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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

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