Design and Science in an Age of Entanglement

The MIT Media Lab launched the Journal of Design and Science (JoDS) in early 2016 with four essays that aims open “new connections between science and design”. The central themes are the emergence of ‘participant designers’ within ‘an age of entanglement’ and the shifts inherent in this approach to design. The JoDS essays theorise an engaged design practice but the political economy of design is under-theorised and a particular problem with the representation of the ecological is evident.

The ways in which nature is understood enable or disable the design of sustainable ways of living. The dismissal of the ecological in the ways we think, in design theory and in design practice is the legacy of a culture that has ignored the interests of natural world. One way to examine the dismissal of the ecological in theory is to refer to Gregory Bateson’s theory of ‘epistemological error’. The western premise of radical independence is wrong. Humankind has conceived of itself as the sole proprietors of sentience and the rest of the world “as mindless and therefore as not entitled to moral or ethical consideration” (1972, 62). The narrowing down of our epistemology to reflect only our own interests (or even the interests of our own species) and the instrumental processes we use to do this are at the root of the most severe environmental problems.

In the section titled ‘The End of the Artificial’ Joichi Ito claims that “it appears that nature and the artificial are merging”. In ‘The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement’ Danny Hillis claims:

“We humans are changing. We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it. We have outgrown the distinction between the natural and the artificial…We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement”.

It is true that plastic debris is clogging up the guts of marine animals and there are endless examples of similar entanglements. The artificial and the organic are definitely interacting in countless ways on all scales across the global ecosystem. But the ‘end of the artificial’ concept has more to do the legacy of epistemological error and the particular type of political economy that emerged from this error than the so-called merging of the ecological and the artificial.

This coalescing of the natural and the artificial has far reaching consequences. If the artificial things that humans have designed and constructed are of the same order as natural processes that have made it possible for humans to flourish over 40,000 years – this influences the ways we understand and value natural processes. The ecological sphere has evolved over millions of years to enable life-sustaining conditions on this planet. In stark contrast to the ecological, the artificial has not endured the test of time. It has not evolved to work in tandem with the ecological. In many places it disrupts the dynamic balance ecosystems need to sustain and regenerate themselves. The climate system is the most dramatic example.

Just because it is possible to ‘edit’ nature (genetic engineering, synthetic biology, geo-engineering) does not mean the organic and the artificial are the same, or that they have equivalent value. We might redesign nature into what appears to the most cavalier amongst us as a ‘better’ place, to suit human needs and desires – but we cannot predict with certainty the consequences of the most dramatic interventions. On the other hand, nature has experimented for millions of years to refine the evolutionary moment that we find ourselves in now, one that we are quickly degrading. Since humans have already caused irreparable damage to the climate system, to biodiversity and to a vast array of ecosystems and species, now is not the time to build new theory that will further dismiss ecological concerns.

I will publish a longer version of this review in the near future.

References

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ito, J., Hillis, D., Oxman, N. and Slavin, K.  (2016). Journal of Design and Science, PubPub, [http://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/designandscience]

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