Saturday, November 06, 2010

Objectified and the metaphysics of design

Hey there. Glad to be back, if only briefly to let my reader(s) know I'm still around.

Here's some of what I've been up to:

Image found here.

Last weekend, the Mrs. and I saw Objectified (it's instantly available via Netflix's online service--which because of its addictive properties should probably be illegal). Watching it felt almost providential. Long-time readers may remember that I keep returning to the subject of how to get my students to think about technology and their relationship to it; design, of course, is the art of making technology useful and, at its best, almost unnoticeable. If you think you might possibly be interested in seeing a film that serves as an introduction to the metaphysics of design, this is the film for you.

Here's the trailer:

Its director, Gary Hustwit, also made the much-acclaimed Helvetica--yes, the typeface. But before you run for the exits, at least give the trailer a try. In that film (which we also saw last weekend--see, again, my earlier suggested legislation re Netflix), and to a much broader extent in Objectified, Hustwit's big theme (as articulated in various ways by people in both films) is that good design doesn't call attention to itself as we use it. These objects feel like natural extensions of ourselves even as they remain outside us. But in the otherwise-affectionate tribute to Helvetica (the film was made in honor of its 50th anniversary), some of its interviewees make clear that that ubiquity can be both blessing and curse: successful designs can become analogous to invasive species who meet little or no resistance in their new environments. Subtly-made case in point: if you watch either or both films, keep score of the number of Macs you see people using compared to the number of PCs.

As it should be, Objectified is a friendly discussion of its subject. All of us, often unconsciously, are the beneficiaries of good design and, again without quite knowing why, feel frustrated when we encounter bad design. The frustration arises in part, I think, from the mystery that bad design creates in the user: we wonder if we're not using the object correctly, if some reason exists for its design that's escaping us. But, as a furniture designer in the film says, there's no reason for uncomfortable chairs to exist. Good design is aspirational, or should be: an end in itself, no matter the object or the wealth of its user.

I hate uncomfortable chairs, too. But toward the end of the film, when a designer gestures in the direction of a utopia in which designers would be included in the crafting of laws and policies, I took her point, but I also found myself thinking that too often in this discussion of how design makes our lives better, it feels as though ALL that's being talked about is making more-comfortable chairs (as opposed to, say, making a better world--not necessarily the same thing). Within that context, her remarks just seemed a bit silly. At one point, a designer indirectly acknowledges this when he says that good design is being used less as an end in itself than as a marketing ploy to sell stuff to people who already have too much stuff. (Here's one of many examples.) There's no discussion in the film of design being employed in developing countries to make people's lives demonstrably better; why not, I asked myself, some examples of that (such as One Laptop Per Child, the Life Sack, and Kona Bicycle's AfricaBike program) in place of a several-minutes-long paean to Apple? But my thinking also ran in another direction: we here in the developed world may complain about uncomfortable chairs, but the post-WWII built environments in which most of us in the U.S. live are designed not with people in mind but to accommodate automobiles and the illusion they create in people of preferable ways to occupy space and move about in it. (As just one example of what I mean, contemplate for a while the suburban phenomenon of the cul-de-sac. Heck: contemplate for a while the concept of suburbia itself.) Just as Thoreau saw happening with the locomotive's shaping influence on human activity in Walden (it was their speed's creation of the need for a uniform system of time-keeping that would lead to the creation of timezones), so also has the automobile's ubiquity so shaped our thinking about urban spaces that it is only with a struggle that we can begin to imagine urban cores whose default settings don't presume that the people who live and work in them will only or primarily drive around in them. (Along these lines, Kevin Kelly's new book, What Technology Wants takes up this same idea within the context of digitalized information and the devices and networks that store and transmit it.)

So, at a couple of points while watching Objectified, I couldn't help but think about how design's tendency to begin to serve not people but the machines we've built has led to a collective myopia with regard to the worlds we've built for ourselves, most famously expressed by Koyaanisqatsi:

But, though Objectified doesn't address these matters, Hustwit himself isn't blind to them. It was while writing this post that I was surprised and pleased to learn that he is working on a new film called Urbanized, which, it appears, will be taking up some of the questions Objectified prompts in me. I'm looking forward to seeing it and to finding some academically-legitimate way to inflict both it and Koyaanisqatsi on my unsuspecting freshmen.

More in a few days. I hope.


R. Sherman said...

Yikes! Back with a vengeance with a Monday meaty post. I'll be back once I get rid of all this crap on my desk, the design of which seems to attract ever increasing piles of paper.


John B. said...

Ahh, the romantic lives we pushers of paper lead.

Thanks for coming by, Randall. Like you, I'm busy, too; otherwise, I'd be doing more with these films and books than just musing about them. I'd be trying to design a research project for students with "Technology and You" as its big subject that would start, more or less, with what you see here but head in various (suggested) empirical and subjective/aesthetic directions that students could pursue as their interests lead them.

Ah, well. This sort of thing is what the holidays are for, right?

R. Sherman said...

Off Topic. Yet, I thought you'd find it amusing.