Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Technology, Wellbeing, and Freedom: The Legacy of Utopian Design

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Technology, Wellbeing, and Freedom: The Legacy of Utopian Design

Article excerpt

Introduction

Implicitly or explicitly, designers always affect the lives and wellbeing of users and of society at large. This is true in a trivial sense, since products are meant to fulfill existing and conscious needs. But it is also true in a less obvious way, since designers also affect the lives of users because of the various influences products have on people's behavior, attitudes and needs. Such influences are often unintended, but designers can also deliberately attempt to influence and steer users' activities and way of living (Latour, 1992; Winner, 1986; see also Dorrestijn, 2012a; Tromp, Hekkert, & Verbeek, 2011). Obviously, it is a good thing when designers care about the effects of their designs and the wellbeing of users. But when design for wellbeing implies an explicit and intended interference with how users live their lives, this raises political and ethical questions. How desirable is it that designers can intervene in the personal lives of consumers? Should designer influence on user behavior be avoided at all times, or should we rather see it as a core responsibility of designers?

In this paper we will focus on the application of user-influencing design for improving wellbeing, by focusing on the ethical issue of finding the right balance between domination and freedom, manipulation and support of users. When the influence of products on consumers is unavoidable, as the approach of "technical mediation" holds (Ihde, 1990; Latour, 1994; Verbeek, 2005), should this aspect of design be left to the individual designer's responsibility, or should it rather become a political issue? Is "moralizing technology" (Achterhuis, 1998; see also Verbeek, 2011) a desirable and promising expression of socially engaged design, or is it rather a dangerous approach that threatens individual freedom and disrespects politics and ethics? Where should one draw the boundary between service and support on the one hand and paternalism or manipulation on the other hand?

In order to answer these questions, this paper will discuss two significant contemporary approaches to user-influencing design against the background of some central examples of strong social engagement in the history of design. The two contemporary approaches are the "Persuasive Technology" approach of BJ Fogg (2003) and the "Nudge" approach of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). Both approaches aim to develop methods to influence human behavior by design, in desirable directions. And both approaches raise ethical issues, which can be clarified in relation to design ambitions and approaches from the past. For our concise historical sketch we have chosen to focus on utopian design movements, because in these movements designers seem to have been most explicitly concerned with improving people's way of living by means of design. We will focus on four periods: Arts and Crafts, New Objectivity, Gute Form, and Postmodernism. On the basis of a review of the "legacy of utopian design"--which is a deliberate reference to "The legacy of utopia" by Hans Achterhuis (1998)--this article will investigate the lessons that "design for wellbeing" can draw from the past.

Making good, helpful products, and thus contributing to the quality of life, has always been an important drive of engineers and designers. Ever since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, there has been a widespread and sometimes utopian belief that progress in science and technology would inaugurate a new period in world history, solving the problem of scarcity and bringing richness and wellbeing for everybody. Engineers and designers believed that their scientific and technical expertise could lead society into a better future. Since the advent of Postmodernism, however, utopian beliefs and strivings have lost much of their attraction, or even have come to be seen as suspect. The postmodern breakdown of totalizing world pictures was a reaction to a growing awareness that modern, industrialized societies were full of rigid discipline and social repression. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.