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Opinion Justin McGuirk military drone

"Design is complicit in economic and political systems that are inherently violent"

Opinion: as MoMA launches an online exhibition investigating design's relationship with violence, Dezeen columnist Justin McGuirk looks beyond objects like 3D-printed guns and drones to ask "what do our weapons say about the systems they support?"

Blood gutter. I've often thought that this is one of the more evocative phrases in the English language. It synthesises the opposites of nature and culture: the spilling of the life force on one hand and its neat canalisation on the other – the macabre and the civilised. It sums up perfectly design's relationship with violence.

A blood gutter, in case you’re not aware, is the groove along the blade of a hunting knife or bayonet. Also known as a blood groove, this channel is commonly understood to make the blade easier to withdraw from the body of the unfortunate human or beast you've just plunged it into. The theory goes that the groove creates a pocket of air between the blade and the blood-slick wound that prevents suction. As everyone knows, suction is a right pain when you're trying to extract a blade from the body of your collapsing foe.

However, I was disappointed to learn that the suction theory is pure myth. The blood gutter – also known more technically as the fuller – is in fact designed to make the blade lighter and stiffer. Nevertheless, it's a myth with a long and proud history, born in the days of bayonet fighting. Since US Marines in boot camp are still apparently taught that these grooves solve a chronic suction problem, let's continue with our design analogy. The brunt of which is this: the blood gutter evinces an exquisitely explicit relationship to the mechanics of the violent act. It represents precisely the kind of close-up attention to detail required of the designer of weapons in general, whether we’re talking about designing the head of a dum-dum bullet (designed for maximum impact) or the reliable firing mechanism of an AK-47.

It goes without saying that such design requires a temporary suspension of morals. This kind of blinkered engagement in the minutiae by those who are just doing their job is how we've managed to post-rationalise the horrors of the Holocaust, which political theorist Hannah Arendt famously encapsulated in "the banality of evil". Physicist Robert Oppenheimer faced a similar dilemma in creating the atomic bomb. In his case, however, he had designed a weapon so earth-shatteringly destructive that he thought it might even serve the interests of peace. As he wrote to the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, after Hiroshima: "We believe that the safety of this nation… cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible." This is like the designer trying to get the client to rethink their agenda, but in Oppenheimer's case it was too late to rewrite the brief.

What triggered these thoughts was the New York Museum of Modern Art's new online curatorial project, Design and Violence. Initiated by MoMA's Paola Antonelli and co-curated by Jamer Hunt of Parsons The New School for Design, it is a sort of exhibition as web platform, and it is intended to probe the notion of design as an inherently benign discipline – an approach that is certainly overdue from the design establishment.

While the site is too nascent to merit a review, it does raise some interesting questions. Chief among them, to my mind, is whether the curators of this project really have the stomach for it. Are they prepared to go into the gory details (one wonders if this, indeed, is why the exhibition is online and not in the museum itself) and are they willing to push their argument to its logical conclusion, which is that design is complicit in economic and political systems that are themselves inherently violent?

Thus far, the project is focused on objects. While that may be predictable, the objects themselves are less so. Social critic Camille Paglia has written about the stiletto heel, which she describes as "woman's most lethal social weapon", and which is at least suggestive of violence. Others have written about the box cutter, Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed pistol and the Guardian Angel handbags designed by Dutch accessory brand Vlieger and Vandam. These felt handbags are embossed with the shapes of knives and pistols, and as such they adopt the usual position of luxury consumer goods to violence: desperate for a frisson of edginess. It is the same shortcut to controversy taken by Philippe Starck some years back with his gun lamps, redolent with Carry On film camp – "Ooh er, missus, aren’t you naughty?"

By contrast, novelist William Gibson has a ditty here on the unofficial embroidered patches used by classified military units – internal "marketing tools" with Velcro. Such insignia are symbols of pride laced with the threat of violence. This feels like fertile territory, but why stick with the military? Gibson himself has a character (in Pattern Recognition, if I remember correctly) who is allergic to brand logos and has to cut them out of her clothing. That fictional leap suggests a rich vein of violence inherent in consumer society.

Ordinary objects can be horrifically violent. What springs immediately to mind is that staple of British pubs, the pint glass. Somehow only the casual violence of the drunken Brit could turn a noun into such a vivid verb: to "glass" someone, or to smash a pint in their face. None of your Tom and Jerry invulnerability there, nor, indeed, any of the designer's meticulous method – just a harmless object swept up in an improvised attack. Glassing is apparently such a problem that a few years ago the Design Council commissioned a re-engineering of the pint glass so that it wouldn't break on impact. Safely back in cartoon territory, you can imagine the mystified look on the aggressor's face – like Tom staring down the barrel of the misfired gun – as he realises that he’s only bruised his opponent.

Such "invisible" weapons are represented in Design and Violence by the box cutter (known to British readers as the Stanley knife). It was just an ordinary household object until the terrorists in the hijacked planes on 9/11 turned it into a tool of asymmetrical warfare. But the upshot of that event is that it is no longer just the terrorists who use invisible weapons. In its War on Terror the US relies heavily on unmanned drones that deliver death out of nowhere. The question here is, what do our weapons say about the systems that they support? Ironically, drones are the Obama government’s response to the criticisms of his predecessor’s methods. Liberals kicked up such a fuss about extraordinary rendition (the kidnapping and torture of suspects) that the Pentagon decided it was easier just to assassinate targets from high altitude. At least three thousand people have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone, and yet the outcry has been less vociferous, perhaps because the means are more clinical.

The Liberator, Wilson's 3D-printed pistol, is another case of a design that is sinister not because it is deadly but precisely because it looks harmless. It’s as though we've entered an era of uncanny weapons. Plastic guns, like toys that kill. Windowless planes, like eyeless faces, that can see where they're going. Freud defined the uncanny as an ambiguity as to whether something is really alive, and the new generation of weapons elicit uncertainty as to whether they are really real: they're like simulacra, or literally like models.

The designs of these weapons represent two opposing theories of violence. The first is that violence is simply a force of nature, and is only wrong if it is used to the wrong ends. In other words – and this is how Robespierre justified the Terror – the ends justify the means. That is more or less the US government's attitude to extra-legal drone strikes: the War on Terror justifies assassinations on foreign soil and any civilian collateral damage, however unfortunate. The design of drones reflects precisely that attitude: unmanned and thus anonymous, operated by joy-stick wielding technicians thousands of miles away, they exude moral detachment.

The other theory of violence inverts that logic: here, the means justify the ends. This is epitomised by the 3D printed gun. It is clearly important to Wilson that guns be readily available, hence making his design available under a creative commons license, but the design is the product of a rather childish libertarianism. In protecting his Second Amendment right to bear arms, it's all me, me, me, and damn the interfering government or any sense of the collective good. By this logic, not only does the law uphold his right to have a gun and to use it in self-defence, but the design method – open source, creative commons, available for distributed production – lends the object an air of righteousness. The generous language of the "sharing economy" is being used to justify the potential use of violence.

In that sense, both the drone and the 3D printed gun display a sense of impunity. Their designs perfectly reflect the moral positions – in my opinion, both illegitimate – of those who wield them. Far more potent, then, than the weapons themselves are the systems that give rise to them. In fact, we could forget about weapons altogether and talk only about systemic violence. We could talk about the social violence caused by neoliberal capitalism, or the environmental violence caused by disposable consumer goods. This is a whole other argument, for another day, but one that I hope Design and Violence – or @desviolenz, as its Twitter handle goes – will not balk at.

Drone image is from Shutterstock.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.