Designing our world(s)

Most of our personal being is bound up in wordless, intuitive participation. Our easiest words are part of our social participation. Explicit thought enters the scene mostly where intuitive participation fails.

We see this very vividly in the field of design. When we craft an artifact that really works, people take the artifact up into their intuitive social participation and act through it use it without fully perceiving it or thinking about it.

So, if explicit thought is primarily a response to intuition failure, why would we imagine it desirable, or even possible to dismantle a functioning organically developed system, and replace it with an explicitly thought out, manually constructed social order? This is like trying to grow a body from wound tissue and scars.

Here it is time to trot out the finest quote Yogi Berry never uttered, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” We imagine we can engineer a better world, until we are faced with the urgent need to actually do it.

God forbid we are ever faced with a dismantled, or otherwise destroyed social order. Then we will realize that most of the kinds of people who have strong political opinions do not even understand what a political problem essentially is, namely a problem of e pluribus unum — a problem of aligning a diverse plurality around a unified understanding and course of action.

Technocrats think politics is figuring out what ought to be done and then doing it. Dissent and resistance, to them, is an obstacle to political problem-solving. They may be top-notch policy engineers, but as politicians, they very literally do not know what they are doing.

Take it from a designer, if your job is to persuade and inspire and win broad-based assent — that requires serious, arduous learning.

You must learn how people experience their lives, what is on their minds, what is important to them, what disturbs them, what they fear and what they hope for. You must know what a person’s world is like. Where do they live? Where do they work? With what people do they interact everyday? What tools do they use? By what media is the wider world beyond their environment given? How is their time spent? Where do they have control of things? Where are things out of control? Where do they feel controlled? Where do they feel empowered and respected? Where do they feel oppressed and humiliated? What do they experience as beautiful and good? What do they experience and ugly and bad?

We could call this a “worldview”, and many people do, but it is more than a view, both literally and metaphorically. It is a kind of involvement and a participation. Some have called it “lifeworld”, but, at least to my ears, this seems too biological, too passively received, too uncreative. People shape and reshape their physical and social environments, and they shape and reshape their understandings of reality. Received learning can change understandings, but so can one’s own trials, errors and successes. And only some of the understandings are explicit. Many more understanding are entirely intuitive, habitual and tacit. These understandings live in our bodies and souls, and never concern our heads. By this understanding, selves are not body-shaped. Selves stream out into the world through tendrils of action, influence, perception, communication, concern and they weave together into complex and sometimes chaotic meshes of being. The word I like best to designate this inseparable person-context hybrid is “enworldment”.

Even in simple design problems, this never involves fewer than two enworldments. There is always an enworldment of the provider of a design and the enworldment of the recipient, and normally there are many more than two.

When we finally understand an enworldment we can speak into it with respect and generosity. We are better able to persuade and win assent. In fact, we can invite people to collaborate with us to actively shape whatever solution we seek to win assent for. This is politics.

When I talk with young designers about politics, I recommend that they stop thinking about politics in the way they were taught to think politically, and instead to approach politics as a designer.

I cannot emphasize this enough: if you find yourself slapping your forehead and asking “how can those people believe this?” Or if you find yourself exasperatedly exclaiming “I just don’t understand why those people feel this way…” or do this action, or care about this thing or that, or have this or that passionate aversion… Understand that you are confessing ignorance!

People who are very, very clever and who made high marks in school and who are accustomed to understanding things effortlessly it is easy to succumb to a foolishness that afflicts smart people: the fallacy of argument from incredulity, which assumes that what is beyond their comprehension is incomprehensible nonsense. Instead of seeking comprehension, it diagnoses why someone espouses nonsense or delusion.

Who in their right mind would ever consent to be led by people who disrespect them, refuse to hear them and understand them?

We must relearn how to learn! And we must relearn how to respect others. Our liberal democracy depends on it.

One thought on “Designing our world(s)

  1. “Where do they have control of things? Where are things out of control? Where do they feel controlled? Where do they feel empowered and respected? Where do they feel oppressed and humiliated? What do they experience as beautiful and good? What do they experience and ugly and bad?”

    I will remember this when I talk to voters

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