Social Matter, Social Design

For good or bad, all design is social.

Social Matter, Social Design challenges the way we look at, think of, and interact with the social world by emphasising the role of materiality. This enlarged field for engagement demands that design incorporates a more nuanced and complex reading of how the social is intertwined with the material, which confronts the often reductive or simplistic notion of ‘social design’, and offers novel forms of critical and meaningful engagement at a time of mounting social contradictions.

This book’s essays explore and unveil uncanny, disconcerting or discordant connections, bricolages, assumptions, or breaches at critical junctures for transformation. They are centred around four major themes: the body; earth; the political; and technology.

Editors: Jan Boelen & Michael Kaethler Contributors: Jonas Althaus, Stephane Barbier Bouvet, Mariangela Beccoi, Ellie Birkhead, Gali Blay, Jan Boelen, Nadine Botha, Pablo Calderón Salazar, Marianne Drews, Brecht Duijf, Anastasia Eggers, @Gabriel Fontana, Saba Golchehr, Alorah Harman, Dick van Hoff, Michael Kaethler, Eric Klarenbeek, Kuang-Yi Ku, Gabriel .A. Maher, Henrique Nascimento, Elisa Otañez, Ottonie von Roeder, Søren Rosenbak, Angela Rui, Vera Sacchetti, Noud Sleumer, Vivien Tauchmann, Henriëtte WaalDesign: Wibke Bramesfeld and Billy Ernst

Design: Wibke Bramesfeld and Billy Ernst

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Design Became a Ghost in the Cloud

Published in Notes on Ghosts, Disputes, and Killer Bodies, the #TVclerici reader and part of the DAE Milan 2017 exhibition, curated by Jan Boelen.

By Jan Boelen

Rather than an activity with a clear outcome, design has also become a medium itself, a system of signs. From economic flows and legal infrastructures to interfaces, virtual addresses and augmented realities, we are dealing with another type of world that generates economic value from information, fictional, false, or real. What Franco Berardi coined as Semiocapitalism to refer to the production of semiotic goods, the re-design of processes of relation rather than material ones, Benjamin Bratton has approached from the perspective of what he calls “the Stack”; the stacks of information technology designed to blur geographic, economic, and political layers. In the face of these evolutions, how is our consciousness, cognition, and body affected?

It seems algorithms on the loose govern us. We are the voluntary captives of the cloud.[1] Design has become a ghost up in the air. In this system of invisible processes, our bodies also count as information. Filter bubbles are introduced to manage and predict our behaviour. Captcha software turns people into sophisticated sensory constituents; biometric capture technologies manage our identities. Siri and other virtual assistants trick us into falling in love with “them”; while bots and trolls influence how we think and act. We are battling an army of anonymous digital foot soldiers; yet within this space in which our risk probabilities are calculated, our options tested and our outcomes pre-designed, there’s a space of real possibility and responsibility. If we no longer exist as mere “users” but as “constituents”, perhaps we can take our new role more actively and creatively as part of a complex ecology of linkages between different actors.

All these different actors (from interfaces to algorithms and from objects to media) have different dispositions – a tendency, activity, faculty or property – that have a specific relationship to one another other. By hacking or navigating these dispositions it is possible to shift or restructure our realm of possibility. In Extrastate Craft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, architect theorist Keller Easterling replaces Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “The Medium is the Message” by “The Action is the Form”. For Easterling the organisational formats are not what surrounds the design; they are the design. Easterling employs the term “disposition” to refer to “active forms” which produce actions that lend an organisation some other undisclosed agency or capacity. It’s not about the pebble dropped in the water, but the ripples it produces.

From this perspective, it’s necessary to redefine design as an “active form” or critical tool that helps us navigate a netted world mediated by intangible and invisible processes. Better than to hold on to design entangled in a modern, material culture (the pebble), let’s start to also imagine design as a practice that maps, intervenes and challenges existing processes and repurposes them towards other (more exciting) ends (the ripples). In an essay on speculative design, Bratton notes, perhaps “the job of Design in the 21st century is to undo (much of) the Design of the 20th”.[2] Not only is it necessary to undo what exists, but also to design and reconfigure the normative relationships between things such as contracts, protocols, mediation, communication flows, and social or digital encounters. Design has the powerful faculty to create new meaning. Simulation, resistance, reappropriation and negotiation are only a few of the strategies designers with a critical attitude can apply to produce other narratives, what one might call a form of critical imagineering.

We can find a mode of resistance in the work of Swiss graphic designer and researcher Simone C. Niquille. Commenting on global standards of identification, such as facial recognition, her work proposes how we can protect our identities from being exploited or even misread. Proxy Body (2016) scans human skins and bodies to then print the scans on fabric to create wearable objects that lend us other identities. In Facebay Skinz (2015) faces taken from a face database are featured on adhesive smartphone covers. The protective adhesive recreates and distorts the face of the person owning the phone. The artist Zach Blas goes one step further in his thinking about protection from pervasive surveillance by undermining the bias of the normative gaze and its insidious return to “the ableist, classist, homophobic, racist, sexist and transphobic scientific endeavours of the 19th century”.[3]

A critical comment is also apparent in the installations of the designer Henrique Nascimento, who observes how labour is disappearing through the rise of robotics and AI. With his project Guidelines for the Human Factor, Nascimento developed an algorithm-based workspace where the robot plays the role of a moderator, while humans discuss a relevant topic connected to a real world situation. According to a set of rules and based on voice recognition, the algorithms participate in the dialogue by offering references that influence the dialogue between the humans. In a way, the project comments on the role of bots and trolls that participate in online debates, influencing public opinion. As artists Bik Van der Pol suggest in The Search Drive: A Hackography Begins, a plea for cognitive activism, “we are witnessing a shift from a form of data searching and surveillance in which real fingers and thumbs of real hands connected to the real bodies revealing themselves by making tapping sounds on keyboards, are being substituted by a disembodied algorithmically generated system of total silence.”[4] But Nascimento’s project also proposes a model in which humans take on an active role, in full awareness of the invisible process that backs them up. The outcome of the conversation produces a ‘conversation piece’ emerging as a hologram: a co-production between human and machine.

Even if designers today are often still preoccupied with the material, it seems that the seeds of new forms of design are present in the work of many students graduating at the Design Academy Eindhoven. By materialising what designers want to address and hope to change, we are presented with an understanding of what’s at play – a tangible visualisation of a ‘light’ and ‘liquid’, software-based modernity as Zygmunt Bauman describes in his book Liquid Modernity. Design needs to appropriate these disruptive fluid mechanisms; or ripples.The future is where a product becomes a process, a narrative a performance; creating an unpredictable reality of a cloud, a ghost like an amazon that knows what you might like. Ratherthan being governed by these ghosts like puppets in a spectacle, we need to become the active actors on the stage.

Design Academy Eindhoven’s exhibition #TVclerici took place at Atelier Clerici in Milan, Italy, during Milan Design Week in April 2017.

[1] Metahaven. “We Are Captives of the Cloud, Part 1.” E-flux. (accessed 7 March 2017)
[2] Bratton, Benjamin.”On Speculative Design.” Dis Magazine. (accessed 7 March 2017)
[3] Blas, Zach. “Informatic Opacity”. In: Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, 2014, issue 9
[4] Bik Van der Pol, “A Desktop of a Computer Screen”, in: The Search Drive: A Hackography Begins. Zero-Desk, 2015, p. 10

New Condition of the Earth

New Condition of the Earth was originally written as a speech at the opening of the academic year 2016–17 at Design Academy Eindhoven in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Text Jan Boelen

An image of Earth from space, the first colour photograph of the whole of Earth, taken from a satellite by NASA in 1967, has recently caught my attention in several publications, and with different meanings and connotations. As one of the best-recognized images in the world, this particular image and its successors are far from neutral. It is an image of a designed object and a representation of very different ideologies and beliefs.

The image was used on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue by Stewart Brand in 1968, and was quickly appropriated by environmental and peace movements with significantly differing objectives. At the same time, technocrats and scientists saw Earth as a self-regulative machine or a closed world, a Spaceship Earth run by humans. The Spaceship Earth was one of Buckminster Fuller’s primary concerns, and formed the basis of his vision, to develop strategies to enable humankind to live without negatively impacting the planet.

Closely related to the concerns and visions of Stewart Brand, Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek and their contemporaries at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz’ 2016 book The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us paints a depressing picture of the current state of the earth.

Anthropocene, the age of man, has grown from an informal buzzword to the point at which a group of experts are recommending it to be officially declared as a geological epoch in the history of Earth. The new era defined by the human imprint on the global environment and Earth’s system has been ascertained to have begun around 1950. Formally defined, it would end the Holocene, an 11,500-year climatically stable period during which the human civilization developed. The epoch of human is characterized by global climate warming, the rising sea level, global mass extinction of species, radionuclides on the ground, plastic pollution and transformation of land by deforestation. It is estimated that twenty per cent of the current species will disappear by mid-2030.

The discourse in the late 1960s and the decades after was about an environmental crisis. Today, it is justified to talk about a new condition of Earth. No crisis, no transition, but a new condition of life. Today, we look at Earth in a humbler way. Now we understand that Earth is finite.

How can a designer be aware of how the world is represented and how it shapes, mediates and affects our thoughts, behaviour and worldviews? How can designers take action to intervene or reshift and reconfigure the construction of the world? These questions need to be addressed as an agent in the world.

Design theorist John Thackara speaks of ‘healthy growth’ as a way to thrive in the next economy – healthy food, healthy social relationships, healthy housing. Healthy growth is neither growth nor de-growth, but a third solution in which small, healthy actions transform social and ecological systems through small initiatives and actions of local money, platforms for sharing, and the commons.

Another hopeful solution is the concept of ‘scenius’, a communal genius that opposes the more commonly known concept of a lone genius. ‘Scenius’ arises from intuition and intelligence of a particular ‘scene’ that enables mutual appreciation of individuals, exchange of thoughts, tools and techniques. It thrives in an environment that tolerates and cherishes novelties and shares the same language, and in which other people’s success is empowering rather than overpowering.

As with the visionary minds at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, with the close relationships between Stewart Brand, Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek and their peers, the idea of ‘scenius’ is crucially related to design education and schools, where creative talents exchange skills and knowledge.

But, however significant the perspectives above are, they are all white, male and Western. Designers, with design education ahead, must find a way to be inclusive; for other people, other experiences and other approaches. We must reach beyond the existing frames of thinking, beyond the normative, and embrace the crazy, the unexpected and the unusual.

We have to learn to unlearn, and unlearning is looking in the mirror and seeing the world.

Bonneuil, Christophe and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste 2016. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us. Verso Books.

Glaeser, Edward 2011. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Penguin Books.
Thackara, John 2015. How to Thrive in the Next Economy. Thames & Hudson.


Invading Spaces

Essay ‘Invading Spaces’ was originally published in the catalogue of exhibition ‘Konstantin Grcic – Panorama’ in 2014.

Jan Boelen: Invading Spaces (in pdf)

Contribution by Jan Boelen to the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Konstantin Grcic – Panorama’ at Vitra Design Museum. © Vitra Design Museum and the authors, 2014.

Exhibition ‘Konstantin Grcic – Panorama’ (Vitra Design Museum 22 March–14 September 2014, Z33 House for Contemporary Art 1 February–14 May 2015) was developed over three years in close collaboration between designer Konstantin Grcic, Vitra Design Museum and Z33 House for Contemporary Art.

Konstantin Grcic
Vitra Design Museum: Konstantin Grcic – Panorama
Z33 Research: Konstantin Grcic – Panorama