|Review of Leonard's Laptop (Shneiderman)|
|Review of Technology as Experience (McCarthy & Wright)|
|John Thackara's Homepage|
|Doors of Perception|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, User Experience – October 26, 2005
This review takes a personal look at John Thackara's book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.
John Thackara, described as a "design guru, critic and business provocateur" by Fast
Company, is the Director of Doors of Perception, a design futures network
based in Amsterdam and Bangalore. He is the author of twelve books, among
others Design After Modernism: Beyond the Object (1987), and Lost
in Space: A Traveller’s Tale (1995). He has lectured in more than
(From book cover, modified)
Perhaps the best introduction to John Thackara's book In the Bubble: Designing for a Complex World is a statement from the cover: "We're filling up the world with technology and devices, but we've lost sight of an important question: What is this stuff for? What value does it add to our lives?"
For Thackara, too many people equate being innovative with adding technology to our lives. He continues: "During the first part of the industrial age, progress and development meant the continuous production of technology and more products." These days, technology seems to have evolved into a self-perpetuating system, the benefits of which are less and less self-evident and which might even be regarded as a form of "trespass" or "pollution." According to Thackara, mass technology, such as the telephone, automobiles, or air travel, has not only brought benefits but has always been accompanied by huge compromises, such as massive side effects on the environment. Today, we know that technologies have unexpected consequences, the most severe of which is the threat to life on our planet due to the ways we produce, distribute, and consume goods and energy. So ignorance is no longer an excuse – and there may be – too – little time left to prevent a global disaster. But the willingness to make fundamental changes requires the knowledge of new perspectives and the readiness to adopt them. This is the point Thackara is trying to make.
Thackara worked for The Netherlands Design Institute; he is the co-founder and Director of Doors of Perception, an Amsterdam-based agency which sets new agendas for design – in particular, the design agenda for information and communication technologies. Doors of Perception organizes conferences and maintains an international knowledge network, including a Website (www.doorsofperception.com). In his book, Thackara outlines a framework for "design in a complex world," which is "an approach to innovation in which people are designed back into situations." This approach does not mean "back to the trees." Thackara does not take an anti-technology stance; for him, technology is there and sure to stay. Nevertheless, he leaves no doubt that his book is "about a world in which well-being is based on less stuff and more people," meaning less technology and new ways to deal with technology without sacrificing human well-being.
Let me take a short break here: Designing people back into situations? One might well wonder whether such a claim is realistic. Agrees Thackara: "From nineteenth-century mill owners to twentieth century dot-comers, businesspeople have looked for ways to remove people from production, using technology and automation to do so." This trend appears in the daily news like a never ending story – and even more disturbing is when we learn that stock prices rise whenever a company announces job cuts. Thus, when "designing people out" is rewarded by our economic system, how does Thackara come to believe that this trend can ever be stopped and even reversed? Thackara's belief comes from the conviction that the necessary transition from what he calls "innovation driven by science fiction to innovation inspired by social fiction" is already under way, even though there are factors, such as inadequate information diffusion and a lack of whole-systems thinking, that still are hindrances to it.
One of Thackara's key ideas is to rethink the roles of products and services. He promotes a change from the "product" perspective, which has the physical artifact in mind, to the "services" perspective, which focuses on people and the ways they use products and services. "Use, not own," is his motto. For Thackara, the shift to a service-based economy is one of the most important features of the transition to a new world. Designers can play an important role in this transition because, according to Thackara, eighty percent of a product, service or system's environmental impact is determined at the design stage.
So the first question – why should we change our attitudes? – has already been answered: Our economy and society urgently needs to undergo changes in the direction of sustainability and renewed human well-being.
The second question – provided we join Thackara in his analysis of the state of the world – is how should the new services that enable a more sustainable world be designed? Thackara proposes new design principles to guide the process that inform the way these services are designed and used – above all the principle of lightness. After setting the stage in the introduction, the author undertakes a tour d' horizon through his principles in the remainder of the book, dedicating a chapter to each of them. He not only explains and motivates the principles but also presents exemplary projects, which employ the principles and demonstrate that alternatives to today's economy are possible and already reality. These examples form the foundations of Thackara's belief that, "informed by a wealth of real-world examples, ethics and responsibility can inform design decisions without impeding social and technical innovation."
Although not invented by Thackara, the principle of lightness, which I have already mentioned, is the most important one for him. Let me delve a little deeper into the book here. The chapter on lightness starts very enthrallingly, describing a personal experience on the Languedocienne highway overcrowded with heavy trucks, where Thackara and the cars and trucks around him narrowly missed a mass crash. This event demonstrated one thing clearly to him: The weightless new economy that the Internet was supposed to bring is a fiction. The opposite is true: "We buy more hardware than ever. We print more paper. We package more goods. We move more stuff, and ourselves, around at ever-increasing rates." Thackara contrasts this trend with the principle of lightness, using stunning counter-examples from the literature to motivate this principle. I would like to cite a few of them here:
I learned from Thackara (and his sources) that "every product that enters our lives has a 'hidden' history, an undocumented inventory of wasted or lost materials used in its production, transport, use, and disposal." We are far from knowing this history for most products, let alone taking into consideration in the way we produce, package, distribute, and consume goods. Let me mention one of the sample projects that Thackara presents: The Dutch company PRé developed software that enables designers to model a complex product and its life cycle, built on more than one hundred eco-indicators for commonly used materials, as well as production, transport, energy, and waste treatment processes. The software calculates the environmental load of a product, shows which parts of the products "weight" the most, and allows remodeling to improve the product's load. This software can be regarded as a first step towards designing products with less environmental impact.
The remainder of the book discusses further principles, such as speed (which Thackara thinks would be better named acceleration), mobility, locality – principles with "physical" labels – as well as conviviality, learning, literacy, smartness – principles with "human" or "social" labels. (The complete list of principles comprises: lightness (or sustainability), speed, mobility, locality, situation, conviviality, learning, literacy, smartness, and flow). I must, however admit, that the book became more and more tedious for me the further I plowed my way through the principles. Somehow, I lost my impetus in the course of its tour d' horizon along all the principles (or may I say that the book lost it?). Maybe, principles such as lightness, speed, and mobility are easier to present and understand than principles, such as situation, conviviality, or flow... Especially, the last chapter on flow, characterized as summarizing the lessons Thackara has learned about designing in a complex world, remained fairly vague – probably because he "suggests seven frameworks of action rather than lays down hard-and-fast rules" – admitting that this is "partly due to the fact that he does not know what fixed rules there ought to be."
The author concludes his book with a "metaphor" for history, the "dance of the big and small" designating "moments when we are swept along by events and others when we ourselves influence the course of time." Bemoans Thackara: "We've allowed too long the idea that the world is out of control – be it the cities, the economy, or technology." And insists: "We're people, not ants; contrary to them, we have a tool, design, with which to shape the world." Thackara believes his book will have done its job if it provokes us to think about one or two small design steps one might take on Monday morning. In this sense, I am confident, it has already done its job and will continue to do so. I found it very inspiring and thought-provoking book even though I had problems sustaining interest in it. Let me close my review with the last two sentences of the book: "Whatever you choose to do, don't try to do it alone. We are all designers now."
When I read Thackara's book In the Bubble, I was somewhat reminded of Ben Shneiderman's book Leonardo's Laptop. In both books, the authors attempt a tour d' horizon of the future society and its relationship with technology. Shneiderman goes on his tour by delineating the prospects of a "new computing." According to Shneiderman, the old computing is about technology and what computers can do, while the new computing is about people and what they can do using technology. Thackara, on the other hand, goes on his tour by delineating the role that he envisions for designers in society. In the Bubble describes services designed to help people carry out daily activities in new ways. Says Thackara: "Many of these services involve technology – ranging from body implants to wide-bodied jets. But objects and systems play a supporting role in a people-centered world. The design focus is on services, not things." But even though I regard Shneiderman's book as more technology-focused, I find quite a lot of agreement between both authors' points of view with respect to the central role that they envision for humans in society.