Jouke Kleerebezem :: original dutch text
de vervreemding aan de macht
Published in Dutch as 'De vervreemding aan de macht', in
Items #4, August-October 2000, pages 39-48
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long time enough introduction
The designer is a main character in today's cultural production. 'Innovation' is a key word in media attention. The designer seems to model for creativity's incarnation in a new age and economy. Does this imply that advertising is the 'early 21st century's dominant culture'? If this were true, where can we hear a critical voice articulate an 'enough is enough', in the design of alternatives for an apparent imperialism?
The monthly new economy's entrepreneurial manifesto 'Fast Company' in its October 1999 issue published Design Rules: "Everywhere you look todayfrom buildings and landscapes, to commercial products and services, to Web sites and print productsdesign has taken on a new meaning', and, 'The trick for all businesspeople today is to learn the underlying rulesto think like designers". In 15 short descriptions it searches for design intelligence as a rule or inspiration for entrepreneurial ingenuity. The only consistent insight that appears from these pages is the rule of success: next to innovation success is the mantra of the Fast Company generation, which includes the contemporary designer. 'Design Rules' doesn't celebrate design's superior artistic genius for this time and age, but the current societal imperative of success, for any cultural production.
There be no success without shame however: while not united in a counter-movement, but effectively acting as opposition to fast bravura, on the same media stage we find (primarily graphic) designers with somewhat of a more uncomfortable message than the highly spirited odes to innovation. September 1999 saw the publication of the First Things First manifesto. It was supported by 7 leading design magazines and on several websites, most notably at Adbusters, where the new resistance hangs out. Rick Poynor and Max Bruinsma are the main advocates of this call for a critical design practice, vis-à-vis the particular design complicity in contemporary consumer culture.
Like its predecessor in 1964, FTF2K searches for ethical imperatives to today's design production. Its 33 subscribers express their frustrations with the industrial abuse of their talents, to promote useless and otherwise inferior products. FTF2K demands disciplinary priorities and of course enough media attention for them, to compete with the call for unlimited innovation and success.
Both FTFs contrast societal integrity to commerce. 1964: "(...) the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on", and 1999: "The profession's time and energy is used up manufacturing demand for things that are inessential at best." Neither of the manifestos calls for radical resistance, 1964: "We do not advocate the abolition of high pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible. Nor do we want to take any of the fun out of life", also anticipating consumers to become fed up: "We hope that our society will tire of gimmick merchants, status salesmen and hidden persuaders". The latter didn't happen, as we know now, which maybe explains the 1999 disclaimer: "Consumerism is running uncontested", ("it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design").
'Societal integrity' doesn't seem like a whole lot of fun these days. Less so at any rate than exhibitionist consumption and commercial entrepreneurialism. If there is a critical agenda at all, inspiring design today, it is based in what was called ludic in the 1960-70s. It is optimistic, ironic, ambiguous, subversive. Commitment has become 'light' again. For wouldn't a 'light' critique (a lighter interest in technology, media and commercialism) open up possibilities for a lighter political discourse, a lighter worldnot exclusively for Western consumers, but also offering egalitarian chances for new economy wealth in those parts of the world that today provide us with enough cheap production to keep the cost of innovation and success at a competitive level?
If we were to anticipate a period of light emancipation, it will not so much be the prime accomplishment of today's irony, but simply the next step in a long and historically coherent succession of resistance and critique, which has alternately been inspired by playfulness and doggedness. Then you don't have to be a trend-watcher, to forecast a next period of a more stubborn resistance, with more targeted actions and expressions, to follow on today's ambiguities.
New generations of designers appear to be unhindered by the existential discomfort which before formed the only true basis of critical political stand. Even without the narrowing of consciousness which demands revolutionary resistance, daily life is subject to violent change. Sometimes this change is rather subject to technological innovation and commercial challenge, like it is today. These changes indeed are dominant, in a sense that they demand all our critical attention to keep pace with innovations and discern the moments of choice that these offer. The success of new media is not as much in what they change, as much as it is in how they change.
Speed and success are media qualities, while fundamental social and cultural change demand so much more time. New technology first scratches the media surface, only later to change our everyday condition and perspectives, through education and cultural and economic practice.
Profound cultural relativism, political correctness, anti-hierarchical organization, radical social toleranceunless when delivered in caricatural excessare some of the last century's actual social improvements. '1968' is only another date in a long tradition of resistance and re-evaluation of value systems and their societal articulations. Always one danger evokes another, as every revolution eats its own children first. Meanwhile progress is a slow process, with no linear development. Today we see the concurrence of different strategies, which neither act together, nor truly compete for a right of way.
Radical irony (the dominant form of subversion) does not replace a more analytical, literary, political critique, but uses it as a reference, steals it, deconstructs it (as it does with its objects of critique), while striving for equally important goals and change. '1968' is history, its analyses and strategies are academic reference, their place in the culture jamming laboratory is on the shelf, waiting to be sampled in one new gig or another. In a sense it remains competitive from its current position: it can be revived. The old can be newer than the new every day.
Our taste for the critical shows no linear development. Industries have largely picked up on our whimsical consumption of subversive attitude. Not only the media, but all lifestyle industries (fashion, electronics, leisure) have commercially estimated the value of our need for societal change and translated into a commodity market. All caricatures of change are branded in the major labels. Every revolution became a market revolution. Every emancipation turned into a commodity for the emancipation market, every subculture a niche in global capitalism, when indeed, 'advertizing is the dominant culture'.
In her introduction to No Logo; Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, author Naomi Klein sounds a lot more angry than First Things First: "the book is an attempt to analyze and document the forces opposing corporate rule, and to lay out the particular set of cultural conditions that made the emergence of that opposition inevitable (...) sowing the seeds of a genuine alternative to corporate rule." Here alternatives for the 'branded space' are searched after. Irony is not the only strategy. In the concluding chapter it says: "Ethical shareholders, culture jammers, human-rights hacktivists, school-logo fighters and Internet corporate watchdogs are at the early stages of demanding a citizen-centered alternative to the international rule of the brands."
Not one anti-corporate movement, but many factions should step-by-step conquer the landscape of consumption over the brands and talk back to advertizing. A 'citizen-centered' alternative's ultimate goal would be to move the power from alienation to lived and life-worthy reality.
Naomi Klein was one of the participants to the First Things First panel, which was organized 5 April 2000 in New York by the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), at the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Also graphic designer and éminence grise Milton Glaser, critic Max Bruinsma, design activist Marlene McCarty (Gran Fury, the Bureau), streetwise designer Kevin Lyons (Urban Outfitters) and Jay Chiat (re:Chiat/Day, now ScreamingMedia) were present.
As with Fast Company's 'Design Rules', the panel offered no guiding principle. Consensus was that practice makes political, when the bottom-line for every participant was that their critical attitude and resistance was most manifest in their own practice. They did not subscribe the need for organization; no movement hides behind the manifesto. Most striking however is the little interest these designers and critics display with a widening of the discussion, or with a more direct contact with their commissioners or audiences. It is no accident that FTF2K was originally published in seven specialist journals.
We shouldn't be surprised to see a designer always fall back on his or her work, as the best possible expression of a commitment. Yet in a period in which ambiguous irony best articulates and communicates the need for societal reform to contemporary constituencies, also ambiguity should be the object of critique. Critique without self criticism is propaganda. Self criticism should interrogate the designer's tools and means of expression, relationship towards clients, the organization of mediation, and especially how the consumer is addressed, with which legitimizationnot from the client, but from design.
Self criticism evaluates the disciplinary preconceptions. Another AIGA supported initiative, named 'advance for design', by Clement Mok and Terry Swack, wants us to 'join the Movement'. "Together, we commit to our fellowscolleagues, clients, and community of useto define the goals of new design, the roles and responsibilities of new designers, the organizations in which new design can flourish, and the process through which new design can reach and reward our world", since "as a group of professionals and practitioners, we are at a crossroad. Evolve or become roadkill." I don't think this is the way to put it, rather see other necessities than Advance's or FTF's. Both are panic reactions.
To be able to be critical we'll first have to design a critique. 'We' are not designers with a bad conscience or committed to dangerous jay walkingwe are participants in the communication and information exchange process, among consumers, producers and designers. When all relationships within the field shift, together players will have to experiment their interdependence and design new rules to play by.
Subscribing a professional manifesto does not help to widen the debate concerning the object of complaint. Both the support for it and the critique come from within the community. In a time in which media attention for design is unprecedented, a strategical chance is missed. FTF should have taken advantage of the unprecedented voice of design in popular media. Second, for the content of its critique, it should have incorporated the expanded field of design, when commissions include consultancy and other strategic decisions support, the design of user interaction, and real time mediation between producers and consumers. The conceptual insight in the workings of information media should also be applied to design a critique, to ground consumer empowerment in the information era.
The designer, the producer and the consumer of information act together in different relationships, with shifting interests. If 'consumers are to become producers', we've left the traditional producer-product-designer-consumer linear direction of communications. Societal integrity has to be found(ed) in (on) a communication pattern which condenses seemingly at random. For every transaction in consumer/producer interaction, for every shift in their roles, the designer should consider the possibility of his or her mediation. Every transaction bears of a possible critical message in an economy of information exchange.
New media differ from old media in their symmetrical communication of interests. The new consumer of commodities and services has as much to offer their producer, as the other way around. One of the oldest demands of social critique is realized today: roles are reversed between producer and consumer. This is the biggest design challenge. If only to begin to understand what this shift means, we have to experiment with its design. In this reversal of supply and demand we find exactly the momentum for cultural and social change to coincide.
What is called 'customization' today, and is presented as just a next step in the 'customer is king' philosophy, actually will guide the production of commodities and services in no simple way. Inter-consumer recommendation and information sharing is a designing force, a productive force: it will provide the information to drive information society in every detail.
The above effect will not happen overnight. Too many interests are still in maintaining the current power relations in supply and demand. Also the consumer will have to learn to apply his influence. It is one thing to force a price for the next Palmpilot down in a Purchase Circle, quite another to act together on the services of entertainment and education. Here ultimately is a danger of societal disintegration, when knowledge and experience is no longer shared in a shared curriculum. But then again: who will be sharing what is another serious debate.
The end of unidirectional supply of commodities and services which fulfill (and pollute) our needs and interests draws closer with informationalization proceeding. The Western market might be exhausted for 'uninformed' products within only several decades. Prices will drop steadily and products are dumped on less privileged constituencies, to finally end in the third world, where Western industries have been dumping their waste and ideologies all along. Unless a critical consumerism arises on the basis of an insight in the symmetry of interests in an information economy, other societal risks will arise. Still markets seem insatiable, to industries which esteem their profits as the effect of traditional linear growth. Yet in an information economy the flows can turn at random and benefit parties one wouldn't think of in the old economy. Real consumer power can arise, as soon as the insight in the value of information settles. Also, the ease of information exchange ('all information accessible to everyone, at any moment') desires a similar accessibility of commodities. If goods markets do not deliver, producers could disappear overnight.
New consumerism will be guided by individualism and interaction, while inspired by the bewildering publicness of new markets. Traditional consumer interests are served by an information exchange which will be driven by interest, momentum, quality, budget. New consumer interests arise from the fact that increasingly the consumer is a shareholder in information prosperity.
With his own praxis, the conceptually innovative and media-wise designer renews his or her position in the community of interest. S/he will meet with a different demand, in the transition from old to new media. The challenge for design is less in designing the message, or an 'experience', as it is in designing the relationship between (other) members of a commissioning community. In this relationship is decided which will be produced when, at what capital and environmental costs, serving which interests, and finally: who'll be paying whom.
All innovation in a critical consumer market (which deals in goods and services, entertainment and knowledge, information and communication) will be in the design of innovative productive relationships. A decisive question will be how to design sustainability into market relations, in a process as flexible and vulnerable as it is? How to raise quality beyond the old markets' conceived idea of 'third best serves best'? How to balance supply and demand at all times, so to infinitely increase the volume of transactions? If the design community does not design its own competence and skill into the sketched market relationships, it will indeed suffer seriously decreasing attention, in an economy in which information, product and service are inextricably and very precisely related.
Any design critique which lacks a deep understanding of the all important issue of a symmetrical management of interests in the developing information landscape, misses the point entirely. Next to understanding developments however, the design discipline needs to experiment its new position in mediation.
The Internet and web provide all with enough lab space to allow immediate research and development. Theoretically, the new landscape is here. Far from having reached the capacity to support the condense and secure interaction which is envisioned, its basic affordances invite fully functional test environments for interactive production, consumption and design. Experiencing the dynamics and selective processes of an information network, connecting it to commodity reality and old media and publicity, working at the speed of many-to-many collection of news, and the precision of one-to-one expression and articulationall these effects of new mediation inform a new design practice.
A popular misapprehension of the Internet and web as mainly commercial characterizes its inexperienced user. Experiments as discussed above can be performed with all kinds of not-for-profit partners. But if both First Things Firsts were right in one aspect, it is precisely in the observation that market mechanisms cannot and should not be stopped: all the difference is in what kind of market we are aiming at.
A market in which a producing minority disposes of the bulk of natural and human resources which it uses to feed large quantities of qualitatively inferior products to an undefined consuming mass audience, will meet with difficult conditions in the coming decades. If we evaluate (and reinforce) 20th century's societal emancipations in the light of current information media developments, we can carefully imagine new markets. Imagining these markets means designing them. A designer of a new market can only be, as was discussed, a designer in a new market. His or her praxis is an integral part of the information economy which drives that market.
Supply and demand will be engaged in an endless play in which all players take bidding and buying initiatives at the same time, at high speed. For production to take form in such a market, design has to deliver at the same pace, just the more so since design expands itself to the design not only of goods and services, but of the relationships proper within the community of interest.
We are discussing a critical market, whimsical, alive with interactions, nervous at times, vulnerable if interests are unclear, vulnerable for conflicts of interest. Every transaction can lead up to a chain reaction which destroys main interests. We are looking at the dynamics of abundance. Raw material, half product and finished product reverse roles as easily as consumers and producers do. Such a critical market should allow at all times a complex weighing out of opportunities, of costs and gains, of short and long term effects, of value ratios for all players: 'trade partners' now.
Fortunately, the exemplary thinking-and-acting designer is a consumer just like the rest of us. This fact alone has always kept him or her concentrated on the basic needs and possibilities of a society in communication, while not hurting the value of specialist knowledge and expertise, or the necessary faculty to bend the media to his or her will. 'Design rules' are traditionally based on this ability to commit to the relationships which establish in societal discourse and information exchange. Over and again the evaluation of the tools and the rules of the trade are requested against changing patterns of communication and exchange. To preserve design as one of the constitutive forces of critical and prosperous societal practice, every 'enough of that' outcry should be informed by the 'so now what' of self criticism.
Moderator Andrea Codrington, in her introduction to the First Things First 2000 panel, 5 April 2000, at the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre, New York
No Logo; Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Picador, 2000, isbn 0-312-20343-8
Rick Poynor in Adbusters June/July 2000:
'Last fall, Adbusters and six design magazines printed First Things First 2000. An updated version of a 1964 declaration, FTF 2000 states that too much design energy is being spent to promote pointless consumerism, and too little to helping people understand an increasingly complex and fragile world. It was signed by 33 high-profile designers, and has since been signed by hundreds more.
First Things First 2000 had a simple aim. We wanted it to provoke debate. Lulled by the economic boom, design has shown little inclination of late to consider first principles. We figured that if we gave it a big enough pushhigh-profile signatories, co-publication in several magazinesit stood a good chance of grabbing attention.
The response is tremendous. The manifesto's message clearly taps a deep need. Seven months after its launch, the campaign continues to roll. Scores of letterssupportive, angry, perplexedhave poured in to Adbusters, Emigre, and the other magazines.'
Jouke Kleerebezem, idie.net 1999-2000