On the Social Dimen­si­ons of Modern Design

As has been noted, for exam­p­le by José Orte­ga y Gas­set in his Medit­a­ción de la téc­ni­ca (from lec­tures first deli­ver­ed in 1933), tra­di­tio­nal tech­nics includes both the “inven­ti­on of a plan of action«—which is not the same as a plan­ning process—and the “exe­cu­ti­on of this plan.”[14] Tra­di­tio­nal­ly, both the for­mal-final and effi­ci­ent cau­ses remain­ed within the mind and hand of an arti­san. It is the modern sepa­ra­ti­on of men­tal and manu­al, and the coor­di­na­te crea­ti­on of inven­tor-engi­neer and worker, that grounds the ori­gi­nal cha­rac­ter of modern design. The two new cate­go­ries of desig­ning and working are not just thin­king and making sepa­ra­ted. Thin­king and making are too inex­tri­ca­bly con­joi­n­ed in tra­di­tio­nal craft for such a simp­le dis­junc­tion,[15] which is dis­cer­ned only by cri­ti­cal abs­trac­tion. In the sepa­ra­ti­on of inten­ding and making are crea­ted ins­tead an embo­di­ed, acti­ve form of inten­ding (design) and a non­re­flec­ti­ve but metho­do­lo­gi­cal form of making (labor).

This sepa­ra­ti­on of form­er­ly uni­fied aspects of human acti­ve expe­ri­ence is fur­ther coor­di­na­ted with the beco­ming auto­no­mous of a who­le ran­ge of ele­ments in human cul­tu­re. Reli­gi­on and poli­tics are to be inde­pen­dent, like­wi­se with art and reli­gi­on and poli­tics and sci­ence and edu­ca­ti­on; all, along with eco­no­mics as a kind of para­digm, beco­me what Karl Pol­anyi terms “dis­em­bedded” from social life as a who­le.[16] This sepa­ra­ting and beco­ming inde­pen­dent of pre­vious­ly inter­wo­ven dimen­si­ons of a way of life con­sti­tu­tes, for Jür­gen Haber­mas, the essence of the modern pro­ject.[17]

The emer­gence of dis­em­bedded and auto­no­mous design con­sti­tu­tes as well a move­ment from ver­na­cu­lar to pro­fes­sio­nal design and has thus been various­ly defi­ned by the two pro­fes­si­ons who Cla­im it, engi­neers and artist-archi­tects. The for­mer empha­si­ze the quan­ti­ta­ti­ve, ana­ly­tic, but ite­ra­ti­ve cha­rac­ter of a mul­ti­pha­se pro­cess that includes pre­pa­ra­to­ry and eva­lua­ti­ve moments. The lat­ter pres­ents design as embo­di­ed, poe­tic thin­king. Lou­is Buc­cia­rel­li, from “an eth­no­gra­phic per­spec­ti­ve,” has descri­bed engi­nee­ring design as a social pro­cess,[18] whe­re­as Richard Buchanan has argued for design as a kind of rhe­to­ric. But what kind of social pro­cess? What form of rhe­to­ric? What is to distin­gu­ish engi­nee­ring and artis­tic design from the social pro­cess and rhe­to­ric of poli­tics? Whe­ther engi­nee­ring or archi­tec­tu­re, acci­den­tal­ly reflec­ting social pro­cess or rhe­to­ric, the defi­ning acti­vi­ty is minia­tu­re making. For Buc­cia­rel­li this is found in a social pro­cess cen­te­ring around distinct “object worlds«; for Buchanan it is a rhe­to­ric of artifacts.

On the Ethics of Designing

Pos­si­bi­li­ty and con­tin­gen­cy are the fun­da­men­tal ground of ethics. On the one hand, in the absence of any reco­gni­ti­on of alter­na­ti­ve pos­si­bi­li­ties for some cour­se of action, no ethi­cal reflec­tion is cal­led for. On the other, if the cour­se of action is strict­ly neces­sa­ry, reflec­tion can give rise only to theo­re­ti­cal expl­ana­ti­on, not ethi­cal judgment. One does not ask ethi­cal ques­ti­ons of what can­not be or of what can­not be otherwise.

The his­to­ri­cal dis­co­very of design as sys­te­ma­tic anti­ci­pa­to­ry ana­ly­sis and mode­ling as a uni­que form of human action rough­ly con­tem­po­ra­neous with the rise of modern sci­ence and engi­nee­ring unco­vers a new way of being in the world. The most fun­da­men­tal ethi­cal ques­ti­on con­cer­ning design is this: to what ext­ent is this new way of being in the world desi­ra­ble or good?

It is now com­mon to reco­gni­ze that, as Lang­don Win­ner has said, tech­no­lo­gies are “forms of life,”[19] or as Buchanan has put it, “Design invol­ves the vivid expres­si­on of com­pe­ting ide­as about social life.”[20] But not only do dif­fe­rent designs embo­dy (impli­cit­ly or expli­cit­ly) distinct socio­po­li­ti­cal assump­ti­ons and visi­ons of life, desig­ning its­elf con­sti­tu­tes a new way of lea­ding, or a lea­ding into, dif­fe­rent tech­no­lo­gi­cal life worlds. Part of the uni­fied new­ness of this way of lea­ding into the tech­no-life­world, the acti­vi­ty or pro­cess of desig­ning, can be indi­ca­ted by noti­cing some dif­fi­cul­ties or ina­de­quaci­es of stan­dard approa­ches to ethics in rela­ti­on to it.

Con­sider, for exam­p­le, what can be ter­med an ethics of cor­re­spon­dence, which jud­ges action by the ext­ent to which it is in harm­o­ny with or cor­re­sponds to what is alre­a­dy given by some preexis­ting order. Com­mon forms of such an ethics of cor­re­spon­dence are found in appeals to tra­di­ti­on or to natu­ral law. The attempt to judge the design act as lawful or unlawful in accord with the degree to which it har­mo­ni­zes with and repres­ents or oppo­ses a tra­di­ti­on is con­tra­dic­ted by the core effort within design not to be gui­ded by tra­di­ti­on, but to figu­re things out anew, to crea­te new arti­facts, to break with tra­di­ti­on, to inno­va­te. Modern design beco­mes a new tra­di­ti­on pre­cis­e­ly to the ext­ent that it oppo­ses tradition.