Designing Consent

by Rob Horning

21 Jan 2010


In the BBC documentary The Century of the Self, an analyst named Heinz Lehmann describes the aspirations of Ewen Cameron the CIA-funded president of the American Psychiatric Association in the ‘50s: “He thought that psychiatry should not just concentrate on sick people and the mentally ill but should actually go into government, that politicians should listen to psychiatrists, and psychiatrists should be in every parliament and should direct and monitor political activities because they knew in a rational, scientific way, what was good for people.” Cameron directed some of the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra experiments in brainwashing and personality reprogramming.

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The Century of the Self

Director: Adam Curtis

US DVD: 4 Aug 2009

In Gary Huswit’s documentary Objectified Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, makes an eerily similar statement about industrial designers. In her perfect world, designers don’t merely make toothbrushes and chairs but are consulted on all matters of public policy, presumably since by virtue of what they do, they have a privileged access to divining human needs and addressing them: “I envision them as becoming the intellectuals of the future,” she says. “I want designers to be the cultural generators pretty much all over the world…. They should become really fundamental bricks of policy-making effort.” Designers are necessary, she claims, “to help people understand the consequences of their choices.” Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps if Jonathan Ives had designed the highball glass from which I drank too many gin and tonics, I would have understood it would lead to dry heaves.

Though this may not have been its intention, Objectified provides a well-rounded examination of the arrogance of design in the modern world, how it aspires to replace depth psychology as the universal panacea. Designers are in the process of becoming, in the words of ‘20s public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays, “engineers of consent”, using their techniques to preempt an individual’s psychology the way psychoanalysts had tried to in the 20th century in order to protect us from ourselves and make us “happy” on their terms.

Antonelli’s suggestion that we can reduce politics to design is an extraordinarily myopic vision of the world, shrinking the scope of the world’s problems to having more ergonomic and intuitive interfaces—as if the main problem humans face is in interacting with their machines and not one another. But it nonetheless gains momentum. It resembles Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s argument for nudging people to make better decisions by reshaping the “choice architecture” we confront and changing default options to suit social optimality. The implication is that designers must set the proper course for consumers to follow to improve their lives, as consumers are on average too lazy to figure out what to do on their own.

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Director: Gary Hustwit

US DVD: 13 Oct 2009

In Objectified, designer Davin Stowell explains the goal of design as finding “ways we can improve the way people do things or improve their everyday life without them really even knowing or thinking about it.” Another designer, Erwan Bouroullec, says that “designers understand what people need perhaps even better than they do” and that design should “create an appropriate environment where people feel good.” We don’t know what is best for ourselves when it comes to shaping our own environment; in shopping we are apparently floundering for answers to questions that we are too aesthetically ignorant to pose for ourselves. Instead we need a caste of gurus (and many designers tend to explicitly cultivate that cultish air—the film’s most explicit example is Karim Rashid) to predict what we want and make it seem like it was our own idea when we go chasing after the novelty they have suffused our world with for commercial purposes. It is worth wondering whether the hubris of designers is starting to become palpable in their designs, that all the comfortable hand grips and the slick GUIs and the distinctive touches are just the walls of a velvet prison they are making for us.

Much of the ideological posturing on the part of industrial designers stems from their uneasy relationship to the fine arts and the prestige they have traditionally received. Industrial design has more at stake with aestheticizing itself as a practice than other crafts, since its origin is so bound up with the annihilation of the specificity of material culture and replacing it with mass-produced plenitude. Industrial design threatened to anonymize the world, so to compensate, they try to foreground their own artistry and let it stand in for the creativity their products foreclose for consumers. We get to be vicariously creative by choosing their products and understanding their ingenuity.

When we are surrounded by objects that are made, as far as we can tell, by no one in particular, in a factory in China perhaps or a maquiladora in Nuevo Laredo, our attitude toward objects we can assign a creator to changes. In Gesture and Signature, Jean Baudrillard argues that as works of art become easy to replicate, the signature of the artist begins to grow more and more important, above and beyond the work itself and what it otherwise attempts to communicate.

To this line of thinking, a painting by Warhol is primarily “about” being a painting by Warhol—its representational content is secondary, entirely overshadowed by Warhol’s guiding intelligence in selecting to depict it. The signature becomes the essence of an artwork, which no longer needs to concern itself with representing anything other than the gesture of its own creation to be valuable. “Transcendence is abolished; the oeuvre becomes the original. Its meaning passes from the restitution of appearances to the act of inventing them.” A copy of an artwork was once difficult to make, and it would be treasured for the artistry it reproduced—for what was depicted. But as copies become easier to make, the ability to reproduce the artist’s original vision is no longer perceived as valuable, miraculous even, but expected. Now we can see what any painting looks like whenever we feel like it by searching it online.

Something similar has happened with everyday objects. When objects were hard to make, they all bore the value of their specific usefulness and their specific unique history. But mass-produced objects are liberated to function primarily as signs, with their usefulness more or less taken for granted. The point of design now is not that things work better, but that a thing’s design is noticed as design. And once design is noticed for its own sake, it can be changed for its own sake. And then it can be changed faster and faster, and the infiltrative mass media becomes capable of sustaining more and more nuanced trend ecosystems.

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