(I gave the opening comments at a keynote panel on The Next Industrial Design Revolution for IDSA’s Future of the Future event. Here’s an edited version of my brief talk).
The first industrial revolution may have been the most dramatic we will ever have. This is an unpopular notion as we suffer from what Tom Standage called chronocentrism – which is the belief that the present is the most amazing time ever in history and our most recent inventions will transform the world like nothing before. I don’t believe that. I don’t think you will either if you thought about it for a minute.
Consider life 100 years ago, and the the shift from hauling water on your back, walking up from the river every morning to having indoor plumbing or “instant water” as a modern marketer might have called it. Or the shift from horse power to electricity, and lighting dozens of candles with your hands to indoor light at the push of a button. Electricity had far more profound impacts on society than many of our hyped inventions of today.
As a simple test: if you could only have one of A) your mobile phone with internet, or B) running water, electricity for your home and modern medicine, which would you choose? We’d all eventually choose B. We take for granted the most profound technological advancements central to our lives.
We also forget that the first industrial revolution centered on steam power and the mass manufacturing of textiles, the central industry of the industrial revolution. It wasn’t consumer technology, it was factory machines. And it’s overlooked that this revolution was predicated on slavery. Central to the revolution was a cheap mass labor force. It created the economic advantages these new inventions accelerated. And the lesson for us today is that in every revolution, at least in every industrial revolution, ethics and morality of some kind are likely overlooked. Here are three questions to help us.
Question #1: How Is Your Work Moral For The Future?
If we believe that “design is an extension of our identity”, as the conference program defines it, how do we explain consumerism? How do we explain advertising? The enormous consumer debt in the U.S. is predicated on the desire to upgrade to the latest versions of products we make. We are paid to manipulate people into buying and upgrading. How then do we reconcile our salaries with the moral challenges of American capitalism? How do we explain the environmental crisis and it’s connection to product and technological manufacturing? To the invasion of privacy that many of the most popular technologies today inflict on their own customers? Just as slavery was the unspoken crime of the first industrial revolution, what is the silent immorality of the one we are in now?
The next generation is more aware of moral issues than perhaps any generation before. They were born into a world with major economic, environmental and social problems, a troubling legacy that we are leaving for them. Is what you are working on today designed for 5 years? 10? 50? If not, you are designing more for our generation than the next. This is not generational design, so much as indulgent and selfish creation. Our chronocentricsm blinds us from what we claim design does: improve the world.
Question #2: Will you respect “unprofessional” creativity?
When a new technology lowers barriers to entry, progress and regress happen simultaneously. For example, HTML was a huge step backwards for design, in that it took away the layout and typography control the technology of print had developed for centuries. But it was a huge step forward in inviting an entire new generation of young people without preconceptions to create and publish.
This is a fine line we have to balance: we have to be capable of respecting creative but untrained outsiders, and finding constructive ways to engage and elevate what their work. Rather than taking the natural stance that “people without our background are not designers”, we should be generous and curious. If we want to influence the future we have to make our knowledge accessible to the next generation. If we don’t they will simply pass us by. They are not waiting for a torch to be handed to them, as that’s a metaphor so old it predates all of us in this room.
Question #3: Is the value of your expertise more than pretense?
We are here at a glamorous professional event that presumes design degrees and professional events are valuable. But we are biased: all the people who question the value of these things are not in the room to disagree.
We must admit that as tools continue to improve, and the affordability of creation increases (kickstarter, 3D printing, etc.), the assumption that our profession and our professional society is necessary will be continually challenged. Great designs are being made by people without our pedigree and we are likely to dismiss them for this reason alone, presuming we have the power to dismiss.
But generational change is unforgiving. They are not waiting for our approval. The tools this generation has allows them to go directly to making, and to finding an audience, and for many of us this is terrifying. We can assume they will fail, or find their way to the path we’ve been on, but the history of revolutions suggests otherwise. Only if we are lucky will we even be asked, by younger and faster creators, how our past experience is relevant. It’s up to us to reach out to them, with open minds, to apply our wisdom to their work on their terms, not ours. Our terms are dying while theirs are just being born.