Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design

A rant on the undiscerning privilege that permeates most Speculative Design projects.


In the past few days we’ve been following this excellent and profoundly enlightening discussion on MoMA’s Design and Violence page. The conversation, initiated by John Thackara’s comments on Burton Nitta’s project “Republic of Salivation”, was further developed in the comment section. The issue at stake was the presumed naivety of the project while dealing with a subject that might be dystopian to some, but in some other parts of the world it has been the reality for decades. During the — still ongoing — debate, one of the most pressing issues to emerge was the political accountability of Speculative and Critical Design (from now on, referred to as SCD) or its lack thereof.

When questioned on the validity of a discipline that consistently dismisses and willingly ignores struggles other than those that concern the intellectual white middle classes — precisely the environment where SCD comes from — designer James Auger responded:

“What is this obsession with class systems? The UK may have its financial problems but most of us stopped obsessing about these divides in the distant past.”

As brazilian designers based in Germany struggling to understand our position in the blindly privileged environment of SCD, Auger’s reaction sounds all too familiar. Being able to ignore things like class, gender and race is the clearest demonstration of privilege: you don’t notice it (or rather, sometimes knowingly choose not to) precisely because it doesn’t affect you. As a discipline theorised within the safe confines of developed, northern european countries and practiced largely within an overwhelmingly white, male, middle class academic environment, SCD has successfully managed to ignore, or at best only vaguely acknowledge, issues of class, race and gender (with few exceptions). Instead, the vast majority of the body of work currently available in the field has concentrated its efforts on envisioning near futures that deal with issues that seem much more tangible to their own privileged crowd. Projects that clearly reflect the fear of losing first-world privileges — gastronomical, civil or cultural — in a bleak, dystopic future abound, while practitioners seem to be blissfully unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge, in some cases) of other realities.

The visual discourse of SCD also seems interestingly devoid of people of color, who rarely (if ever) make an appearance in the clean, perfectly squared, aseptic world imagined by these designers-researchers. Couples depicted in these near-future scenarios seem to be consistently heterosexual; there is no poverty, there are no noticeable power structures that divide the wealthy and the poor, or the colonialist and the colonised; gender seems to be an immutable, black-and-white truth, clearly defined between men and women, with virtually no space for trans* and queer identities (let alone queer and trans* voices speaking for themselves). From its visual discourse to its formulations of near-future scenarios, SCD seems to be curiously apathetic and apolitical for a discipline that strives to be a critical response to mainstream perceptions of what design is, and what it should do.

So answering Auger’s pressing question — “What is this obsession with class systems?” —, well: we are obsessed with class systems because we can’t help it. Because, in contrast to most of the practitioners in the field of SCD, we do not have the privilege of not thinking about issues of race, class and gender. Because your dystopia is happening to us, right now. It’s happening when we get harassed because of our gender, our class or our ethnicity. It’s happening when a brazilian citizen is killed by british police with no explanation, apology or reason other than being a foreigner. It’s happening because where we come from, the reality suggested by The Republic of Salivation isn’t so far-fetched. And because if we don’t call out your privilege — though you dismiss it as “misguided suggestions of privilege” — this is what will keep on happening: SCD will never evolve past a discipline stuck in its own little universe of weather forecasts and smart fridges, incapable of seeing how shallow its own speculations are, and how much more relevant and inclusive they could be.

Right now, SCD’s preoccupations are directed towards nothing more than an alleged “lack of poetic dimensions” in our relationship with electronic objects. The “social narratives” and “criticism” so advertised by the great majority of its practitioners seem to only apply to the aesthetic concerns of the intellectual northern european middle classes. Those dystopian “critical futures” forget (or oversee it for a lack of empathy toward the subject matter) that the very electronic objects that they are talking about not only are — and will continue to be — accessible to a minimum percentage of the world’s population, but also that those who won’t have access to it will likely be exploited to make that reality happen, one way or another. It is extremely frustrating to observe how SCD practitioners depict a dystopian universe where technology comes to paint a world in which their own privileges of their own reality are at stake, while at the same time failing to properly acknowledge that design is a strong contributor to the complete denial of basic human rights to minorities, right here, right now. Those sleek, shiny gadgets and sentient objects and robots SCD designers are keen to portray come only to the aid of white, middle class, cisgendered heterosexual citizens. But no SCD dystopian scenario takes into account that this pervasive “technological menace” will most probably be manufactured in China, Indonesia or Bangladesh (as suggested by Ahmed Ansari in the comments section in the original post). And we cannot help but reinforce that SCD is a practice whose origins and current developments, so far, happen within colonialist countries.

Despite all of its shortcomings, we do believe that SCD has something necessary and valid to offer to society. We do believe that design is a powerful language, one that it is perfectly positioned to provide relevant social and cultural critique, and that envisioning near future scenarios might just help us reflect on the paths we want to take as a society. In order to truly achieve these goals, however, SCD needs to be held accountable for its political and social positions; it urgently needs to escape its narrow northern european middle class confines; it needs to talk about social change; it needs more diversity, both in its visual representations and in the practitioners in the field. A first step, perhaps, would be to acknowledge that these issues are at stake instead of just dismissing them as useless concerns. Speculative Design can only earn its “Critical” name once it leaves its own comfort zone and start looking beyond privilege, for real.

After all, as brilliantly described by Ahmed in the thread:

“The political, economic, social and cultural implications of technologies are never local but always global and systemic — they ripple out and affect people you may never know or see in your lifetime. It’s great to believe in the promise of technological progress when you belong to a class and a society that will directly get to reap its benefits in the end.”