Dezeen Magazine

Sam Jacob Opinion on digital culture and design

"Prism is the dark side of design thinking"

Opinion: in the first of two columns about the impact of digital culture on design, Sam Jacob asks what America's Prism surveillance program tells us about design thinking.

As details of the American National Security Agency's Prism programme emerge, alongside concerns about democracy, freedom, state surveillance and the complicity of corporations, something also seems to be revealed about the ways in which digital technologies are fundamentally reformulating the ways in which design - a new kind of design born out of digital culture - now organises and impacts the way we live.

Back in 1995, Richard Barbrook and the late Andy Cameron wrote an essay called The Californian Ideology. In it, they argued that digital culture - at least the digital culture of Silicon Valley - had become a fusion of the "free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies".

They said that the emerging information technologies provided the space in which this amalgamation of opposites could occur and they called this cocktail of libertarian values and entrepreneurship The Californian Ideology. They also said, even back then, that "the triumph of the Californian Ideology appears to be complete".

That, of course, was long before Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. had risen to become such gigantic corporations, way before they had became the supra-national entities embedded so completely in our everyday lives. Before even some of them were founded.

The designs of the hardware, software and services these companies offer are often described as ecosystems. Ecosystems, in this meaning of the word, are the virtual worlds that we find ourselves enmeshed in: places that we can’t get out of, like Apple's Mac OS, iOS, iTunes and iPhone, or Google's services that link activities like search, calendar, documents, email, chat and so on. These environments have grown up around us like the Wild Things forest in Max's bedroom. They've grown so high and wide that there is no longer a way out of them.

The term ecosystem was originally coined in 1935 to describe the physical and biological components of an environment considered in relation to each other, all as one totality. It's all the living and non-living organisms and the interactions between them within a given space. The conflation of this concept of ecology and the digital is, as we shall later see, significant.

And it’s perhaps no accident that these digital worlds are described in terms of the natural given the half-hippy roots of its culture. Note for example the title of the 1967 techno-pastorolist poem All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace that imagined a world where advanced cybernetics allowed humankind to return to a bucolic paradise lost.

It's also telling that in citing the natural, these private digital realms attempt to naturalise themselves. What else could there be in naming the infrastructure of the wireless internet - all those cables and power plants, those server farms and data stores in concrete bunkers, signal masts and satellites - as something as simple as a cloud? And that’s not even to mention the suggestions of weightlessness or cherub-strewn holiness that clouds also contain.

Adam Curtis used the title All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace for his documentary describing how digital technology failed to liberate humanity and instead "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us" as it twisted from hippy to zippy to yuppie. But wether you buy his argument or not, it’s clear that the digital has distorted the world. Perhaps the greatest digital distortion of the world around us is spatial and I'm not talking about the Apple Maps fiasco.

Digital space gives us access to anything, anywhere. It gives us endless proximity to our emails, photos and any other data that we’ve handed over to the various corporate clouds that surround us. It means we can be in constant contact with other places regardless of physical coordinates. That, in essence, is the beautiful liberation that digital culture has given us.

It's these same properties of digital space that allow corporate ecosystems to be simultaneously at one's elbow when it suits them and somewhere else (or nowhere else) when it comes to issues of taxation. Digital space - which is also the space through which global finance flows - does not necessarily recognise other definitions of space. Until, that is, it runs into something like the Great Firewall of China that acts as a digital manifestation of national territory.

These spatial slippages re-order traditional definitions of public and private, something most shockingly demonstrated in the phone hacking scandal where individuals' voicemails stored on the servers of mobile phone companies were remotely accessed by newspapers - most disturbingly the voicemails of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. The cloud means that even the most intimate details of one’s personal life are everywhere, all the time. The cloud transforms the nature of space. It alters what we understand to be inside and outside, what is public and private.

The revelations about the US-run Prism program over the last week suggest that it's not just the newsworthy who are affected. It’s all of us. Through Prism, the US National Security Agency apparently has access on a massive scale to individuals chat logs, stored data, voice traffic, file transfers and social networking data. According to reports, Prism can access this data though a "back door" in the servers of major technology companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Prism seems to be an extension to these digital ecosystems, the dark cloud.

These organisations have all denied the existence of this "back door". Perhaps they’re telling the truth: what, after all, is this old fashioned, physical, architectural metaphor even doing in this debate? A back door suggests a spatial, architectural hierarchy of progression from public to private that simply does not exist in digital space. So why use this linguistic image at all? Perhaps it's there to suggest that digital culture is not so radically different after all. That is does, or at least could, obey the kinds of spatial separations that physical space contains in its very nature.

Prism tells us something about design in the twenty-first century. And it's certainly not its logo - or that of the apparently conspiracy-theorist-baiting Information Awareness Office - that recalls that Mitchell and Webb sketch featuring two SS officers wondering if the skull logo on their caps might suggest that they are actually the baddies. It tells us that design is increasingly about systems, increasingly about processes and the way these interface with the real world.

Prism is part, I would suggest, of the realm of design thinking. This is a problem-solving methodology born out of similarly strange bedfellows as The Californian Ideology. In this case it's art school creativity hijacked by management theory. Design thinking suggests the synthetic way in which designers are (supposed to be) thinking can be applied to almost any subject. Its power is its ability to transform anything into a design problem: the way organisations work, profitability, market share, information, the gathering and processing of intelligence and, it seems, national security.

Design thinking is marked by the scale and scope of its operations. Rather than isolating particular problems, it attempts to survey the whole scenario. It conceives the field of operation as the system rather than the object. And in this, it transforms the designed world into an ecosystem. Design thinking treats this synthetic ecosystem as its project, attempting to redesign it according to particular goals, to achieve its desired outcomes.

By seeing the world through the lens of this conceptual design ecosystem, design thinking abstracts the world into a series of interactions with outputs and it remains poised to provide a solution for anything. Never mind the fact that there are many who would argue with the idea of design as a solution-focused activity, that this conception of design is pure ideological cant.

Of course, like digital culture and like late capitalism, design thinking prefers to appear a non-ideological matter of common sense. Apparently de-politicised and post-ideological, design thinking appears free of its own innate desires and tendencies in order to open-mindedly and radically reinvent the world.

I would argue that design thinking is a product of digital culture. It shares the values of innovation and entrepreneurship bound up in the digital world and follows the same open-necked babyboom commune to boardroom trajectory. It’s also a product of how digital culture shows us the world: of networks and accumulations of big data. It's a product, in part perhaps, of the converging digital tools we use across disciplinary boundaries. But more than this, it's a product of the the fact that the digital is both where we design and what we design, both subject and object of contemporary design activity.

Design thinking annexes the perceived power of design and folds it into the development of systems rather than things. It's a design ideology that is now pervasive, seeping into the design of government and legislation (for example, the UK Government’s Nudge Unit which works on behavioral design) and the interfaces of democracy (see the Design of the Year award-winning If these are examples of ways in which design can help develop an open-access, digital democracy, Prism is its inverted image. The black mirror of democratic design, the dark side of design thinking. Whether legal or not, Prism is a design-thinking solution to national security.

If design thinking is part of the triumph of The Californian Ideology, part of the way that digital culture is remaking the world, is Prism its Waterloo? Perhaps it is the moment Californian digital culture turned inside out, the point when these apparently pro-libertarian entities melded to become one with the state, a strange new version of the military-digital-industrial complex cooked up out of acid-soaked West Coast radicalism and frictionless global capitalism.

In next week's column we will explore how the idea of the digital ecosystem and the tools of design thinking project out from the screen into the world, reforming ideas of landscape, nature and space.

Read part two »

Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing