Holistic Entanglements: Diegetic Prototypes for a Sympoeitic Future

This is an excerpt from my proposal for my ECUAD graduation project. It is subject to, and most likely will, change.

The earthbound are standing at a precipice. We are looking out over a world that is shifting and revealing itself to us in new and infinite ways. As designers, it is not enough anymore to be interdisciplinary, we must become antidisciplinary1. We must become resilient, reciprocal and act accordingly to a world that no longer accepts things and devices that falsely promote themselves as ‘end-products’ and ‘solutions’. Designers are uniquely situated to adapt to these changes and have a responsibility to react ethically to emerging information and understandings. Actions of care can become radical in a new pluralistic future, but how do we direct ourselves and our peers towards this beacon while operating under yet diverging from the dominant design paradigms of individualism, objectivism, universalism, and solutionism? 2.

For my graduation project, I will be actualizing a design fiction through diegetic prototypes. I will be researching potential tangents of our current technological, biological, and economical systems to estimate a near future, through which I explore the potentials of non-hierarchical systems, decolonial and inherited relationships, and the holistic, messy, webbed entanglements between humans, technologies, and nature. As part of my research, I will create physical prototypes for a new holobiont that incorporates technology as something to be cared for as kin, instead of something to be blamed for our demise. I believe that critical design has an incredibly important role to play in futuring responsibly, and hope to use this project to expose new veins of interest within sustainability, consumption, and reciprocity.

Image from Anab Jain’s Calling for a More-than-Human Politics, a quote from Anne Galloway

As we begin to tire of the heroes in our killer stories3, our gaze drifts towards a new form in the periphery – a holographic multi-figure wrapping its limbs around a basket. Ursula K. Le Guin brings this transformative figure, this collector, to our attention through her Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. She writes about the possibilities of science fiction moving away from it’s Promethean, techno-heroic, linear tragedies instead towards a less rigid, less mythical realism (1986). For designers, science fiction can be an incredible source of inspiration. When compared to the constraints of the factually possible, “science fiction does a much better job of circulating futures and enrolling people in the possibilities, and does so to the degree that things begin to happen on that basis alone.”4 This rhizomatic path that Le Guin alludes to leads away from the ‘iconic’ and the ‘good design’ tenet, the single-hero solution thread that breaks with any new addition to its conditional function. Instead, this pathway leads to pluralistic approaches to design problems that begin to weave possibilities into the fabric of our everyday reality. In doing so, this fabric becomes stronger and more resilient to insuppressible change, rooting us in design that lasts beyond the hero’s journey.

Mycelium root system
Natural wool fibres
Human bronchial branches

Weaving new possibilities into design work is often done through the use of critical design, and more specifically, design fiction. I want to use design fiction to realize new possibilities in our changing world that will re-evaluate sustainability and our connections to technology and nature. Sustainability is always discussed within the constraints of our capitalist and consumerist systems. This is why bio-plastics, electric cars, and other products meant to sustain our current ways of life will never truly minimize our environmental impact. Design fiction allows us the opportunity to imagine systems and societies that are built to support sustainable environmental relationships, and in doing so, examines how us and our technologies will be affected functionally and ontologically.

Currently, humans segregate themselves as other than nature and other than technology. In our unbridled quest for knowledge, we have taxonomically divided the world into boxes, stacking them in order of importance and usefulness. Humans, in a vain way, place themselves at the top as we are the ones who came up with this idea in the first place. We are followed by the technologies that we’ve created for ourselves to cradle our ‘needs’, which are followed by minerals and raw materials needed to create these objects, followed by animals we can eat, animals we can use, animals we can laugh at, and then animals that are ugly or bite us. Below this is flora, again distributed in accordance to how we use them, then come bugs, bacteria, and organisms so small that they are obviously of no use to us, so they can stay at the very bottom of the list.

A good meme about techno-nostalgia (no source)

This hierarchical list of worthiness is integrated into the complex social structures and systems that we have built for ourselves. To disrupt our classifications is to disrupt our systems of economics, politics, education, governance, etc. Humans (a bit late in the game) have come to the understanding of ‘finite resources’ and are now faced with a dilemma. Enter stage left – the designer. Tasked with the impossible feat of navigating a hyperobject; the designer must create sellable products that are eco-friendly/green/sustainable all the while being careful to preserve every other entangled system that provides humans with the top seat in our self-defined hierarchical ladder. We slap green bandaids on plastic cups and point the neo-liberal finger towards those who don’t put their bottles into blue bins that get emptied into shipping containers and covertly sent to Vietnam5. Later, they go home to anxiously stare at images of the irreversibly melting Greenland ice glaciers6.

Laure Prouvost, This pineapple fills sea sick from all the travel it has done (2016)

It’s here that I feel critical design plays an important role in how we move forward. With my grad project, I want to start in the now. I want to research and explore the systems we have built for ourselves, and identify what we’ve discarded and ignored along the way. From here, I want to project a tangential future based on current events – imagining the earth in 50-200 years (while 200 years sounds like a far and unpredictable future, in generational time, it is only eight grandmothers from now). I will guesstimate catalysts for major changes, and imagine what systems may be discarded or reformed in these futures. I want to look at the possibilities of pluralistic and local futures, as well as global changes. With this background, I will establish a small group of future earthbound people (we may no longer want to be associated with our previous nomenclature) and imagine through physical, sympoeitic prototypes how they move through and process the new world.

Walking around my neighbourhood, I see daily examples of human and technological interventions with nature. These vary between intentional and not intentional, but the adaptation of nature to our presence fascinates me (an example of this is Cumulus Homogenitus, a new type of cloud that forms from human activity). While I want to avoid naivete around the damage that humans cause, I also want to explore the notion that not everything we contribute adversely affects the earth, and that perhaps, we are witnessing an evolution of which we are involved in the making-of. Perhaps, what is needed are emotional connections; not only to Gaia, but to the electronic kin that we bring unto this earth. Perhaps, we need to shed human exceptionalism to move onto an evolved version of human, Homo Deus without the techno-determinist god complex. Perhaps, with better understanding, we can operate within knowing that all things, all earthbound species, are holistically entangled in the resilience and the futuring of our planet.

Because the nature of this project involves a massive divergence of research before a very specific convergence, I have compiled a list of questions that will help constrain my scope (although these questions will most likely change and the list will be added to).

Can objects become organisms, and if so, can objects have empathy? What do empathetic objects look like?

How do we avoid romanticism when talking about being with nature? How do we avoid utilitarianism when talking about being with technology?

What does the merging of biological, technological, and ontological systems look like? What are we able to give up to make way for new ways of being/knowing?

What does evolution look like when humans are part of the process?

How are ethics and laws changed when modified humans/cyborgs become a sustainable option of living? Will other species begin to contribute to our laws and ethics, or will we merge into following theirs?

Can breaking down hierarchies between species and technologies create space for actions of care?

What does sustainability look like when systems become reciprocal?

How can we embody kinship?

How can we embody a sustainable future?

1Former Director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joichi Ito, says antidisciplinary is about refusing linearity and “about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline”. 2From Daniela K. Rosner’s (2018) table of theoretical pillars of the dominant design paradigm. 3Ursula K. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory refers to killer stories as the violent and dominating narratives of our histories. 4Julian Bleecker explains why science fiction is more useful to design than science fact (2009) 5Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/17/recycled-plastic-america-global-crisis 6We have passed the tipping point https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/greenland-ice-glaciers-melting-past-tipping-point-amid-climate-change-study-2280983