Design in the Service of Empire

How Innovation is Used to Advance the Interests of the State-Industrial Machine.

Karl Popper called it “historicism” – problematically as the term had already established, and even contrary, meanings in various contexts. I prefer Jacques Maritain’s term, “chronolatry”, despite the moral-religious connotation, for the idea that things have a sort of historical propriety erroneously deemed to have an imperative aspect; that is, that anachronism is a crime. I like Maritain’s term precisely because it implies an idolatrous worship of Chronos, “Father Time”. For chronolatry is an error of will as much as an error of wit, a moral error as much as a logical one.

Chronolatry is fallacious in that it considers the unfolding moment to be historically determinate, which in practice means no more than unquestioningly to regard the current conception of the times to be authoritative. Chronolatry is heretically uncharitable because it places considerations of “truth to the Age” higher than finding solutions to real problems, be they immediate of structural. It moves one, when throwing a life-line to one drowning, to ask if it is a proper 21st-century life-line lest its use be sinful, instead of throwing the damned thing. Thus the result of chronolatry is to raise the vagaries of fashion to the status of exclusive moral authority.

It is remarkably liberating to “bracket” chronolatrous ideas wherever one finds them, even if only as an exercise. All kinds of fresh perspectives are enabled the moment one is able to consider things independently of their “historical appropriateness”. And equally remarkable is how difficult one finds it to do this, so deeply has the attitude of chronolatry penetrated our day-to-day perception of the world within so short a time – for this attitude was unknown a very few centuries ago. But most notably one is suddenly able to conceive of technological development in ways other than the simple, inevitable linear progression to which we are all accustomed.

It is certain that the view of technological development as a simple, inevitable linear progression is in the interests of the established State-corporate industrial machine. It is in its interest not only that the prevalent state of technology is constantly and rapidly changing but also that the broad trend of the change is fairly well established in a popular vision of “the Future”. That that vision is consistently erroneous seems to be immaterial for it to be functionally effective.

The maintenance of this view of technological development is an important component by which corporations use intellectual property legislation to maintain a position of crucial privilege. This sets up a pattern where frequent and arbitrary, but technologically significant, changes in products work to the advantage of corporations capable of dedicating substantial resources to research and development. For the same reason it is advantageous that products create problems to be solved by subsequent generations of problems. The product itself creates the market for its successor.

More than that, corporations use a popular vision of “the Future” to define the nature of their future products in the terms unique to their anticipated methods of manufacture. The design profession develops ways of conceiving and representing in line with the materials and processes considered to be “advanced”, and so products are developed to have a look that is best achieved in those materials and processes. Add to this the cachet of the designer, the unmistakable mark that suggests that the product has benefited from the attentions of a true artist in Turin rather than of a mere glorified salesman in Buffalo, and the quality of “designedness” becomes not only palpable, but marketable.

The interaction of drawing technique and product design is a fascinating question that invites a more thorough analysis. At the time of the rise of the industrial design profession shortly before WWII the prevalent technique for presentation rendering was quite similar to that of technical drawing, with the addition of colour in the form of water-colour or chalk-pastel on coloured board. The thinking was also that of technical documentation in that the form was conceived in the abstract first and subsequently represented on paper. This would appear to be an eminently sensible approach; its abandonment represents a real loss.

Over subsequent decades more emphasis was put on the use of doodling and sketching as ways of stimulating creativity, and that is when products started to “look like sketches”. Shapes came to be generated through this semi-psychological method, as shapes which were by stages moulded first into pictures of products and then into products. The conception of the object in terms of material and technique of making followed several stages later than the conception of pure form. But for the recent imposition of questionable hermeneutic aspects this approach to design persists.

Simultaneously the adoption of felt-tip pens and broad markers, with their propensity to “flow” at corners, gave an unmistakable look to components intended to be injection-moulded in plastics materials, which resulted in the “designed” look comprising graphically bold and simple shapes with rounded edges and corners. Look at any product with pretensions to design of the late 20th century, and one can almost see the strokes of the felt-tip pen. This is especially true of air vents and such: here is where someone drew four short lines with a fat bullet-nib black marker. Most importantly, the shapes really want to be injection-moulded plastic, and therefore give an advantage to those who have access to the expensive dies and machinery to injection-mould things in plastic.

Thereafter, of course, computerized rendering techniques arose, but the thinking is still the same graphic/doodle-based, designer-positive thinking. Indeed, the software was developed to pick up on the design thinking that had developed over the previous decades. Both favour abstraction, simplification; both assume a corps of production engineers subsequently to translate pure, abstract shapery into a manufactured, working product.

Of course there are practical pretexts for all of this. Aerodynamic efficiency is a common one, since Raymond Loewy’s streamlined pencil-sharpener of 1934; a pretext to hide the mechanism from the user and discourage her from taking an interest in it, besides allowing more cheaply-made parts to be used under the fairings of motorcycles, for instance.

And this is only that which touches the visible: for the Vision has invisible aspects, too, like the expectation that things will have electronic controls. Most of that is about devising reasons why a Motorola 68000 processor of 1979 would not suffice. This is difficult, as most products just do not have to do so much that a 68000 clone cannot control it, if indeed it needs electronic control at all. Hence a gratuitous multiplication of redundant functionality, all to find a reason to use a newer chip and create a market for it.

Consider for instance the profile of the edge of the battery lid and the main case of a typical mobile phone. If the consideration were cost, or ease of use, or ease of manufacture, nobody in their right mind would shape the cut that way. Other considerations prevailed: first, the free-form interface is hard for others to duplicate, and second, it works well with flexible plastic snap-tab construction, whose rapid failure renders the product unappealing. The prevailing design idiom makes this possible.

Consider plastics as such: most experience progressive embrittlement with loss of plasticizers, so that a product might be robust when new but snap easily after a passage of some years. The embrittlement is predictable if not quite constant. Why is the material used, and why is the product designed to a state of elasticity so early in the material’s life? Likewise, the prevailing design idiom is not really happy in any other material.

In automotive components, the trend is away from the generic and towards the model-specific. In fact it had in the past been quite common for components like lights, generators, starter motors, ignition components, carburettors, brakes, and even gearboxes and axles to be developed on a generic basis and sold to motor manufacturers. Before WWII complete proprietary engines were common. Today components might still be contracted out, but they would be specific to a certain model of vehicle – which changes the nature of the supply contract fundamentally. Because attempts to use intellectual property legislation to these ends has thus far been unsuccessful (see British Leyland Motor Corp. v. Armstrong Patents Co in the UK and Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co. in the USA) the adoption of complex “designed” interfaces plays an important role, interfaces that would be absurd if not for the prevailing design idiom.

There is currently much excitement about the possibilities offered by 3D printing, and rightly; but how much of that is not merely to emulate the prevailing design idiom at volumes far lower than gave rise to it? Does it make sense to put all this effort into achieving a look and feel that is not intrinsically desirable, but which was developed in response to the techniques that best favoured the mass-producer? Does it not make more sense to develop a design idiom that responds to the techniques that best favour the technologically-empowered artisan? In this I submit that 3D printing might play a subtler role than we might expect.

I think many of us would really like to have in the home a refrigerator that looks something like a Shaker wardrobe, if only we can get past the idea that to be a proper modern refrigerator that works well it must look like a large bar of soap stood on end. The former is much more easily constructed using artisanal techniques – including new and innovative artisanal techniques – and if the praxis is well established in a working community the  cost may be better than competitive. Moreover, it is natural to and flows readily from those techniques; and as such the refrigerator can be a thing of beauty.

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In debates around the effect of intellectual property legislation on technological innovation the value and kind of innovation that is encouraged is seldom questioned. If, however, one considers the innovation that does happen radically one cannot but wonder what size of majority comprises innovation that does nothing but mitigate prior innovation. The truly, basically valuable innovations are few and far between.

One has to kick the habit of chronolatry if one wishes to understand the problems of the Third World. The notion – thereupon patently ludicrous – that the woes of the Third World derive mainly from a sort of temporal shift that leaves people there “two centuries behind” persists even among those whose direct experience of conditions there ought to enable better insights. The idea pollutes all thinking on the subject and results in gross misdirection of efforts. Most of all it blinds all to the true nature of the problem, which revolves around the relations of land access, discontinuity of skills, and domination by foreign economic presences. To understand what is wrong in the Third World one must adopt the idea that the culture involved was at least 99% technologically functional and complete when colonized. Very few – in the West or elsewhere – can make this jump.

This is by no means to suggest that individuals in the Third World, having been exposed to certain innovations, are unreasonable in wishing to adopt them (and though one could say to that that corporate marketing has skewed this situation, one could also say that many in the Third World have been quite astute in resisting corporate marketing). But it confronts us all with the question of which innovations are really necessary; which are necessary for life to be bearable; which are necessary to live well. And then, again, we find that those innovations which describe living well are fewer rather than more plentiful.

Now, as an anarchist I wholly reject the criterion of necessity for what is allowed and what is not. It is typical of the authoritarian mind-set to equate “unnecessary” with “forbidden”. Nor am I a proponent of “primitivism”: my conception of humanity is one of technological beings. So why do I propose that the vast majority of technological innovation is unnecessary and even undesirable?

Because that proposition changes utterly our idea of technological development. If we cease to see technological development as a relentless march to the fulfillment of a crucial need, lacking which life would be unbearable, we are suddenly free to see it as a free and generous outpouring of possibility – or not, as we variously wish. And that must radically change the form that technological development takes.

And if we moreover understand how the techniques outlined above have been used to create needs for the sake of the “roundaboutness” economy, and how their use has become more aggressive than ever in recent years;  and if we understand that the alternative best suited to a freed market and a culture of liberty is a “directness” economy which, though far less productive in terms of sheer product, is far better at provisioning all of us, the  appropriate mode of technological development for it might best be called “nonprogressive innovation”.

The prevailing view of technological development as a simple, inevitable linear progression in fact describes an ongoing erosion of possibilities through obsolescence, and it is an historical anomaly. Nonprogressive innovation piles on new methods without thereby making old methods practically impossible. It would give us ever more to work with: and it has, for most of human history.

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