The Politics of the Artificial

Victor Margolin

u10972@uicvm.uic.edu


Introduction

If we consider design to be the "conception and planning of the artificial," a definition which I developed with my colleague Richard Buchanan, then its scope and boundaries are intimately entwined with our understanding of the artificial's limits. That is to say, in extending the domain within which we conceive and plan, we are widening the boundaries of design practice. To the degree that design makes incursions into realms that were once considered as belonging to nature rather than culture, so does the conceptual scope of design practice widen.

Until recent years, the distinction between nature and culture appeared to be clear, with design, of course, belonging to the realm of culture. The concept of design, as it was initially developed by early theorists such as Henry Cole, one of the chief promoters of the British Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, was a static one that was inextricably bound to the object. Cole thought the purpose of design was to improve the appearance of products and he hoped to confront the confusion and profusion of historic styles that were being loaded onto Victorian objects from furniture to steam engines by promoting a closer collaboration between artists and industry.

With Cole begins a discourse about objects, particularly about how they should look, that continues well into the twentieth century. It is echoed in Charles Eastlake's exhortations for simple forms and honest representations of materials, Herman Muthesius's call for an industrial form language, and Adolf Loos's antagonism to ornament. Closer to home, we can see it at work in the products of the American consultant designers of the 1930s such as Walter Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy and in the resistance to those products by the design staff at the Museum of Modern Art.

Although the modernist belief in simplicity was turned on its head by the expressive furniture of such groups as Studio Alchymia and Memphis in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the terms of the discourse were still focused on objects. It was this emphasis which gave rise to the profession of industrial design that we have known until recently [1]. But this project has been implicitly and explicitly challenged by various theorists such as Herbert Simon and John Chris Jones, who have argued that a process of design underlies everything in our culture, both material and immaterial. Simon has gone so far as to call design a new "science of the artificial," a proposal that provoked the title of my essay [2].

Where Simon and Jones proposed a broadening of design's subject matter to embrace all that which we might call the artificial, other theorists have questioned design's meaning. In the discourse of the modernists, the locus of meaning was twofold: form and function, for which we might substitute the theoretical terms aesthetics and pragmatics. Early modernist designers believed that meaning was embedded in the object rather than negotiated in the relation between the object and a user. Objects were considered to be signs of value with uncontested referents such as clarity, beauty, integrity, simplicity, economy of means and function. The reductive slogan "form follows function" assumed that use was an explicit, unambiguous term. Thus, the meaning of objects was to be found in their relation to a value that was grounded in belief. Poststructuralism challenged that idea of grounded belief, as well as our right to use "meaning," as if it were a term that itself did not raise questions about the possible conditions of its use.

Besides the slippery subject matter of design and the questions regarding the conditions under which we can talk about its meaning, we must also confront a more difficult problem at the heart of the politics of the artificial, and that is the nature of reality. For the "first modernity,"---and here I will use Italian theorist Andrea Branzi's distinction between two modernities---reality was an uncontested term [3]. It was the stable ground for the attribution of meaning to objects, images and acts. Today, this is no longer the case, and any mention of "reality" must be qualified by conditions, just as the use of the term "meaning" must be; hence, we are unclear as to how or whether boundaries can be drawn around the real or authentic as a basis of meaning.

When Herbert Simon called for a new science of the artificial in 1969, he described nature as the ground of meaning against which a science of the artificial or a broadly conceived practice of design would be defined. "Natural science," he wrote, "is knowledge about natural objects and phenomena" [4].The artificial, on the other hand, was about objects and phenomena invented by humans. The difference between the two was clear to Simon, although his implicit positivist construction of the natural was also the model for his explicit methodology of design.

The critique of scientific discourse mounted by Paul Feyerabend, Donna Haraway, Stanley Aronowitz and others has since called into question the way we claim to know nature as real. This critique has at least succeeded in contesting the easy equation of the natural with the real and has thus made references to nature more difficult without qualifications. By focusing on scientific thought as a linguistic construct, critics have attempted to challenge a previous faith in scientific truth. Hence we have two contested terms--- "meaning" and "reality"---that severely undermine the certainties on which a theory and practice of design was built in the first modernity.

Since we can no longer talk about design as if these terms were not in question, a new discourse is needed, although the way that discourse will develop as a reflection on design practice is not yet clear. However, I believe the central theme to be addressed in this new discourse is the artificial and its boundaries.

The Boundary Problem

In the first of his MIT Compton Lectures, Herbert Simon characterized natural science as descriptive, as concerned "solely with how things are," while he defined a science of the artificial as "normative" in its engagement with human goals and questions of how things ought to be. The two were differentiated by the term "should," which marked the task of humans to invent the artificial world in order to achieve their own goals while honoring the parallel purpose of the natural world.

Simon defined four indicia to distinguish the artificial from the natural. Three of these define the artificial as the result of human agency. Simon said that artificial things result from an act of making, which he called synthesis, while the act of observing, analysis, is the way humans relate to nature. Furthermore, he characterized the artificial by "functions, goals, adaptation," and discussed it "in terms of imperatives as well as descriptives" [5].

When Simon compared the artificial to the natural, he posited the natural as an uncontested term, arguing that the artificial "may imitate appearances in natural things while lacking, in one or many respects, the reality of the latter" [6]. As I have already mentioned, the equation of the natural with the real has been heavily contested in recent years, most notably by poststructuralists and deconstructionists. Roland Barthes's and Michel Foucault's challenge to authorial intentions in literature and art, Jean Baudrillard's claim that simulacra are signs without referents, and Jean- Francois Lyotard's refusal to acknowledge any metanarratives or "grands recits" that shape social values all exemplify this tendency, as does Donna Haraway's discourse on cyborg culture.

While these attacks on the real legitimately challenged implicit assumptions of positivist thought that closed out many of the voices that now constitute our cultural community, they also strove to abolish any presence---whether we call it nature, God, or spirit--- that might exist beyond the frame of a socially constructed discourse.

Hence, Donna Haraway, in her 1985 essay "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," could argue for the cyborg, a hybrid of human and machine, as "a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality" [7], and Gianni Vattimo, the Italian philosopher who has postulated "il pensiero debole," or "weak thought," as the appropriate philosophy for the postmodern era, can claim that "only where there is no terminal or interrupting instance of the highest value (God) to block the process may values be displayed in their true nature, namely as possessing the capacity for convertibility and an indefinite transformability or processuality" [8]. Vattimo concludes from his readings of Nietzsche and Heidegger that "Nihilism is thus the reduction of Being to exchange-value" [9]. He does not mean this in the mercantile sense of selling the self but in terms of the self's convertibility without a ground such as nature or God against which it can be defined.

We also find evidence of this in William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, where the artificial is unbounded by any presence outside it. Gibson's characters have no grounding in the real; they are constructed of motives and impulses that are facilitated by the manipulation of artificial products. While some characters are more human than others, none possess any inherent resistance to the incursion of the artificial in their bodies or their lives and some, like the AI Wintermut (an Artificial Intelligence that intervenes in social life), are totally artificial. Part of the fascination with Neuromancer outside the cyberpunk milieu is Gibson's portrayal of a world in which the artificial is dominant and where the ability to manipulate it is the most potent human activity [10] .

Neuromancer offers us a scenario of design triumphant in a world where the real is no longer a point of reference. Simon's postulation of the artificial as an imitation of the natural carries no weight in this context. In the world portrayed by Gibson, being is convertible into infinite forms, and values of identity are constituted primarily through the manipulation of technology. The materials which constitute the substance of design have already gone through so many transformations that their locus in nature is no longer evident.

If design in Neuromancer is victorious at the expense of reality, how do we reflect on the issue of meaning in Gibson's world? We first need to question what meaning is in a world where reality is no longer the ground on which values are formed. Meaning then becomes a strategic concept that exists pragmatically at the interface of design and use. Its value is determined by operational rather than semantic concerns. The characters in Neuromancer have even designed themselves, but without an external ethical imperative or an inner sense of self to guide them.

Neuromancer is a fictional depiction of Jean Baudrillard's world of the simulacrum. As in Gibson's novel, the real for Baudrillard, as he states it in "The Precession of Simulacra, "is nothing more than operational" [11]. According to him, the simulacrum is a sign for the real that substitutes for the real itself. The result is what he calls the "hyperreal." Baudrillard believes there can be no representation, since "simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum" [12].

The world of Neuromancer is a reflection of Baudrillard's own nihilism. He sees the West as having lost what he calls the "wager on representation." This wager was based on the belief that signs could exchange for depths of meaning and that something external to the exchange---he mentions God---could guarantee it.

However, Baudrillard himself expresses no faith in God or a metanarrative of equivalent power. He expresses his doubt as follows:

But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say,
reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole
system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic
simulacrum---not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging
for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit
without reference or circumference [13].

Although Baudrillard is a prophet of doom, his ability to explore the implications of a world without the presence of the real is useful. As in Neuromancer, meaning only exists for Baudrillard in the operation of exchange rather than in a reality outside it.

In his book Simulations, Baudrillard discusses the difficulty of finding meaning in a world without a metanarrative, which Jean-Francois Lyotard defines as any large idea or presence that exists as an uncontested phenomenon outside the realm of human social action. And yet postmodern theorists, led by Lyotard, have insisted that metanarratives are no longer possible. As Lyotard states in The Postmodern Condition of 1979, "I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives" [14]. He believes that knowledge may be accepted as legitimate for reasons other than its inherent truth, and he wants to guard against the hegemonic dominance of knowledge that, in his perception, may be illegitimate. I use qualifiers to account for Lyotard's interpretation of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge to insure that we relate his thought to his own perception of truth rather than to anything that is or isn't inherently truthful.

Although Lyotard's skepticism has usefully stimulated a critical analysis of how social discourses are constructed, it has also reinforced the belief of many that social life has no ground of meaning. The disbelief in metanarratives, particularly among prominent cultural theorists, is an essential factor in the argument that the postmodern is a rupture with the modern. Although metanarratives of the modern have been variously defined, the belief in progress animated by instrumental reason is a central one, as is the belief in universals rather than differences.

Expanding the Discourse

The collapse of a particular modernist paradigm has opened the space of social discourse to many voices that were formerly marginalized or suppressed. But the recognition of difference has also led to a widespread refusal to postulate the world in terms of shared values. Lyotard refers to the situation of difference as "a pragmatics of language particles" [15].

However, many people, including myself, are unhappy with the postmodern condition as Lyotard and other scholars, critics and artists have defined and elaborated it. But this does not mean that it has to be countered by sustaining a modernist position that is no longer valid. In the most profound sense, the specter of instrumental reason, with its increasing technological power, let loose on what remains of nature without any moral or ethical imperative to govern it is terrifying.

Mark Sagoff has described the potential impact of advances in biotechnology on the environment:

The goal of biotechnology is to improve upon nature,
to replace natural organisms and processes with artificial ones,
in order to increase overall social efficiency and profit. . . .
That is why we spend more to produce economically valuable
engineered species than to protect economically useless endangered ones.
And that is also why we continually turn whatever natural and wild
ecological systems we may have---from rain forests to savannas to
estuaries---into carefully managed and engineered (and therefore
predictable and profitable) bioindustrial productive systems [16].

The issues raised here are similar to those previously referred to in Neuromancer and thus justify the critic Peter Fitting's reading of Gibson's world as "not so much an image of the future, but the metaphorical evocation of life in the present" [17]. The technical possibilities of biotechnology, as described by Sagoff, have already blurred the boundaries between the artificial and the real. Rather than an imitation of nature, the managed biosystem becomes a replacement of it.

These biosystems still maintain the appearance of the natural in that they draw their energy from the earth, but their transformation from natural to managed systems may disengage them from a larger ecological balance which their managers are either unaware of or do not wish to take into account. Such biosystems might be simulacra of nature without our even knowing it. Instrumental reason continues to alter species and biosystems for human use, particularly for economic profit. This is design but, as in Neuromancer, it flourishes only at the expense of the natural.

The confusion between the artificial and the natural that the capabilities of biotechnology have engendered exists because both realms have been reduced to exchange-value. When they are seen as interchangeable, as biotech managers prefer to see them, one can be substituted for the other without any sense of loss. The only way to distinguish between the two is to identify one with a value that is missing in the other.

Extreme views of biotechnologists and ecologists who collapse the distinction between the artificial and the natural can be contrasted with another set of views that regard nature as sacred. According to James Lovelock's Gaia principle, the earth is a living being with whom we must cooperate. Ecofeminists who have adopted the triadic values of feminism, ecology and spirituality also share the belief that the earth is alive. As Paula Gunn Allen writes:

The planet, our mother, Grandmother Earth, is physical
and therefore a spiritual, mental, and emotional being. Planets are
alive, as are all their by-products or expressions, such as animals,
vegetables, minerals, climatic and meteorological phenomena [18].

Both the Gaia metaphor and the Goddess narrative, which is at the core of ecofeminist spiritual belief, have generated a strong critique of instrumental reason which the ecofeminists identify with patriarchy. Carol Christ, also an ecofeminist, believes that

The preservation of the Earth requires a profound shift in consciousness:
a recovery of more ancient and traditional views that revere the profound
connection of all beings in the web of life and a rethinking of the relation
of both humanity and divinity to nature [19].

For ecofeminists, the narrative of Goddess spirituality has been a powerful impetus to political action. They have led and participated in demonstrations against acid rain, the destruction of the rain forests, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and have, as well, been involved with numerous other causes related to a healthy environment. Their aim, as Starhawk, another ecofeminist says, is not simply to oppose patriarchal power but "to transform the structure of power itself" [20].

The accomplishments of ecofeminists on two fronts--- opposing groups that damage the earth's ecology and creating actions to draw women together to collaborate positively with the life forces of the Earth --- signify the power of a narrative in changing human action. From the position of ecofeminism, the postmodern philosophy of Vattimo and Lyotard has little to offer those who wish to act together constructively. It can only acknowledge an absence of meaning.

Ecofeminism has also made a valuable contribution to the understanding of discourse formation through its resistance to a patriarchal narrative that has closed out earlier matriarchal cultures in which women maintained roles of authority. Starting from a marginalized position, the ecofeminists have, through cooperative intellectual activity, made a place for themselves within contemporary cultural discourse.

They have simply begun from a different position than either positivists or nihilistic poststructuralists, with a project that could be consistently and cooperatively pursued within the framework of a new narrative. They have also demonstrated the power of spiritual conviction and experience in generating positive action. Where they have been less effective is in establishing a rhetorical stance from which to engage postmodern theories in both a critical and an affirmative way. They have, however, implicitly challenged Lyotard's dismissal of metanarratives by producing a narrative of their own that is clearly empowering. While it might be seen as marginal because so few people embrace it, the Goddess narrative can nonetheless form part of a more inclusive metanarrative of spirituality within which difference can be asserted just as the postmodernists argue it must be done socially.

Spirituality as a metanarrative (and I interpret spirituality here as a connection to the Divine) can serve as a basis for addressing the problems of meaning and reality that have arisen from the expansion of the artificial. If a broad discourse on the spirit can become as compelling for other social groups as the Goddess narrative has been for ecofeminists, then it has the capacity to empower large numbers of people to find meaning and fulfillment in action directed to the well- being and life enhancement of themselves and others. It is difficult to say what form this action would take, particularly as regards design, but it would certainly be characterized by the quest for meaning and unity in relations with others.

A recognition of the Divine, as neither exclusively matriarchal or patriarchal, can overcome the breach between the modern and the postmodern in several ways. It can acknowledge the value of a social narrative in modernist thought while recognizing the shortcomings of the First Modernity's faith in universal categories and instrumental reason. It can also recognize the significance of the many incisive critiques of contemporary culture and the attention they have brought to the problem of the artificial.

There is much that design and technology have to gain from a metanarrative of divinely-inspired spirituality, particularly as a ground of meaning that testifies to the limits of the artificial. While I trace spirituality to a transcendent source, I refer to it here as it is manifested in human action. What characterizes the spiritual is both its immanence and transcendence, its capacity to animate humans from within themselves while also existing as a presence outside them.

Simulacra and the Real

I realize that spirituality---whether we link it to God, the Goddess or some other transcendent source---is one of the most contested terms in our contemporary vocabulary, but we have had little chance to explore its meaning because it has been suppressed by a powerful intellectual discourse of materialism. Hence, Donna Haraway states, in "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," that

Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous
the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body,
self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions
that used to apply to organisms and machines [21].

Haraway claims that we are moving to a "polymorphous information system" in which "any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no 'natural' architectures constrain system design" [22]

Wheareas Neuromancer is a dystopic narrative of self-interest and power played out through design and the control of technology, Haraway proposes her view of this new polymorphous flexibility as a vehicle for positive social change. However, the lack of a metanarrative that can serve as a source of normative values compels Haraway to emphasize power and economics as primary in determining the boundaries of the artificial and the real. Such an absence also makes resistance to technology more difficult. A principal theme of technological discourse is that innovative devices will enable us to do things we have not done before. We are told that new experiences made possible by technology will be expansive. Measured against a reductive understanding of "natural" experience, this certainly appears true. But the power of lived spirituality can enlarge the experience of being and thus provide a stronger position from which to support or resist new technologies.

Let's take virtual reality research as an example [23]. Brenda Laurel has described the many experiences that VR will make possible, as has Jaron Lanier, one of the medium's founders and early spokespersons. In a 1989 interview, Lanier spoke euphorically about the new possibilities of VR:

The computer that's running the Virtual Reality will use your body's
movements to control whatever body you choose to have in Virtual
Reality, which might be human or might be something quite different.
You might very well be a mountain range or a galaxy or a pebble
on the floor. Or a piano . . . I've considered being a piano. I'm interested
in being musical instruments quite a lot [24].
Needless to say, neither Lanier nor others involved in VR research privilege personal fantasy as the primary justification for what they do, but it is certainly a strong element and one that promises extensive economic payoff. Surely, virtual reality will continue to develop into a powerful entertainment medium and has already become a site for virtual sex.

While it promises numerous advantages as a simulation device for training surgeons or pilots, or for manipulating machines electronically at a distance, the primary issue raised by virtual reality technology relates to whether we experience simulation as a mark or a mask. This distinction was made by Dennis Doordan in an article on simulation techniques in museum exhibits [25]. When the designer marks the edge of simulation, it is distinguished as a second-order experience whose referent is more authentic. When the edge is masked, the simulation becomes a simulacrum, as Baudrillard has pointed out, with no reference to an experience outside itself. Thus the boundary between the simulated and the real collapses and the simulated becomes the new real.

The counterbalance of perceived constraints in corporeal society and the envisioned freedom of an electronic self raises questions about how physical reality is valued in relation to its virtual counterpart. Virtual reality enthusiasts sometimes speak of VR as an alternative to the physical world, a place where constraints can be overcome and new freedoms can be discovered. On one level, this is classic techno- rhetoric. New technology always promises more. For some, Virtual Reality suggests that electronic identity offers something greater or more fulfilling than bodily existence. Recall the comment of Case, Gibson's anti- hero in Neuromancer: "The body is meat" [26]. For Case, jacking into cyberspace is a life-enhancing experience that is more meaningful than being in his body. In cyberspace, Case, a marginal figure in real life, displays a shrewd intelligence in breaking through barriers to crack information codes, and he shows considerable courage in maneuvering his way through nets of electronic opposition. In a world of collapsed boundaries between the artificial and the real, the symbolic world of the net becomes for Case a more intense and expansive reality than his corporeal one.

For Bruce Sterling, a cyberpunk writer and libertarian, cyberspace is a political frontier where the world can be invented anew without constraints. But the expectation that this new symbolic territory will be immune to the same tendencies to regulate life that characterize the corporeal world is unrealistic. Lawyers are already at work on cases involving electronic events that have threatened or violated constitutional rights and have resulted in psychological or even physical harm to individuals. However, legal codes will not be applied to virtual action without great difficulty. As attorney Ann Branscomb states,

The ease with which electronic impulses can be manipulated,
modified and erased is hostile to a deliberate legal system
that arose in an era of tangible things and relies on documentary
evidence to validate transactions, incriminate miscreants and
affirm contractual relations. [27].

As we know from the many accounts of hacker behavior and from novels such as Neuromancer, psychic engagement with electronic communication can be intense. What is possible, as virtual reality research makes the visualization of electronic identities more palpable, is that the potential for boundaries between corporeal and virtual identities to become blurred will increase. In Baudrillard's sense, electronic identity for some may no longer be a representation of a self but may become the self against which life in the body is poor psychic competition.

Cynicism about the constructive possibilities of the American political system leaves a vacuum of meaning in civil society that offers little or no resistance to the artificial. In fact, the artificial as entertainment---from video games to interactive VR environments---may become even more engaging than corporeal life. It may also become such a powerful diversion that incursions into the natural by aggressive biotech corporations will go unnoticed.

The images of becoming as explorations of fantasy are a far cry from the discourses about human development embodied in the different strands of the spiritual metanarrative. Within this metanarrative, becoming is part of a continuity of development that results in a self that understands its purpose within a larger framework of spiritual evolution. For those who hold this belief, spiritual evolution is the ground of reality against which the virtues of the artificial must be assessed.

The late Jesuit theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin related the motivation to embrace spiritual evolution to the force with which it is experienced.

In any morality of movement, on the contrary, which is only defined by relation
to a state or object to be reached, it is imperative that the goal shall shine with
enough light to be desired and held in view. [28].

For Teilhard the Jesuit priest, it is the love of the Divine that animates human beings to strive together towards a higher unity. Yet, as a paleontologist, he realized that humans need to think about spirituality in a new way that does not oppose the realm of the spirit to that of science. As he wrote in an unpublished text of 1937, "What we are all more or less lacking at this moment is a new definition of holiness" [29].

Spirituality and the Future of Design

We are now challenged to take up the same question as Teilhard at a moment when the capabilities of technology are outstripping our understanding of what being human means [30]. As artificial beings like cyborgs or replicants more closely represent what we have always thought a human is, we are hard pressed to define the difference between us and them. This is the problem that Donna Haraway addressed with her myth of the cyborg, which draws humans into a closer relation with machines. "No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves," she argued in "A Manifesto for Cyborgs"; "any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language" [31]. The film Blade Runner plays with this idea of interchangeability, leaving ambiguous the relation of Harrison Ford to the female replicant whose feeling for him may or may not be the equivalent of human love.

To move towards a self that is more differentiated from rather than similar to artificial constructs, we need to understand the connection to the Divine as a force of evolution that is not in opposition to technology, but at the same time offers some of the equivalent fulfillments we currently seek in the realm of the artificial [32].

We are living in a moment which Teilhard de Chardin could not have conceived in 1937, a moment where the real cannot be taken for granted but must be wrested from the artificial. This is not an easy task but is instead a complex struggle in which we need to engage if we are not to be engulfed by simulacra.

This means finding a way of talking about the spiritual that does not present it in opposition to the artificial but instead recognizes particular forms of the artificial as fruitful manifestations of spiritual energy. The task is difficult because of the plurality of human experience and the lack of a discourse that can accommodate the presence of spirituality even for those who resist it or marginalize it.

The first step, however, is to reintroduce the concept of spirituality into the current philosophic debates from which it has been excluded. As a rhetorical move, spirituality must be brought from the margins of contemporary thought to a more central position. By considering its place in our reflections on the artificial, we can raise questions about design and technology that would otherwise go unasked. For example, we would have to wrestle with questions of whether particular forms of artificiality, a genetic mutant, an a- life environment, or an expert artificial intelligence system, for example, were appropriate replacements for equivalent phenomena we have designated as natural. In short, we would have to manage the boundaries between the artificial, which is human- made, and the natural, which exists independent of human design.

While this distinction is more problematic than it may have appeared to Herbert Simon in 1969, it nonetheless empowers us to stake out a different territory for design, one that does not attempt to completely replace the natural but instead to complement it. This view is in opposition to the thrust of techno-rhetoric, which always argues for the superiority of the artificial.

The Australian design theorist Tony Fry has addressed this problem in a recent lecture on ecodesign given at Notre Dame University. While Fry was referring to the effects of too much design on the natural environment, I find his words germane to the larger issue of boundaries for the artificial:

Designers have to become more informed about the environmental impact
of what they do; they have to be more critical, more responsible.
They/I have to fully recognize that whatever they/I design goes on designing.
It/I/they also have to discover how to stop designing, which implies learning
how to let essential system be, or designing mechanisms of artificial support
that render future design action redundant [33].

A metanarrative of spirituality can help designers resist techno-rhetoric, which sanctions the continuous colonization of the natural. It can provide instead a more profound and conscious reflection on the artificial as a subject which has yet to be explored with any depth by designers and technologists. Such reflection can resist the reduction of the artificial to simulacra, on the one hand, or violations of nature, on the other.

To the degree that a metanarrative of spirituality is articulated as a discourse on human purpose, it can enable technologists and designers to make decisions about what research directions to pursue and what to design [34]. I don't want to make grandiose claims for spirituality as the source of an entirely new design paradigm when in fact many of our products already fully satisfy human needs. But I do want to suggest that the more a designer or an engineer can conceive of a user as a person of depth and worth, the more likely he or she is to design a valuable product [35]. Design, understood in a deeper sense, is a service. It generates the products that we require to live our lives. To the degree that our activities are enabled by the presence of useful products, spirituality can be a source for cultivating a sense of what is worthwhile. As manifested in product design and technological devices, spirituality is the attention to human welfare and life enhancement seen both in relation to the individual self and humanity as a whole. As designers and technologists develop a more caring feeling for how people live, they may also generate new products that respond to previously unimagined human activities. A discourse on human purpose generated independently of the market is not utopian; it can have an effect on what the market produces.

A greater attentiveness to questions of human welfare and purpose can also help us weigh the merits of new technologies as well as the possibilities they offer for the design of products. Bruce Sterling has characterized virtual reality as the "ultimate designable medium," which can absorb infinite amounts of human ingenuity [36]. The design of cyberspace, for example, could become a parallel economy where electronic analogues of corporeal experience are bought and sold. This activity could absorb vast amounts of capital and concentrate it in the hands of a few corporations that control the technology to make it happen. We need to ask ourselves whether the construction of such analogues is where designers can most usefully concentrate their talent and the economy its capital. I think not.

While ecological concern is no substitute for the spiritual, eco-design has nonetheless generated a discourse in which the natural and human cooperation with it are central. In recent years, ecology has become important to product designers and the public. Thus, we are now rethinking the construction and purpose of many products in terms of materials, longevity, maintenance, and other factors [37].

A metanarrative of spirituality can empower designers and technologists to better understand design as a form of action that contributes to social well-being. It can link design to a process of social improvement that becomes the material counterpart of spiritual evolution. Here a sense of continuity with the modern period can reinvigorate the idea of a larger project for design that needs to be thought anew in relation to contemporary conditions. Most importantly, a spiritual metanarrative can empower individuals to act confidently and forcefully in the face of a widespread cultural nihilism.

This metanarrative can also reunite design with the two contested terms, "meaning" and "reality," in a way that resists their collapse. There is clearly a need to understand the meaning of products within a larger set of issues about the artificial, but no theory has thus far addressed this problem.

To consider the question of the artificial in the way we need to, I want to return to Herbert Simon's 1969 Compton Lectures on "The Science of the Artificial." But I don't think we can accept Simon's assumption that either "nature" or "science" hold uncontested claims to truth. What I believe is important in Simon's work, particularly in terms of my own call for a new metanarrative, is his delineation of the natural and the artificial as distinct realms. Although the natural can be transformed into the artificial through human action, and Simon acknowledges that "the world we live in today is much more a man-made, or artificial, world than it is a natural world" [38], the natural is not interchangeable with the artificial.

Today we recognize that the artificial is a much more complex phenomenon than postulated by Simon in 1969. We therefore need to address it as a problem in new ways. The various critiques of positivism and patriarchy, the deconstruction of scientific discourse and the multiple new voices that now fill the space of social debate are all part of a different situation within which the artificial must be rethought. Among those heavily invested in the artificial as a replacement for the natural, resistance to this challenge is strong. And yet, as the artificial's incursion into the natural domain of our lives advances, we may lose part of our humanity. In the face of such a prospect, there is no choice but to fight back.


Copyright ISAST 1995.
Please email comments to isast@mercury.sfsu.edu


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