July 17, 2010

Unethical design?

The party is overIo9 had a post, Can we turn garbage island into an eco-paradise? relating to the Recycled Island project of some design firm. The idea is to take the floating plastic of the Pacific garbage patch and turn it into a self-sustaining floating island.

The whole thing is of course in the concept phase. Where it will remain forever.

The reason is that there is only about 5 kg of plastic per square kilometre in the gyre. To make anything sizeable a ridiculous amount of seawater needs to be filtered, at a noticeable economic and ecological cost (filtering out all the plastic is going to filter out all the plankton too). To make a 2 ton boat of recycled plastic (a more sensible and real idea) 400 square kilometres need to be *completely* cleaned. The patch might have enough material for a few thousand such boats, but it seems doubtful that it would be plentiful enough for building an eco-utopia.

But this doesn't matter much to the proposer, since the main point seems to be to make a cool, green project rather than solving the problem. I have earlier ranted a bit about how many designers love to come up with green designs that will never have the least environmental impact but provide them with social gratification. But this project got me one notch more annoyed.

Note the initial picture used by Io9, showing the boy boating through a garbage filled lake. That contributes to the idea that the garbage patch is a near-solid near-island, and makes the idea that it could all be piled together into a colourful island seem plausible. The pictures on the site are equally suggestive of an ocean clogged with a thick soup of confetti. The reality is utterly different and much harder to deal with - tiny neutrally buoyant fragments involved with complex ecological changes. The site also brings in climate refugees, a notion most migration experts find somewhat problematic, apparently hinting that they could be resettled on the recycled island (or maybe suggesting that getting rid of the plastic will somehow help fix the climate). The whole project promotes an oversimplified view that doesn't address the real problems.

Anab Jain's keynote speech on LIFT10 about the evolving role designer suggested that the designer could be a facilitator rather than just a form creator. Design interaction may be able to get around ludic fallacies and other biases, to entice people to explore scenarios and actually reveal their desires. I think this is true. But if a good interaction with a speculative design scenario might help us solve or understand problems, then bad interactions might actually make us *less* able to solve and understand.

Consider a well-crafted design concept for how to fight the explosive rise of street crime by elegant, organic street lamps doubling as violence detectors that spray soothing pheromones over troublemakers. The site is well crafted, making these fictional street lamps look utterly plausible. There are interview clips with people from this scenario discussing the pros and cons of the "peacelights". It get coverage in a lot of media. Is this a good use of design? I would argue it is the opposite. Street crime is, despite popular perceptions, falling in most developed countries. The peacelights are fictional, but people encountering the believable design might think they are indeed a realistic product. The practice of chemically controlling the public for social ends is presented as desirable (since otherwise the whole project would be pointless), with dissenting voices only suitably dissenting. As time goes, the project will be recounted in other media and between people with no reference to the real origin, turning into a story that is taken at face value (consider how many places the BT "soulcatcher chip" crops up in as a real story these days, despite being a joke remark at the end of a seminar). There is no real interactivity since the core of the project was set up to produce the nice website, and this has already set a strong bias towards the views of the creators.

The above fictional example would be a case where design contributes to making problems less solvable, blurring fact and fiction in a way that detracts rather than helps finding solutions. Insofar design can help solve problems, it must also - at least among conscientious designers - be used in an ethical manner so that it does not promote oversimplified, irrelevant or erroneous solutions. No matter how appealing they look - or rather, the more appealing the design is, the higher the ethical standards it need to aim for.

Posted by Anders3 at July 17, 2010 02:56 PM