Kleine on Wakkary, 'Things We Could Design For More Than Human-Centered Worlds'

Author: 
Ron Wakkary
Reviewer: 
Marie Stettler Kleine

Ron Wakkary. Things We Could Design For More Than Human-Centered Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021. 312 pp. $25.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-262-36684-7; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-262-54299-9.

Reviewed by Marie Stettler Kleine (Colorado School of Mines) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (November, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57828

What does an alternative to anthropocentric design include? Ron Wakkary’s recent book sits with the tension in granting humans with an “exceptional” power to speak on behalf of their nonhuman co-designers and the humility it takes to reimagine a design that radically centers a posthumanism vision. Wakkary walks both human-computer interaction and science and technology studies audiences through this revised vision of design. This book describes design as “nomadic practices” which convene constituencies and assemblages that are not disciplined but gathered to produce things, results beyond designing artifacts, objects, and products.

Returning to and revising Donald Schon’s characterization of “designing as a conversation with the materials of a situation,” this book challenges readers to think about how they see themselves in relation to larger assemblages of designers, which include a wide array of actors with shared matters of concern and care.[1] Wakkary deliberately maps what he identifies as the three nouns of the main title of the book, Things We Could Design,onto each of the major parts: “design,” “things,” and “we.” The last of these is generously construed, imagining a posthumanism “we,” designer, that produces things which serve as more than a reflection of human values, or objects that fade into the background, or designs singularly made for financial gain.

Part 1 engages with design as an undisciplined set of “nomadic practices.” To avoid expert designers, Wakkary calls for the undisciplining of design, “to turn from humanism so as not to be singular in attention, hierarchical in knowing, or territorial in boundary setting” (p. 13). This theoretical move is to pull design from a lineage of what the author describes as anthropocentric endeavors: drawing from long traditions of understanding sets of practices, or the disciplining of knowledges, into paradigms, programs, and generative metaphors (p. 45). Understanding and respecting these traditions while pulling from and critiquing them is the basis for Wakkary’s reimagining of design.

In part 2, designing things is conceptualized as something unique as compared to other and past conceptions of design. In contrast to the act of designing artifacts that are primarily for human use and to “improve human lives politically, technologically, or socially,” things can move beyond being primarily derived from human concerns (p. 65). Similarly, Wakkary argues that “designing objects has a normative function to create objects that are ‘good’ in ways that are enduring, essential, and universal” (p. 77). The author goes so far as to claim that to design objects positions designers as moralists. While artifacts are designed to promote and center human progress, and objects exhibit some version of cultural aspiration, designing products is for economic gain.

Wakkary discusses the inherent qualities of things using three major analytical prongs, each drawing from rich scholarly dialogue and tradition. First, drawing from postphenomological philosophy of technology, Wakkary asserts that designing things includes mediating with and for technologies.[2] This means that, in fact, humans and technologies are interconnected and transformational. Compared to artifacts, “things by contrast do not embody claims about humans … rather … things arise from intentionality” (p. 109). Embedded in chapter 5 is the claim that things have multistability—or the ability to have a variety of purposes—and mean different things to different users. Following the lead of other philosophers of technology, this part clearly articulates how multistability can and does move in and through networks of human and nonhuman actors.[3] Describing the vitality of things, the author draws attention to the agentic capacities of things, specifically how things exhibit efficacy, trajectory, and causality.[4] The ability of things to create something new, give implicit direction, and distribute and “intermingle” cause and effect serves as both evidence of and foundation for the author’s argument of the vitality of things.

Last, part 3 describes how designers, as traditionally construed, are only a small piece of a larger picture of who and what designs. The model for describing distributed agency leads to the possibility of “designing-with” nonhuman designers. “Things emerged as the sharing of intentionalities and agencies, the configuring of each other in assemblages, and the co-shaping of the worlds that are a part of this engagement” (p. 173). Designing things illuminates the shared vitality of humans and nonhumans alike. But intentionality drives design and the resulting assemblages in particular directions.

For the third theoretical prong, Wakkary’s definition of things depends on Bruno Latour’s matters of concern, and further, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s matters of care.[5] Through an alternative conceptualization of the designer, the author pushes against “design problems,” claiming that they “hold[] false illusions of autonomy and solutions,” and explicating that this bristles against the building of design constituencies, or opportunities for nonhuman actors to participate as designers (p. 227). Design constituencies include—yes, in some cases—people but also geographic spaces, technologies, experts, hobbyists, publics, policies, structural realities, and materials, among many other possibilities that gather to address shared matters of concern and care.

In contrast with traditional (human) designer relationships with things, this book makes clear that speaking subjects are vital, but not any more important than other, nonhuman design constituents. Although these speaking subjects have a particular role, Wakkary writes, “the human role in a constituency is as the convener that assembles and maintains the collective and, in an extension of the speaking subject role, speaks on behalf of and ensures the participation of nonhumans” (p. 239). The human “expresses the purpose and rationale of the actions of the designer of things and also represents nonhumans in how they participate in the designer of things” (p. 192). This nuanced distinction is one of the clearest concessions of the difficulties of aspiring for a design that centers posthumanism.

One of the book’s strengths is its ability to put several conversations from human-computer interaction, philosophy of technology, and science and technology studies in dialogue. Using design as a site to interrogate and describe the humans and nonhumans involved in producing things is particularly successful. This move is surprisingly uncommon in design theory books of this scope and magnitude. With that said, some of the subarguments feel slightly worn, in contrast with their applications, which are relevant and new. It invites retreaded conversations with new audiences, which is not inherently a critique, but at times makes the book’s contributions outside of a broad design practitioner audience unclear.

The emphasis on the nouns in the title sacrifices space for how they are connected through process, actions, or verbs. Even while redefining design as nomadic practices, the processes of design are rarely articulated. Readers are provided “finished” artifacts, objects, products, and things through a series of examples and descriptions, but the audience is left to connect the dots between building constituencies and how their resulting things come to be. While the subjects of the book are incredibly clear, more on how they are interconnected and act on each other through design would be welcome. This description could remain multiple but should not remain elusive.

Overall, this book importantly contributes to how humans are (and could be) in relation to nonhumans actors. It proposes a design that includes theoretical contributions in which philosophers of technology and science and technology studies scholars could both see themselves participating. It encourages a humility that most design theory does not afford, while honoring both designers’ realities and aspirations. The book successfully describes a reimagining of designers and what they design, a potential that sees humans as a significant part of design but not dominative actors. The book asks a lot of those that see themselves as human designers, but maybe just enough, if application of ubiquitous theoretical framing of how humans are in relation with nonhumans is to be taken seriously.

Notes

[1]. Donald A. Schon, “Designing as Reflective Conversation with the Materials of a Design Situation,” Research in Engineering Design 3, no. 3 (1992): 131-47.

[2]. Don Idhe, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

[3]. Robert Rosenberger, “Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: From Speed Bumps to Subway Benches,” Human Studies 37, no. 3 (2014): 369-92.

[4]. Diana Coole, “Agentic Capacities and Capacious Historical Materialism: Thinking with New Materialisms in the Political Sciences,” Millennium 41, no. 3 (2014): 451-69; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

[5]. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Citation: Marie Stettler Kleine. Review of Wakkary, Ron, Things We Could Design For More Than Human-Centered Worlds. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57828

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