morality_play (morality_play) wrote,

Techno Demonology 1: The politics of designed artifacts

turkishb left a comment in my recent cautionary tale about political centrism in the US, directing me to the work of an author that has inspired me to articulate some thoughts on technology, politics, the relationship between morality and design, and a critical failure of market libertarianism. The explanation is necessarily complex, and will meander through several important points to get to it's ultimate conclusion. Please bear with me.

A few years ago, while spending the day in NY with friends, a public city bench inspired me to such frustration that I couldn't stop myself from screaming profanity about New York's department of public works. I raise my voice alot. I don't have any internal volume control. And when I see an article as profane as this bench, I tend to make a spectacle. My friends Kim and John were embarrassed. They just wanted to sit down, and now it looked unlikely that we were going to do that here.

At dinner later that evening, Kim was bemoaning the "blandness" of the tomatoes in her salad when she broached the subject of "what the hell is the matter with me anyway." I get asked this question frequently. But it's often a struggle to explain what sets me off. I explained that the bench was a brand new installation, and that it was made from teak, which is a tropical hardwood. It almost certainly came from Indonesia, which has some of the most invasively aggressive, industrialized harvesting in the world. Between 1950 and 2000, forest canopy in Indonesia was reduced to 98 million ha from 162 million ha. And the rate of deforestation is accelerating rapidly. In the last ten years, it has easily increased to an average loss of 2 million ha per year. This is propelled by third world junta's who lack the benefit of the Western tradition of moral philosophy, and by western first world consumers who are aggressively illiterate of that intellectual tradition. A couple of industrial designers of my acquaintance facetiously describe the NY beautification project that produced these benches as New York's "rainforest depletion program."

Now Kim, like myself, is sensitive to the moral status of animals, and I reminded her that this kind of industrial extraction translated into real consequences for huge numbers of animals in the wild. As habitat diminished, so did food. Competitive pressure increased as more animals struggled for scarce resources. As if the threat of disease, starvation, and violent death through predation did not diminish the qualities of their lives enough, we've forced them to absorb the costs of industrialized market pressure. And of course, this doesn't even touch upon the larger environmental consequences precipitated by deforestation. So what end was served by all this immiserisation? Certainly not quality. That teak is poorly suited to outdoor exposure is common knowledge. It's often cited for it's "natural weather resistance" by _salesmen_ but It deteriorates rapidly without constant attention. It's popularity is socially constructed. People have been taught to associate it with opulence. The same tiresome mob of deranged midwestern housewives whose benchmark of design excellence is the set of Falcon Crest imagine teak lawn furniture from Ikea advertises success. Remember Chrysler's marketing campaign for the Imperial? Ricardo Montalban's voiceover, with it's choclatey intonations, assuring you of the exotic, continental excellence of it's Corinthian leather upholstery? How many people here realize that "Corinthian leather" is manufactured in New Jersey? Right. It's like that.

Beyond the material selection, the bench featured the dreaded "third rail." In fact it featured a fourth rail as well. These "rails" I'm referring to are the rounded bars that compartmentalize a single bench into several smaller seating units by repeating the outer arm rests on the interior. They're a design convention that has developed fairly recently. Within the last fifteen years. Now they're ubiquitous. They never seem designed to provide an actual place to rest one's arm. They're often designed to look purely decorative, with quaint little foliate motifs. Often there's only one on a public bench of standard dimensions, but this one was unusually long. If a person is attentive to the way state and municipal funding for public works is starved at the federal level by anti-statist ideologues, this artifice might seem odd. It embodies a unit of material and fabrication cost that would be high for a society that devalues craftsmanship. There couldn't be a natural impetus for providing us with these dainty floral forms in fake wrought iron...

Unless you understand that it possesses a very sinister function, and that the decorative embellishment is there to camouflage that function. By dividing the length of the bench into several smaller units, the designer has sabotaged the ability of the homeless to lay down on top of the surface. If you examine public space and parks in urban areas, you'll probably discover a whole menagerie of design interventions like this, designed to fuck the destitute. This is because, as I described it to a friend recently, "public parks are _privately_ understood to exclusively serve a leisure class with the economic resources to jog through them in the middle of the afternoon with evian and mp3 players."

At this point I could see the expression of realization dawning on Kim's features. To her, the bench had just been a place to sit. To me, it was an exemplar of a crisis that embodied the desperation of every wild animal and the indignity of every exhausted homeless person told to move it along. Kim is smart. She has no difficulty teasing out the obscured narratives of a film for example. She's sensitive to the ideological baggage being carried by cinematic clusterfucks like Saving Private Ryan. But it had simply never occurred to her to treat her built environment the same way, as a part of someone's artifice. And here, the malignant power of the artifice seemed to be even grander, because it was made manifest in the way moral patients lived and died. Not just in the "hidden message" of some artless hack like Spielberg.

This was a scandal to Kim. "Why would a designer participate in such a scenario, after all?" I realized though, that there was something wrong with that question. It wasn't consistently a matter of designer participation that facilitated the role of artifacts in diminishing our quality of life. Often it happened by non-intelligent means. That is to say, where design oversight was absent, other emergent forces tended to take over that favored certain conclusions associated with the path of least resistance. And In other episodes the (politically sinister) design intervention happened ultimately but not proximally to the design process or form the artifact took.

To illustrate, I remarked that the tomatoes Kim was complaining about were engineered to be artificially dense at the expense of flavor. This leads to bland and impalatably dense flesh. And it might seem absurd to imagine that growers would adopt an artificial model that diminished the quality of their product until we understand the ultimate causation. Artificially dense tomatoes survive conveyer belt travel and automated packaging more effectively. Since we privilege industrial models of agriculture, the product had to be adapted to the infrastructure that supports it. Palatability or nutrition become displaced as functional objectives by the requirements of a technical system. The phenomenon has been described as "reverse adaptation."

Having ruined her day, it seems I ruined her dinner as well. Because she wasn't hungry after that.
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