Critical Design

I spent an interesting afternoon last Tuesday in the Royal College of Art spending some time with the students on the Interaction Design course, who are just beginning a project on nanotechnology. This department began life focusing on Computer Related Design, applying the lessons of fine art and graphic design to human centred design for computer interfaces, but it’s recently broadened its scope to a wider consideration of the way people and societies interact with technology. It’s in this context that the students are being asked to visualise possible nanotechnology-based futures.

My host for the visit was the Head of Department, Tony Dunne, the author of (among other works) Hertzian tales and Design Noir. He uses the space between industrial design, conceptual art and social theory to question the relationship between technology and society; on his appointment to the RCA he wrote “Interaction Design can be a test space where designers engage with different technnologies (not just electronics) before they enter the market place, exploring their possible impact on everyday life through design proposals – from a variety of perspectives: commercial, aesthetic, functional, critical, even ethical. I believe we need to educate designers to a higher level than we presently do, if they are to have a significant and meaningful role to play in the 21st Century and not just sit at the margins producing pleasant distractions”

To see why this approach to design might be useful for nanotechnology, take a look at the Nanofactory animation made by John Burch and Eric Drexler to illustrate their vision of the future of nanotechnology. Making no judgements for the moment about its technical feasibility, its worth looking at the symbolism of this vision. What’s striking about it is how amazingly conservative it is. The nano-fabricator itself looks like an upmarket bread-making machine, while the final product is a palm-top computer that could in design terms have come from your local PC World. It’s worth contrasting this vision with the much more radical vision of manufacturing outlined in Drexler’s original book Engines of Creation, which imagined a rocket motor growing, as if from a seed, in a huge tank of milky fluid. I’m sure this retreat to a more conservative, and less challenging, vision, was deliberate, and part of the attempt to defuse the”grey goo” controversy. If we are going to be prepared for what technological change brings us, we are going to need some more challenging visions of future artefacts, and I look forward to seeing the radical concepts that the design students come up with.

8 Responses to “Critical Design”

  1. Zelah says:

    Interesting Post! I think that I am going to expand on this with a muse on the difference between the engineering imagination and artistic.

    My take on engineering is that it is EVOLUTIONARY in character. This means that when I step onto a Boeing 747, it almost certainly will reach its destination.

    Art however is driven by aesthetics. This process is essentially a philosophical one which depends on an individuals relationship with reality itself.

    For example, Simon Starling won the Turner prize for basically building a shed! However, for the art world, it was its anti capitalistic symbolism which made it ‘beautiful’.

    Me personally, I do not care about aesthetics, but function. Working Nanofactories is the goal! Avoid politics!

    Finally, regarding Drexler vision. I have gained much aesthetic pleasure from thinking over his ideas. It has inspired me to read quite a bit in my spare time regarding Nanotechnology, providing in of itself much aesthetic pleasure!

    An amateur mathematician

  2. guthrie says:

    I agree that the toning down of the vision is to make it seem more user friendly, and I suppose that is probably the way things will be in the early stages.
    But then if things come together the way some people would like, and as the technology matures (assuming assemblers etc are possible) it might so happen that you wont be using a palm pilot, you’ll be plugging it into a small netweok connection connecting it to your brain. OR else the whole set up will be plumbed into your house wall, and the interaction will be by virtual screen.

    I think the point is also that the way to high turnover, brand name recognition and lots of money is by small in home use, with appropriate licensing etc. Why make a boring old rocket when you can have your products inside 2 billion homes?

  3. Richard Jones says:

    I think that one reason why Engines of Creation was an excellent book was the way in which it opened up possibilities, some good, some bad, for discussion. The more recent emphasis on desktop nanofactories, by contrast, tries to shut down possibilities and close off discussion, in an attempt to play down the negative. I think this is not desirable or sensible (again, leaving out entirely what I think about whether this narrower vision is actually technically feasible). If a technology is invented, no-one is going to be in a position to control or even predict how it is used, so it seems unwise and unconvincing to insist on this single technological trajectory. I also think it’s highly economically unrealistic, too – improving the manufacturing process is the last place where one would seek the necessary returns on the huge investment that would be required.

    I’m sorry, by the way, that my blogging has been slow of late – I picked up some hideous flu-like thing on my recent trip to Washington DC which I have been very slow to shake off.

  4. guthrie says:

    One thing caught my eye in your post, Richard. You say:

    “I also think it’s highly economically unrealistic, too – improving the manufacturing process is the last place where one would seek the necessary returns on the huge investment that would be required.”

    Any chance you can expand on that? Maybe I’m feeling a little stupid, bt I am not entirely certain what you are getting at. Are you suggesting that the last thing they would want is a nanofactory in every home? Or would it be that the way to riches is to sell the patterns for things to be made at home?

  5. Richard Jones says:

    That’s a big question that’s worth a lot of expansion! Briefly, what I’m thinking is that manufacturing currently accounts for a relatively small proportion of the total cost of everyday artefacts, compared to design, marketing etc. It’s a cut-throat sector, very mature, very efficient, very competitive. On the other hand, the first products of radical nanotechnology, in whatever form it takes, are going to need to recoup very large development costs. It seems to me to be much easier to see this happening for entirely new products with compelling functionalities that just aren’t possible with older processes, preferably in sectors where people are prepared to pay high costs (particularly medicine), rather than in new ways of making things not fundamentally different from what has gone before.

  6. guthrie says:

    OK, that makes sense. I am currently trying to work out what will and will nto be different if/ when we get varieties of nanotech (this is more of a long term project). That is definitely one of them. I think a lot of technologies were introduced that way, top end expensive market first. But then you get into the interesting thing of people ripping off patterns for making things, stealing technologies, etc. Or else they will try and fail miserably.

  7. I am on Interaction Design and part of the Nanotechnology project. It has officially now come to an end, so I thought I would respond to the post, but I think the ripples will spread for quite some time. It has only been 4 weeks since we first entered into the strange nano realm. In that time we have had allot of input from scientists and critics engaging with nanotechnology. Right now I feel like I need to take a breather and take a step back in order to evaluate the process and the work we’ve produced. One thing I wanted to say was in response to Zelah’s post.

    “My take on engineering is that it is EVOLUTIONARY in character. This means that when I step onto a Boeing 747, it almost certainly will reach its destination.

    Art however is driven by aesthetics. This process is essentially a philosophical one which depends on an individuals relationship with reality itself.”

    I don’t completely disagree with this statement, maybe only a little but either way it doesn’t leave room for design. My undergraduate study was within a fine art context but my MA is within Design so I think I have a balanced view of both. Good Design as I see it and good ‘Critical Design’ as in this context should weave a delicate path between engineering and art. A path between what is really real and possible and what people think is real and what they dream to be possible.

    To me both are inextricably linked. A plane should be ‘engineered’ not to crash of course. But we all know they have and will continue to do so. Peoples fear and hopes about flight are very complex and mixed up…as they are with nanotechnology. The role of design in this context is not necessarily just to visualise or provide an aesthetic but also to Deal with these complexities. It addresses the questions but does not give finite answers but rather hints at possibilities in order that people can engage with in this case future landscapes, products and services.

  8. Richard Jones says:

    Thanks for these comments, Tom. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of your project; I very much appreciate your point about design hinting at possibilities, opening up the argument rather than closing it down.