Research Problem

This research is situated within the field of design and specifically the design of technology embedded within human activity systems. The aim is to explore the role of technology within societies, with specific emphasis on how these technologies affect human systems to evolve, grow and create solidarity. To do this, I will explore the fundamental ontological claims unacknowledged in traditional design methodologies and whether these assumptions still serve this role for technology today.

The major area of concern in the design of technological systems is that they are embedded within a complex world, of multiple ontological narratives. This means that there are multiple ways of approaching the world, multiple ways of knowing and being. It is the role of technology to bridge these multiple narratives, in a synthetic and integrative manner; such that new worlds, new ontologies are born which act as common ground, in the creation of solidarity and shares praxis.

Although it is proposed here that this is the highest form of technological design, for the most part, technologies do not fulfill this purpose.

In using the word “technology” people are generally concerned with artifacts – with things they design, build, and use. But in our interpretation, technology is not the design of physical things. It is the design of practices and possibilities to be realized through artifacts. Computer technology involves machines, but that is not what is ultimately significant. It encompasses the design of new practices (including those of word processing, electronic communication, printing, accounting, and the like), and beyond that it opens the possibility for new realms of practice. (Flores & Winograd, 1988)

In reading this it has shifted my view from merely looking at designing artifacts of interaction, to rather designing possibilities (new worlds) and practices (ontologies) for human beings.

Technology is built within a paradigm of instrumental rationality, which means it takes an objective view of reality and most importantly places design as that process which manipulates resources to achieve its goals. The effect of such an instrumental technocracy leaves us separated from our role as disclosers of new worlds of being.

All the drifts one is witnessing today in design can be attributed to one or all of these three central pillars: the already mentioned “effect of product engineering and marketing on design,” i.e. the determinism of instrumental reason and central role of the economic factor as the almost exclusive evaluation criterion: an extremely narrow philosophical anthropology which leads one to consider the user as a mere customer or, at best, as a human being framed by ergonomics and cognitive psychology; an outdated implicit epistemology of century; an overemphasis upon material shapes and qualities; a code of ethics originating in culture of business contracts and agreements; a cosmology restricted to the marketplace; a sense of history conditioned by the concept of material progress; and a sense of time limited to the cycles of fashion and technological innovations or obsolescence. All these aspects have contributed to the current state of design. (Findelli, 2001)

Design is meant to serve as a lens to imagine possibilities, to be the bridge between precognition and experience or a way in which we disclose new experiences. Similar to Flores and Winograd, Findelli points out that our focus in design sprouts from the wrong basis, which in turn creates unwanted outcomes and harmful reflections of one self, society and systems.

We are in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody wants. Climate change, AIDS, hunger, poverty, violence. The Destruction of communities, and nature – the foundations of our social, economic, ecological and spiritual well being. (Scharmer, 2011)

What is needed is a thinking discipline focusing on synthesis and integration, one in which new concepts may be disclosed. (Martin, Moldoveanu, 2008)

It is a new way of experiencing and imagining that we need to address to prevent thinking in the same loop of destruction. A change in perspective is needed to break free from the loop of observation of subject and creation f what the subject has asked for, because these methods are not creating solutions but are repeating the same issues.

This research approach is distinctly Heidegerrian, in that it attempts to deconstruct the underlying ontological assumptions within technology design. In so doing it attempts to reveal a more fundamental mode of design thinking; one found on what Heidegger called unconcealment. We will use Heidegger’s landmark paper, The Question Concerning Technology (1953) as the basic theoretical foundations of research. I aim to build on these concepts referencing two further works; Understanding Computers and Cognition (1987) and disclosing New Worlds (1997). These two texts build on the concepts of ontological design.

The most important designing is ontological. It constitutes as intervention in the background of our heritage, growing out of our already existent ways of being in the world, and deeply affecting the kinds of beings that we are. In creating new artifacts, equipment, buildings and organizational structures, it attempts to specify in advance how and where breakdowns will show up in our everyday practices and in the tools we use, opening up new spaces in which we can work and play. Ontologically oriented design is therefore necessarily both reflective and political, looking backwards to the tradition that has us but also forwards to as-yet-uncreated transformations of our lives together. Through the emergence of new tools, we come to a changing awareness of human nature and human action, which in turn leads to a new technological development. The designing process is part of this ‘dance’ in which our structure of possibilities is generated. (Flores, Winograd, P 163, Understanding Computers and Cognition)

Ontological design implies different ways of understanding how we, as modern subjects ‘are’ and how we be who or what we are in the modern world. Simply put, we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us. (Willis, 2006)The tradition of ontological design emphasizes the role of the intervener or discloser as one who reveals new ontologies. Therefore the experience of the designer is of critical importance. This is because the fundamental methodology of ontological inquiry is phenomenology. The fundamental methodology of design is to understand the phenomena of the experience itself and to use this to synthesize new ways of being.

For this reason my research will engage into a phenomenological inquiry into design around three practical projects, which involve the design of techno-social systems. The goal of this research is to shed light into the experience of ontological design, in the hopes of contributing in part to a new context of technology design.

There are two major, practical dimensions I would like to explore here: My work as a Usability Architect for the Western Cape government, where the focus is on e-Government for citizens and working with Ownpower consulting on the investigation of a Learning management system (LMS) and a Skills intelligence platform (SIP).

My exploration lies in two roles; the role of the designer in the creation of technologically orientated human activity systems and the role of technology in creating new worlds or ontologies for citizens.

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