Designing Consent

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.

DVD: The Century of the Self

Film: The Century of the Self

Director: Adam Curtis

Distributor: Big D

Release date: 2009-08-04

Image: 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.

DVD: Objectified

Film: Objectified

Director: Gary Hustwit

Distributor: Plexifilm

Release date: 2009-10-13

Image: 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.

The Consumer Becomes the Everyday ‘Artist’

The Consumer Becomes the Everyday ‘Artist’

Of course, many designers strenuously disagree. Several of those interviewed in Objectified justify their work by appealing to a purity of use value, arguing that they are paring away unnecessary aspects of goods and making them easier for people to use or consume. Jonathan Ives argues that design is a matter of establishing the “hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not important” and disguising or removing the clutter to help clarify our lives. But fundamentally, the appeal to usefulness is, as Baudrillard would say, an alibi.

More often than not, designers are merely the paid professionals who take the first crack at imbuing objects with emotional valency, with sign value. That value will later be authenticated and amplified by the products’ actual users — the immaterial labor that we consumers perform constantly, enhancing the meanings that circulate with a product or a brand. When we use an object we articulate a new way for it to mean something — in a new social context, to a different group of people, through an unexpected way of using it. We renew its sign value simply by revealing our willingness to use it. All of these gestures (which are not unlike the artists’ gestures in signing their works) accrue as brand equity or as an object’s “coolness” if they are made publicly.

Companies are sometimes able to enlarge their profits because of this unpaid labor. The social signals goods can send because of how we use them makes them more valuable on the market. MIT professor Renee Richardson Gosline’s recent research into luxury-goods consumption quantifies some of this, as this report in MIT News explains: “Gosline has quantified Veblen’s famous observation: Consumers are willing to pay twice as much for luxury apparel when they can use those products to send or receive social signals.” There is a relation between what goods can mean (a product of our using them) and what they can be sold for

For we the consumers, the primary compensation is a better-defined sense of self. In the film, Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, talks about consumption in terms of the narrative we tell to ourselves through the object we choose and use and cherish. With consumer choices, he argues, “you’re making a statement to yourself about yourself, and in sort of an abstract way you’re thinking about what they might be thinking of you … but the crucial thing is the self, is your own audience, your own story of ‘I’m not that guy,’ ‘I am that guy.’ ” This touches on the double nature of consumption: It registers to ourselves as self-fashioning, but the way we must project our identity to establish it makes our effort into a kind of exploitable labor. Designers direct this immaterial labor process, teaching us its rules, starting us going on it, seeding a product with some potential meaning to prompt us to develop them further.

The differences, the distinctive qualities they build into products establish the terms by which we attempt to manufacture difference and distinction ourselves. In the social world of consumerism, that means design sets the terms for our self-production, in its industrialized and commercialized image. Design facilitates the consumerist approach to self-fashioning as public consumption – elaborate displays of brands and objects meant to stabilize a sense of ourselves while redefining subtly the meaning of those brands and objects. The various social media tools now available are supplying the infrastructure for this kind of subjectivity. We can make every consumption gesture public and permanently archiveable, and we can receive immediate, archiveable feedback about the degree to which our gesture was influential.

From a certain point of view that sounds creative and empowering – design teaches us how to manipulate the language of things that shapes our world and our identity. And we become artists, making socially valuable meaning out of our everyday choices. But it consigns us also to a particular form of identity based on novelty and to the treadmill of perpetual identity mongering, since the identity only appears during the publicized consumption gestures. Baudrillard points out that once artists’ signatures becomes more important than what they create art about, then they are condemned to repeating the same gesture of creation over and over again. “There is a discontinuity and reconstitution of the subject from act to act, of which the signature is the socio-culturally encoded index.” Thus any contemporary art work — and any gesture of self-creation as well — “is caught up in its subjectivity, in its very act, by that seriality against which it registers itself in the external world.”

To a degree, subjectivity has become seriality, the repeated need to make a self-defining gesture again and again, to keep signing all our works, on Facebook updates for the world to see. As financial blogger Felix Salmon has recently noted, (“Who’s the Warhol of fine-art photography?” Reueters, 7 December 2009) “the most expensive artists, even on a per-artwork level, are also the most prolific” — which is a reason why the Warhol market remains so lucrative, as this Economist story details (“The Pop master’s highs and lows”, 26 November 2009).

The gesture of consuming itself matters more than what it is we consume. The dilemmas of musical taste exemplify this — one’s listening to Billie Holiday, say, is always complicated by having to also be regarding oneself as the sort of person who listens to Billie Holiday. The music is consumed as sign and becomes unhearable as just plain music. Likewise, though we may intend to demonstrate our practicality and austerity by using only efficiently designed items, we are nonetheless signaling our intention to come across as austere and practical. No gesture, no object can be innocent once we’ve begun using them for our internal narrative about ourselves.

The language of objects is shaped by how the objects are used and discussed in the public sphere, by peers and marketers and media figures and so on, and we can try to control the degree to which we participate in the shaping of that language. We can opt out, lay low, consume less media, try to disappear into anonymity. But if we choose to exist socially, we are doomed to become the social meanings we make and remake. Unfortunately, most of us lack the calm confidence of professional designers, of cool hunters, of marketers, who are paid for such work. Instead, we can feel ourselves hanging existentially in the balance of each twitterable moment, driven by insecurity, always wondering if our efforts will be ignored or misunderstood or rendered incomprehensible by the rapid change of fashion. How will I survive if my next tweet is so five minutes ago?