Sunday, July 15, 2007

Technology is knowledge is power

Regine has posted a report about Usman Haque's I hate technology talk at We love technology up in Huddersfield last week.

Usman argues the meaning of the word "technology" has changed and he refers to an older era (presumably pre-industrial) when the word used to imply "knowledge" and the study of making things. These days, in our consumerist society, we on the other hand tend to think of (and mainly also encounter) technology only as products, which I think is really not surprising since "technology" itself has become a commodity. But it's not only that, we also equally deal with "knowledge" as product. This too comes complete with a hefty price tag, namely the cost of education required and this is where, for me at least, the story slowly unfolds....

In the past year I've been reading 2 books which have pretty much completely transformed my views and understanding of the role of being a designer in a technocracy as ours:

First there was Bruce Sterling's pamphlet Shaping Things about a future class of products, and more generally, of objects (Spimes) and the societal changes their advent will equally require and trigger. While it's an absolutely fascinating and mindblowing 100 pages it is about scenarios 10-30 years still ahead of us.

John Thackara's "In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World" on the other hand is dealing in the Big Here and Long Now, quite literally. This is the first book about the design discipline in general which sent shimmers down my spine every couple of pages. The chapters are dealing with these topics: Lightness, Speed, Mobility, Locality, Situation, Conviviality (more about this below), Learning, Literacy, Smartness and Flow. A Potent combination of topics.
Even though I've been re-reading the book twice since the beginning of the year I'm still having a hard time summarizing the immense amount of insight, the examples given, the quotes, statistics, gems of wisdom and the important questions asked, for example:
"...addressing the question "Where do we want to be?" brings us up against an innovation dilemma. We've built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means, but hazy about ends. It's no longer clear to which question all this stuff - tech -is an answer, or what value it adds to our lives. Too many people I meet assume that being innovative means "adding technology to it". Technology has become a powerful, self-replicating system that is accustomed to respect and receives the lion's share of research funding. In NASDAQ, tech even has its own stock exchange." (p.2)

Some of the material presented early on in the book can induce a sense of global doom and depression, however the sheer number of truly innovative examples is making the book a celebration and wake-up call to focus more on human centred approaches to design. And "human centred" not only from a perspective as Maeda is approaching it (Yes, more simplicity is needed in a complex world, but I'm equally dreading over-simplification of things which are inherently complex). Human centred design also means designing for sustainability, both social and environmental versions.

With regards to this post, he too has very interesting things to say about the state of education in our society. Throughout the book he's citing several powerful quotes by Ivan Illich, described by The Guardian as:
" of the world's great thinkers, a polymath whose output covered vast terrains. He worked in 10 languages; [...] Best known for his polemical writings against western institutions from the 1970s, which were easily caricatured by the right and were, equally, disdained by the left for their attacks on the welfare state, in the last 20 years of his life he became an officially forgotten, troublesome figure (like Noam Chomsky today in mainstream America)."

I found several of his texts online and they indeed are rocking the boat of many of our societal institutions. In the foreword to his book "Celebration for awareness" he writes:
"Each chapter of this volume records an effort of mine to question the nature of some certainty. Each therefore deals with deception - the deception embodied in one of our institutions. Institutions create certainties, and taken seriously, certainties deaden the heart and shackle the imagination. It is always my hope that my statements, angry or passionate, artful or innocent, will also provide a smile, and thus a new freedom - even though the freedom come at a cost."

Here're a few more of my favourite quotes of these texts which might be helpful in explaining why the meaning of the word "technology" has changed, more or less directly caused by how we've been approaching education through institutionalizing "schooling" for the past 150 years.
"The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders. No one is given tax funds for the leisure in which to educate himself or the right to educate others unless at the same time he can also be certified for achievement. Schools select for each successive level those who have, at earlier stages in the game, proved themselves good risks for the established order. Having a monopoly on both the resources for learning and the investiture of social roles, the university coopts the discoverer and the potential dissenter. A degree always leaves its indelible price tag on the curriculum of its consumer. Certified college graduates fit only into a world which puts a price tag on their heads, thereby giving them the power to define the level of expectations in their society. In each country the amount of consumption by the college graduate sets the standard for all others; if they would be civilized people on or off the job, they will aspire to the style of life of college graduates." — Ivan Illich - Deschooling Society
"In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. [...] Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them." — Ivan Illich, Tools for Coniviviality

Reading the above about lack of interest in funding education outside institutions I had to immediately think of Neil Gershenfeld's TED talk and his problem of sourcing major funding for his global "Fab labs" - simply because the currently existing institutions are too rigid, specialized and mutually exclusive to deal with such new educational and social development efforts. So even though Illich had his hay day in the 70s - not much seems to have changed since...

Finally, to close the arc of this rather long post - another great quote by another great thinker, Guy Debord in The Society of Spectacle, Thesis n°6:
"Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society's unreality. In all of its particular manifestations - news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment - the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process."