Critical Design: Dark Reflections on the Digital Age

J G Ballard once claimed that “the subject matter of science fiction is the subject matter of everyday life.” We are living “in a world the surrealists might have invented”, he said. A world made of flying machines, speakwrites and information, where the dreams of  Orwell, Huxley, Gibson and their contemporaries have come true. This world is surreal and as the advance of technology manipulates the lived experience into something quite unnatural, it becomes increasingly difficult to make sense of the postmodern state. How can art help us to look beyond convention and to gain perspective on our own lives?

Interstitial Space Helmet, Auger-Loizeau, 2004

This is the question that a group of designers – Critical Designers – are asking. Coined in 1999 by Anthony Dunne, the term Critical Design refers to “a theory-based approach to design which works as the antidote to affirmative design by questioning the role that products play in our lives”. We are often anesthetised to the impact that technology has on us because it is assimilated in to our lives with such speed, but through the defamiliarising effect of Critical Design’s dystopian prototypes and thought-provoking products, we are encouraged to engage in discussions about the social and political impact of emerging technologies.

The first piece of Critical Design that caught my attention was Accessories for Lonely Men (2001) by Noam Toran. The project is a series of objects used to simulate the sensation of human intimacy in the absence of a partner. The project, which includes a Chest Hair Curler, a Sheet Thief and a Heavy Breather, questions how successfully technology can replace the crude elements of human intimacy. To an extent these kinds of objects already exist on the marketplace, and perhaps this familiarity is key to engaging their audience. Accessories such as vibrators, sex dolls and massage chairs are used to satisfy physical desires ordinarily carried out by another person. But whilst Toram’s Accessories are similarly used to simulate physical elements of human contact, it is the humanness of these object’s functions which is particularly unnerving. Heavy breathing and sheet stealing are not considered desirable attributes of human intimacy, but perhaps as our relationships become more mediated by technology and we become more isolated from each other, these nuisances will become missed. In the future, could these objects become a popular commodity? As they are now, the objects are unnerving and dissident; brought to our attention from a near future and asking whether we want to be replaced by machines.

Daniel Weil is another designer whose work is concerned with machines’ capacity to replace humans, as our own intelligence is substituted by artificial intelligence.  He recognises that the mainstream design industry is preoccupied with miniaturisation and a product’s ergonomic and psychological ‘fit.’ As a result, people are reduced to users, lured by the convenience of user-friendliness and alienated from design. Bag Radio (1982) designed with ‘user-unfriendliness’ and ‘para-functionality’ in mind, is a reaction against convention and a call for human intelligence in favour of convenience. It is unconcerned with smart materials, and the simplicity of the design aims to “demystify the mechanisms”. Weil recognises that as the commercial industry becomes more concerned with miniaturisation and simplicity, the role of designer shifts to one of packager of technology, and concealer of function. Users are thus alienated from design and seen to be concerned only with speed and practicality. Our own intelligence is substituted by artificial intelligence, but we are often apathetic towards this because we are lured by the user-friendly. According to Paul Virilio, “Interactive user-friendliness is just a metaphor for the subtle enslavement of the human being to ‘intelligent’ machines.’” This would suggest that the mainstream marketplace is numbing us in to technology’s playthings. But Bag Radio gives us back a sense of purpose. Through the transparency of the bag, the radio’s function is visualised and once again we can participate in the construction of meaning. After the success of Weil’s creation in the gallery context, 10,000 more were made and sold in Japan. Bag Radios stood out as a somewhat impractical alternative to the uniformity of overdesigned domestic radios. But by infiltrating the commercial market, it had a defamiliarising effect, working as a criticism from within, and, consequently, a more effective statement.

Another great concern for a society entrenched in technology, is the effect that it is having on social interaction.  In the media we hear tales of young people favouring virtual relationships over the real thing, of stolen identity, second selves and a generation unconcerned with life beyond the ‘benevolent screen’. While the media can be blamed for hyperbolic tendencies, it cannot be denied that technology in recent years has facilitated a retreat into the unreal – an unreal which feels scarily real. Designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau have been exploring this idea of isolation via technology and the impact that it has on traditional modes of communication. Their project, Interstitial Space Helmet (2004) is designed for a generation who are more comfortable online than they are in “the real world”. It gives users the opportunity to hide behind their virtual persona whilst fuelling narcissistic values. Why leave home with your own face when you could upgrade to the face of Paris Hilton or David Beckham? In contrast to social networking, webcams and virtual worlds such as Second Life, which simulate physicality, the interstitial helmet takes elements of the virtual into the physical, and by doing so brings to light the often unnatural lengths that humans go to in order to manipulate their own reality. This product is once again brought to us from a near future akin to a Ballardian vision of TV relationships and post-reproductional sex. But when we look to our current marketplace, which advertises the augmented reality of Google Glass, the attentive service of Siri and intimate cuddles from Boyfriend Pillows this bizarre life doesn’t feel so far away. Are sheet-stealers and heavy-breathing devices next?

Olivia Capadose is a freelance writer and an aspiring radio producer from the UK. She holds a degree in English and Art History and is working hard to make Berlin her new home.