Samurai, ninjas, and “disabling” design

In his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, H.G. Wells imagined a future world in which a small group of highly skilled creative workers wielded enormous power over the rest of society. He dubbed this new breed of elite professionals the “Samurai.”

A single quality distinguished Wells’s Samurai from everyone else: Poiesis, from the ancient Greek ποιέω, meaning literally “to make” (the word “poetry” shares the same root). Wells’s poietic worker possesses a capacity for creative problem-solving — as evidenced by mastery of a productive technique like painting, writing, medicine, engineering, and such.

These workers possess “imaginations that range beyond the known and accepted,” Wells wrote, enabling them to work towards “the invention of something new or the discovery of something hitherto unperceived.”

In other words: They design.

More than a century later, we may be witnessing the emergence of just such a class of worker in the form of modern-day technology professionals, who collectively exert vast influence over our lives by shaping the channels through which culture, commerce, and political power increasingly flow.

Wells might have chuckled that at least some of these workers now choose to identify themselves as “ninjas.”

The power and privilege of experience design

Illustration from H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905)

Wells’s notion of the Samurai finds echoes in the later work of the cultural critic Ivan Illich, who coined the term “disabling professions” to describe the privileged place of contemporary knowledge workers like lawyers, doctors, and social workers — all of whom have accrued enormous power and authority through the exertion of a kind of asymmetrical information advantage that, coupled with state sponsorship, gives them broad powers to influence the life, death and general well-being of the population at large.

Today, however, we are seeing these advantages giving way to the disruptive and seemingly democratizing effects of a global information network. Whereas information that was once tightly controlled by these gatekeepers now seems on the surface to become open and available, however, in reality that information flows through channels that are shaped and curated by a new breed of “disabling” professional: technology workers. And more specifically: experience designers.

For most of the past two centuries, most graphic designers worked primarily as skilled service providers, furnishing their talents to clients on a work-for-hire basis. But as the design professions came into their own over the second half of the twentieth century, the practices of graphic and industrial design became increasingly intertwined with mainline business management.

Former IBM Chairman Tom Watson Jr. gave voice to this symbiotic relationship with his famous decree that “good design is good business.” Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, IBM began to recognize the vast cultural and economic influence it could wield through designing systems and experiences for the management of information. Molly Steenson has traced the roots of IBM’s design transformation to the company’s hiring of industrial designer Eliot Noyes in 1956. Along with design luminaries like Charles Eames, Paul Rand, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, Noyes began a long campaign to extend the company’s reach across broad swaths of the American economy. As Steenson puts it, “Noyes understood the role of design to amass and exact power.”

Over the past twenty years, we have seen an even more powerful class of design practice emerging across the global corporate landscape, through the agency of professionals known variously as UX designers and researchers, interaction designers, information architects, and so on.

Witness the the growth of in-house design competencies at major firms like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and other (mostly for-profit) companies that now mediate much of humanity’s access to its own intellectual capital.

Coupled with the cult of Design Thinking in management circles, design professionals now wield unprecedented power and influence through their creation of product interfaces, services, taxonomies, and other mechanisms that increasingly delimit our cultural choices.

The paradox of the global network is that for all its surface-level openness and freedom, it has also yielded a lopsided power curve that has effectively turned the lives and experiences of the billions of people into marketable commodities (cf. Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget), creating an economy of dependence that ultimately benefits a powerful class of knowledge workers at the top of the information economy.

The Samurai seem to have won. But will it last?

Renewal and reconciliation

The growth of the design professions over the past two centuries has followed a similar trajectory to other industrial-age professions, a period marked by increasing power and self-reinforcing privilege. But as we enter an age of post-capitalist design, will these advantages hold?

Illich argues that “the waning of the current professional ethos is a necessary condition for the emergence of a new relationship between needs, contemporary tools, and personal satisfaction.”

If we are to envision a more balanced world with fewer disabling information asymmetries, we must develop What Illich calls a “non-deferential posture” towards professional expertise across a wide range of fields. “Social reconstruction,” he writes, “begins with a doubt raised among citizens.”

The capitalist framing that underlies so much of contemporary experience design — the overweening focus on encouraging consumption, and the centrality of “user needs” to so many design processes — has created a kind of path dependency (to borrow Trevor Pinch’s term) whereby, as Kakee Scott et al. put it, “technology exercises a form of power to maintain patterns of behavior in society.”

The UX community has long been awash in humanist rhetoric — with designers often espousing the virtues of empathy, understanding, and compassion for the “user.” And those aspirations have doubtless resulted in better products, reduced levels of friction and customer frustration, and a growing culture of human-centeredness in many organizations. This is all well and good. But it is not enough.

As Scott et al. put it, “[u]ser-centered approaches… generally lack a critical basis so that ‘the fashion for so-called ethnographic enquiry’ uses a focus on ‘user needs’ to legitimize the conventional motive of design, which is, of course, to make and sell presumably better, but most definitely more stuff.”

To realize more positive systems-level outcomes that benefit society as a whole — and begin lifting the world’s consumers from their state of learned dependency — we need to envision a new kind of design practice that:

  • Questions the automatic tendency to take “user” needs as a given
  • Factors in non-monetary forms of capital into our work (such as social, environmental, intellectual, and spiritual capital)
  • Embraces more ecosystem-oriented approaches to design, “as a framework for analyzing the social nature of consumption”
  • Integrates a range of other considerations into the design process, such as social norms, practical and cognitive routines, physical and cognitive habits, and inter-related artifacts and technologies.

None of which is to say that business and monetary outcomes are automatically bad; rather, we need to find ways of balancing these other considerations to combat the “rampant economism” that has characterized the age of late-stage industrial capitalism and created such economic, environmental, and social imbalance in the world.

The core practices of experience design, rooted in humanist understanding and practiced largely by idealistic, altruistic, and well-meaning “Samurai,” could easily lend themselves towards a set of considerations more attuned to these changing times. Experience design stands poised at an inflection point: forged in the container of late-stage industrial capitalism, it may also harbor the seeds of new and powerful forms of reinvention.

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