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How brushing up on philosophy is the key to disruption

For me as a designer, philosophy is a kind of disruptive design provocation. It’s disruptive because it attacks the foundations of our belief systems — exposes the values we never knew were driving us — it breaks the box.

When Foucault exposes the microphysics of power, he lifts the curtain on social media in whole new ways. When we look at Indigenous philosophies and their focus on stewardship, it becomes shamefully clear how self-centric the Western-driven history of technology has been.

What’s exciting is that these revelations can lead to radically innovative new approaches to design.

What would Aristotle say about Facebook? How would Confucius have designed a social network? How would Kant program a robot? How can we design for diffuse empowerment? What would earth-centered technology even look like? I can’t think of more fascinating prompts for intelligent ideation.

We usually start our questioning too close to what already exists. Hence, the trap of incremental improvement and innovation block. The last 40000 years of world-changing philosophers never stopped at the incremental surface, and their ideas changed us dramatically.

via @samim on Twitter

Disclaimer: I, like most Americans, was sadly under-schooled in philosophy.

Our culture suffers from a dismissive prejudice that philosophy is a fluffy impractical waste of time. Those in the know pity our ignorance.

Take Aristotle. He invented logic as we know it, set in motion the thing we call “science”[i] and wrote 550 books on political science, poetry, comedy, meteorology, art, dialectical argument, ethics, economics, dreams, memory, rhetoric, divination, respiration, magnetism, anger, math, the soul, the universe and shellfish, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, on a shelf at the US Library of Congress sits a leather-bound copy of Aristotle’s Ethics dating from the 18th century. It belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

As this American forefather perused Aristotle’s pages by candlelight (the Declaration of Independence forming in his head) he made notes. Among the words he underlined, were Aristotle’s definition of happiness.[ii]

The entire bedrock of American values, economic and political systems grew from the work of philosophers.

Chinese culture is inextricable from the powerful influence (not just of that world-changing philosopher, Marx) but of the iconic Confucius, whose philosophy devised solutions to social order in response to years of war.

First Nation’s philosophies and Eastern superstars like the Buddha stand to guide our technology toward survival by revealing the ways in which the individual is utterly inseparable from life and land.

Machiavelli inserted the idea of “ends justifying means” into our vernacular. The beauty of philosophers is also in their radical disagreements. We are given a cornucopia of thoroughly-constructed ideas from which to be inspired.

Admittedly, I’m not speaking of disruption here in the cash cow sense that usually dominates. No doubt there’s cash to be made from tech that better sustains humanity. But I’m talking about industry disruption in a far more important way —changing the way we do technology so we can do it more ethically, globally, mindfully, sustainably, and humanely — in ways that don’t send us plummeting to self-destruction.

In other words, philosophy, better than anything else, can help us disruptively rethink our approaches to technology design, and that’s something we desperately need to do if we’re going to build a future we actually want to inhabit.

So it’s time for all of us who design, build, and use technology, to get down to the metalevel, dig deeper, and start thinking more philosophically.


[i] Barnes, J. (1995). The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. Chapter 2 “Logic” by Robin Smith P. 27

[ii] O’Toole, J. (2005). Creating the good life: applying Aristotle’s wisdom to find meaning and happiness. Rodale. p. 28

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