Dear Keith and Francois,
It is difficult to dismiss Don’s article and Francois’s concerns as “simple human-centered gripes.” These are not mere gripes — and they aren’t simple at all. While I understand the point of posting Robert Frost as a philosophical counterpoint, the world from which Frost wrote — and the people to whom he wrote — were closer to the upper-class Athenian landholders of the 5th century BC than to most people in the 21st century of today.
Robert Frost’s poem comes from the year 1917.
The world had fewer than two billion people. Frost himself only lived the rural life about which he wrote for a short time. After attending and leaving two Ivy League colleges, Dartmouth and Harvard, his grandfather bought him a farm in rural New Hampshire. Frost himself lived a privileged life — reflecting on Baptiste’s axe handles offers an interesting perspective for people who are not required to work a hard-scrabble life.
The context of this world was also different. In 1917, the vast majority of the world’s people lived in rural environments. Even if life was hard, they could eat because they had land on which to grow food. While many of them had a direct relationship with their tools, they also depending on manufacturing to make the tools work. Baptiste made axe handles. Someone with a steel company made the axe head. And so on through much of what defined the world for those who lived in it.
Don’s article comes from a very different world:
We have more than seven and a half billion people on the planet today. The majority of them live in urban environments, and they cannot grow their own food. Most of the world’s people live and work in an artificial world the others design for us. This is even true for designers. Whatever it is we do, whatever it is that we design, other designers are responsible for most of the world we touch — and for most of the artifacts and processes that define our lives.
Don’s article is essentially an existential, human request for a world in which more of us will be able to experience a better life. Take the banking system as a simple example — or at least as an example for a simple human-centered design gripe. I cannot go out to design a better bank interface, and there is no Baptiste to design one for me. Even so, I don’t have many choices. I’ve got to use a bank, and I must do much of my banking online. With more and more businesses in Sweden going to a no-cash basis, I’ve got to have a bank and a credit card simply to lively daily life. I’ve used credit cards for many years, but the banking system has changed dramatically, and many banks no longer have offices where people can go in person to deposit money or check a balance.
My 90-year-old mother-in-law has a problem with the banking system today. Even though she was once the managing director of a large manufacturing firm, that was in pre-computer days, and before she developed serious eye problems and the health problems that come with old age. She can’t bank online. All the banks that once had a branch in her little village have now closed those branches. If she were to read Fast Company, Don’s comments would make sense to her. When we moved back to Sweden from Australia, we chose a small city on the southeast Baltic coast where we can walk to the city center in 15 minutes and — if necessary — manage much of our business without a car. But I have a WiFi and a computer, so I can work nearly anywhere in the world when I wish to do so. And I can still walk downtown to where my bank actually maintains a physical office and will likely continue to do so.
But — like Keith, Francois, and Don — I have a relatively privileged position in life as an academic, former entrepreneur, and sometime artist. At the age of 68, I have access to far greater resources than most of the world’s seven and a half billion people. I’ve also seen life from the other side, though I have never been truly poor. I am aware that all but the extremely wealthy depend on an environment that others design for us, an environment that we generally do not control. For me, Don’s article raises serious philosophical and ethical questions, and the questions he brings forward have a lot to do with the real possibilities of democracy and the lives we can live in contemporary societies defined by the sciences of the artificial.
I’ve been thinking about Francois’s questions and Don’s article. These issues are not simple gripes. Perhaps later I will offer my comments. For now, I’ll repeat the reasonable questions that Francois asks:
“We all are urged by our colleague, Don, to advance answers to the following ‘core’ question: “How did we get it so wrong?” As members in a Western society first, and nowadays as a worldwide community of humans in the same boat … drifting to ....? And this question is particularly addressed to us, design professionals at different levels and in all different sub-fields; we who devise “design principles” embedded in those daily use artifacts prompting us towards the “wrong way” and maintaining us in that ‘wrong direction.’
"More comments, please!”
Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-journal-of-design-economics-and-innovation/
Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Email [log in to unmask] | Academia http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I http://tjdi.tongji.edu.cn
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