Design and Philosophical Dialogue

Ever since the writings of Plato, philosophy has championed the practice of dialogue, as a basis for developing reasoned insights into the state of our world and our relationship to it. As a discipline concerned with nature, meaning a and value, philosophy has sought to utilise dialogue as a way of developing our comprehension of our world. Yet, the process of dialogue operates in complex ways and cannot be seen simply as a matter of conversational exchange between two parties with differing points of view.

Rather, dialogue is far more than this and it occurs in complex ways within advanced societies. Back in Ancient Greece, there may have been fewer modes of dialogue than there are today. There was no social media through which millions of people exchanged perspectives. There was no television, no radio, and even the written word was limited to mostly didactic teachings, without much space for conversation.

In this respect, public space was far more crucial and the notion of the “agora”, often made manifest in the form of the public square, was a crucial vehicle for progressing public dialogue. Equally, there was no complexity within the design of public notices, which would endeavour to engage people with narratives about their lives and how they should be lived, perhaps except for the religious sermon. Today, such notices consist often in the form of advertising which seeks to sell us a particular kind of lifestyle, often through the act of consumption. In this respect, dialogue has become a form of transaction, mostly predicated on an individual's wealth and their capacity to determine the value of exchanging wealth for products.

These are also examples of dialogue, although it is often difficult to discern the philosophical content of such processes. However, this does not mean that they are absent, for each choice to consume is a choice about what kind of life we seek to live and, by implication, what kind of life we consider to be worth living. While it is tempting to conclude that one is overthinking the importance of deciding whether or not to have a McDonald's meal or to stream something on Netflix, or to take another holiday somewhere sunny, each of these small choices in our everyday life are assertions about what kind of life we think is worth living and they are born out of a series of complex dialogues that occur with ourselves, our significant others, and our wider network of influencers, which includes such institutions as the world of advertising.

Each time we choose to consume, we make a choice about the kind of life we want to lead and, even if this is not a conscious choice or a deliberate expression of such intentions, it remains a statement of fact that these choices have determined the life we lead. As such, the starting point for this enquiry is to recognise the expensive context of dialogical reasoning about The Good Life.

In so doing, we then can also recognise the potential of design to determine what we value and its capacity to engage us in a process of dialogue about our lives. A good example of this is the automobile which is rich in design values. In fact, one only has to observe the way in which automobile design is presented through advertising to appreciate the depths of thought that goes into creating these vehicles as objects of desire. Stepping into a new car is another moment where this interaction occurs and where, through a physical experience, we become part of the conversation where design shapes our sense of being in the world. Indeed, cars are marketed around presumed lifestyle configurations; they are sold to us on the basis of identity, not just performance.

The challenge for consumers of such products is to find a way of ensuring that the deeper pursuit of a good life is not obscured by the relentless imposition of consumption and its all consuming tyranny. This is no minor challenge because, in many ways, we are denied a fundamental part of a character as a result of its imposition. Thus, we may feel that there is no choice but to consume, as if the act of consumption is what gives meaning to our lives.

Design reminds us that there is more to consumption than just the object itself. It reminds us to take stock of and differentiate between objects of desire and to imbue them with meaning and value. We see such efforts in very simple ways in the context of social media. The act of transforming a photograph using an Instagram filter is an attempt to undertake such value acquisition. We seek to personalise the photograph in ways that go beyond our simply having taken it. We want to disrupt the functionality of the camera, to become the camera, and become an agent in the the creation of something completely new.

In this respect, when faced with posting a photograph on Instagram, the user is able to assert their identity and their values onto the image. In one simple act of swiping through filters, the photograph becomes more than just a representation of the world. In fact, for many years mobile phone cameras have been so bad that they have mostly failed to represent the world through photography in any meaningful way. In this sense the Instagram image is an assertion about a more desirable world that we seek to occupy, a world in which we play a bigger part in determining our reality.

This is why the task of designing user experiences is abundant with opportunities to engage in philosophical enquiry, because each angle of a product, or screen swipe within an experience, becomes a narrowly defined way of operating in the world. Some simple examples of this include the scrolling function within a computer, which is now - and has been for many years - an established mode of moving through content. However, it could have been any other number of ways. Scrolling from left to right or top to bottom has become a taken for granted way of moving through digital content. Yeah, we tend not even to think about the origin of that word and how the concept of scroll derives from an ancient time which precedes books and where ideas and communications were written down in Long rolls of paper.

It should come as no surprise that design determines our way of being in the world. We see this in the form of architecture everyday. But every object around us shapes part of our reality and our assumptions about what may be the possibilities of that reality. The parameters of design go well beyond bricks and mortar. They encompass the design of space at all, as might be said of the design of teaching environments, which each lend themselves to different types of interaction between teacher and student.

So, if design values determine our experience of the world and our design choices are manifestations of our desires for our lives, then we may conclude that design is principally a process of philosophical dialogue. It cannot be simply the articulation of a philosophical position, because the object is neither static nor capable of unilaterally determining how we experience it.

Consider a chair, which would, conventionally, be designed to sit on with the back rest against our back, but, which may also be turned around and leant on. Indeed sitting on a chair in this way may be interpreted as an act of rebelliousness in part because it disrupts the conventional expectations we have of chair sitting.

While the ubiquity and seeming commonality of chair design might lead one to conclude that these are objects of limited scope, in terms of philosophical inquiry, a quick stroll around a design museum will reveal just how many different ways chairs can be designed. In this sense, even an object that we take for granted as being relatively banal as a conversation about philosophy, has the potential to be completely reimagined and to require very different things from us then we might presume.

Indeed, it is rare that one may even imagine a chair absence of a particular context for its use. For instance, a chair may be designed to sit under a table to have one’s lunch, or to sit within a theatre. This contextual content is further evidence of the complexity of philosophical enquiry found within design. A chair pushed under a table in a dining hall tells us how to sit. It tells us also how we should sit in relation to other people. In this respect, the chair is one part of a wider assemblage, which is born out of a complex array of political, economic, social and cultural dimensions.

It would be wrong to conclude this essay by stating that design is commensurate with philosophical inquiry. We have known this for many years and, even if the rampant consumerism of our postmodern times seems to obscure these origins, we need only engage with the practice of design to remember that it is so. Rather, my deeper point is that the mode of philosophical inquiry is similar to Plato's approach to dialogue and the significance of this reveals something about the cultural economy of product design.

There are two oppositional trajectories within product design today, one of which takes us in the direction of automation. For instance, a new car is unlikely to be repairable now by its owner in any minor way. This is because car design has become so complex and intelligent that it is no longer possible to simply repair it without complex equipment. It is true also that the economic system underpinning car design has led progressively to elevating the manufacturers involvement in the ongoing repair economy rather than to allow the owner of the car to undertake this labour themselves.

The development of driverless cars is a further step in this direction, where automation is in fact a disguise for heightened capitalist exploitation. The desire within the design is to take the technology out of our hands and for its maintenance and care to be removed from a scope of concern on the presumption that what we care about or what is essential to our consumer experience is the car’s capacity to get us from A to B.

The second trajectory is in the direction of do it yourself design, where we seek out design experiences which re-engage us with the act of making, preparing, fixing, and creating. We see such interest in the development of DIY bio, citizen science, and even in the desire to disrupt forms of exclusive proprietary economies, as we see in the Copy Left and Open Data movement

While each of these approaches may have existed for many years, they are becoming more polarised within design experiences. Either we want complete automation or we want to do it ourselves entirely. Yet, in either case, the crucial parameter of the design is this capacity to engage within some form of philosophical dialogue about its impact on our lives. If that dialogue leads us to embrace automation, then this may be a statement about what kind of life we seek to lead, free from the burden of engaging with those objects of desire. Alternatively, where we seek to involve ourselves within the design structure of a product, we may seek to reclaim our sense of agency and participation within the world around us.

However, in all cases there is more beyond these parameters than is found within them. Design can engage us with new ways of worldmaking and new ways of being in the world. It is for this reason that philosophy must look towards design to more fully realise its potential as a process of determining the nature, meaning, and value of our existence. While words and language will always be remarkable tools within this process, the creation of objects, products, and interactions, take us further still in our discoveries about which kinds of lives are worth living.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman