Rewiring your brain - like it or not

Mr. Nicholas Carr has written a little book called 'The Shallows', within which he develops the argument that our incessant internet use is literally and physically reshaping our brain and memory structures, and that the older habits of deep reading and deep thinking are being displaced.
I cannot repeat the entirety of his argument here, of course, but it is compelling, drawing on neuroscience as much as history and current behavioral research.
Carr and others he quotes describe the internet as a 'distraction machine', and he delves into the questions of cognitive load and the relationship between distraction and comprehension and memory. The argument is so compelling that I have been prompted to rethink how I do a lot of different activities, spanning both work and leisure, and after a quick audit of my own habits I can definitely say that I have been exhibiting the symptoms Carr describes.
My first reaction to this has been to read Carr's book thoroughly, and I have about a quarter of the volume left to go. This can be contrasted with the habit of skimming that I had picked up over the last few years, where I would skim and drop a book, rather than allow myself time and effort to read it deeply, as I would have done in the past. Last Saturday I read Carr's book for about six hours in a single sitting. It is a long time since I had experienced this - Carr himself points to the lost art of 'losing oneself in a book' - and it was a great pleasure rediscovered.
The second habit I am rethinking is email. I have set my email client to retrieve mail only once every hour, and I might restrict it further subject to the findings of my trial. I am consciously not visiting the email app to see 'what's come in', and trying to focus deeply on the task at hand, whatever that may be.
That just leaves a persistent Facebook and Twitter feed, chiming away on my iPhone. The phone also buzzes lightly whenever I receive an email. All of these distractions must be mastered.
In the spirit of de-cluttering and winding back the distraction potential of my own little corner of the internet, I have redesigned my website using this simple, low-distraction format. I am also going to rely a little less on imagery in future posts. This might make the site less visually appealing at first glance, but I think the benefit is that there will be no extraneous illustration, and more focus on the contents of my writing. I think the new format is also easier to read, which I am coming to appreciate more as my eyesight ages in a far-from-graceful manner.
In all of this, Carr acknowledges the benefits the internet brings. He is no Luddite, and agrees that there are indisputable positives. More than this, he accepts that there is no going back. Nevertheless, the issues he raises are of such significance that I feel we should all hear what he has to say, and devote a bit of deep thinking to the problem.
I am hearing Nicholas Carr speak tomorrow night. I hope he is as cogent and thought-provoking in person as he is on the page. I will report back forthwith.

City landscape as rock shelf

I took this photograph today and I thought that it resembled the kind of striation you see on rock shelves near the sea. My friend David has in the past speculated about how we might design if we regarded the natural as the artificial, or vice versa. This photograph reminded me of that idea.

Pavement, Little Collins Street

Not Serious Design

I’ve been thinking about design and design journals. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to first say that I regularly write for the Australian design magazine Artichoke, which is the Journal of the Design Institute of Australia. Fortunately for the members of the Design Institute and I, Artichoke routinely avoids falling into the category of journal that I discuss in this post. I like writing for Artichoke because my colleagues on the editorial staff seem happiest when I am speculating about what design might be, as understood through various projects, and not merely what it is. I try to regard the design process as exactly that, an interesting process that has had results, and not a closed or stable system that periodically gives birth to polished gems.

It is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that good journalism should expose and explore subtle distinctions. ‘What might design be?’ is a question. Describing and sharing what design is has value in encouraging people to discover new wrinkles of this fascinating pursuit, but it is not a question: it is the provision of an answer. I boldly suggest that questions are far more interesting than answers.

It seems to me that if we approach this particular question with an open mind then the situation is very different to that closed, rather self-congratulatory impression you get from many design journals. This impression is painfully apparent to the uninitiated, who in my experience are more likely to be respectfully intimidated than skeptical and disdainful, as perhaps they should be.

Reading much of the design press, you can also get the impression that the producers have forgotten that ‘cool’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing. ‘Cool’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing. If the overwhelming impression an intelligent non-designer gains from a magazine is 'hey, isn't this cool, and aren't we cool, you and I, for knowing it', then something is amiss. The moment's best furniture, clothes, objects, bars and restaurants - most design-related organs are more of a latter day 'gentleman's outfitters' updated so that the bloodless, androgynous urban dandy, he or she, has all they need for an aesthetically better life. A better German bike courier's messenger bag, better Spanish shoes, better Japanese stationery: artfully generic and label-free, or crafted from industrial discards and finished with fine details? Take your pick.

This might offer all the high-calorie comfort and entertainment of shopping, but those non-mail-order catalogues (can you tell me the trade price on the B&B Italia sofa on page 85?) rarely stoop to posing uncomfortable questions, or airing awkward truths. The first among these must surely be the relationship between wealth and design. It's not good, it's not bad, and it's not discussed.

The 'Andy' sofa, 370 cm long, 3-seat with a chaise lounge upholstered in a mid-range fabric, costs $AUD27,325.00. That is $US25,374 by today's exchange rate. What does it mean to spend more than $25,000 on a sofa? Is there any way that can be a reasonable thing to do? The Federal minimum wage decision for 2009 in Australia is an income of $AUD543.78 per week. So the sofa is worth just over 50 weeks of the minimum wage, virtually a year of person hours. You may think I am mounting some socialist argument about the distribution of wealth by pointing this out; I confess to such a bias, but that is not really my point. My point is one of perspective and relativity, and the conditions that provide insight to the designer. By pushing design into such stratospheric heights, we disconnect our focus as designers from the experience of the vast majority of people in our society. Is that ok?

Certainly, in order to do so, we must avoid uncomfortable questions about wealth and privilege, and the bearing these things might have on aesthetics. However, I am less interested in the moral implications of that than in the fact that we are excising from the ‘world’ of design much of those things which quite simply make up the world. Worse crime still: it’s boring. Boring to avoid straying from the ‘best of the best’, to censor what constitutes ‘serious’ design.

Forget about the morality of it for a moment, this isn’t just about morals or even ethics. What are you buying when you spend so much? An argument can be made that quality takes time and costs money, and that a brilliantly crafted designer piece will last far longer, and perform better, than the cheaper alternative. That is almost certainly true, and I also wouldn’t like to see the working designer unable to reap the rewards of their creativity, knowledge and training.

But again, it is a question or relativity. Let’s be honest here, there has to be a point where this argument fails to hold water, and become mere cover for privileged indulgence. Where does the line fall? Three times the cost of a functional alternative? Ten? Twenty? Someone tell me: is a bona fide B&B Italia sofa worth 50 weeks of the minimum wage? Am I the only one who thinks this is all a bit distorted?

I have in my apartment a very awkward object. It certainly does not constitute, and would not ever be considered, ‘serious’ design. I suggest that it hasn’t been designed at all, at least not in the conventional sense. It is a timber easel, hand-carved, standing six feet high. What I like about this easel, on loan from a friend who couldn't bear its lack of Scandinavian minimalism, is that it would never appear in a design journal. Never. It doesn't even manage kitsch, although it might manage to figure in a social realist photograph, perhaps one taken in Kentucky or Miami.

This makes it a fascinating object to me, and while I won’t defend its aesthetic qualities (should I have to?) I will say that I like having it around. The reasons for this have a lot to do with what it evokes for me, and the pleasure I get from the design-canon-violating aesthetics of hand-carved timber. The thing even has flowers carved into it, and part of it appears to be shaped like a pair of spectacles, or breasts. (The easel pictured here is not the actual one, but you get the idea.)

Does this damage my credentials as a ‘serious’ designer? Probably. What a relief that is.

The failure of design

Closeup detail of Eames Chair, in blue monochrome

I've been thinking about what constitutes good design, and find that it is a difficult question to answer.

Design would appear to be the new mantra, in business and in the 'lifestyle industries', to use a ghastly phrase. 'Good' or 'serious' design is assumed to always add value, and it is assumed by designers, and increasingly the educated general public, to be always highly desirable to it's alternative. However, what this alternative might be is by no means clear, and in that I detect something interesting.

Designers will tell you that the opposite to 'good' design is 'bad' design, where something has been shaped or put together in a way that responds poorly to its intended purpose and meaning. That seems reasonable, but I am not sure it holds up to scrutiny. What if the opposite to 'good' design is something far more incidental? Could the opposite of 'good' be not so much bad as 'whatever' - a genuine randomness that results from the inevitability of form in objects despite the absence of authorised, orthodox design intentions? Good design can be judged against a whole host of factors which might include the intention as stated, the function as demonstrated in use, or the aesthetics and shape. How would we judge 'bad' design? For that matter, why do we feel compelled and authorised to judge it?

They Mythical Modernist has a ready answer to this. The MM might argue that when it comes to things made by people, 'all is design, and all is designed', whether we like the results or not. If this is true then it is reasonable to judge all objects and forms by the same standard, and if we do that it stands to reason that we as 'good designers' would decry the poor standards of the design of most objects and buildings we encounter.

There are a couple of problems with this. This claim of the omnipresence (or omnipotence?) of 'design' is a kind of megalomania that has everything in common with the modernist definition of urban design as the imparting of 'right form' to whole neighbourhoods and cities. Then there is the problem of applying the 'same standard' to good and bad, or unintentional design. How is this standard determined?

The standard of 'right form', also known as 'serious design', is determined by common agreement - leading example and its enthusiastic approval - and codified into a visual syntax or codex policed by the high priests (the 'leading' designers), whomever they might be. This forms a kind of gold standard against which most things can be measured, and in the measuring some things are deemed as 'good' and some as 'bad'.

One problem with the gold standard of 'good design' is that it inevitably changes over time. Nevertheless at any given time it is considered immutable, a yardstick against which we can separate 'serious pieces of design' from their poor cousins. Any architect would admit that a 'really good building' of thirty - or even ten - years ago would look dated and be considered inappropriate now. Strangely, this is not seen as a flaw in the method of determining good design: it would seem that the codex has a convenient 'out' clause, where older projects can be authorised by virtue of their dated context.

Despite some very obvious structural cracks, it is plain to me that some designers, architects in particular, believe that the 'good design' standard has some gravity and authority. They firmly believe (or perhaps assume) that the world overall would be a substantially better place if only it was designed by them and their colleagues. There is not much evidence to support this view. The most beautiful and engaging places I have seen ended up that way largely without architects, with the possible exception of key buildings of particular significance. In fact the profession as it is currently defined is very young, and many buildings we attribute to architects were actually conceived and designed by dilettantes and artists. Architects and other designers also seem to overlook the megalomania of this idea: should our entire environment really be wholly determined by one tiny and not particularly representative segment of our society? Does that even look right as an idea on paper? I think not.

Despite the fact that we are bound in by ugliness on all sides, I don't think that giving the whole equation to the architects is the answer. I can only think of a handful who do work I like, for a start. Fortunately for us the world is a diverse and complex place, and so far orthodox design has failed to encompass all of human life. That's a good thing, because I suspect that the seeds of our future world - the lightning bolts of brilliance and breathtaking change - will not first be seen on the pages of a glossy design magazine.