PLEASE DO NOT HOG THE PUBLIC UMBRELLA
In a certain part of the world, we shake hands. In other parts, the motion is taken by a kiss on the cheek, a hug, a bow, but there always seems to be a physical component, a motion to make, when meeting a stranger. The handshake somehow connects us to one another; the act of moving in unison, touching, agreeing for a moment brings us together. Once we have shaken hands, we have met, and I can say that I know you. And we can start working together.
The handshake is the social exchange in miniature, a physical analogue of the whole dance of interaction. This small act of individual cooperation implies, by its very existence, the myriad acts of individuals cooperating with other individuals, which in turn forms the individual threads of our social fabric. The aggregation of individual cooperations makes up the social 'rules' & cultural practices which seem to organize our society, and those 'rules' validate the quality and tenor of each of our interactions. From this set of actions, relationships and trends emerges what we understand as society.
The emergent social order is in one sense a new concept, although the idea of emergence is not so new. Previous models of society have placed a premium on the exceptional individual, the "great man" of Thomas Carlyle, who makes change as a function of his personal genius and willpower. Later models have taken those 'great men' and placed them in the context of their time and culture, but as of yet the popular sensibility of where change comes from is still focused on those who already hold power, on the influence of a certain set of persons who are consistently rewarded for not changing the status quo which gives them their influence in the first place. However, bottom-up thinking may be closer to the truth, where no-one is steering the ship, where there is no shadowy organization pulling the strings, where individual acts of cooperation & agreement create feedback loops that create social pressure & the opportunities to take advantage of those pressures. This model of society inverts the source of power from those who already have it to the systemic behavior of cultural memes, which transcends the individuals who seem to be controlling or defining them & leaves it in tiny little pieces, in the hands of All of Us.
The economic strategies of some of the world's most successful recent companies, such as Google, stem from their recognition and exploitation of "Big Data", aggregates of individual users' behavior and choices. Advertisers who use these services believe that their advertisements, & thus their interests, will be presented to the users who are most likely to share those interests on one level or another. Using individual interactions and the shared qualities between those interactions, more efficient and far-reaching cooperative acts can be achieved, resulting in more money for the advertisers, and supposedly an experience for each user that is more truly representative of their needs and desires.
Design has too long too much been primarily engaged in validating the prevailing social mores, whether it be aesthetically or economically. It also has the power to ask useful questions about those mores by modelling them in a comprehensible way and allowing for organized engagement with the mechanisms at play. If the intellectual and academic conversation around the workings of society has made such a fundamental shift, design as a discipline, situated as it is between the theoretical and applied, has an opportunity to communicate this shift through the things it creates. A designed model of social interaction and influence could provide a basis from which we respect & critically appraise each individual interaction as a microcosm of society at large.
Instead of attempting to express a grand Theory of Everything, the designed object or environment provides an immediacy which is conducive to collision with the everyday. I am therefore proposing a transparent micro-social design, which models small elements of interaction with 1) the understanding that they point to the larger systems at work around us and 2) a visible design process, making clear to the user the means by which their experience is manufactured. This is a fundamental departure from the goals of user-interface and experience design, which aim to create the illusion of a natural discovery process on the part of the user and hide the mechanisms by which that user process is created.
My goal in the exercise of creating these designed serendipities is to make clear the artificiality of their origins, to remove them from the consequences of lived life and abstract them to a point where they are safe to explore as phenomenona in and of themselves. This is a sort of design of analagous social objects, things that provide opportunities for critical appraisal of the systems of which we are a part. These objects must contain, as part of their function, an exposition of their mechanics and processes, for the purpose of them is to allow reflection on which assumptions and instincts we have as social beings.
I have a friend from high school who likes to make his mark on people in the very first moment of meeting. He introduces himself with a handshake, but often as not it is a handshake that ends with him lighting a fire off of their hand (one of the many parlor tricks with a Zippo lighter that he has perfected). No longer is the handshake merely a small token of meeting and being in a social space, with him it becomes a wondrous and memorable act. He creates a space of expanded attention by his slight of hand and makes use of an opportunity which was only dimly realized by the person on the other side of the interaction.
Instead of designing for what people already want or trying to divine the next thing that they might want, design can be used as a reflective and investigative tool. Not only is this useful for designers themselves using iterative processes to improve their designs, but also for people using designed processes & experiences to allow them to fruitfully & organizedly investigate their own experiences as a part of a larger system, not simply as isolated personal incidents. It may be possible to design (service) systems transparently, not to hide their mechanics but to make them explicit and thus discussable, thus malleable.
Reframing the notions of where power lies in society is an integral part of changing it in a sustainable & mindful fashion. In a world where so many systems are on the brink of a serious phase change (fisheries, the ice caps, the middle east, our political system, &c) we need to understand, as many of us as possible, as quickly as possible, 1) the new awareness of the nature of power & social dynamics, 2) understand intimately, emotionally how they apply to the individual, & 3) how the individual applies (and applies himself) to society at large. We need to viscerally understand that we are all in this together and that our assumptions of what is socially possible are operating at every level, even the most momentary and ephemeral.
This is on purpose, in a sense, making things hard: explicitly exposing the means of self-reflection & the potential of grappling with things that feel unquestionable. Instead of using design to simulate naturalism in order to situate a user inside of a designed thing, I propose using designed things to help situate the user in the complexity of the world at large. Designers & people who define the conversation around culture, applied philosophy, social responsibility & anyone participating in any of the systems that define our society need to become aware of the opportunity of each moment & the agency provided to every person to critically engage with the people and situations around them. Part of this engagement can be facilitated by designed things which provide a framework within which we can question our own assumptions about the act of engagement itself.