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Category “speculative realism”

Metaphysics of Objects – Book Selections

As mentioned before, I’ll be teaching a Metaphysics of Objects course at DePaul this coming fall as part of our new Industrial Design program. One of my projects this summer has been to put together relevant literature that supports the course as it’s framed: a class where making is central, and supported by the philosophical tenets of speculative realism. (sidenote: I am still looking for works to draw from, so if you have any suggestions, hit me up on Twitter)

Here are the works that are central to the course:

Selected readings:

The challenge now is to create course projects that guide students through the philosophy, helping them develop metaphorical frameworks for creating objects in practice.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Critiquing Contemporary Design Philosophies

Most contemporary design philosophies (whether processes, schools of thought, or otherwise) follow the subject-object model. The subject-object model is both harmful and misguided. Harmful because it places us at the center of the universe, thus ignoring anything that isn’t us. Misguided because, by nature of placing things on the shoulders of our own perception, we leave the world open to the insidiousness of subjectivity.

Two examples of how design processes and schools of thought suffer from this:

  1. Agile methodology requires user stories. User stories are driven by the following format: “As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >.” In agile, the stories drive sprints, which drive the process. Stories are driven by user perspective, and thus are inclined toward subject-object thinking.
  2. Human-centered Design. It’s right in the name. People are at the center of the design process and research in this methodology. Problematically, this means that other things (the environment, animals, future humans even) are not given as much importance in the process (or, at least, are only given importance in relation to their usefulness to humans).

I’m currently writing a paper that analyzes these two problems and proposes an alternative way forward for, specifically, the design of things. More to come.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Insight, Bias, and Dynamic Systems in a De-centered World

We are not at the center of the universe.

The de-centering of humans from our understanding of the world will play an important role in the future of design. Whereas most current design paradigms operate under a human-centered ontology, much contemporary philosophy runs contrary to that point of view (this is at the heart of our ID 101, Industrial Design course at DePaul). In a world where the human is no longer at the center, we must recognize that an object’s meaning isn’t simply juxtaposed against its human usefulness. Objects have many unknowable qualities that we cannot, or have not yet, perceived.

This simple point, forwarded by thinkers like Ian Hodder and Graham Harman, brings us to some interesting questions. In Hodder’s Entangled, he shows us a picture of a Mesolithic site with an interesting twist. “But we can do something subversive — put in an object that does not fit. This is absurd. A concert piano? Suddenly, the things, including the piano, force us to look at them more carefully.” In making this point, Hodder touches on an important aspect of art that Harman points out in Object Oriented Ontology. Namely, that art gives us peripheral awareness of the qualities of things that can change our understanding of what that thing might offer. We can gain new insights (Hodder might call them schemas) into a thing by imagining the abnormal.

So, humans are not at the center of design, objects have unknowable qualities, and we can gain insights into those qualities through different exercises. What follows is a roughly formed thesis built on this foundation that explores what it would be like to have the ability to tinker with the qualities of things:

  1. This idea of gaining insights into a thing’s qualities has fascinating implications for designers. If you understand that you’re only interacting with certain qualities of a thing, but realize that others might exist, then you can gain insights (through creative process or otherwise) that change your understanding of its shape.
  2. These insights, by nature of being a certain snapshot of one’s mindset, are time-bound. They are a particular understanding of a thing at a particular point in time, and as such, may change over time in the mind of the designer. And yet, once the designer takes this understanding and uses it to create another thing, that ontology is codified into an object. We often refer to these as biases.
  3. Here is the biggest leap. By imbuing an object with electronic bits, we can add new affordances (or qualities) to it. Janet Murray’s four affordances of computers gives us some direction on this, in that “everything made of electronic bits” can potentially have these qualities: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial. These affordances give us the ability to change the qualities of electronic things on-the-fly. As computers increasingly become embedded in non-electronic objects, then, who’s to say that we won’t have the ability to change the qualities of all objects around us as needed? To expose otherwise hidden qualities?

As a designer, the question then becomes how to approach 1, 2, and 3. How do we gain insights into an object’s qualities, understand where our biases come from, and meaningfully design objects that reflect both the qualities of the thing as we understand it, and its new electronic qualities?


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

We’re Designing Embedded Systems All Wrong

One of my primary projects this summer is to research embedded hardware design processes, toy design processes, and to develop a framework for creating embedded, interconnected toys that addresses both practical design and ethical considerations. This comes out of a need I’ve identified through co-designing and developing several projects in the field (Thotcon 0xA, Thotcon 0x9, Thotcon 0x8, Big Data Outbreak, for instance). Namely, we have processes for creating software and processes for creating hardware, but when you’re looking to do both, combined and at scale, there’s not a lot of literature out there on how to proceed.

That’s not to say the literature doesn’t exist. The body of knowledge on the topic of embedded systems design can be found, for instance, but is fairly sparse and mostly uses an adapted version of agile (typically XP). Additionally, most of the research looks at the design of objects from a human-centered perspective, which has its own limitations when we’re talking about designed objects (not necessarily humans) interacting with other objects.

Suffice to say, I find most of these approaches to be lacking. My experience developing for embedded systems has led me to the following conclusions:

1) Applying software development processes to hardware and firmware development is insufficient. The feedback loop with software is much tighter and easier to control than with embedded systems. With embedded systems, debugging contains both a physical and digital element. Additionally, the loop between writing code and testing code is dramatically different when, ultimately, that code must move to a separate platform for testing. I suspect there may be some connection points here between six sigma and agile processes.

2) Thinking about the design of ubiquitous systems from a human-centered perspective is totally flawed, and yet, most of the literature out there makes this mistake. It seems to me that in order to design objects at scale that work together, we need to move beyond the human, which is just one component. How do those objects work with each other? How do they work with the rest of the world? This line of thinking quickly veers into the realm of object-oriented ontology (OOO).

3) There are important ethical considerations to be addressed when we begin to put embedded, interconnected systems into the wild at scale. By their nature, these systems add a layer of hidden qualities to the physical world by embedding computer algorithms and data stores into the world. Of course, objects already have many hidden qualities, but embedded systems allow those qualities to (theoretically) be controlled by others invisibly. As my advisor at DePaul says, an embedded system represents a snapshot of a particular ontology at a particular point in time, with the value judgements of that snapshot being encoded into the world. This line of thinking connects to what David Rose calls enchanted objects.

As part of this summer project, I’ll be re-designing the Thotcon 0xA badge to make it more of a consumable product — this will be my case study. I’ve also been assembling current literature on embedded design, OOO as applied to design, and ethical considerations of developing toys and hardware systems. And so, to close this post out, here are a few whitepapers and books that I’ve found useful (The Limits of HCD, by the way, is a “shots fired” kind of piece and I love it):

  • Enchanted Objects: Innovation, Design, and the Future Of Technology
    David Rose – Scribner – 2015
  • Object-oriented Ontology: a New Theory Of Everything
    Graham Harman – Pelican, an Imprint Of Penguin Books – 2018
  • Educating the New Makers: Cross-disciplinary Creativity
    Mark Gross and Ellen Yi-Luen Do – Leonardo – 2009
  • Piloting Lean-agile Hardware Development
    Maarit Laanti – Proceedings Of the Scientific Workshop Proceedings Of Xp2016 on – Xp ’16 Workshops – 2016
  • The Limits Of HCD
    Vanessa Thomas-Christian Remy-Oliver Bates – Proceedings Of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits – Limits ’17 – 2017

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

ID 101, Metaphysics of Objects

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching DePaul’s first Industrial Design course, ID 101, Metaphysics of Objects beginning Fall term. A description of the course:

This course introduces the theory of the perception of objects, and how objects perceive each other, through the lens of object oriented ontology. Through lectures and projects, students will create objects and evaluate the influences of tools, materials, and thought on the development of things. Students will learn how to choose the appropriate tools and materials for specific design contexts, and be introduced to the theories behind speculative realism and object oriented ontology.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Is this a well-designed hole?


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Schroeder’s Rewilding and Personhood

I’ve been gobbling up books by Karl Schroeder this Winter, and have become fascinated by his idea of the “rewilding.” Here’s a short video where he talks about the concept. To summarize, the re-wilding is the concept that, once computers are in everything, the sum total of the things that those computers are embedded in will become like an entity and advocate for itself (or, at least, this is how I understand it). Schroeder also gets at this in his book Ventus which is an interesting read that hints at speculative futures.

Two thoughts I have on this that create a strange tension:

  1. Much of my work is in embedded, interconnected objects. Something like the rewilding seems very possible, considering the technology is nearly there today. Embedding computers into objects and materials is already happening with things like “smart homes” and digital fabrication technologies. Computers are ubiquitous, and so, what happens if (and when) they become computational representations of all kinds of physical and natural objects? The rewilding is one possibility.
  2. On the other hand, we seem to be completely running in the opposite direction of this possible future. Two humorous examples involve assigning personhood to non-person entities. One example being the personhood we’ve assigned to corporations through Citizens United. The other, if the good people of Toledo get their way, is assigning personhood to lakes. In this future, everything is a person, and as such, is assigned the rights of personhood. This seems to be a dangerous future for us, where we spiral even further into human-centered narcissism.

On the one hand, we have a technological inevitability that, perhaps inadvertently, could lead to the de-centering of the individual by flattening the ontology of things. On the other, we have a desperate future where everything is a person. I’m not sure if I understand how these two things reconcile themselves.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Passage from Ventus


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus