The Friday before last (21st Oct 2018) I went to a GIDEST seminar with Siri Hustvedt. I discovered Hustvedt’s work through her husband, Paul Auster, 24 years ago.  On seeing and listening to Hustvedt, the significance of Auster’s work on my life suddenly hit me. Zac Baker, a dear old friend of mine, gave me Mr. Vertigo at a very dark point in my life. In my first year at University, my best friend died. I couldn’t sleep and I was spiralling into a black hole. The book saved me. It changed my relationship to reading and opened a new world to me. A world, where words… stories… books… fiction could be a place to escape to. A world where I could process my feelings and thoughts. All these years later, I’m sat at a table across from Siri, with a feeling of excitement and intellectual giddiness.

Siri Hustvedt is an amazing woman; a creative thinker who possesses razor sharp intelligence, her ideas are expressed with a poetic clarity, which is unusual for someone who draws on such a diverse set of references. She manages to move smoothly across disciplinary boundaries, without care for their formal and superficial barriers. She has the feeling of a person from a different era; driven by curiosity and a desire to understand the world around her, somehow avoiding the politics and trappings of the modern ‘public intellectual’.

We were given three pieces of her work to read before the seminar; an excerpt from The Blazing World, and the chapters; Becoming Others and My Louise Bourgeois from A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. All three pieces were fascinating; I particularly liked Becoming Others where Hustvedt examines her mirror touch synesthesia.

The most fascinating aspect of mirror-touch synesthesia maybe precisely that it lies at, indeed appears to cross, the border between self and other, but does so in a way that forces us to examine the limen itself and what it means for empathic and imaginative experience.

Hustvedt goes on to make links between phenomenology, psychology and neurobiology  through Merleau-Ponty’s intercorporeality, Winnicott’s transitional objects and Gallese’s we-space.  It was the ‘we-space’ (Gallese, 2001), the space of relational agency, that fascinated me. In my talk at Critical by Design earlier this year, I spoke about my Fathers dementia and how fiction became an intersubjective tool of translation and mediation for his madness. I spoke about how stories became a way for us to engage, care and comfort him during his distress. Reading Hustvedt, it made me think of the semi-fictional reality that we co-created with my dad as a ‘space of the imagination’. A space to make empathy possible.

Much has been written about design and empathy (the original phrase was developed by Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Jeffrey Rayport, Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, in 1997) and how, as designers, we need to develop empathetic techniques to understand our users. User Centred Design has become a common approach and method for designers to consider people in a systematic manner throughout a design process. However, I’ve always found the use of personas problematic in their representational limitations. Often, the fictional characterisations are thin and generic characterisations of human complexities and identities. My question to Hustvedt centred around how the intersubjective space, the we-space of imaginative potential, could be tapped, enriched and furnished with complexity. Ultimately, creating fictions – our projections of ourselves into the we-space – to enable alternative spaces of potential without the horrors of cultural assimilation and colonisation. This starts to sound a lot like Anne Galloway‘s Fantastic Ethnography, in particular her reflections on the brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin‘s challenge for us to go beyond-realism.

Ultimately, my question fell a little flat. Not due to Hustvedt’s lack of engagement in the idea or her generous attempt to understand what the hell I was saying, but more due to her understanding of the word / discipline DESIGN. The disciplinary elephant in the room… I’m sure many of you have been there; the conversation is going well, non-designers are speaking to you as smart, intelligent humans, then you drop the D-bomb and it all goes wrong. Suddenly the world collapses as the person you’re speaking to suddenly can’t think of anything but throw-cushions, fancy bathroom taps, ‘designer’ handbags, ‘problem solving’ and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen (thanks Jimmy!).

The GIDEST seminars are set up to create a space of interdisciplinary discourse, but as those who have tried this know it’s a difficult space to engage in (especially for design); language barriers, disciplinary biases and divergent interests slow the discussions down and often lead to unproductive conversations. For design, it’s a deeper problem, we have a pretty terrible rep. So much of the work we (designers / educators) need to do, is to translate and reposition how design is seen – in both the ‘academy’ and general public.

Reference:

Gallese,V. ‘The ‘shared manifold’ hypothesis. From mirror neurons to empathy’.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 8, Numbers 5-7, 1 May 2001, pp. 33-50(18)

 

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<<Written on the 21st Sept 2018>>

Lots of things change when you move to a new city, the rhythms of your routine are disrupted to allow for new activities and interactions, one of the things that I’m enjoying is starting to listen to podcasts. This is mainly due to me walking and running a lot more that I would do in London. The podcasts are a perfect way to allow your mind to drift amongst the architecture as you walk.

I’ve mainly been listening to the Adam Buxton podcast, which I love! It’s made me reflect on the podcast as a format – I know that I’m really late here and millions of people have probably written deep, thoughtful and clever pieces about the podcast form, but here’s my dumb reflections; the podcast produces a different type of intimacy, I think this due to the reduction in scale of the production team. It feels like an intimate chat with an interesting person. It allows for type of content that I wouldn’t normally listen to. I guess the barriers to entry are just high enough to make sure the most of them are ‘ok’, but it gives really creative people, access to voice based broadcast to produce amazing things, that you would normally hear on national radio.

Adam Buxton really surprised me, after years of people suggesting the show, I hadn’t got around to listening to it.  I think it was because I had a different idea of what it would be; in my head it was more sketch comedy less chit chat. He is obviously from a really privileged background and this comes through in many of the shows… he’s the typification of middle-aged, white, privileged, liberal, smart man, but completely aware of it and is lovely, brilliant and very funny with it.

One of the things I enjoy, is seeing the mechanics under creative work – the conversations about the struggles for creative people to produce work. It’s pretty inspiring.

Today is a day of lunches and dinners with interesting people, first was a lunch (nice Israeli Falafel place in Greenwich Village) with Michel Morgensen. Michael studied at Goldsmiths on the MAID programme during its last year. It was lovely to see him and reflect on how crazy 2016-17 was. Our conversation focussed mainly on how there was still a mis-match between industry’s expectation of design and how more critically informed programmes positioned the practice. We talked about tactics to overcome and survive in these times.

We also spoke about the Gulf states, the strange cultural and economic paradoxes they face (all the resources to achieve interesting things, but so much of their ambition ends up feeling like shopping; culture bought, transplanted Western ideas and cultural practices, that ultimately don’t self sustain).

After lunch I learnt that Pat Loughrey, the Warden, was stepping down. I was surprised at how much the news affected me. I really like Pat and think he’s been a positive force in Goldsmiths. Any change of leadership at that level brings with a level of risk. In our current political and economic times in HE, it’s particularly risky to find someone with the same understanding and ethos.

This sparked an interesting conversation later with Tony about the politics of US Universities; how finding the people at the top was a very difficult thing to do… a process fraught with risk. I think it’s really sad that many of the people in top leadership positions in education lack a sense of intellectual vision about education. I hope to God we find a good one.

In the evening I had dinner with Tony, Fiona and Tim Marshall (the provost of the New School). We had some great conversations about the ambitions and intricacies of design education. How many academic and professionals end up hold lines (on what should be taught, how elements of design learning are important) even though they never learnt that way themselves.

The end conversation was an amazing story, told brilliantly by Tim, about the trials and tribulations of the New School – it’s political history and the traumas of a President that didn’t fit with the schools philosophy. Many of the stories, the political action of staff and students, felt very familiar, more evidence that Goldsmiths and New School are connected in a deep way.

Written on 19th September 2018

Although I’ve been in New York for 19 days, I’ve decided to start a diary. This is partly due to having floating thoughts and observations whizz by me, without any real reason to record them. Some of these things seem a little inconsequential, but I want to keep them to enable me to remember what being here in NYC was/is like and some of them may develop into other ideas.  I may share them at some point, or make a blog or a newsletter of something.

I’ve never written a diary before, so I’m not sure what voice or tone to use. It seems very strange to me to be writing to myself, but I guess this is part of a practice to make me understand myself and the experiences I’m going through. I hope that writing it will help me with the practice of writing itself. To write without a big pressure that it’s something smart or interesting or important to academic life and future of design and design education.

Today Laura mentioned that Corinne had used WhatsApp to record little videos for her family whilst she was abroad, I thought I’d give it a go. I was a little surprised by its effect on me, I instantly enjoyed the process and loved getting little comedy moment from Herbie. It’s been difficult to keep in touch with Herbie since I’ve been here. This is because of a range of different issues, the first is time zone and habit – this is easy to overcome with a routine and all of us getting used to how to deal with me being away. The second is technology. Everyone, when I expressed concern about not seeing Herbie, said “it the 21st century, we have Skype and facetime.”, what they didn’t mention was; you need all your devices up to date, network providers are a bit shit and the technology, although amazing in the global sense of things, is still not fully worked out.

Anyway, I made a little video today and sent it to Herb. I like the process of doing it, I felt I could be a little silly and it was low pressure. It means that as I see something, that I think he’d like, I can make a little video. They instantly make me think of Alice Bartlett and her instagram stories, which I enjoy immensely. It also means that he can understand that I’m thinking of him during my day; not just a small moment, every fews days when we arrange for a big video chat.

The surpising thing about the videos, both making and receiving them, is that they evoke a different, more casual conversation between us. As an 8 year old, it’s quite hard for Herbie to enter the ‘serious chat’ of speaking to me and giving me an accurate, interesting or consistent account of what he has been doing. But making videos, seems to come far more easily… the youtube generation hey!

Today I decided not to go into Parsons. This is partly because I seemed to have replaced my ‘guilt’ of not being productive and working hard at Goldsmiths, with the (incorrect) assumption that I need to be in the office 9-6, 5 days a week. Which is not true. I think a big part of what I’m struggling with is with my expectation to ‘be productive’.

So today, I woke up, went for a run… which I’m loving… but am continuously surprised at how hard I’m finding the first 1km. I soon forget that after it’s over and what to be running again. I guess this is why people say it’s addictive.

I then had a wonder about the neighbourhood that I’ll be staying when Herbie is here. It’s a bit closer to Bedford Av, and therefore lovely. Then for coffee.

I went for lunch to Sweetgreen, a healthy and hip food chain that exists across the city. I ate a good salad, sat outside and people watched. I sat next to a table, three people, two men and a woman. The scene felt distinctly New York. A gruff New Yorker, born in the Bronx, probably in his late forties, tattooed lightening bolts on his forearms. He held himself with the confidence of a man that was very handsome in his younger days. A man who’d been through a lot, a life lived through drink, drugs and sex.

He monologued through the lunch, over a kale salad. He had a range of philosophies about life. About the end of Western culture and how it was important to focus on equipping oneself with the knowledge to thrive in the enevitable event of the apocalypse. I wonder if characters like this are particular to our time, their ‘deep thoughts’ fueled by late night googling and mining the deep dark parts of wikipedia. Or have men like this always held court. Middle-aged men with strong opinions… not sure that that’s a new thing… but the internet has fuelled their conviction in their own ‘reckonings’.

I’m reading a short story by Johnathan Letham called Procedure in Plain Air. Like many moments, when I’m on my own, with space to think, the world’s experiences collide and connect. The story tells of municipal workmen, digging a hole and burying a bound person. As I read, I see similar group of workmen, digging the road. I’m also writing a short story about a municipal worker who is trapped in an algorithmic employment hell… A Singaporean intensely socially engineered nightmare.

After lunch I discovered The West, a cafe / restaurant /bar on Union. It’s possible dangerous, it’s built to be like a ‘hotel lobby bar’ where people can work whilst drinking coffee or beer. It’s super relaxed and lovely. So I had a pint at 4pm, continued to write.

There 10 people in here, all tapping away, working remotely, the digital nomads, working without offices in different ways. There should be a phrase for the coalescence of digital activity that is produced in a specific environment. It would be great to see if certain places (cafes, hotel lobbies, public parks, bars) have different levels of productivity. A digital output to judge the environmental conviviality.

I often get a strange sense of overwhelming intregue seeing other peoples lives that pass me buy. This is focused a bit more in a place like this. What are these people working on; are there great works of fiction in the making, podcasts, code being written that’ll change the world, HR decisions that make peoples lives worse.

For those who don’t know, I’m currently on sabbatical. To kick off my year, I’ve come to NYC for three months as a visiting scholar at Parsons New School with the wonderful Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the Designed Realities Lab . D+R have kindly given me a desk as well as the space and time to reflect on my practice as a designer and educator. During this time, I’ll be doing some research for an upcoming book, whilst meeting and talking to interesting people in one of the greatest cities in the world.

Three weeks into my visit, I tentatively started writing a diary. I set up a separate blog, and began to capture my activities and thoughts as I embark on this new experience. However, I’ve just had a change in mind. I’m going to write here on SB129. I don’t want to get too precious about a blog that isn’t read by many people and is massively neglected by me. So be aware, the forming posts will be more diary like; scrappy, autobiographic and not fully thought threw.

Here we go….

“The spreadsheet’s unreality is dangerously doubled because, while their ordered data and formulae always comfort you that you have authored a controllable certainty, most spreadsheets are mere conjectures, provisional plans, ideas or hopes. Spreadsheets are dreams.” Rod McLaren, Spreadsheets are dreams

When Beeker published the brilliant essay, by Rod McLaren in 2015, I was blown away by the poetry of Rod’s writing. At that point in my career, I had a growing reliance on Excel as a mode of planning and organising of education. Since becoming Head of Department, the creation and interpretation of spreadsheets has become an important part of my daily life. I often joke to colleagues and students about being lost down the spreadsheet mines.

It’s a bit of a cliche to highlight that the ivory towers of academe have been felled by over burdensome educratic bullshit. The common cry of privileged academics protesting that time spent ‘doing admin’, taking them away from ‘important scholarly work’, is not the point of this post. It’s also not a post from a designer, with a dramatic level of autonomy, moaning about the realities of daily work, where management, accounting and funding proposals (bureaucreativity as Silvio Lorusso calls it) takes them away from real creative labor.

What I’d like to explore is the aesthetic, political and educational possibility and problematics of Excel; the narratives we tell through it; the realities we bring into being through the rows and columns of quantified possibility; a place where dreams become educational reality; a tool to distance educators from education…

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It was sometime in the early 21st century that it happened. Culture had become so saturated with different versions of the future, something inside our collective imaginations just shut off. We forgot how to imagine the future. The ramifications were broader than we first thought. By 2015 the whole planet had lost the ability to imagine change. It didn’t happen all at once, like Gibson’s future, the loss wasn’t evenly distributed.

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infrastructural_sublime

This time two years ago I was sat in the Oncology lounge of Watford General Hospital waiting for my Dad to receive his first dose of chemotherapy. It struck me then, a feeling I still can’t shake, that the number of discrete decisions, actions, objects and processes that converged on that moment of time defied understanding: the eternal human endeavour to survive meets the unknowable complexity of a system on the brink of collapse.

I’ve begun to think of this feeling as a form of the infrastructural sublimity; standing on the edge of a complex human and non-human system so in awe of its complexity, that one becomes overwhelmed with both fear and hope.

As we waited there, for a bespoke mix of chemicals to be made, by a highly trained set of people, to be administered by a kind and caring nurse, in a space designed (in all its material complexity) to give comfort and reassurance, with a set of tailored objects designed to give relief of specific diseases, all free on the point of access, through a massive system of taxation, wealth distribution and public health care, to act on the out-of-control cells in my father’s lungs, I was in awe of what humanity had achieved.

I have come away trying to fathom how we (designers) start to navigate, mediate or manipulate these impossibly complex and messy infrastructures. Is this just a form of dark matter, that we need to find the correct instruments to detect, measure and affect change through? How do we model, prototype and predict the consequences of our actions? How do we not lie down in the face of such complexity and give up?

Our first difficulty arises when we try to ‘understand’ the scale and complexity of the systems we face; instead of creating a ‘children’s book version of reality’, we need to map the extent of the network, to chart all the access points and actors in order to make sense of the relationships that are forged within the messy complexities of our socio-technical systems. But even the act of mapping or diagramatising these infrastructures is difficult enough.

This can be broken into two main problems; the issue of representation (or the gap between the map and the territory) and the problem of truncation (or falling off the edge of the map).

Like the 17th Century portolano makers, the difficulty found in the art of cartography has been fully explored. Problems of ‘truth’ within our systems of representation has been interrogated by scholars (see Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps), and the power relations written into cartographic systems have been uncovered. Whether through the issue of selection (what is included or left off the map), language (the codification system used to symbolise reality) or projection system (the ever present problem of converting 3D objects into 2D representations), drawing a map has its own discrete set of politics that are difficult to navigate. We all know that Cartography is an act of colonisation, through the drawing of borders we define identities and write laws. So when we begin to evaluate ‘where’ to act within a system, we must first need to ‘understand’ through drawing out the spaces of agency.

One of the key moments in mapping is knowing when to stop. If we pay heed to a Latourian sense of interconnectedness, then our actions as designers are linked to a growing network of human and non-human actors. Where do we draw the line, when do we turn our heads away from the page and decide to act. With our students, this can be seen in the compulsion to ‘research more’ to make more and more connections, until they have a full picture of the situation. But sadly, this is reminiscent of the Borgesian Map, where the act of cartography becomes so obsessively detailed it is eventually abandoned and lies in useless tatters on the borderlands of efficacy. As designers we need to make the leap into the material unknown.

Design and the articles of change
Once we have mapped our territory and unpacked the web of human and non-human relationships, we then need to identify our place to act. In service design these are often called ‘touch points’, but I don’t really like this term, it bases it too neatly in the material domain of ‘the user’ or (more sinisterly) ‘the consumer’. I want to identify the sites of concentrated agency, the material and non-material actors that can affect change. It’s here that we find our place of design intervention. This is were a post-disciplinary design practice comes into its own; instead of trying to affect change through the medium of your training (web / product / graphic / interior etc), you move to place of action / the site that is pregnant with possibility and choose the tools necessary to be most affective.

I’m currently struggling with a book chapter titled; rapid prototyping politics. It’s for a Birkhauser publication on ‘Transformation Design’. In the piece I’m trying to highlight the necessary changes needed in design education to prepare students for this new type of design. The article explores the idea that through design we can prototype normally slow, large scale problems – such a policy implementation – in a rapid and agile fashion. I think there are many ways to ‘try out’ and prototype new forms of political and material engagement. Here, policy is transformed into the ‘object’ of design and experience design into the ‘randomised control trial’ to understand impact of your strategy.

As design expands beyond a purely material or functional role within society, we need to come to terms with the boundaries of our reach. How we re-conceptualise and build tools for change needs to be considered within an ethical framework. How to ‘reduce harm’ when we are trying to change the lives of people. How is ‘behaviour change’ (although I’m very sceptical about this whole field, but that’s for another post) understood within a positive, humanist approach to our discipline that doesn’t tie people to systems of consumption? How do we resist the feeling of uselessness when faced with the infrastructural sublime?