Design Manifesto: Goodbye Human, Hello Alien.

Design not incremental improvement but radical vision

Masaki Iwabuchi
Oct 19, 2018 · 7 min read

Design for Alien

Now in 2018, we are already becoming a “cyborg” that Donna Haraway argued in the Cyborg Manifesto [1] about 30 years ago. The breakdown of boundaries between “human and animal,” “animal-human and machine,” and” physical and non-physical” she anticipated is taking place with current studies such as living systems theory, artificial organs, and natural science. In the next 30 years, an American futurist Ray Kurzweil [2] predicts that the technological singularity will come, and we will be closer to “post-human” biologically with future technologies such as artificial superintelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. Possibly the human race of the 22nd or 23rd century is an “alien” in our present sense.

Predicted Tokyo in 2061

However, is that “alien era” full of dreams and hopes? In movies and science fiction, dystopian future is often drawn than utopia. This fact means that it is getting more and more ambiguous whether we are heading for the “wonderful” future because human’s existential meaning and bioethics could change dramatically. Among such unpredictable times, the thing we currently need is not a small, incremental advancement based on human-centered design but an exponential, radical vision based on alien-centered design. Designers must not correct the broken road at our feet but create a compass and a bridge to proceed toward the alien era.

Design for Romanticism

In the field of art, at the end of the 18th century, romanticism was born in Europe and valued sensitivity and subjectivity against rationality and regularity that formed human values until then. Dreams, ideal worlds and personal feelings that had been neglected at that time were expressed vigorously, and this principle also had a significant influence on future generations.

Similarly, current design also needs more romantic and visionary principle instead of blindly believing the bottom-up incremental improvement. Imagine what kind of culture and society we want to live rather than what kind of products we need. Jump up to the mutational future beyond the current paradigm rather than looking forward to the future as an extension of the current paradigm. Draw a future romance and create a utopian vision rather than extracting the current user needs and commercializing products.

Design for Decadent

In the 19th century, the decadent doubted the optimists and progressivists of romanticism and pursued a new type of beauty contrary to established value and morality. These cultural tides tell us that if our premise and principle change, a new way of thinking will be born and we could also accept even what is being said to be vice, taboo, or counterfactual in the present sense.

In the design field, Dunne and Raby explore possibilities of “dark” design in their book Speculative Everything [3]. They argued ironic prototypes make people think about the meaning of them because idealism and optimism are essentially underlying in the dark design. Therefore, design for decadent is also meaningful because the future is not necessarily a desirable future for us. Even dystopia for us may be a utopia for future aliens. By presenting possibilities including negative aspects, we can gain reality for the future and think about a new vision.

Design for Alternative World

As mentioned above, designers are professionals who can imagine “alien,” “romanticism,” and also “decadent.” Designers can pose questions to the current value and make a significant social impact by creating a radical vision. However, this futuristic vision must be scientifically possible and feasible as our alternative world because this type of design had to change the behavior of the current human race finally and lead us to the future alien. Just with beautiful stories or tragic fantasies, it is not different from movies.

In this context, the critical approach is the speculative fusion of design and science. In the 1960’s, the Italian architect group Superstudio [4] proposed dystopian images of future architectures as a critique of the real world such as the city where capitalism has excessively advanced, and the era when the surveillance society arrived. Although their futuristic images were far from the real architecture, the realistic vision allowed people to imagine what sort of future city they want to live. In this example, the design works as a device that probes a new direction of our philosophy as well as an opportunity to doubt our vision.

The vision may be abstract, but it must be a compass for people to extend their horizons and explore new perspectives. The vision may deviate from our current ethics, but it must have an (ideally sustainable) ecosystem that may function as our alternative world. The vision may be like a poem, but it must have a sufficient resolution that people can realistically imagine the world where they live in the future.

Design for Collective Entity

Transition Design [5][6] argues that we are living in ‘transitional times’ and calls for new ways of designing that are based upon a deep understanding of how to design for change and transition within complex systems. Currently, the scope of design is not limited to the layer of appearance and user experience and is expanding to the layer of society and even our collective living ecosystem.

Therefore, designers’ mission is making tangible and shareable prototypes that probe the future visions promised by emerging technologies and encourage the community to discuss and co-create our future policy as a collective entity. These prototypes function as a catalyst to encourage people’s participation and explore a way that humanity proceeds as a whole. For that purpose, prototypes in this context must not be treated as like a piece of art that separate from everyday life but be recognized as “daily necessities” which are entering people’s lives. The prototype is the fragment of the future and must function as a ladder between people’s daily lives and the distant future so that people perceive the prototype poses a question to themselves. In so doing, design can change the role of citizens: from receivers of services to co-producers to overcome 21st-century problems.

Design for Individual

Finally, the ultimate aim of the design mentioned in this manifesto is to foster reflection and behavioral change of individuals. In contemporary art, there are areas where positive, negative, elegant, and inferior things are treated equally, and audiences can receive messages even from works contrary to our values.

However, the design focuses on just “good,” and ambitious products such as “tools to kill people gently” are seldom come out. It is a mission of design to cultivate a mindset that the future can be both positive and negative, and enrich the range of our discussion more diversely. At least, it is crucial that posing a problem itself be recognized as the value of design, and then we can discuss the diegetic world ahead of the designed prototype. In so doing, individuals can update their principles by themselves and change their behavior. Eventually, accumulation of these personal reflections strengthens our collective vision toward the alien era and fosters us to create actionable steps to solve the current complex problems in a visionary way.

Design for the 22nd Century

Many of the challenging problems we face are so complex that they cannot be solved through a traditional top-down political process or via any single discipline. However, whenever “problems” arise, they are converted into easy-to-understand slogans such as “elderly people,” “disaster prevention,” “healthcare,” and media consumes them at high speed.

In this situation, by considering the future “alien” humanity, we can reframe how to handle the “problem” itself, such as what is the fundamental factor of aging and how the concept of age should change in the future. Thinking problems from the alien-centered approach, we can design the direction we indeed should proceed. Designers must design for future aliens, and the echo from the 22nd century changes people’s way of thinking.

Reference

[1] Donna Haraway, “ Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature”, Routledge, 1991.
[2] Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”, Penguin Books, 2005.
[3] Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, SPECULATIVE EVERYTHING: DESIGN, FICTION AND SOCIAL DREAMING, The MIT Press, 2013.
[4] Gabriele Mastrigli Ed., “Superstudio Works 1966–1978 (Italian Edition)”, Publisher Quodlibet, 2017.
[5] Terry Irwin, Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design Practice, Study and Research, Design and Culture Journal, Sept. 2015.
[6] Transdisciplinary Design, TRANSDISCIPLINARY Design Thesis 2017, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform,2017.

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Masaki Iwabuchi

Written by

Practice-based Design Researcher in NY. Formerly Visiting Lecturer@KYOTO Design Lab, Product Design Lead@IBM. https://masakiiwabuchi.me/

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