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Designed conflict territories

As the traditional role of the commons is lost to proprietary, securitised technology and authoritarian control, could designed conflict territories provide a radically different social platform where agonistic conflict could play out?

Critical design, a conceptual offshoot of industrial and product design, has been encouraging debate through provocative design work for the last ten years. It may now be time to use the established principles of the critical approach to design to actually create change by using it in tandem with technology to create new digital territories for political commons. These Designed Conflict Territories would take on the role of the commons lost to proprietary and securitised technology which was originally promised as political liberation as well as the gradual collapse of the effectiveness of protest.

But there are also problems with this proposal, at a point in time where critics begin to doubt the veracity of critical design and designers as a whole, are fearful of appearing subjective to a political viewpoint. Should designers as masters of contemporary communication radicalise themselves to encourage or enact change?

The principles of critical design are perhaps most concisely laid down in Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s A/B - A Manifesto a list of terminologies associated with ‘mainstream’ design and their opposites. However, I’ve never really believed this to be a concrete manifesto per se. This manifesto is a provocation in itself, suggesting that design is political holding implications beyond the creation of wealth, thus advocating designers to take a position.

A/B A Manifesto by Dunne and Raby, Copyright Dunne and Raby

Design has always been a conducting rod between technology and the markets. The laser for instance, was largely unused outside of physics circles until the CD came along. Technology will lie dormant until a market force comes along that will compel someone to design it into a product or tool and utilise it. This has meant the history of design is intrinsically tied to the market and design has been worked to appease it.

In a sense then, what critical design is for is taking technologies and plotting alternative trajectories for them outside of the market’s vision in what is sometimes called the ‘future’s cone ’ - a visual way of projecting the trajectories of future technologies into uncertainty.

Benedict Singleton, a philosopher and designer in his brilliant essay, Maximum Jailbreak defines design as the creation of traps rather than new behaviours or technologies - the rearranging of existing phenomena and behaviours to elicit new ones. Take for example the gramophone: The speaker cone will amplify sound. The needle will follow a groove and vibrate along its contours. The turntable will spin and the crank can provide power. All of these elements were previously known to the designer of the gramophone, he didn’t create any of them, simply arranged them in such a form as to create a thing known as a gramophone.

The great thing about a gramophone, as Julian Oliver, the ring-leader of the critical engineers, points out is that you can look at it for a few hours and get a pretty good idea of how it works. You too understand the elements and the functions, and can quickly see how they’ve been exploited to produce louder recorded music.

Now, as Oliver will point out, look at Apple’s iPod. You could look at it for the rest of your life and never understand how it works, not without extensive training and insider knowledge. The iPod of course, is a significantly more advanced piece of technology that is much more powerful than a gramophone but this progress speaks of Bruno Latour’s idea of the Black Box - the more advanced technology becomes, the harder it is to understand. However, Apple intentionally hide their technology from their customers, you will invalidate your warranty if you try to take apart your iPod to understand how it works, and if you have the gall to share any knowledge you might glean from your dissection of their gadget you’ll be hit with a cease and desist order at best - at worst, a court summons. You never truly own the object and you’re never allowed to understand it.

The problem is that this this philosophy towards technology rights, ownership, agency and power also permeates our politics. Protest has been successively and successfully locked down since the late-sixties to become a manufactured, flat-packed thing of performative gesture that take place mostly on Facebook. The Snowden leaks revealed how companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, once the liberal saviours of the computer age colluded with the security services to build a huge and comprehensive Black Box that encloses the planet using the very same philosophies that run through their products - impermeability, opacity, elegance and usability. ‘It just works’ could be the byline; just never ask how or why. 

PRISM: The Beacon Frame by Julian Oliver and Dana Vasiliev grabs wi-fi information from nearby devices and projects it onto walls. It was banned by the technical supervisors of Transmediale 2014 under threat of arrest. Copyright Danja Vasiliev

There are already good projects starting to challenge this hegemony - the work of the critical engineers for one. Their recent shutdown of a project critiquing PRISM was indicative of the power this work has in provoking concern amongst the security services. And then there’s real-world projects like the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network, a mesh network that exists outside the confines of the Internet, built in response to poor infrastructure, government crackdowns during the protests and then NSA spying allegations. The AWMN is a peer-to-peer network devoid of Facebook, Google or the NSA built as a political solution to a political problem.

The Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network is a free peer-to-peer network operating in Athens as parallel to the Internet.

Critical design primarily serves to create debate. For most of the canon, the projects imagined are often wildly speculative, taking place in worlds far outside our current context. Can critical design, which has now established its strength in creating these debates begin to create change?

One of the major problems is measuring the effect of what is largely intellectual work. The work’s viral capabilities give it the potential to travel and meet new audiences, but so do gifs of cats which probably do nothing in the long term to help humanity. Probably. This has led to large debate about the power, ability or right of critical (or speculative, as it is sometimes also called) design to address ‘real’ issues. A comment thread on New York’s Museum of Modern Art website has recently generated a lot of attention with critics associating the practice with pointless, expensive imaginings, science fiction and the benefits of privilege. While ‘SCD’ heavyweights like James Auger defend it as vital to plotting potential in our near-future technological landscape.

However, if the practice is so in charge of a language that can provoke strong feelings and thoughts in an audience, it must surely be able, somehow to convert this practice from wild imagines and provocation into an agent for change.

The first problem for a designer is the perception of self-objectivity. Drawing a line between artistic and design practice within this field is hard and possibly pointless but most students I talk to imply that to be designers they must maintain neutrality over their subject matter while artists can be as subjective as they like. As history and some of the comments in the MoMA thread prove, this is impossible and somewhat futile. Moreover, in the world we live in, where climate scientists are forced to embrace a new role as radicals, why shouldn’t critical practitioners politicise themselves when non-critical practitioners will so often excitedly marketise themselves?

By embracing and accepting a political stance, whatever it may be as an individual practitioner, in the same way that Dunne and Raby embraced a design position, it may be possible to move from provocation to proposition.

The question of what this practice should be proposing is tricky. There’s a dire and embedded need to stay away from solutionism - the simple creation of new products and services to solve problems that invariably create more problems in doing so. Can the design principles of the trap be used wholesomely to create things that are not solutions but instead encourage others not to think and debate, but to change and tackle issues directly?

As outlined earlier, the commons has been gradually and systematically stripped bare, even the ‘Internet’ - the great commons, is silo’d and securitised into what Ben Bratton calls ‘stacks’ or the ‘inverse panopticon’ where users are commodified, codified and marketed to each other as content.

Perhaps, in the nature of the trap, critical design can rearrange these elements to create new forms of commons that allow ‘users’ or, in fact, humans to exercise truly new political power in some form. What form this may take is currently unimaginable, suffering as we are from what David Graeber calls the ‘apparatus of hopelessness.’ But critical designers have proved themselves exemplary at imagining and then designing the unimaginable.

I’ve previously argued that what we’re missing is an agonistic platform. I speculated that technology and networks are territories dominated by a narrow political and technological elite that provide no room for them to be challenged and others have argued the same without the focus on technological constraints. The re-emergence of extremism in the mainstream of the western world, single-issue parties and low voter turnout seem mainly due to the frustration and the assumption that their political agency is for naught.

Critical design, I believe has the latent ability to introduce a new sort of space where agonistic conflict can be had. Where agonism is a direct conflict between polities where both hold each in respect and where negotiation has failed because of unfair political footings and limited channels of action and communication. I call these spaces Designed Conflict Territories. That is territories, much like networks or technologies that are specifically designed to have or host agonistic conflict with or within. To me, something like the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network is an ideological portent of these spaces.

Yosuke Ushigome
’s Commoditised Warfare challenges the spaces and concept of warfare by positioning it as sport and ceremony. He has created physical agonistic platforms that avoid harm and expense while nodding to political necessity. Copyright Yosuke Ushigome 2013

It feels, from the inside, like critical design is edging closer and closer to something new and radical, particularly looking at the work of current students and recent graduates. Additionally the type of practices that these graduates go on to form or join are progressively more influential over mainstream design, markets, technology and even policy. The practitioners I know are highly politically literate, frustrated and energetic, while critics are increasingly skeptical of the ability of the practice to actually change anything which reads more as a challenge than a critique.

Out of hundreds of years of design history, this seems to be the closest we have to a movement with the radical ambition to change the world without jumping on the back of markets. It’s young, full of naivety and has a lot of learning to do but it feels like a powder keg.

About the author

Tobias Revell is a critical designer and futurist talking and exhibiting worldwide, a lecturer at the Royal College of Art and the London College of Communication, a senior associate at design studio Superflux and a researcher with Arup's Foresight group. (

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