Why we should think about culture before we design
It used to be Hollywood that drives culture but now, it’s Silicon Valley.
It seems to me that rarely we consider the long-term impact on our culture by the designs we design. We invented automobiles and built our cities around them leaving little room for anything else — leisure, green spaces and community. We designed digital social networks which has changed the definition of “friend” and changed the way we interact. Facebook has been the tool to organize revolutions and makes news, breaks news, and decides what is news. Instagram has made the word selfie a world-wide phenomenon; it was even awarded ‘Word Of The Year 2013′ by Oxford Dictionaries. And let’s not forget the physical product it runs on that gave us apps — the iPhone. Together, these products have tethered us to obsession: literally framing our lives as perfect, one filter at a time, sharing every second of our day, placing knowledge at our fingertips, and teleporting us around at the push of a button. All this results in and make up our culture, all of which is designing us.
And it’s not like our culture sits back and waits to be disrupted.
Google Glass failed to understand how its technology fits into today’s culture. In fact, they failed to understand that what they were asking the public was to be ‘OK’ with constantly being recorded. People do not want their privacy to be so blatantly invaded (just do it between the lines, please). In this case, the ask was too much. But what if Glass were a success? What would be its feedback loop? Well, we can see a possible impact on human behaviors in Black Mirror, S1E3 — jealous husband, cheating wife; the ability to record everything they do, see and hear. Action!
Culture in its broadest sense is cultivated behavior; that is the totality of a person’s learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behavior through social learning.
When we design, our designs generate behaviors that in turn shape our collective experiences through culture. The concept is fairly simple but the feedback loops are all — encompassing: essentially all of the things that we design and that surround us, from our language, to our dwellings, our cities, tools, aircrafts, bedrooms, kitchens, religions, sports, design us back. It all feeds back. And this feedback has been coined Ontological Design by Anne-Marie Willis, a professor of design theory at the German University in Cairo.
As a theory, she writes, the Ontological Design postulates:
“That designing is fundamental to being human — we design, that is to say, we deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure our actions and makings — in turn we are designed by our designing and by that which we have designed (i.e., through our interactions with the structural and material specificities of our environments);
That this adds up to a double movement — we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us ”
Design is pervasive: what we design is designing us. — Anne-Marie Willis
The products we build with technology are often with the best of intentions — to connect us, increase our productivity (dear god, humans love productivity) and to make our existence better. However, as GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) race to disrupt, the idea, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler says, is that we proceed faster than societies can evolve, and impose on them technical models that destroy their social, cultural, and psychological structures. Disruption with a good intention isn’t enough to shape the outcome we might desire. We’re at a tipping point with technology where this is everyone’s affair but the responsibility lies with the designers, entrepreneurs and engineers to think about how our products are going to affect human to human interactions and not just human to product interactions. If not, studies show we risk designing products that can potentially cause us to feel depressed, feel isolated, negatively impact our elections or accuse us of creating generations of narcissists. If any of these studies are true, the implications are enormous. It’s too risky. We must intentionally think about the culture a design will spin up and spin into society. This is just as important as any other aspects of the business but arguably most urgent.
To design ontologically is to think culturally
“Design is something far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognized by designers, cultural theorists, philosophers or lay persons.”
Silicon Valley and the technology sector have become the cradle for pervasive design — cars, rockets, phones, apps, internet, AR/VR, Ai — all products we're designing that generate various behaviors. These behaviors en masse are ultimately where culture takes its lead so we must hold ourselves accountable to scale responsibly and consciously. I believe that we can use the theory of Ontological Design as the basis for creating a framework to guide the way we design.
So, how do we design ontologically?
I’ve long been a student of culture — whether it’s thinking about the importance of culture to designing great products and how or experimenting with methods to track it or exploring ways to influence it. I’m a strong believer in how culture designs us so I propose culture-thinking as the framework to assist with the way we design.
Culture-Thinking is a mindset towards actively observing the behaviors a design would generate, its impact on our culture and iterating for better human interactions in our society.
Attention & Behavior
Culture-thinking is behavior-centered. It focuses on the actions around our designs and assessing, at scale, its impact, i.e, culture generated. To think about behaviors a design generate is to carefully study where we’re putting the attention of a user. Take for example, Facebook. They want to make the world more connected. But to what exactly? And who’s defining connect?Facebook is known for designing a newsfeed that intentionally keeps you scrolling, so you keep consuming. As Tristan Harris eloquently puts it, they’re hijacking your attention. Attention is the hinge between conscious control and the patterns of reactivity that have already been set up by the psychological system or the environment. By hijacking your attention they’re contributing to generating a behavior that only connects you to your phone (or some screen near you). Why? We know without a doubt that humans are social creatures needing human connections. Do we really believe that profits cannot be made from such a need? Is there no way to align?
Having a framework that lets us think about this beforehand and ask the difficult questions pertaining to the design of our social evolution is what will take our designs deeper.
Design thinking is “human-centered” focusing on the problem of an individual, solving it and scaling to reach more humans with that problem. That’s great and have shown amazing results over the years. However, this framework presents little opportunity to think about long term impact these innovations have on us, as social beings.
Circular design is a new guide for designers thats encourages them to create products that stay in closed loops and business models that discourage waste. This thinking leverages our capitalistic model to encourage businesses not to waste — so they can save on their bottomline. I believe it to be a great initiative for our environment. However, it lacks this social thinking towards our designs.
Culture-thinking is a deep and profound compliment to these frameworks — design thinking and circular design — because it’s a commitment to a team’s social responsibility towards positive impact on our society. Any team that adopts it is making a clear statement to society — they care about how we move forward.
We cannot fail to recognize that design is something far more pervasive and profound. It can solve much more than human and environmental problems. Design can navigate our social evolution.