Design and Temporality: Deviation

From the Series: Design and Temporality

Photo by Victor Garcia.

In One Market Under God, the liberal cultural critic Thomas Frank (2000) finds himself at a conference in Boston for account planners, those misleadingly named brand strategists whose job is to manage, market, and maintain the immaterial properties of a company (see Lazzarato 1996). Expecting an all-business kind of crowd, Frank put on his best (and probably only) gray flannel suit, only to appear very much a fish out of water. Account planners, it turns out, are nose-ring–wearing urbanites with a penchant for the same opaque postmodernist theory that Frank read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. These were not bland apologists for corporate excess; instead, they were the vanguard of DIY-style remix culture (see Luvaas 2012), pushing an ideology of active consumerism that was more Stuart Hall than Don Draper. It should come as no surprise, then, that so many account planners hold PhDs in anthropology.

In preparing to write my Deviation to this Correspondences session on design and temporality, I found myself feeling something like Frank did, a staid academic arriving at a conference full of theory-wielding hipsters. Anthropologists tend to imagine ourselves as analyzing the works of our interlocutors from the position of a privileged remove. We think of ourselves as outsiders with a different—i.e., more critical— set of stakes and goals. We are often surprised, then, if we learn that our interlocutors have a similar training and outlook to our own. We are even more surprised when we discover that they have already been doing our work for us, employing quasi-ethnographic, paraethnographic (Marcus 2000), or even, sometimes, straight-up, methodologically rigorous ethnography to cultivate their own theoretical models and develop strategies for innovation. That is exactly what has been going on in the field of design for decades now (see Dunne and Raby 2013; Somerson and Hermano 2013; Sterling 2005).

Designers have taken ethnography and run with it. They employ the qualitative methods of self-reflexive social scientists, and they have developed a theoretical framework that is eerily familiar as well. They employ many of the same trendy, jargon-rich terms that anthropologists do: speculative, entangled, emergent, unruly, world-making. They contemplate the gulf—or lack thereof—between the digital and the material (Pink, Ardevol, and Lanzeni 2016). They ponder the potential agency of objects, and they consider the unintended aftereffects of design decisions. In other words, designers are getting along just fine theorizing their own practice without us.

So this begs an important question: what exactly do anthropologists have to offer the larger conversation about design that designers are not already providing for themselves?

William Bissell, in his Provocation, presents one possible answer. “Anthropology’s most powerful contribution to the study of design,” he writes, “is the turn away from experts and elites.” Designers may be engaged in critical self-reflection already, plagued as anthropologists are with knee-jerk self-doubt. But are they also considering the techne and world-making activities of people operating outside the elite fields of design, architecture, fashion, or engineering? Are they invested in those undervalued and often explicitly delegitimized modes of copying, pirating, deconstructing, and remixing with which anthropologists—including myself—have been so fascinated with in recent years (Luvaas 2010; Craciun 2014; Nakassis 2016)? In a word: yes. Just check out Ezio Manzini’s (2015) recent book, Design, When Everybody Designs.

Today’s field of design takes for granted that there is no longer any clear separation between producer and consumer. We live in an age of active coproduction, of various forms of free (Terranova 2013) and venture labor (Neff 2015), often labeled with such clever monikers as prosumption (Toffler 1980), “playbor,” (Misch 2011), and “blurk” (Misch 2011). In game design, for instance, players’ contributions to the production of the game is written into the code (Boellstorff 2008). In fashion, marketing is outsourced to social media “influencers,” who are increasingly designing collections for themselves (Duffy 2015). In social media more generally, active co-optation of content is the explicit business model. There’s another, decidedly more business-friendly word for the unauthorized distribution and circulation of content: buzz.

So what about that other mainstay of contemporary anthropology: cultural critique (Marcus and Fischer 1986)? Anthropologists are great at cultural critique. It’s been our bread and butter since the crisis of representation of the late 1980s. We know how to connect the dots between overblown marketing claims and underlying ideological structures. We know how to ask the important questions. We shouldn’t just be asking, for instance, how design makes the world around us. We should be asking whose world designers are making and who is left out of that world. We should be asking about the historical precedents of design, cultural contexts, and relationships with national politics and global economic regimes (see Melchior 2010; Murphy 2015). We should be interrogating the larger social implications of design. All of this should go without saying, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we are the only ones doing so.

Now, I do not intend to suggest that studying design is not a worthwhile endeavor for anthropologists. Of course it is. Design, as Keith Murphy has recently suggested, is everywhere. It mediates our everyday interactions; it structures our experiences; it helps set the parameters of our participation in public life. It is increasingly difficult, in fact, to conceive of an anthropological project that does not take design into consideration. But perhaps instead of asking what it is that anthropologists have to offer the larger conversation about design—what anthropological insights can teach us about design—we should be asking what anthropologists have to learn with or from design (see Ingold 2013). Design is about creative speculation. It is about problem-solving. It is about imagining a better world and developing novel ways to help to bring it about. It is, in short, about making.

When I imagine the future of the anthropology of design, I imagine an anthropology rooted in making. I imagine an anthropology of critical, self-reflexive practice that does not merely consider design from afar while translating it into text, but that embeds itself deeply in the process of design, that in fact embodies design and makes design a part of itself. It is this practice of critical embodying that defines anthropology’s uniqueness as a discipline. I would like to see us expand this practice into new realms and media.

Let us begin to see anthropology as itself a variety of experimental design, one that engages in all sorts of self-conscious, multimodal, world-making activities including, but by no means limited to, written ethnography. I can’t pretend to know what that means or even what it should mean going forward. Design is a field of speculation and experiment. We anthropologists will just have to experiment with new varieties of world-making activities and see what sticks. This might mean delving deeper into visual, multimodal, multispecies, video, or street ethnography. It might mean something else entirely. Most of our experiments will no doubt be failures. It took us decades, after all, to develop this thing called ethnography in the first place. But as Amelia Hassoun and William Bissell both point out, failures of execution are what open up new spaces of possibility. Let’s see what new failures we can bring about.


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