“The world outside had its own rules, and those rules were not human.”
― Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles
If we look at the world around us, its terminology and our liberal way of life, it may seem that the Humanist ideology has always been, and still is, the global norm. That the idea that the human species has been signified, that the human being is the patron of creation; That the concepts of human dignity, human rights, human ethics and human scale, have been so embedded in our culture through scientists and novelists, politicians and speech writers, artists and screenwriters, and – of course – designers and architects, that they can not be disputed and have existed since man itself, even if not always followed. Any disruptions to the humanist notion, seem like an abnormal perversion. Cruel terrorism, radical religionism, national fanaticism, extreme veganism. We live in a world of “normal”, which is now and again abruptly shaken, attacked by viruses that must be warded off, or consumed into the normality.
For a liberal democrat, above all, absolutely and undeniably, there are humans.
This, of course, is nonsense.
The world was never normal, and a liberal, humanist perception of the world is no older then a couple of centuries, a tiny flash on the scope of history. But humanism has a tricky rhetoric. It appeals to a compassionate sense of supremacy. It is easily measurable. And it seems to consolidate a sense of individuality with our societal obligations. And yet, these same notions of humanism, so nurtured in the 20th century by the well designed consumption economy, have slowly but surely shifted the scale towards another extreme, that of the self.
And the self has become our cage.
This is a time of extenuated individualism in which the self has become the central medium of communication; a time in which the social sphere is constructed through the relentless actions of individuals, presenting and representing themselves. We construct imaginary communities that are the reflections of ourselves: others like us, with the same opinions, sensitivities, and anxieties. And so our perception of society is altered: we can no longer exchange ideas with others, or respond to their critique of our ways of life.
Our ways to knowledge, increasingly dependent on online navigation, are no longer exploratory. The flexible, random browsing that was the new promise for a previous generation of Internet users is now gone, and only the term, “browsers”, is left as a relic. Instead, our online identities – the aggregate of where we are, where we have been, what we like, and who are our friends – are the blinders with which we experience an atomized environment, padded with personalized searches, rated news and targeted ads.
Design has been a long time collaborator in this process, shifting its focus from the more general, pragmatic term of usability to that user interface (UI) and finally, as though to hint at an individual pleasure, to user experience (UX). Yet this is only the most obvious of symptoms. Brand identities, Hyper-customized products and platforms, adaptable working environments, shopping resorts and the dream of home fabrication have all contributed in their own way to the cause of enhancing a sense of individuality and focus on experience as means of feeding the cycles of consumption.
However, from within our cage we sometimes catch glimpses of a foreign land, one which may not be so far and esoteric as we imagine: Assanges and Snowdens that hollow our illusion of privacy and confidence and remind us that the world revolves back to the supremacy of nationalism, which is only fastened by a collapsing european union and more and more right-wing governments; Fundamentalist groups, like ISIS, that prioritize religious ideals over earthly comfort out of a global scale operation to transform the predominent ideology, and Yurofskys – deep ecologists that uncomfortably confront us with the price of our individuality and promote the idea that we are no better than other species that inhabit the planet.
While we are blinded by the individual trinkets, the world around us and its new leaders have shifted far away from the humanist approach of the past. These transmissions mark a conflict that can no longer be evased. Design has reached a moment of choice between submissive cooperation and critical activism, in which it is forced to reconsider its contemporary condition and the impact it will have on an ever-growing number of followers. The answer must be radical, summoning the possibility of another form of design; one that transcends the servitude to the individual and the human experience.
Design, if it strives to be influential to its full potential, is now left two modes of action: the post-human, which imagines a time in which humans no longer exist as means of reflecting back on the present, and the non-human, which speculates on parallel ways of understanding the world, adopting perspectives of those outside the humanist cycle and those outside the human species. The former is a digression in time, the latter in awareness. It may well be the only way to take control of the world forming around us as we indulge in the pleasures of a selfish existence.
It may well be our only way out of the cage and into our future.