Fiction of Things
Liga Felta

PART I

Introduction

The planet is surfaced with things. Things for tracking and sensing, things for commuting, things for mediating, things for dealing with every activity a human engages in. It’s even surrounded by things as space technologies, dust and paint are circulating in the Earth’s orbit, unbound. Things and design of things are what differentiate us from other species and make us human, oftentimes in a meaningful way. We make things and things are in turn making us. Things are entangled with all the major environmental issues – polluted and acid waters, rising temperatures, and habitat loss. Things are the origin of excessive carbon dioxide emissions, things make up wastelands, and things are made for cutting, digging, and excavating. Some argue that we might be the only species to design our own extinction (Colomina and Wigley 2016, 15).

In recent years significant attention has been brought to the invisible and hidden costs of media, media design, and technologies. Extraction of rare-earth minerals, extensive power consumption, a growing amount of e-waste, ethics of labor and data use being at the centre stage. Caught up and faced by the limits of progress and the anthropocentric standpoint, designers find themselves entangled in questions of sustainability, materiality, and meaning of the practice. This essay gathers the main thoughts encountered and developed while working on an assignment at the crossroads of new media and environement, and addresses the questions of morality of design and things, critical design and designer-planet encounters.

Making of affordances, making of actions

Design is a process of thought. It engages with the future with a promise of improvement – a better solution, a better machine, a better product, and after all a better human. Design suggests progress, it suggests a happier, healthier, more productive, more pleasurable and even more sustainable future, made possible by the never-ending cycle of iterations, design thinking, and human-centred approach. Understanding user contexts, needs and emotions are said to be the key to successful design artifacts. The value of design and the need to design is rarely questioned as design equals betterment. But design and good design are still the same concept when exercised in weaponry and terrorism (Colomina and Wigley 2016, 59) or improved media machines designed to become obsolete and turn up in wastelands in just a few years. In 1971, designer and educator Viktor Papanek wrote, (…) an over-technologized, sterile, and inhuman environment has become one possible future; a world choking under a permanent, dun-colored pollution umbrella, another (Papanek 1973, 42). In the second year of a pandemic sterile is a characteristic we know is deceptive but the risks of market-led design have held true as aquatic systems are filled with microplastics, and e-waste is a fast-growing stream with less than 40% being recycled in Europe (E-waste in the EU: facts and figures, 2020). Papanek sees over-technologized as inhuman while in this day it might be argued that humans in one part of the world are embracing and emulating technology, hacking, and redesigning the humanness in a manner of human-centred design while being chased by the consequences of the industry.

Things, machines, and technologies contain both a political and a moral aspect. Design artifacts are political in the sense that they signal who and what is of importance and what is not. Mass production values the average and dominant while overseeing the other bringing forth questions of justice and rights. Things also have a moral aspect to them in a way that they mediate and influence human actions and experience. Verbeek argues that designers help shape moral decisions, practices, and lives of the people who encounter their artifacts, and designing can be seen as “materializing morality” (Verbeek 2011, 90). The concept of scripts entails the influence of artifacts on human actions that contain a prescription on how users are to act when they use them (Verbeek 2011, 10). Things and technologies are not moral per se but they prescribe, suggest, and guide people’s lives, involvement with reality and perception. This is not a one-way street and does not entail technological determinism but rather accepts that things are not neutral and do have a certain amount of power of influence and transformation. As the existence of a road assumes human transportation, gun suggests shooting, numerous Ethereum powered NFT markets suggest trading, and the almost yearly cycle of iPhone generations suggests that yours is already outdated. Affordances are a core concept of interaction design – affordances are not simply the properties of a thing but rather action possibilities (Affordances, 2021). Things signal potential actions for which a part of moral decision-making has been done a priori by the design, therefore the human can be guided by the design and its affordances.

Fictional machines

Design is usually seen as engaging with the future and proposing solutions and not as a practice of reflection but rather one of action. Speculative design, on the other hand, proposes solutions for fictional realities and poses questions on what the world could be. As laid out by Dunne and Raby speculative design asks to imagine a human as a citizen over a consumer, to value ethics over user-friendliness, and to gently refuse the reality as is and dream above other things.

The potential of critical and speculative design as they argue lies in the gap between the perceived reality and the proposed reality creating a space for reflection and discussion (Dunne and Raby 2013, 35). Therefore design artifacts that are outside the current boundaries of reality propagate conversations and imaginaries that are equally non-compliant to existing understanding and knowledge. Speculative design challenges the predefined behavioral schema and it is not to be viewed as real or reflecting reality but rather as physical fictions and objects from imagined realities (Dunne and Raby 2013, 92). And so it seems that speculative design can be regarded as an approach regardless of the medium or rather that the chosen medium or technology follows the nature of the speculation and imaginary. In posing questions speculative design has a potential to bring a quality of discussion and not a ready-to-hand solution to design objects. Situated between art and design, speculation holds an immense power of questioning materiality, technology, and morality of things. For a designer, speculation allows to produce not for the world as is but imagine other preferred realities, other values.

Co-habiting

Discussing designers’ responsibility Papanek brings forward kymmenykset, a Finnish word for the 10 percent share of one’s crop to be given to those in need (Papanek 1973, 80). In his reimagination designers kymmenykset is a share of ideas one gives to the minority and the mankind in need. Today it seems relevant to broaden the scope and include the environment and non-human species as the receivers of the kymmenykset as there is an ongoing reconsideration of the anthropocentric standpoint and the environmental and human costs of the Anthropocene. Characterized by the human impact on Earth’s geology the concept is often used for describing the fundamental and ongoing shift in humans’ relationship to the natural environment (Heise 2016, 205). Challenged by the comfortable notion of progress humans have to reconsider their relationship with Earth, its materials, and ecosystems in every practice. Designer and maker of things find themselves at the centre of this debate as they both exploit and influence the materiality of the Earth.

Usually, in its humanist and human-centred approach design is exploitative in its relations to nonhuman species and materials which are all reduced to a matter of human need (Wakkary 2021, 2). Reconsidering the nature-human-thing relationship Wakkary introduces the notion of nomadic practices where design knowledge is situated and embraces multiplicity and overlapping alternatives (Wakkary 2021, 35-37). However, while the approach examines experimental design practices and knowledge production, it seems that the centerpiece of the practice is still the human in whose presence things become meaningful. The nature of human–planet relationship is also discussed in the context of the grassroots design activity of making. The maker is facing the same limits of the anthropocentric position and is found to be in an entanglement with materials, environment, tools, and relations between organic and inorganic all of which are considered valuable actors (Foote and Verhoeven 2019, 73, 76). Apart from attentive awareness of surroundings and materials, it poses questions such as in what ways could the creative practice be shared between humans and non-humans? Who owns the work? Who is responsible for the longevity or disposal? Importantly, it has to be recognized that not all the actants have the same power, capacity, or effect (Foote and Verhoeven 2019, 79). Therefore, regarding the humans and other co-habitants of the planet, one must admit that the value of life is a cultural venture, embedded in historical traditions and value frameworks that condition which lives are appreciated and conserved and which ones are disregarded, left to die out, or actively exterminated (Heise 2016, 202). In an attentive and careful manner, one must ask, which materials, which species and which lives are worth the attention? Who gets to decide?


PART II

Kymmenykset

It seems to me in the last decade the world has become louder. The continuous noise of worry, discontent, debate, and at times panic on one hand and the continuous noise of laughter, both genuine and ironic on the other. In the early 1990s, sociologist Ulrich Beck described the late modernity as a risk society – a society which is no longer concerned exclusively with making nature useful, or with releasing mankind from traditional constraints, but also and essentially with problems resulting from techno-economic development itself (Beck 1992, 19). Also in the 1990s I was growing up and spent a lot of my days on the sandy beaches by the Baltic Sea. Surrounded by the warm scent of dry pine forests, lichen and blueberries we never worried about the declining catch of local fisherman or increasingly present blooms of algae. The risk society is reflexive, it is dealing with threats created by the modern society itself – risk is a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself (Beck 1992, 21). The loudness of the world seems to accompany the increasing global risks and hazards as the anthropocentric stance slowly loses its ground leaving the trace of insecurity and precarity.

Hypoxia is a common characteristic of the Baltic Sea. In a yearly cycle of algae bloom, death and decomposition the water is depleted of oxygen forming a notorously vast dead zone. Only a few can inhabit the low oxygen environment and most marine organisms flee or die (Dead zones of the Baltic Sea, 2020). The problem of low oxygen levels in the Baltic sea was already present in my childhood but it has become more audible and urgent as the agricultural nutrients and phosphorus are still discharged and the inflow of oxygen-rich water is unpredictable (Ibid.).

From Beck’s point of view, the risks of the Baltic Sea dead zones are reflexive as the issue is a result of industrial agriculture. The risks can be viewed as socially distributed as the first to be affected are the fisherman and when viewed from an ecological perspective the marine organisms do not thrive in these conditions but rather die out and disappear. Fish and other marine organisms are the first and foremost victims in this scenario but fish with their cold blood, rugged skin, and strange looks have never been amongst the hot and exciting ones, have they?

In a manner of speculation I wonder are there meaningful relations between humans and marine ecosystems other than resource supply and demand? Is caring desirable when there are no rewards and advantages? Is it even possible to anticipate what fish experience?

Why bother making things that are neither art nor product?

References

[1] Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. SAGE Publications.

[2] Colomina, Beatriz, and Mark Wigley. 2016. Are We Human?: Notes on an Archaeology of Design. Lars Muller Publishers.

[3] Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. 2013. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press.

[4] European Parliament. E-waste in the EU: facts and figures. 2020. URL: https://www.europarl.europa.eu- /news/en/headlines/soci- ety/20201208STO93325/e-waste-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures-infographic

[5] Heise, Ursula K. 2016. Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. University of Chicago Press.

[6] Interaction Design Foundation. Affordances. URL: https://www.interac- tion-design.org/literature/topics/affordances

[7] Papanek, Victor. 1973. Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Bantam Books.

[8] Verbeek, Peter-Paul. 2011. Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. University of Chicago Press.

[9] Wakkary, Ron. 2021. Things We Could Design: For More Than Human-Centered Worlds. MIT Press.

[10] Winderen,Jana,andPaulaToppila. 29.10.2020. Dead Zones of the Baltic Sea. URL: https://www.ihmehelsin- ki.fi/en/2020/10/dead-zones-of-the-baltic-sea/