From Materialist to Experiential Utopia: Building a Sustainable Digital and Material Future

Futuring and the profession of Industrial Design have been intrinsically linked since the emergence of the discipline after the dystopian reality of the Great Depression in the 1930s. With the United States in a state of economic despondency, industrial design emerged as a silent and strategic business methodology to bring the nation towards a utopia of economic prosperity. In “Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong”, Tara Andrews illustrates the relationship between Industrial Design and “consumer engineering”, unveiling the tight correlation that societal mentality cultivated between the logical methodologies and the utopian ideals. Despite these rational methods, industrial design has aided in expediting the path to an unsustainable future. Today, with the contemporary environmental crisis of over-consumption, society is experiencing a shift from utopia through consumption of goods to consumption of content, media, and experiences. In addition to the environmentally unsustainable future, the experiential utopia of the present Digital Age has the ability to redefine dystopian futures as socially and economically unsustainable as well.

During the Great Depression, before an unsustainable future could be imagined, the concept of utopia within the American society veered towards an image of economic success. Other representations of utopia, such as political, spatial, environmental, or social conceptions, fell to the wayside as the connection between happiness and capital tightened. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was a deliberate and transparent effort to bring the United States closer to this ideal of utopia, with policy as his medium. In the realm of business, industrial design emerged as a less conspicuous attempt at closing the gap between an economic utopian future and the present reality.

With consumerism as a means to an end, consumer engineering and industrial design generated desirable value for consumers through form and product styling—form was innately linked with meaning and cultural significance. Consumers were given the unique opportunity to own tangible representations of cultural phenomena at that time in society, as form-making emerged as a new method of making sense of the tumultuous culture during the early-to-mid 20th century. In “On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts or on the Proposition That “Design Is Making Sense (Of Things)”, Klaus Krippendorff proposes an alternative to the design montra “form follows function” that embodies this shift towards form as a conduit for meaning. He suggests that “form follows meaning” consciously “brings the user back into the picture and strongly suggests that designers need to discuss not only the contexts in which their forms are used, but also how these forms are made sense of or what they mean to someone other than themselves.” If a designer could understand the consumers, then consumers would be more likely to buy products and help stimulate the economy.

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Streamlining emerged in the 1920s as a glorification of modernity (Norman Bel Geddes)

In order for industrial designers and consumer engineers to really understand how to design for someone other than themselves, highly logical and quantitative methodologies were established.  Consumer engineering and other seemingly rational disciplines were highly valued by society, placing logical methodologies and processes on an ideological pedestal. The concept of industrial design, having grown out of and with existing design professions in the mid 20th century like advertising, needed to build trust from other rational professions in business and politics. Andrews demonstrates how the traits of a “consumer engineer” were identical to that of an industrial designer, illustrating how an expressive, artistic field was seen as comparable to a field historically based on reason.

Subjective human intuition in design practices fell victim to quantitative testing and data that emanated a sense of knowability and security in this journey towards a consumerist utopia. During a time of societal turmoil and uncertainty in the Great Depression, the American public and the business institutions saw rationality and “functional analysis” as the answer to perfection. Andrews describes user research methods found in consumer engineering, called “humaneering”, which even quantified human consumers behavior so that the artificial obsolescence of products could be calculated and planned. Because objectivity superseded and transcended subjectivity, design professions had to shift their ideologies towards what was accepted by institutions of power in society. This marriage of business interests and the capabilities of design cultivated the idea that the “efficient consumer” will be the champion utopian perfection, achieved through calculated artificial obsolescence and “humaneering” methodologies.

However, as Andrews points out, many industrial designers like Walter Dorwin Teague saw consumerism as only a means to an end. Many designers of that time were more concerned with attaining the high level objective (utopian perfection) than the medium they chose (consumerism). If this is the case, then it could explain why much of the design industry today is willing to redefine the concept of consumerism as a conduit for utopian ideals. As Victor Papanek, Tara Andrews, and countless other theorists and environmentalists have helped us realize, industrial design has historically been an incredibly irresponsible, unethical, and dangerous profession. By encouraging the depletion of certain materials and natural resources and failing to truly understand the people and context for which we are designing, it has aided in closing the gap between the present and an environmentally unsustainable future.

What we’re witnessing in today’s society is a shift in value away from consumption of goods towards consumption of media, content, and experience. Physicality is less intrinsically linked to meaning and value for consumers, as the awareness of the dangers of traditional consumerism escalates among consumers themselves. In their Spring/Summer 2016 Trend Briefing titled “Backlash Culture”, trend forecasting group The Future Laboratory reveals this heightened awareness among consumers of the broken capitalist system, where brands possess immense power. The age old mantra “the customer is always right” is challenged—consumer criticality is at an unprecedented high in today’s society. With the American economy fully recovered from both the Great Depression and the recent financial crisis of 2008, the definition of consumerism as a medium for utopia is evolving. The contemporary environmental crisis of over-consumption married to the advent of personal computers and other technologies embedded in consumer’s homes shifts the concept of consumerist utopia towards an experiential utopia.

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Stills from The Future Laboratory’s SS16 Trend Briefing “Backlash Culture”

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Stills from The Future Laboratory’s SS16 Trend Briefing “Backlash Culture”

The experiential utopia is distributed throughout video games, user interfaces throughout digital products on the web and separate applications, and experiences afforded by the sharing economy model championed by AirBnb and Uber. Brands across industries are selling temporary utopias in carefully packaged experiences, whether it’s a pleasant and efficient experience while booking a dream AirBnb loft on a friendly interface or literally temporarily withdrawing from reality in an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. In “Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future”, Fredric Jameson proposes an alternative definition of utopia as not a space or representation, but rather, a reflection of society’s visionary abilities and desire (or lack thereof) to think of a different future.

“..What is important in a utopia is not what can be positively imagined and proposed, but rather what is not imaginable and not conceivable. The utopia, I argue, is not a representation but an operation calculated to disclose the limits of our imagination of the future, the lines beyond which we do not seem able to go in imagining changes in our own society and world (except in the direction of dystopia and catastrophe).”

This description begins to illustrate the concept of utopia as a mental state of extreme contentedness and delusion, where an alternative vision of the future, or any future vision, is perceived to be unnecessary. The technological trend of virtual reality is a physical manifestation of this desire to disconnect oneself not only from the future, but the present as well. If one is able to temporarily escape the present and enter a new present that is that individual’s version of utopia, then the perceived perfection of the present eradicates a need for an alternative, an improved future. This state of blissful ignorance is achieved entirely through experience, with form acting as an auxiliary facilitator of meaning. The demoralization of the American people during the Great Depression cultivated a similar version of escapism in society through various forms of entertainment, despite the economic climate. Virtual reality is the contemporary equivalent to the free radio broadcasts of the Great Depression that indulged the public’s desire to escape from the problems of the present.

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Mark Zuckerberg (“Lord Zuck”) at Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Event, 2016

In addition to the return of fantastical escapist desire demonstrated in virtual reality, the rationality of the industrial design profession as described by Andrews is also reappearing throughout the emerging user experience field of today. Corporate giants and smaller businesses thrive on the kind of consumption predictability that quantitative, data-centric methods of design development yield. This kind of empirical approach deeply inspired by the scientific method is even more achievable in the realm of digits and pixels, as user’s clicks, scrolls, and amount of time spent on a page can be tracked in a way that’s reminiscent of George Orwell’s Big Brother of “1984”. The “attention economy” of today equates financial success of a technological product like Facebook or Twitter with an ample amount of time spent by a consumer using that site or experience. If companies in power default to focusing solely on the amount of time a human spends using a product, the actual value and overall impact of that experience on that individual and society is deeply forgotten. This reduction of human experience to digits and data points may lead to some level of financial predictability, yet breeds potential for unethical effects on individuals and their relationships with other individuals, their communities, and society as a whole.

The combination of an attention-based economy fostered by completely rational methods and the complacent escapist technologies emerging in today’s society cultivates an opportunity for a newly defined unsustainable future. Andrews addresses the present-day environmental crisis brought on by over-consumption, yet there’s potential for an unsustainable social and economic future brought on by the current digital experiential consumer utopia. In “Design for the Real World”, Victor Papanek pleads with industrial designers to consider the societal impacts that their products have on humans; he reminds us about the human behind the consumer, imploring designers to deeply understand the social, economic, and political background of the profession. Industrial designers often design for archetypes of consumers, but one must greatly consider the larger systematic impact of our designs on cultures, communities, and histories. Although Papanek was writing before the rise of the experiential utopia of the 21st century, this call for a more ethnographic approach to design can be easily applied to the Digital Age.

As affluent society begins to shift towards a consumerism of content, media, and experience, the unsustainable future that Andrews and Papanek discussed in relation to traditional consumerism is still possible. The unsustainable digital utopia might not result in a Land of Misfit Toys but rather communities of humans socially and economically affected by unethically designed experiences and systems. Andrews questions the role of designers in creating a sustainable future:

“[Industrial designers’ impact on “over-consumption”] questions the role industrial design might play in a sustainable future, not just because it is historically complicit in consumerism, but because the methods that were developed by the early industrial designers, which remain little changed in today’s practice, were furthering economic aims that are the antithesis to contemporary sustainability imperatives. How can design methods that were developed directly to counter under-consumption be redeployed to counter the contemporary crisis of over-consumption?”

It must be our goal as designers, whether form or experience is our vehicle for meaning, to use our logical or subjective methodologies to understand the multi-faceted context within which we’re designing and frequently introspect on the impact we have on building a sustainable digital and material consumerist utopia. As consumerism gets redefined to include the consumption of media, content, and experience, patterns of rational methodologies touted by early industrial designers and reappear in the field of user experience. Consumption of goods or experiences as a practice of escape from present day quandaries persists throughout the 20th and early 21st century. Dystopian consumer futures can manifest in not only environmental, but also social and economic crises as the experiential consumer utopia emerges.

 

Andrews, Tara. “Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong.” Design Philosophy Papers 7.2 (2009): 71-86. Print.

Au, Wagner James. “VR Will Make Life Better-Or Just Be an Opiate for the Masses.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Goldhaber, Michael H. “Attention Shoppers!” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 1 Dec. 1997. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Goodman, Donna. “Chapter Three: The Machine Age in America.” A History of the Future. New York: Monacelli, 2008. 90-120. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. “Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future.” Conditions of Historical Possibility Utopia/Dystopia (2010): 20-29. Print.

Krippendorff, Klaus. “On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts or on the Proposition That “Design Is Making Sense (Of Things)”” Design IssuesSpring 5.2 (1989): 9-39. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Papanek, Victor J. “Design for the Real World.” Preface. Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon, 1972. N. pag. Print.

 

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2 thoughts on “From Materialist to Experiential Utopia: Building a Sustainable Digital and Material Future

  1. The connection you establish between depression era industrial design approaches to rationalize and reverse underconsumption and today’s similar and contextually misplaced commitment to consumer data is strong. It seems that for all the pains industrial design went through to become a respected, rational field alongside its counterparts in business and industry at a time when any responsibility for the impacts of consumption could not be imagined, it’s now too content to simply carry on the same prosperous relationship despite new knowledge. You make the point that it’s easy to get caught up in time spent on a webpage or click count as adequate justification of a product in the attention economy. And in a digital sense this is clearly identifiable, but this idea of consumer outlets vying for the user’s attention is different but absolutely present in physical products as well. Further that regardless of their context the dual justifications of product — use for the consumer and attention captured (whether in time spent online or ability to succeed at point of sale) for the seller — exists in a problematic dynamic. If the balance could be shifted in both the corporate and consumer’s mind to place end use and positive impact as hierarchically superior, products would serve a greater, utopian supportive, role than to just be the most sellable of the available options. Now the field of industrial design is established and recognized as necessary i.e. has leverage over industry could it not push for a greater degree of objective (utopian perfection) in the things that it dreams up for business and industry?

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  2. The Great Depression created an unexpected moment for entertainment to advance and develop a space for experience. Though caused by an economic collapse, the backdrop of the depression mirrors present day worries of an unstable environment. The power of nature is a sublime experience, the ability to overwhelm the viewer with grandeur or beauty, which in part creates a similarity towards the escapist thought of technology. As utopias shift to the experiential, I think its interesting to see how the sublime can not be represented but felt within what can not be seen. The passage in which you connect the trend of virtual reality to disconnect oneself from not only the future but the present to the entertainment of the Great Depression is strong in helping develop the aesthetic unconsciousness that comes with beauty. You make vital notions of instability through design, consumption, and business and how that will ultimately affect society as the outcome. You conclude with an important reminder, that as designers it is crucial to understand over-consumption as well as the saturation of the image within the digital era.

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