Are we human?

Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley:

Are we human?
Notes on an archaeology of design 

Lars Müller Publishers, Switzerland 2016

I don’t know if there is such a concept like book-crush. I don’t even know if it is possible to have a crush on a book. A crush to me is when you have the tingling sensation of attraction, and realize you really like someone (-thing?), but do not know whether it will ever turn into something more substantial or if it will last. Anyway, if there is such a thing as a book crush, I am currently having it on this book. It is tiny, beautiful and easy-to-read, and has given me so much food for thought lately.

A book well-read.

The discussion of humans, of what makes us human and when are we no longer humans, and how do we design our future, is very timely. It relates to the bigger existentialist discussions of who we are and where we want to go. Much of this is connected to the bigger picture about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the future of work mentioned in the previous blogpost.

This book starts by defining how the authors see design. Not for the sake of definitions, as is sometimes the case in academic texts, but in a way more profound way. The authors define design as something that looks forward to possible futures, and see design as a form of projection. It aims at shaping something rather than just finding it, to invent something and to think about the possible outcomes of that invention.

Design is in many instances what makes the human, and basis for social life. There is hardly any dimension of the human world that has not been affected by human activity. Most of the Earth’s surface has been massively transformed through agriculture and urbanization. The authors also remind us that today’s designs that mark human life are not just the cultural and technical artifacts that eventually make their way to museums, but also the precarious movements of refugees, the collapse of biodiversity, the global flows on information and resources, the holes in the ozone layer, and many more similar. If we want to distinguish ourselves from the other species on this planet then the human is a designing animal and the earth its design studio.

We create our tools and our tools create us.

The human is also the species that asks. How did a self- questioning species emerge? And what role did design play in it? The emergence of the human is related to the continuous invention of artifacts. The human sees the possibility in the things it makes. So the human doesn’t simply invent tools, tools also invent the human. The artifacts that prosthetically expand thought and reach are what make the human human. We have the creative capacity to invent. The authors state that the main driver of human accomplishment is a uniquely human capacity for variability, an impulse to generate a multiplicity of ways to do things in reaction to different circumstances. 

The very first cases we have found of physical design are early human tools, stones which have been transformed to hand axes. Interestingly, recent research, which has studied the symmetry of these hand axes (which doesn’t necessarily have a functional benefit) has shown that these tools might have been designed not only as tools, but also as a “show-off” of human capacity to other individuals around them. Archeologists have also found very old ornamental beads, like marine shells with purposeful holes, dating back to 135 000-120 000 years ago, proving this capability of producing things where the main function is symbolic, might be just as old as humans themselves. 

Early marine shell ornaments.

The authors see ornament as a symptom of the human ability to put thoughts into symbols, of “broadcasting personal information to strangers able to read the code”. The ornaments simultaneously create a sense of self and foster ever-wider social networks. The authors show how these two, tools and ornaments, have always been intertwined and equally an expression of the human creative capacity to invent. Historically, there was no survival advantage in having a tool that could kill animals more efficiently if you couldn’t find sexual partners to reproduce. Tools for communication, as ornaments, are also invented. They see this ability to go beyond what is needed, to make something different or differently, as crucial to humans. They claim that the making of useless things, or things whose use has yet to be discovered, makes all the difference. More often than not, what seems like an ornament is doing the real work and what looks like a tool is really for show. They state that if we want to address the human ability to invent a planetary-sized ecology of technology as a designed form of organic life we need to take ornament seriously.

This is a far cry from the traditional canon of design. Ever since industrialization we have been taught to avoid ornamentation. Adolf Loos in 1908 published his “Ornament and Crime”, and this ethos was taken through with the modernist era. To embrace mechanization was to embrace smooth, faultless surfaces. Ornament was friction, which had to be flattened.

Even the use of the term “design” in large parts originates from the same era of mechanization, with the division of first designing an object and then producing it. And potentially designing it in such a way that it is optimal to produce, rather than for humans to use. In Henry Dreyfuss’ design classic from 1955, Designing for People, he described design as the removal of friction between humans and the manufactured objects they encounter. Despite this modernist ethos of clean surfaces and optimally designed objects humans have been more inventive than just to use what is offered to them; they have reinvented and refashioned themselves and their bodies, on a daily basis, through clothes, ornaments, diet, and exercise. Maybe our ethos of human centered design hasn’t in fact been forhumans, but rather a response to the ideals and abilities of industrialism. The current trend to talk about posthumanism takes these thoughts even further. 

Refashioning humans – “näytös” fashion show in 2018

The need to communicate who and what you are is still part of what it is to be human. The authors view cities as the first form of social media. Urban density maximizes possibilities to social connections. Now social media and electronic communication is a new form of urban life. It is not simply an expansion of design. Through its multiple channels we not only communicate and collaborate with wider and wider groups, we also refashion ourselves through the endless amount of images, videos, comments, posts and “like’s” we publish. The authors state that perhaps the most important transformation in social, cultural and economic life since the year 2000 has been the arrival of social media and the ubiquitous surveillance culture. They see it as a revolution in the capacity of being human and inhuman.

Now everyone is an author, an artist, a self-designer etc. There is an immense cultivation of the sense of self, and the ultimate goal is now for a design (or a picture, a meme, a video) is to go viral. Not only is social media a tool for self-design, self-design itself has become media.

Self-design through social media; president and children (even without the means)

The question of self-design also brings us to an important part of the discussion of Are we human? What is it actually that constitutes a human? 

Historically, the definition of what was considered “the human” has changed and widened. The authors start with the norm of the white, male, and athletic human, often portraited in idealized cityscapes or drawings. In 1955 Dreyfuss included women and children into his measurements of man, and lately also age, thinness, obesity, disability, and race, have been considered in our planning.

If there is a broad diversity between human beings there is also the notion that we are simoultaniously very alike other species. Today we understand that only 1% of the human genome is different from a chimpanzee and 10% is different to a cat. We also know that the body is inhabited and constituted by thousands of microbes, many of which have existed for millions of years and have evolved in parallel with our species. Each person has a different mix of microbes and the mix keeps changing during a lifetime. The microbiome project that tries to map this vast interspecies complex has changed the human self-image. Should human-centered design perhaps be centered on these microbes?

Today we also constantly alter the body. We wear glasses or take tattoos, but we also routinely replace parts on the inside of the body. Not only simple things like fillings in our teeth, the interior of our bodies is increasingly filled with new mechanical parts; screws, plates, nails, and stents. Body parts like bones or joints can be replaced, and new kinds of tissue, like a new nose, can be transplanted, 3d-printed out of biomaterial, or grown. External prosthetics have developed from the additional arm or foot to sophisticated neuroprosthetics, and reconstructive surgery is used extensively. Today we don’t use surgery only to address trauma or disease, but frequently rely on it when we want to have better sight, bigger breasts or a more attractive nose. We also take a myriad of drugs to alter our body and mind. The existing body is constantly changed.

Lately the discussion of bio design, of the self-concious design of new life-forms within a genetically engineered environment, has increased through the arrival of new tools like CRISPR, allowing us to make precise insertions and deletions in human DNA sequencies. We no longer alter the already existing bodies, we alter the formation of entirely new ones. Although experiments like cross-species constructions are currently beyond the ethical barriers of most countries we have already seen how these barriers have been stretched, even if it would have been illegal, for example with the arrival of DNA-altered babies.

So humans are on a steady path to become “machine”. We have always altered ourselves, and the idea of what constitutes us and our body is blurred. Today we often have to go through the labour of proving that you are not a machine, that you are yourself, with passwords and biometrics. Even if it is just answering the tick-box of ” I am not a robot” – that constitutes the division of man and machine…

The one invention that has blurred this line of what is man and what is machine the most has been the invention of the mobile phone. The authors talk about Homo Cellular, as todays humans. They claim that the mobile phone is the singular prosthetic device that has done the most to transform the human. A mobile phone has become an integral part of our body and brain. Perception, social interaction, memory, even though itself has become increasingly cellular, and the device is no longer an accessory to human life but necessary and basic of a new kind of life. The mobile phone is the first thing people touch in the morning and last at night. People feel naked, inadequate and vulnerable without their phone. It has become so crucial to humans and their ability to exist in society that it is the first thing refugees ask for after water and food, even before shelter. To be without the shelter of connectivity is worse than being without physical shelter.

The mobile phone has rapidly developed from a portable substitute for a fixed phone to becoming a vital part of the computational power accessing the Internet. The mobile phone is just the tip of the iceberg and the most visible part of the huge global communication-computation system we now have around us. We have created a vast ecology combining unprecedented flows of information and material that we now take for granted, as well as the access to it through a mobile phone. 

The physical product itself, the mobile phone, does have importance to humans. Phones are relentlessly personalized with decorative skins and 2 billion phones a year are discarded, not necessarily because they didn’t work but because consumers wanted a newer one. However, content has become more important than the physical product. 

In 2000 we had no social media. Facebook started in 2005, as did YouTube with the slogan “Broadcast Yourself”. Social media redefines and restructures physical space, the space of our homes and cities. As did the arrival of mass media in the early twentieth century, social media redraws what is public and what is private, what is inside and what is outside.

Creating flows of information through our mobiles

Now every touch of the screen becomes a statement, and there are as many pictures shared a day as the world population. All these acts of personal design are also integrated into invisible transnational systems. The mobile phone locates us in physical, personal, social, professional and ideological space. When you ask a question of your phone, the answer is given not simply to the question you asked but to the question the real time data analysis thinks that you are really asking, based on all the other things you are doing and have done. As many of these systems are market-driven, the mobile phone tends to reinforce the existing norms and inequalities.

This represents a complete transformation of the way we live – social media is not simply about what occurs in digital space. It constructs a new kind of virtual city that has taken over many of the functions of a traditional city. According to the authors we now inhabit a kind of hybrid space between the virtual and the real. I agree with this, but at the same time it also makes me ponder how far we actually are from an even broader level of uploading our feelings that some of the most futuristic believers of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) promote, as this current development has happened in just a few decades…. I’ll come back to this in the next blogpost.

The awareness of all the surveillance that these broad amounts of data make possible and the suttle weariness thereof is not the only critical stance the authors of this book pose. They also question the notion of design itself, and ask us when we just use design, defined as “good” design, as an anesthetic – to cover up for the real world. Design has become the uncritical celebration of progress, and the ability to modernize one self. “Good design” has become a morally infused way of making decisions about objects that galvanize government, business, industry, class, and art interests. 

In many ways we are overwhelmed by design today. Design hasgone viral. The word design is everywhere. Biennials, booth, blogs, schools, exhibitions, and committees. Not to mention hotels, food, “diplomacy by design”, shaped experiences, new university programs of “biological design” and “social innovation design”. According to the authors “Design thinking” has become a dominant business model affecting everything from politics to education, personal relationships, research, communication and philanthropy.

They continue that we are now at a time when the largest company in the world has bared all its success on design, business schools now have design programs, and companies increasingly have Chief Design officers. Companies that had nothing to do with design now build design into every dimension of corporate life. Politicians believe their success is dependent on design thinking. Design has become dangerously successful.

This danger relates to the other concern the authors have to design. At the same time as they describe design as a human trait and a forward driving force in society, there is also a very strong critique, or at least concern, of what design can do, present in the book. Humans are the only species capable of causing their own extinction, and designing things that can endanger our entire planet also for other species.

We all know the examples of designing atom bombs or chemical weapons as part of this discussion, but the authors show how lack of action can be equally dangerous. They exemplify with the case of a chunk of ice, four times the size of Manhattan, breaking off the ice shelf in Greenland. This event was watched by millions of people following the video from a remote camera that had been set on the ice shelf just a few days before. Ecological catastrophes have been designed as entertainment, hence the lack of action is also design. Neglect has been shaped, as the authors put it.

In many cases design isn’t to give what people asked for, but what they wish they had asked for and retrospectively pretend that they asked for. Each theory that locates the human at the centre of design actually reinvents the human while acting as if it were always there. Just in the same way as we made our tools but tools also made who we are.

Traditionally designers are always understood as solving a problem. The authors ask why not design as a way of asking questions? We could see design producing thought- provoking hesitations in the routines of everyday life rather than simply servicing these routines. Why not design that encourages us to think? Or design as an urgent call to reflect on what me and our companion species have become?

Design would then become the way humans ask questions and thereby continuously redesign themselves. I think this is also a beautiful way of answering the question “Are we human?”.

What do you think?

In addition to the interesting content of the book, repositioning design, a special thank you has to go to the design of the book itself. It is a beautifully designed object that is a pleasure to use.  It is small, and easy to grab. The cover doesn’t boast, so it is clearly not an “airport-book”. However, the interior design makes up for the discreet cover. Each chapter is well illustrated and well researched (notes are available at the end of the book, so they don’t obstruct your reading unless you are interested in them). Between the actual chapters there are pictures with quotes from a broad array of thinkers, as well as “yellow pages” with provocative thoughts and concluding remarks on each section. The book itself is a great example of human design.

2 thoughts on “Are we human?

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