth of the corporation, a decidedly authoritarian form of rule that people complacently accept as the necessary trade-off for economic prosperity. It is the same logic that manufactures consent in China.

I awoke around 5:30am, but I checked my phone to see what the editors of The New York Times had decided was the top story of the day.

Inside Hong Kong’s Airport

I lay in bed listening to Michael Barbaro asking questions about the situation in Hong Kong with particular interest, since I learned from my mother that my brother had boarded a plane to Hong Kong a couple weeks ago. He planned to be there until the end of October.

I remembered my friend’s recommendation. A former employee of the design agency is working a company that was the incubator for a social media management tool. A good friend of Hillary McBride, one of the hosts of the Liturgists podcast, he is gathering a community of people to discuss issues of ethics in the technology space. Part of the inspiration for that discussion is the Sleepwalkers podcast.

The Great Awakening

The woke are decrying the abuse of power: white power, male power, corporate power, government power.

The design industry is facing its own reckoning, as voices rise to the surface to blow the whistle on the abuses of power in the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen: Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Mike Monteiro, Tristan Harris, Chamath Palihapitiya, Shoshana Zuboff, and Douglas Rushkoff are sounding the alarm. Jenny Odell wrote How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy to highlight her favourite definition of design: the art of curating attention. Bryan Johnson is advocating for future literacy to help us learn the language necessary to start to have conversations about the purpose and intentions of the human project. Just what is it that we, as a species, are trying to accomplish?

Why am I so obsessed with power? It is the powerless who best understand the effects of the abuse of power. My problem was waking up too late.

How do you wake someone who is sleepwalking through their life? Gently. Empathetically. Carefully.

Unprecedented

The medium is the message. How do good ideas spread? When the world is overwhelmed with so many bad ideas, how can we inspire actions that can lead people in the direction we need to go?

So many bad ideas have been generated by a simplistic reading of ancient sacred texts. In the hands of authoritarians, these texts become weaponized against the people who revere them.

This media environment is unprecedented in human history. It has been an arms race to be first to market with the killer app. Perhaps we should have used a different metaphor. We are only now waking up to the fact that our house is on fire, and we need to panic.

The Tower of Babel

For one hundred years, we have been building the Gesamkunstwerk, the total work of art of the modern utopia, rising from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith. As Ezra Klein quipped, “It always starts with free love and ends with capitalism. That is the lesson of utopias.”

The unity of art and technology has been superseded by the unity of art and commerce: Bauhaus as a brand, a lifestyle.

All that’s great, until you realize that you yourself — your emotions, your thoughts, your feelings, your body, your genetics, your children, your way of life, the sky, the weather. Now we have designed the weather. We have designed our own extinction. Now you realize that Bauhaus design, good design, has brought us to the very end of the destruction of our species. At that moment, before we kill ourselves, let’s kill the Bauhaus.

— Mark Wigley, Architecture Critic

Written by

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

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