In this chapter of Dunne and Raby’s “Speculative Everything”, the opening paragraph starts with a brief discussion of the differences between design thinking and speculative-thinking, siting that the former is concerned mainly of solving problems in the here and now, while the latter serves as a way of “contesting official reality.” In other words, design thinking is about preparing for the future, whereas speculative-thinking is about creating a new type of future altogether.
On the other hand, Cameron Tonkinwise seems to disagree with this to an almost unbearable extent. In his “Just Design” article, he suggests that any kind of design, but specifically commercial design in his original discussion, that does not deploy speculative thinking and tactics is “unconvincing and irresponsible”. Essentially, speculative design should always be a part of any design process in order for it to have value, and does not warrant isolation as its own field of study. I don’t necessarily disagree, as I definitely feel there is a currently stagnation of mainstream innovation, as the pressures of capitalism have forced most commercial designers to constantly crank out new, and uninspired, product in order to sate consumers, as well as the pockets of those on top.
But other than agreeing on the notion that all designers should be thinking a bit more critically of the future, I simply cannot get behind him much further. Maybe it’s his post-everything attitude, and his line about “…artificial ecosystems of academic design research…” but this article just felt like a huge rip on everyone who places themselves in any of the fields he describes. I don’t think it should devalue someone’s work just because they give it a certain label, and feel that what they do should have a specialized purpose within the larger field of design. And besides, if one day speculative thinking does meet critical mass, in that all designers apply this methodology, all the time, every time, then what is to say that we won’t (continually) see the rise of another field of heightened design thinking.
On a completely different note, one of the big talking points in this chapter of Dunne and Raby’s “Speculative Everything” is the idea of micro-utopias, which I found particularly insightful, especially in regards to our current endeavors in class. They suggest that the “utopia” in the singular form cannot ever truly exist, because in reality, there essentially 7 billion different possible utopias the apply to each individual on Earth. It is summed up by a 1974 quote from Phillip K. Dick,
“Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, if reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are so me more true (more real) than others?”
From this, Dunne and Raby suggest the usefulness of individual, “micro-utopian” endeavors, that may only apply (or in other words, be desirable) to a small group of people, or even a singular person, but they hold a great deal of potential for inspiration, and provide a kind of jumping off point for actually thinking about a future in which these one-off ideas could be reality.
One project discussed in this chapter, of which I immediately responded to, is Joseph Popper’s “One Way Ticket”, and I feel it provides a good example of a kind of singularly applicable, “micro-utopia”. I personally find space travel endlessly fascinating and perpetually terrifying, and the concept of a no return, one-passenger trip into the void of space strikes severely on both of those cords. The imagery is straight out of a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but unlike the film, the end goal of the voyage is not so concrete; the craft isn’t chasing after any monoliths, or really anything for that matter. The project is presented in episodic videos that capture key points along the trip and aims to infer some of the “…unique psychological phenomena that could occur on a one-way trip.” One of the big considerations of this project is determining who would be the main subject of this experience, and what reasons might compel them to do so. Dunne and Raby suggest that perhaps terminally ill volunteers would choose to participate, or perhaps inmates serving life sentences, who would rather die for science than in prison. No matter the circumstances, this project is far from the romantic ideas we often hold about space travel and exploration, but it does present one kind of “micro-utopia” that almost undoubtedly provokes us to think about the repercussions and moral hang-ups we would have to address if this ever were to become a reality.
“Four Futures”, by Peter Frase, is the tale of two factors, robotic automation and climate change, and how they will basically be the deciding components in the future (or lack thereof) of capitalism. One of his main points is that both of these elements have the capacity to make things, in layman’s terms, very good or very bad for a large number of people, depending mainly on who has control of the circumstances.
A highly resonating line from Frase suggests, “who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately not a consequence of the robots themselves, but who owns them.” One of the major themes Frase continually repeats throughout this excerpt is the direct association between robotics technology and how, currently, their main goal is to in some to, in some way, shape, or form, function only to serve political/economic interests. When there is a shortage of human workers due to rising labor costs, corporations turn to automation to fill their spots, but this is if, and only if, the cost of labor becomes so high that it ultimately exceeds the cost of implementing automation technology. Basically, what Frase is suggesting is that under capitalism, robotics and automation are only viable options if they benefit the political and economic goals of those at the top, the ones who ultimately control the technology.
This led me to think back on my brief research assignment over automation within the garment industry. The True Cost is a documentary that provides a full disclosure look at the fashion and garment industries and the humanitarian issues that plague their very existence. According to their website there are roughly 40 million garment workers in the world, with 85% of them being women. As it stands, automation in the garment industry is still very much under development, and definitely not on massively large scales that would be needed for full industry automation. Under that notion, one might say it is safe to assume that these jobs are not under immediate threat. But more than anything that lead me to wonder, what does safe in this case?
While doing the initial research on these upcoming technologies, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “whom is this really going to be benefiting?” The two developers I looked into were both western based, and one specifically, SoftWear, limits its technology exclusively to U.S. based companies in order to promote “homegrown” production. Essentially, they hope to provide affordable, labor-free means of production, so American companies can stop relying on overseas workers. I think this illustrates a perfect example of how the benefits of automation, specifically in a capitalist system, only apply to those who control the technology, and those beneath it are left to work that much harder.
What I assume this might mean is that if this technology was implemented only in Western factories, where the goal is to ultimately be able to pull all of their money out of the Asian labor market, they are subsequently cutting jobs without producing any clear benefit or for the workers they are ousting. As suggested by Frase, there are many economists who claim that there is a natural cycle to automation: that eventually new, better jobs and opportunities will come about in the absence of a position now fully automated, and those who find themselves unemployed as a result will easily come to fill them. But in this case, the automation process is taking place in a completely different environment from where the jobs are that it will ultimate be replacing; American jobs are not being replaced with American automation, low-paying, exploitative jobs in under-developed countries are being replaced with American automation.
This is a really great talk from Sputniko! herself in which she provides some great insight on her relationship with pop culture and its relevance within her work. I definitely recommend checking out the first few minutes of the video in which she discusses this!
Guidelines for Envisioning Real Utopias, by Erik Olin Wright, actually presents us with quite a bit of hope for the future in the currently too-often bleak world of socioeconomics. As we see it today, capitalism is entirely past its peak. Some might even suggest that capitalism is so far past the peak that it is now violently hurling itself down the side of the mountain. Unfortunately, we don’t exactly know what we might find when we reach the end of that downfall, or if we will even find anything at all. As suggested by Wolfgang Streek in How Will Capitalism End? it is entirely possible, and more than likely, that we will not have an alternative set up and ready to instantaneously replace capitalism once it has reached full termination. Wright provides us with a pretty solid way of thinking in order to be at least nominally prepared for that time.
Socioeconomic alternatives should be evaluated by three criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability (in that order). Often times, genuine discussion and exploration of alternatives fall short, never reaching a point in which provide any insight for future projects, because those involved get caught on the implications of the “achievability” step, before they even get started. I think at this point, political pessimism, and the urgency with which we reject alternatives, is a troubling symptom of capitalism itself. So many people have been demotivated and crippled by the deep-seeded crises caused by capitalism, that they simply cannot find the value in trying to alter a system into something else that might be as just as equally damaging. The fear of the unknown will always triumph.
But on smaller scales around the globe, projects are in fact under way that may point to promising signs of change. The concept of Universal Basic Income has taken hold in many communities across the globe, most notably the campaign that began at the beginning of 2017 in Finland. The Finnish Social Security Institution, known as Kela, is supporting a project that provides a monthly allowance of non-taxable money, to 2,000 beneficiaries, who can use the money however they choose. However, of the 2,000 people supposedly chosen at random, they were only pulled from a selection of individuals who are currently unemployed and already receiving government assistance. While general reception of the program seems to be positive, I think it is unfortunately quite easy for the results to be significantly biased or lack true, useful potential, because of the narrow demographic Kela has chosen as beneficiaries. As Wright mentions, it is important to treat these small stepping-stones as if they were scalable, and could be applied to increasingly larger test groups. “Skimping” in a sense, creates unrealistic and misleading portrayals of the larger system at work, and in that case, it is much easier for experiments and small-scale projects to be quickly written off, simply as one-offs.
Fully Automated Garment Production
For the most part, the garment industry is already heavily dependent on robotics and automation for many individual aspects of production. Common in the industry are automated systems for picking cotton, industrially spun yarn, and lasers that than can quickly cut fabrics in bulk. Even recently, we have seen specialist machines capable of sewing pockets and attaching buttons. But even with all of these developments, as well as developments constantly arising from the outside, the brunt of clothing production still relies mainly on human hands. That is, until very recently.
One of the biggest hurdles has always been the flexible nature of fabrics, which robots are simply unequipped to handle and lack proper means of on the spot thinking for readjustment if the materials were to slip during assembly. However, in September of 2016, Jonathan Zarnow, researcher and sole founder of SEWBO, a Seattle-based startup, made a major breakthrough in combating the materials issue. His method involves coating fabrics in a water-soluble concoction of melted thermoplastics, which temporarily stiffen the fabric so it can be easily handled by a robotic arm. Once the garment is fully constructed, the coating can simply be rinsed off in hot water. The robotic arm initially used in prototyping was a collaborative Universal Robot, a commercial model (which you can own today for the low price of $35k!) that is designed to “work safely alongside humans,” however, Zarnow claims that any robot can be programmed to perform this kind of function.
Another big development comes from SoftWear automation, in the form of LOWRY, a fully automated assembly line, which can successfully construct t-shirts. It claims to be able to produce 1,142 shirts in an 8-hour period, as opposed to 700 that can be made in that time by a ten person sewing line. Currently, the LOWRY system is only being sold in the United States, because the SoftWear team wants to encourage increased American garment production by providing a cost effective means of doing so; virtually all commercial American fashion is outsourced overseas in one form or another, almost always due to human labor costs. Unfortunately, I’m unable to find much about the technological means that actually make these automated garment lines work, but I suppose that is to be expected of most emerging tech.
The most glaring issue that I foresee, as well as anyone with an understanding of automation, is the inevitable job loss these kinds of machines will cause. According to a report by the International Labor Organization, “Nearly 90% of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam are at risk of losing their jobs to automated assembly lines,” the overwhelming majority of which are women, with little means of employment elsewhere. Though, from a different vantage point, there’s also the ideal that implementing these machines will decrease stress and labor tolls put on garment workers, and possibly prevent future tragic incidents such as the Savar building collapse; in this utopia, automation could be used alongside human workers to make their jobs easier, rather than simply replacing them altogether.
As described by Dan Hill in his book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, strategic design involves the necessary acknowledgement and understanding of “dark matter”, which surrounds and influences any form of designed material you can imagine. The concept of dark matter, in regards to design, refers to the organizational and cultural contexts in which matter is produced, and how it ultimate has a direct outcome on the material outcome, even if it is undetectable to the user’s eye. A successful strategic designer cannot simply design for the future if they are not prepared to reimagine or reinvent the system (the dark matter contexts) in which their design will take form.
The example used by Hill, of dark matter’s organizational impact on material design, is of conceptual motor vehicle prototype, which is all well and good, and can elicit grand visions of the future, but it is highly unlike to ever come to fruition without taking into consideration the meta that surrounds its production. Hill suggests that just some of those structural considerations include “…the supply chains that might enable their construction and maintenance, the various traffic and planning regulations that must absorb a new vehicle, the refueling infrastructure, and so on.”
A recent proposal put forth in my hometown of Westerville, Ohio provided a chance for me to think about strategic design, or lack thereof, on a personal level. The area of interest is a small, historic section of shops and studios referred to as the Uptown District, and is mainly situated on one road, for probably less than a two-mile stretch. The proposition hopes to revitalize the area, which suffers heavily from business quickly moving in and out of the area, by undertaking a large-scale construction project to widen sidewalks up to seven feet in width in hopes of increasing foot traffic, but as a result remove virtually all space for street parking and create even narrower traffic lanes. Unfortunately, the plan seems to be disconnected from its context within a higher system, and I for one can see it leading to failure. Just some of the structural, systematic dark matter that they have seemingly failed to recognize includes: decreased parking space for businesses in a suburban setting where cars are the main mode of transportation, taxpayers who have been subjected to major construction projects consistently for the past decade, rent increases for small organizations, etc.
I found that this method of deeper level design thinking relates back heavily to the core ideology of speculative design; the idea using design not just as a means of creating products and services for the future, but designing, or re-designing, the actual future itself. Towards the end of the excerpt, Hill discusses how strategic design is inherently exploratory, and rarely has a clear vision for where an idea may end up, as well as the experiences and learnings that ultimately determine how it is achieved (or fails). Strategic design and conceptual design both function under the notion of not necessarily producing the “right” answers, but creating open ended spaces in which we can explore, discuss, and experiment with all possible answers.
Before even delving into the text, the title of Streeck’s essay, How Will Capitalism End?, elicits a vision (at least for myself) of an anarchy fueled, dystopian future where capitalism has suddenly been eradicated. As if one day it will just suddenly disappears unbeknownst to anyone, and the world will be thrown into panic and discord. How will we know what to do when that day comes, since as we all know, consciously so or not, capitalism has always been the only solution?
Well fear not, because that definitely is not how it’s going to happen. In Streeck’s analysis, he makes it pretty clear that the end of capitalism as we know it is already underway. He talks extensively about the various ways in which capitalism is progressively degrading, and how the chance for improvement or rebound is highly unlikely, as virtually all of the problems that modern capitalism is facing are problems that the system has brought upon itself.
Capitalism thrives off of the exploitation of labor, land, and money, but it is not an unknown fact that all of those things are limited in quantity. As Steeck state, markets “…have an inherent tendency to expand beyond their original domain, the trading of material goods, to all other spheres of life, regardless of their suitability for commodification.” Essentially, capitalism has always been set to implode on itself, because of its inability to recognize that it has simply gotten too big, too insatiable. Capitalism has consumed everything in sight, and yet there is absolutely nothing that can keep it from wanting more.
One of Streeck’s points that I found most interesting is the notion that capitalism is most likely going to end without a backup plan already in sight. Socialism is probably the most reasonable answer, and is currently what most people today claim to support. But it makes me think, are our problems so easily solvable as to just switch to something else? As of right now, I think I agree with Streeck in saying that we cannot possibly imagine what the alternative to capitalism will be, mostly because it probably does not exist yet. Even though my personal views fall to the far left, I find it absurd to assume that any change will ever occur, and have long lasting impact, without being able to think outside of the systems we already have in place. I suppose this relates back to the essence of speculative design, in being able to imagine multiple paths or scenarios for the future, even if they do not necessarily lead to something objectively “better”.
An article from The Nation presents examples of how small organizations of people across the country are already beginning this process of re-imagination. In California there is a collective called the Food Commons Fresno project, that is bringing together landowners, farmers, food processors, distributors, retailers, and workers “…to support a shared mission: high-quality, safe, locally grown food that everyone can afford.” In a time when government continually fails its people, individuals are taking it upon themselves to create new forms of cooperatives and unions that support a collective whole. While these efforts may seem small and dispersed, they provide a positive outlook on what the future may hold. While the concept of shared wealth and public services are inherently socialist values, what we might eventually see take hold is a system that is inspired by socialism, but with a completely new set of rules to better suit the crises that we now have to deal with.