The tools we use help to determine the nature of the user. They can be used to both liberate and oppress. This is the shared stance of Ivan Illich, a labor activist, and Herbert Dreyfus, a philosopher whose research focuses on artificial intelligence (AI). Their divergent practices converge upon this issue. By examining how two different disciplines can arrive at similar conclusions, I hope to better understand my own discipline — design — and my relationship with its tools. Employing this methodology I will expose the power structures embedded within design tools. Identifying these, I will propose an alternative in the spirit of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Rabby: one that speculates a different kind of computational design practice.
In the course of their research, both Illich and Dreyfus find themselves grappling with the the industrial experience and how it is mediated by tools. They approach this common point from the perspective of two different subjects: human and machine. Dreyfus argues that AI, arising on a discrete state machine, that is, a binary machine capable of emulating any operating system, is denied a key aspect of what we recognize as intelligence. In this arrangement, the machine is denied the nuance of phenomenological experience, and with it the embodied, intuitive, non-linear processes that make organic intelligence possible. For Dreyfus, the representative mind cannot be liberated while represented on discrete state machines. He maintains not all knowledge can be broken down into symbolic logic. For this reason, discrete state machines will only be capable of representation, not embodied forms of intuition. This does not mean such machines lack intelligence. Dreyfus believes it is possible for some kinds of intelligence to emerge within a discrete state machine. This intelligence, however, would be dispossessed.
Dreyfus finds unlikely agreement with Illich. Illich argues that many industrial tools require the worker to be transformed into a kind of discrete state machine. The body becomes an operating system inscribed by the programs of the political-economy. Workers are pushed into a condition similar to that of an artificial intelligence, becoming interchangeable: able to take on new programs through standardized education. Workers become extensions of the tools, rather than agents in their own right.
The metaphor of worker as a discrete state machine comes into sharper relief as Illich describes the distillation of industrial experience into binary states. For example, cars require roads. Ubiquitous systems of roads alter the layout of cities. They increase the scale of sprawl and push suburban expansion. Cities are then built for one mode of transportation, limiting the ability of the individual who wants to transport themselves by foot. Such a system creates binary states: one of rapid movement in cars, along the roadway, and one of non-movement, within the office and home. This dependance on the car as a tool for movement transforms the city into a specific kind of operating system — one in which only Turing complete subjects can move.
Illich warns against tools that limit actions to prescribed binaries. Equally, he urges the abandonment of tools that translate nuanced experience into the motions of discrete state machines: tools that transform workers into appendages. Not only does such an arrangement disenfranchise the worker, it consolidates power in the hands of those who produce the tools. This, for Illich, is a key sticking point. Reclaiming the power over tool production is as important as reclaiming sovereignty over experience. In fact, according to him, they are synonymous actions.
The antidote, according to Illich, is the adoption of tools that promote agency, and place us in healthy material relationships with our environment. Such tools serve to liberate the natural movements of bodies, amplifying the motion of muscles. They return workers to a human time frame. They allow an individual to modify their tools, rather than forcing the worker to adapt to the constraints of the tool. An example of this is the bicycle. For Illich, this meets all the criteria. It directly translates human movement into motion. It allows a person to move through the city at a liberatory pace, without creating binaries of transportation. One can walk a bike, ride it; use it on dirt, gravel, or pavement; navigate down wide roads, or narrow trails. A bicycle requires little specialized training and can be maintained easily, using parts at hand. It can me modified for different kinds of bodies, made recumbent, turned into a trike, or given a protective, waterproof shell. All of these qualities combine to characterize a liberatory tool.
Illich’s definition is imperfect. It fails to acknowledge how its tenants may be abilitist. He also fails to look at gender and its relationship to tools. Comparing Illich’s understanding of tools to Haraway’s notion of woman as cyborg could help expand these under-explored areas. Still, there is value in using both Illich’s and Dreyfus’s framework as a way to examine the relationship between the designer and their tools. According to them, what’s at stake is not only the nature of the self, but our ability to achieve sovereign thought and action.
To look at design, we must examine its tools. In the past, design tools were mechanical. Now, the letterpress has been replaced, first with phototypesetting and today with digital printing methods. Now, digital tools dominate the industry. Given this, there are two layers to examine: the hardware and the software. I’ll begin with a brief examination of hardware.
The hardware that defines the designer is the Macbook. Illich would not be a fan. First, the desktop computer does not amplify the natural motion of the body. Instead, it requires the user to sit in place for hours at a time, often at a cost to our health. Moreover, hardware requires centralized power systems both for extraction and assemblage. There are other less obvious consequences. Microchips enable the physical alienation of the worker. This is the explicit use-case of companies like Uber and Lyft. Bypassing regulations, the hardware has had a direct impact on the ability of software to centralize power. Job allocation is held by a few key players. Even in Union strongholds, such as shipyards, automated SMS systems have replaced union halls. The same can be seen in the design world. Sites like Fiverr exploit the hardware of the network with the effect of decentralizing the studio. With this, the designer is transformed into an interchangeable component within the digital design system.
More insidious, designers have become appendages not only of the hardware but of software as well. The software that defines the industry is the Adobe Creative Suite. It is taught at university. Fluency in the Suite is a prerequisite for all design jobs. There are no real software alternatives. While open source design tools exist, these are not widely used. More importantly, proprietary Adobe file types make it necessary for employers to regulate the software designers uses. Issues of compatibility create binaries: Adobe or nothing.
Adobe holds a monopoly over the tools of digital design. Work becomes an output — an extension of the services provided by the cloud. Designers become discrete state machines, expected to run programmatic practices compatible with the cloud services on offer. The designer is plugged into the tools, forced to adapt to the program. In fact, it is impossible to modify the source code of Adobe products. This means that customization is limited to the superficial. New layers of usability, additional features, or modification of functions cannot be achieved. With a few exceptions, such as InDesign Python API, it is impossible to engage with the software beyond the GUI. Even then, this is largely limited to batch actions — in other words, it’s not generative.
Hardware and software serve to centralize power and transform designers into discrete state machines. The most widely used creative tools act like roadways. With all designers using the Adobe Suite, design begins to shape itself around those tools. The possibilities of design become limited. Certain patterns emerge, like the patterns of suburbia, shaped by the needs of the automobile. Designers inadvertently subscribe to these standardized patterns in much the same way that they subscribe to the cloud itself.
Design is an appendage of the industrial process. Not only does it serve industry, it is subsumed with in it. As Anthony Dunne and Fiona Rabby write, “design has become so absorbed in industry, so familiar with the dreams of industry, that it is almost impossible to dream its own dreams, let alone social ones.”
Liberating the designer requires a complete reimagining of the tools we use and the social context these tool exists within. Developing a design practice in line with Illich’s tenants requires a kind of seeing that extends beyond the market. It requires sensitivity to the concerns of community and the fluctuations of the environment. Transcending the condition of a discrete state machine means celebrating the phenomenological experience of design. Such a practice values sensitivity to the social and ecological environment: acting within systems of generational knowledge and tradition. Such a practice sees place as the primary medium. Such a practice strives to be inseparable: in the way champagne can be from nowhere but its provincial namesake.
This is more than a creative framework: it is also transactional framework, proposing an alternative to centralized systems of aggregated power. In practice, this means participation in the local economy, prioritizing clients who are neighbors, friends and small business owners. This means working within local manufacturing and food systems. This means reinvesting in the community, keeping capital out of corporate coffers and returning money to craftspeople, farmers, and community development projects.
Moving beyond design binaries requires competence in a wide range of skills. It means opening design beyond the screen. It means working in different materials, jumping from fibers, to print, to furniture production: applying methodologies to any task at hand. This doesn’t mean being an expert at everything. In fact, it means the opposite. It means being able to identify strengths and weakness — stepping forward at times, stepping backwards at others. It means participating in fluid systems hierarchy. During its heyday, workers in the International Typographical Union were required to learn every position in the shop in order to facilitate this kind of dynamic process. If one worker was sick, or felt they could better support the project elsewhere, another worker could take over that position.
This requires reviving design union traditions — taking inspiration from, and learning from the mistakes of the past. It also means visiting other histories, examining William Morris’s reaction to industrialization and his work advocating for the return to guild systems. A key part of this kind of design practice must be collective bargaining. With higher wages, and shorter working hours, designers have the opportunity to pursue meaningful activities such as gardening, undertaking home repairs, developing neighborhood projects and much more. In short, such action have a liberatory result.
What would an equivalent to the Creative Cloud look like in such a liberatory system? In the spirit of Dunne and Rabby’s, I look towards the past and the future in order to “unsettle the present.” I propose a self-consciously complex alternative to the Creative Cloud. I do this both to draw attention to what a liberatory design practice might look like and to demonstrate the distance between this and the present relationship designers hold with their tools.
- I propose the creation of a computational machine that would orient the user within Illich’s liberatory frameworks.
- It will be designed to augment the bodies natural motion.
- It will not rely on centralized power structures, either for its material or assembly.
- It will require a team to operate, employing a variety of skills which can be distributed within a dynamic hierarchy.
- The skills will be specialized, but will be learnable through apprenticeship.
- The machine will be installed in a public space, which will serve as a union hall.
- The machine will be comprised of at least two looms.
- Knots will act as holes do on a computer punch card. A combination of three knots along a cross-section will translate to a set of ascii characters in which programming may take place.
- The programming language will be Turing complete, allowing the machine to emulate any operating system.
- A sparse Linux distro will be run on the loom.
- Executing commands from the woven interface, the machine will return responses on the same loom through mechanical means.
- Working memory will be stored as knots on an unshared loom. This private loom will be rewritable, limited to a predefined number of characters/knots.
- All memory will be material, existing as a temporary tapestry.
- All commands and responses will be immutably recorded in an ongoing tapestry.
- A generative command line interface program will be run.
- A digital design artifact will be generated on the loom employing only liberatory methods.
- The timeframe of such a project is generational.