How everything we design will in turn design us back

And why the notion of ontological design means that we as designers should think a step further and design mindful systems that will, in turn, affect us back in a favourable way.

Original artwork by Nigel Payne (remixed w/ permission)

“What we design, will in turn design us back.“

Wow. That sounds deep. Let me explain.

This idea derives from the notion of ontological design. The basic idea of ontological design is that everything we design in this world, will in turn design us back. First we as humans build the tools, then these tools build us back: We are the creators, but then we are created by our tools.

Let me give you an example:

We all know how the smartphone has revolutionised our lives. Today, we have these little devices in our pockets that have thousands of times more computing power than the computers that first put a man on the moon. The majority of Internet traffic (over 60 percent) now comes from mobile devices rather than desktops, which long served as the dominant online portal. But in addition to changing our browsing habits, affecting us culturally and socio-economically, the smartphones have also impacted our brain in a deeper way: With search engines and digitally managed contact lists just a touch away, analysts say smartphones are affecting how the brain processes information.

The authors of a study conclude that persistent access to information via search engines is permanently changing how our brains catalog knowledge. In other words, the processes of human memory are adapting to the new computing and communication technology. According to the authors: “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”

What this means is that design affects us in a way that’s much deeper and more pervasive than what we usually think. Ontological design implies that there’s a certain circularity to the world we design: There’s an infinite feedback loop.

Author: Joonas Virtanen

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