John Thackara

New Dark Ages? [November 2004]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

"Avoidance of difficulty or unpleasantness. Disavowal of extreme situations. Retreat into distraction. These appear to be the hallmarks of the fast-encroaching New Dark Ages". No, these words are not about the U.S. election results. They're a comment by Anne Marie Willis, editor of Design Philosophy Papers, on the state of design research. Having tried, via a mailing list, to engage 1,000 PhD design researchers in environmental issues, all that Willis encountered was "a small flicker of debate". Her conclusion: "Signs of climate change abound. Extreme weather events are on the increase all over the world. But there seems to be an inverse relation between extremity of conditions, and preparedness to contemplate them". Anne Marie, perhaps you're looking in the wrong place? Academics are condemned by their business model to be inward-looking and self-referential - but, out in the world, a lot of exciting design creativity is bubbling up. We need to focus on that.

A good antidote to despair and demoralisation is to move to the edge, take small actions, and watch Tipping Points to do their thing. The next Doors of Perception, our eighth, takes place outside Europe for that reason. We will discuss what to do, and how, from a new vantage point. The theme of Doors 8 is "Infra: platforms for social innovation and how to design them". The conference website includes a blog and, thereby, the opportunity for you to discuss the issues (and reply to this newsletter) before you get to New Delhi. 21-26 March.

Margrit Kennedy, a world authority on complementary currencies, has joined our list of presenters for Doors 8. Non-cash economic systems are where a genuinely new economy is being born - and where emerging economies like those in South Asia are in many respects ahead of "developed" ones that command too much of our attention. Networked communications can be repurposed as enabling infrastructures for systems like local and complementary currencies, Ithaca Hours, Time Dollars, LETS systems, micro-credit programs, interest-free banking, and other community-oriented monetary systems.

Will health systems bankrupt the west, drive medical staff to despair, and dissatisfy their users in perpetuity? The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta), together with the Health Modernisation Agency, both from the UK, are supporting a series of projects to do with service design for health care, whose results will be presented at Doors 8. Hugo Manassei, Creative Pioneer Programme Director at Nesta, and Lynne Maher, Head of Innovation Strategy at the National Health Service, are briefing a team that includes designers Indri Tulusan, Deborah Szebeko, Nicola Koller, Suzi Winstanley & Harriet Harriss.

Our partners in Doors 8, Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS), are preparing an exhibition called "Used In India". It uses a collection of twentieth century media artefacts to tell the story of evolving media cultures in India and South Asia.

A special session at the conference will compare new design strategies in New York with those of New Delhi - two fast-changing, people-packed cities wherein diversity and relative disorder are key assets. The session will look at the relationship between planning and hardware design, on the one hand, and the design of situations that enable social innovation, on the other.

A session at the conference will focus on the use of social research in the design of communication services, platforms, and devices. Among the industry experts who have agreed to participate are Younghee Jung from Nokia, Tony Salvador from Intel, Marco Susani from Motorola, and Esme Vos from

We are not printing posters and conference brochures for Doors 8. We hope you will help us get the word out in a lighter way. If you feel inclined to help, please print the A4 announcement PDF that's on the website, and post copies on notice boards where you work, or wherever it will be seen by people who might be interested. Many thanks!

The theme of Doors 8 is "Infra", which we interpret to span both hard and soft aspects of infrastructure in a networked society. Infra therefore includes people as well as systems. Now we keep reading that, in Europe alone, there's a shortage of 1.5 million information technology workers. A question arises: does this mean that, every day of the year, 1.5 million days of IT maintenance and development is not getting done? Has anyone studied what the effects are on our IT systems - and ourselves - if 548 million days of maintenance are missed each year?


Does the future have a future? A new Scientific Adventures Park in Belgium promises: "If you want proof that we can talk about sustainable development without falling into moralistic sermonizing, just visit our exhibitions". One such exhibition, "Sustainable Everyday: Creative Communities", curated by Francois Jegou and Ezio Manzini, is now on show at the Park. The architect Jean Nouvel has been involved in developing this former colliery complex. Scientific Adventures Park/Parc d'Aventures Scientifiques, 3 rue de Mons B-7080 Frameries, near Mons, Belgium.

Last month I commented on the puerile computer game imagery being used in corporate advertising by otherwise intelligent firms like BT. Now it's the turn of Unisys to insult our intelligence. The firm's "3D Visible Enterprise" campaign plays havoc with basic epistemology. "It's more predictable because it's visible". "You can see cause-effect relationships that were hidden". "See the results of your decisions before you make them". These promises are bewitching, but also absurd: they ignore what we have learned about causality during 2,000 years of philosophical enquiry. They are also blind to more recent insights into the hard-to-predict behaviour of complex systems. Dear Unisys: pull this misguided campaign, and donate ten percent of the un-spent budget: to Doors of Perception. The other 90 percent will look good on your bottom line, and you will also become a smarter company. That's a promise.

A new book called "Spark! Design and Locality" collects together insights into the new ways that service and situation design can shape the future of communities. Edited by Jan Verwijnen and Hanna Karkku, with contributions by Ezio Manzini, Jeremy Barr, Bert Mulder, and others, the book is based on the Spark! project in which designers teamed up with citizens in five European localities and created scenarios of alternative futures.,1457,2622,6526,6531,14609

The earth has evolved into a gigantic complex of economic, biological, cultural, media and transport networks. The networks in question do not so much influence daily life; rather, daily life takes place solely within those networks. This symposium is about how networks organize themselves from the inside out, expand, link up, and rearrange themselves; and how people live in networks, how possibilities are created, and things sometimes go wrong. Lecturers include Karim Nader, a neurologist who studies the processes that occur when obtaining and storing memories; Arjen Mulder, biologist and media theorist; Christa Sommerer, media artist; biologist Tijs Goldschmidt; Christopher Kelty, an anthropologist of open source/free software; Alex Galloway, artist, computer programmer and author of "Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralisation". The two-day seminar is moderated by Manuel DeLanda. Friday 12 and Saturday 13 November, Rotterdam.

"Look for the aesthetic in that which you fear" says the blurb for an interesting event in Oldenburg, Germany. All our lives are now affected by systems: technological, political, social, data, economic or power systems are just a few examples. So how to react? "The desire to slip beneath their radars, subvert, transfer or shed light on their sometimes shadowy structures" is the basis of artistic work in this exhibition. The goal of System Disruption is "not the total destruction of such systems, but to find windows of opportunity within them". Among the artists involved are Minerva Cuevas, Calin Dan, Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke, David Still, Josh On, Santiago Sierra, Silke Wagner, and Until 9 January 2005, Oldenburg.

Peter Macleod is investigating the local end of Canada's federal government by travelling across the country visiting 100 constituency offices." As a network, it's in an awkward kind of repair" Macleod tells me; "the Constituency Project sets out to reimagine constituency offices as dynamic new spaces for a different kind of engagement and representation".

A delightful project called Recycled Soundscape involves "the public orchestration of an urban sound ecology". The system, developed by physicist Yon Visell and architect Karmen Franinovic at Zero-th Studio in Pula, Croatia, consists of a set of kinetic Sonic Bowls. These permit you to modify the acoustic landscape, and tune the composition of a sonic environment, by playing with surrounding noises - human, natural, machine, electronic.

Domus Academy, a pioneer over the past decade in the modernisation of Italian design thinking, has published a book about it's experience. It's called "Design speaks Italian. Domus Academy Story" and the launch event is on Wednesday, November 10 at 18:00h at the Academy's new building: Via Watt 27, 20143 Milan Italy.

A lot of leaden alliteration is a feature of this otherwise useful newsletter from the Netherlands Ministry of Spatial Planning, Housing and the Environment (VROM) and its on-line magazine, Shared Spaces.

"I'm surprised. I would have thought cynicism was not your style. I'd like to know why you think altruism, optimism and ambition are "masculine" "conversation stoppers"". Bruce Mau was not impressed by my comment last month about his new exhibition, Massive Change, that has opened in Toronto. Mau directed me to feature articles in the Los Angeles Times (September 12) and the Toronto Globe and Mail that he felt gave give a better sense of the project. "One thing I can assure you", Mau told me, "I am allergic to irony. I've always felt it was a luxury I couldn't afford". Anyone else wanting to tell me I was wrong can do so at:

The Madonna of wearable computing, Francesca Rosella, invites us to attend her presentation "How Smart are You Dressed Tomorrow?" to be held at NEMO Science Museum as part of Amsterdam's Museum Night on 6 November.

Weird and wonderful vehicles made from parts salvaged from America's myriad junkyards and overflowing landfills feature in this playful exhibit. The buggies are powered by solar energy or methane gas - the latter being a harmful pollutant given off by landfills. Artist Marguerite Kahrl, art/architecture collaborative Spurse, and the Architectural League of New York's Ten Shades of Green, examine the limits and possibilities of sustainability. To December 12 at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Maine College of Art.

Entire industries, research and design departments are developing 'smart tools' and 'intelligent ambients'. Why? An event called Viper in Basel, Switzerland, looks for answers among projects by Ben Hooker/Shona Kitchen (UK), Katerine Moriwaki (US/IE), Michelle Teran (NL), Alison Sant/Ryan Shaw: Trace (US), Brian Holmes (Multitude, Paris), Michael Kieslinger (Fluid Time, Vienna). A panel discussion called Out of Balance, about intellectual property issues, features Severine Dusollier from Creative Commons Brussels, and Jamie King from London's Mute. Switzerland is an interesting place these days and Viper, as the country's biggest event in the field of film, video and new media, is a good place to find out more.

"The code of architecture, its alphabet, needs to be changed!". A radical crusade against traditional architecture has been proclaimed in Austria by a group of young architects, designers, musicians, network performers, programmers, and other actors. "Our objective is to identify and discuss the architectural, urbanistic and artistic problems of medium-sized European cities in an interdisciplinary forum", they say. A test project, which deals with the City of Graz, asks: Can slowness be a quality? What does public space look like in less densely populated areas of the city? How can sufficient infrastructure be provided in thinly populated areas, e.g. in the outskirts? November 15-19.

What are Europe's boffins up to nowadays? A good place to find out is at this month's Information Societies Technology Conference (IST) in The Hague. An accompanying exhibition features technology research projects funded by the European Commission. If nomenclature is any guide, we have reason to be alarmed. There's a project called VAMPIRE (Visual Active Memory Processes and Interactive Retrieval). Another, called HYDRA, is about self-assembling robots that can "change their own shape, attach to each other, power-share, and self-repair". A project called PRESENCIA is about brain computer interfaces. One called COGAIN, which involves "Communication by Gaze Interaction", sounds almost sweet. 15-17 November, Netherlands Congress Centre, The Hague.

This newsletter frequently sounds off against the society of the spectacle, but we're happy to bring this new website to your attention. It's about what it means to be living in societies where cameras and lenses are everywhere, and commonplace: cell phone cameras; 24-hours surveillance cameras in public spaces and building lobbies; web cams; and other digital cameras documenting every ritual and banal detail of daily life on the planet.

A talk entitled The Eloquence of Silent Objects by John Armstrong is a highlight of Futureground, in Melbourne. Also featured are a talk by Richard Buchanan, President of the Design Research Society, and a reflection on "'What might be the content of design research?' by Clive Dilnot. 17-21 November 2004 Monash University, Victoria, Australia

One of the more regrettable legacies of the US election is the suggestion that being reality-based means not having values. Doors of Perception, as a design community, is unavoidably reality-based - but we continuously debate the assumptions and values which drive design decisions. If you think what we do is worthwhile, please persuade more people to subscribe to this newsletter.

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