Archive for April, 2007

design as a problematizing action, or

Monday, April 9th, 2007

..a methodology for othering ourselves from the present?

Herb Simon, in Sciences of the Artificial, describes design as ‘concerned with how things ought to be – with devising artifacts to attain goals.’ Professionals, according to Simon, work to ‘transform an existing state of affairs, a problem, into a preferred state, a solution.’

Design, in any field, seeks to problematize a given moment by identifying a specific problem, and providing an artifact (an object) to solve that problem. Think about a button on a website, and all that goes into creating an atmosphere that leads one to click on that button, or a pill prescribed by a doctor, or any action undertaken to resolve a specific problem by taking a specific action that promises a resolution in the future.

The artifacts of design identify a specific problem by, essentially, contributing to an atmosphere for that specific problem to become prominent. The resolution of that specific problem suggested by the artifact (click the button, take the pill, etc.) seems to lead, inevitably, to another problem in another aspect of one’s experience, and so on. We seem to be temporally distending our lives into the past and future as we attempt to resolve the various problems we encounter at each moment, using the present as a weigh station.

Think about how often your sense of need is being stimulated, and how that sense of need seems to be only temporarily quelled by whatever actions to take.

In short, and for me, now, design seems to be a methodology for ‘othering’ ourselves from the present, and focusing our decisions within any moment towards a goal that exists in the future: design is based on an idea of ‘how things ought to be’, and is different from an exploration of ‘how things are’.

How things ought to be is a point of view that implies, and relies on, a temporal form composed of the past, present, and future, where the past leads to and influences the present, and where the present leads to and influences the future, exclusively.

How things ought to be requires clearly defined needs, and clearly defined goals, and seems to produce an individuated state of being.

Parenthetically, How things ought to be, as social policy, produces a group rife with frustrated members, whose attempts at resolving their needs simply produces more need, elsewhere.

How things are, on the other hand, requires close attention to the present, and a practice of integration of, and empathy for others’ experience – as others’ expression of their experience are essential aspects and observations of the shared space of now. The ‘goal’ of any methodology that explores the present is an increase in empathy first, and then an opportunity to consider the resulting integration second. As soon as one begins to judge, rather than work to integrate with, either one’s own or another’s expressions then one begins to see things within the context of how they ought to be. The practice of integration, evolving from a careful application of empathy, will inevitably produce unexpected results, but if one takes empathy as the primary method then the concrete results and goals are secondary. Think about it.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who, in response to a dialectic argument, is fond of saying, usually at the moment of clearest polarity, “isn’t it both?”

To me, art making has the potential to be part and model of such a practice of integration (my previous post is concerned with this). In speaking with an artist friend who recently thought about switching galleries to help her sell more work, and then, after a frustrating meeting with the more ambitious gallerist, my friend realized that making work for pay wasn’t for her. She sells quite a bit of work, actually, but chooses not to aggressively market herself. I realized that when art becomes professional and its goals can be clearly defined and methodologies can be developed to produce repeatable results (tools and methodologies can be developed to produce specific results within specific timeframes, etc…) then the art has become an aspect of design. And that is fine, but, for me, the two exemplify differing and essential qualities of the human experience.

So, is it both? Yes, but I feel that many of us have tipped the balance, significantly, toward design (the presence of digital technology, with its emphasis on information and repeatability has accelerated this) and the result is a peculiar rush towards integration implied by the ideas of the www, but deployed via the methods of design – so that each gesture of integration is predicated on problemization, and each resulting connection inevitably becomes the next problem, and so on, so that here becomes an interface to elsewhere.

This reliance on the methodologies of design at this time, as we seem to be in a particularly integrative phase of cultural development, seems to be producing some odd cultural formations, as well as frustrating many integrative gestures, while slowing down our evolution towards a form that may be significantly different than our recent past. In order to bloom, this evolving form may require us to let go of the railing, surrender our dependence on clearly defined goals, and adopt a practice of empathy and integration that will permit us to move on collectively.

intuition and instinct as valid empirical observations

Friday, April 6th, 2007

C.S. Peirce (1839-1914)

“..consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the objects” from C.S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear

“…he had in mind that a meaningful conception must have some experiential ‘cash value’, capable of being specified as some sort of collection of possible empirical observations under specifiable conditions. Peirce insisted that the entire meaning of a meaningful conception consisted in the totality of such specifications of possible observations.” R. Burch, Charles Sanders Peirce, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2001 Edition).

The following thoughts come to mind:

Evolution has certain mechanical aspects described as adaptation and change manifest, observed, and studied in the form of physical attributes of a given subject (a species is the most common, but it seems that other phenomena may also be subject to evolution: i.e., the laws of physics). It seems to me that another aspect, or index of our evolution can be understood as the work we do collectively to understand the aspects of our experience that are not visible in the same way skeletal remains are visible.

As we try to develop meaningful conceptions, or increasingly accurate models of our experience perhaps we must learn to accept intuition and instinct as valid, empirical observations (in addition to other empirical observations). Yes, they are understood as subjective, and don’t perform well in the abstract world of the lab, but the issue may be that they are in fact collective and are an index of the here and now distributed among a group that, to be understood, require a method for expression and sharing, and this method will differ from the methods of fact based inquiry, but, to me, it is essential that we integrate this aspect of our experience. Presently we seem to prefer to simply dismiss them as subjective noise at best, and, at worst, to stigmatize them.

What is needed, I think, is a practice that incorporates the unknown as unknown (the intuited, instinctual, etc. as such, as opposed to converting them to facts) into any empiric understanding – in other words every meaningful conception doesn’t have to be based entirely on fact.

All of us understand the world via some mixture of the known (fact) and the unknown (intuition). We need to work to create models of our experience that are more accurate in their modeling of our actual experience – as opposed to systems which operate on how we think things should be. It seems that for some, the unknown is something that is proportionally, and perhaps rightfully, eliminated with the advance of factual information. The unknown is somehow the enemy of the known. I don’t understand that at all.

The unknown is an aspect of the known – one doesn’t exist without the other, and when we marginalize the unknown, when we ‘other’ it from our discourse we unwittingly limit our potential for deeper, more accurate and useful knowledge. I would argue that when we claim that we’ve figured it all out we’ve probably figured out a way to more successfully narrow our focus and ignore more. Our current culture of expertism seems to have stigmatized the unknown. How often do you hear a professional in any field, while discussing some aspect within their purview, admit to not knowing something or simply being wrong? How often have you spoken to someone traumatized into a radically: narrow, conservative, and homogenous lifestyle by the specter of the eternal faux pas in the omnipresent, deeply archived, and imminently searchable www? I had a long talk with an eloquent student on the train last week who expressed such concerns, “it’s not worth the risk of doing anything that might come back to haunt you, because everything you do is recorded, literally.” Whoa!

I wonder if we haven’t ritualized our marginalization of the unknown in practices like the lottery. Some casual research on my part suggests that the results seem impervious to intuition, instinct, and hunch – and seem very much to be the product of ‘pure’ luck, or, in other words, randomness – which is to say when the machine happens to spit out the same numbers you’ve managed to spit out, you win, and often the winners admit to either using the same set of numbers repeatedly, or using the quickpick option. Trying to intuit your way to the lotto jackpot, in other words, seems to be ineffective and teaches, I think, that playing hunches is for fools – or, at least, not how the pros do it. I should add that it may be the case that on smaller wagers (sports, for example) instinct and hunch may be effective – it seems though, that at the larger, lotto/mega-millions level one’s hunch seems not to work. To me, this indicates that we have figured out a system that, at specific scales, seems essentially immune to meaningful, instinctual observation. I wrote, ‘at specific scales’ – the systems, like the lottery, can be observed meaningfully and intuitively, but we choose to prize (literally) the scale that we can’t feel.

The intuitive, unknown, element of the lottery is its’ meaning, significance, message, affect, in general – its’ overall quality, or suchness within our experience at large. The “what does it tell us about our society and each other?” question that is an ongoing impetus for interaction and discussion, and doesn’t resolve to a specific set of numbers. The lesson of the lottery, perhaps, is that hunch based conjectures don’t have cash or real value, and as such, don’t work, so let the machine do it…. At least that’s what I’m wondering about today, and with our computer mediated culture I’m concerned that we’re becoming a bunch of fast-paced bottom-liners increasingly disinterested in what can’t be clearly: defined, repeated, transmitted, and used.

But we need our instincts and intuition, they are an essential aspect of who and what we are.

As I just heard someone say over the radio earlier today in regard to the Iraq war, “anybody can understand with facts, this war was sold to us via facts that turned out to be wrong, and we all bought them. Where are the people with good instincts, and why haven’t we been listening to them lately?”


Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Spring brings birds. Listening and watching a cardinal while waiting for a train I thought about how we (ok, I…) easily understand the song as the result of a decision the bird made to sing, an intentional act on the part of the bird that amounts to projecting sound out into the environment. The sound is an index of the bird’s will; the environment is an audience.

It occurred to me that the song of the bird could just as readily be understood as an action of the environment where its’ will is expressed by sound emitted from the bird – as if the environment elicits the song to satisfy some need of its’ own.

Maybe it’s both. Perhaps will is distributed between participant and environment, and expression is a connective gesture that we have learned to describe and understand as an event which breaks the environment into discriminate parts (imagine a bolt of lightning, an action, and an observer).

I think we tend to see expression, essentially, within a broadcast paradigm where the individual trumps and dominates an otherwise passive environment, where, in truth, the expression is a collaborative effort whose qualities (how we experience them) can be understood to reveal aspects of the persistent interrelations of elements comprising any given moment and place.

When we choose to ‘audience’ ourselves we are limiting our engagement with the present and quite probably slowing our evolving understanding of our experience and our world. When we ritualize the practice of ‘audience’ we are institutionalizing this slowing of knowledge, and quite probably becoming a collective drag on the other elements within our environment, but that may be a topic for another post.