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					Ontological Design Cheat Sheet, Or, Fry, Winograd and Flores, and Willis Made Comprehensible
Jeffrey Bardzell School of Informatics Indiana University

Directions: Each of the words in bold in the following description are explained in the table on the following pages.


Ontological design is a meta-theory of design (a sensibility, attitude, or habit of critique) that seeks to appreciate and assist the pervasive role of design in effecting sustainability, using a deconstructive critical approach called defuturing. Defuturing is a critical approach that understands technology not merely as an instrument of human will, but more radically as an agent both acting on the world (for better or worse) and also constituting it (along with humans and natural ecology). The role of technology/design and its impact on humanity and the world is understood alongside a 20th-century philosophical tradition concerning the nature of the human condition, and most specifically the nature of its finitude (the state of being limited and finite). The human condition, in this philosophical tradition, is understood in terms of several key concepts: thrownness, Dasein (a.k.a. Being-in-the-world), and performative/practical knowledge (technê).

Term Ontological design

Meaning A theory of design that emphasizes the agency of designed artifacts, and specifically how designed artifacts not merely affect, but in some ways effect our environment / lifeworlds. This theory downplays human rational agency. It examines the complex relationalities among humans, ecologies, designed artifacts, and design theory/approaches. Design‘s influence is of such a profound order that it rivals human reason itself in its efficacy and pervasiveness (for better or worse). This theory also emphasizes performative knowledge (technê). Willis characterizes design as the embedding of intention, for example, giving ―cutting‖ to a piece of metal to create a knife—note that the intention is in the artifact itself, not in any human using it as an instrument of her or his own (human) intention. A metacognitive and (I think) self-begetting spin on the common notion of ―sustainability.‖ Whereas ―sustainability‖ is used as an end or a condition (e.g., in UN parlance), ―sustain-ability‖ is more radical and complex. Fry uses the word in two senses, which we might call ontological (the nature of its existence, what it is) and ethical (ho humans think about it and act upon it) senses (Fry would probably resist this distinction in the first place, but though it may be philosophically problematic, I think it is helpful in explaining different aspects of sustainability). On the ontological side, sustain-ability refers to the agency of the process of sustainment; that is, the self-determining ability of the inanimate process of creating/extending being (Fry seems to be saying that sustain-ability not only improves sustainability [in the usual sense], but it also has a self-begetting aspect which further generates other processes of sustainability). On the ethical side, sustain-ability is a way of thinking joined to a mode of acting against unsustainability. It is a means of identifying options and possibilities, and making informed judgments. It is a stance that rejects the myth of techno-progress and the delusional pretensions of science.

Location(s) Willis 1-3, 6; Winograd and Flores 163 ff.;

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Fry 8-12;


Fry uses this term in two different senses, one positive and one negative, and an inability to keep them straight leads to confusion and frustration on the part of the reader. One sense can again be characterized as ontological (that is, we can describe it as it is/acts in the world); the other sense can be characterized as a critical method we can deploy to counter the damage of the ontological sense. Fry most commonly uses the term ―defuturing‖ in the ontological sense to characterize a

Fry 11-13;


Meaning malignant process, which destroys the future. He does not mean this in the pedestrian environmentalist sense of ozone layers and lost natural resources (though that is a part of it). Rather, defuturing is a form of self-begetting destruction, which destroys not only physical artifacts (people, places, resources), but more radically destroys certain potentialities. The future is not a blank slate that could be anything; instead, it is profoundly shaped by the past and present. An example (I think) would be the emergence of the written word, which not only results in depleted natural resources (in the modern world, destroyed trees, paper factories, and increased waste), but which also destroys oral culture, including oral epic, value systems, modes of governance, and societies as they had been constructed and maintained. A human designs artifact A to solve problem P, but A goes on to do much more than P, solving and creating P1 – Pn. This unforeseen legacy changes the future, adding and removing possibilities. An unstated assumption is that A is far more likely to cause an unsustainable future than a sustainable or sustain-able one (the technology of writing may or may not be a good example in this respect). This sense of the word ―defuturing‖ has negative connotations (e.g., Fry writes, ― we act to defuture because we do not understand how the values, knowledges, worlds, and things we create go on designing after we have designed and made them‖ [12]). The other sense of defuturing refers to a critical method, a mode of interpretation. This critical/interpretive method resembles deconstructive criticism (which itself is complex and hard to pin down), but the main idea is that important ideas, beliefs, and systems are constructed (usually in a non-rational way), though they are presented to us (via our parents, the media, churches, politicians, popular fiction) as universally given. This approach to interpretation therefore exposes the constructedness of these ideas, beliefs, and systems (which were hitherto accepted as sacred cows). In Fry‘s words, this kind of defuturing ―seeks to disclose the bias and direction of that which is designed and how it is totally implicated in the world we conceptually constitute, materially produce, waste (rather than consume), occupy, and use as an available material environment. More specifically, defuturing, as a learned act of deconstructive reading, is able to trigger an unmaking of the ground of thought and ‗logic‘ of fabrication, form, utterance, and image, upon which present worlds, and world-makings, stand‖ (11). By exposing (and potentially destroying) these hitherto sacred cows as agents of defuturing (in the ontological sense), we can potentially act in ways that support sustain-ability. This interpretive sense of defuturing obviously has positive connotations.


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One of the goals of ontological design is to provide a more robust and complete notion of technology, to distinguish it from the common (and destructive) notions of technology as quick fix, technology as instrument of human intention, technology as passive object.

Fry 22-32


Meaning One of the most concise instances of this common notion of technology is the bumpersticker mantra of the NRA: ―Guns don‘t kill people; People kill people.‖ Ontological design emphatically rejects this notion as dangerously naïve. Fry describes four characteristics of technology:     Technology is not a fixed phenomenon We cannot distinguish between technology and our environment Divisions between technology, knowledge, and culture are hard to identify There is a long-established relation between design, technology, and war


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These four characteristics (and much of the argument that follows) emphasizes that technology is far from an instrument of human rational will, and that it causes humans to change their behavior to respond to it. He uses the example of a clock, which not only tells us the time, but which also ―designs perceptions, thinking, working life, everyday actions and more. The structure of technological time has become part of us, our biorhythms have been altered by its regulatory regime‖ (27). In another useful breakdown, Fry describes the presence of technology across four different levels: an artifact of technology is a thing (it exists out there in the world); an agent (it effects change); a knowledge (it change what and how we know); and an environment (it is constitutive of that in which we live). (Side note: this inclusive-invasive notion of technology is not unique to ontological design; indeed, it has plenty of scholarly and cultural parallels. Examples of the former include the work done on cyborgs by Donna Harraway and N. Katherine Hayles. Examples of the latter include the novels of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, as well as television such as The Six Million Dollar Man and films such as Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell. It is particularly applicable to video games, which enact it at two levels: the physical interface gamers use to play the games (keyboard, mouse, joystick, dance pad) and the content of the games themselves, which often involve cyborg characters (Master Chief in Halo, dozens of mech games, and so on).) Human Condition Key to the understanding of ontological design are 20 century philosophical traditions such as phenomenology (associated with Husserl and Heidegger) and existentialism (associated with Sartre and Camus). These traditions attacked notions of humanity and knowledge that focused on spirit/essence and the sovereignty of human rationality, replacing it with a more contextualized, habit-based, and performative notion of human experience. This philosophy relies on a handful of related concepts: thrownness,


Meaning Dasein, and the importance of technê.


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A key aspect of the human condition: the human being is thrown into the world. There is no position prior to or external to thrownness (i.e., no soul, spirit, or essence). The human is human only insofar as s/he acts and participates in the world. For Camus, human thrownness puts us in a position he calls the Absurd, in which no absolute or external systems of morality (e.g., God-given commandments) exist or apply, leaving us exclusively with what we make up from the always-within condition of thrownness. An alternative view of the nature of human being (two words, not ―human being‖), derived from the work of Heidegger (who, by the way, was a Nazi). This view emphasizes that human experience always occurs in time and in the world. One cannot ―stop and reflect‖ or ―go off somewhere and think‖ because one is always already in motion, in the world. This view rejects the notion of intrinsic or static substance (or at a minimum, following Husserl, doesn‘t concern itself with essential substance). As powerful corollaries, representations are never stable, and actions/events can never be isolated. Thinking and speaking are more fundamentally actions than they can ever be commentary on actions. Practical, as opposed to theoretical, knowledge, e.g., the artisan knowledge of a shoemaker as he makes shoes, as opposed to the abstract formulations of a philosopher (the Greek word for abstract knowledge is epistêmê). Those who subscribe to ontological design believe that the importance of technê is underappreciated. Technê is daily, practicing know-how, and as such, it is tied to design, life habits, and ultimately sustainability more intimately than theoretical knowledge. Effecting change in the world, for better or worse, is more likely to happen via changes in technê than theory. When using a hammer, the foundational thought is hammering (an action) not hammer or hammer-ness (the essence of a hammer).

Winograd and Flores 34; Camus XX

Being-in-theworld (Dasein)

Winograd and Flores 34; Willis 2; Heidegger XX; Gadamer XX;

Technê (Performative know-how)

Winograd and Flores 32; (get some ancient philosophy on this); Willis 5;