March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

Bodily functions are just one of the many new data sites that were once invisible to the naked eye. For the data revelations that now rain upon us in torrents we have to thank the new analytics. These are based on algorithms that were once more useful to spy agencies than to a vast public with an insatiable desire to understand the world in terms of data flows. I recently joined a service called Academia.edu in order to download several papers by a colleague. In exchange for the opportunity to access my colleague’s papers, I had to sign up and agree that any papers of mine that I uploaded could be downloaded by others. I chose not to upload any papers but some of them have mysteriously appeared on Academia.edu, prompting monthly reports from the service on how many times they have been downloaded. I learned from a recent communiqué that a short essay I wrote many years ago was recently accessed by one person, a fact that was reinforced by a visual that showed a little hill on a long flat line. The hill represented this single download within a long dry spell of inactivity.

I am wondering what value there is to my knowing that someone downloaded an almost forgotten essay I wrote a long time ago. Were I an active uploader of my papers, I could certainly multiply the data I receive from Academia.edu to an exponential degree. I could be aware of how many people downloaded the letter to the editor I wrote early in my career, complaining about a colleague’s misinterpretation of a sentence in one of my papers. I could know my rankings among other colleagues in terms of download numbers and could add the data to my CV. The latter is not a joke since the Citation Index, which keeps track of how many times an academic paper is cited, is often used to measure the worth of a scholar’s intellectual productivity. Academic journals now routinely publish their Citation Index ratings to induce scholars to submit papers to them. The academic value of journals is also measured by another and perhaps more insidious statistic – the percentage of papers rejected. A journal that rejects a greater percentage of papers will receive a higher ranking regardless of the reasons for the rejections. It may simply mean that a particular journal received a considerable number of bad papers.

Much of the validation of big data comes from the belief that the more we know about how systems function – whether they are bodily systems or social systems – the more we can make better decisions about managing those systems. I won’t debate the value of more data in improving city services but I do question the potential inundation of statistical data that is meant to aid people in making personal decisions such as what movie to watch or what book to read. Rather than relying on a good critic to evaluate a film, decisions are often made on the basis of how many other people liked the film or book. This data is converted into numerical ratings that have the same or more influence than a critic’s opinion.

The move to quantify human activity and consequently convert it into data for decision-making is nowhere more evident than on social media sites such as Facebook. The new category of “Like” now functions to tally votes in innumerable popularity contests. When I go to a café, I find a small announcement on the table that encourages me to “Like” the café on Facebook or another social media site and I am frequently implored to “Like” a service or product in order to boost its numerical ratings on a particular site.

Thus, big data is changing our behavior in multiple ways. By providing information about realms of experience that we once knew nothing about, it is making us hyperconscious of the activity in those realms, perhaps far more than is necessary. As we are invited to produce more data, we participate in the quantification of human activity that may tell us nothing about what that activity means and may also create false measurements of value.

To say that we were better off when we knew less about some things may sound like heresy but there is truth to it, particularly when decisions are based on quantifiable indicators rather than sound individual judgment. To the degree that we shift our personal and collective decision-making to data responsiveness, we are surrendering our capacity to make informed judgments based on sounder means. At the same time, fending off invasive data hordes leaves us more room to cultivate reflective thought. In the long run, that is far more valuable than making choices based on meaningless statistics or knowing all there is to know about things that don’t matter.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a World History of Design to be published by Berg in London.

March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

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November 15th, 2013

David Stairs

Ask my Indian friend: Americans are in a coma.

What would evoke such an evaluation? Last year, while I was living in Bangalore, an American friend visited and my son and I met her for lunch. While crossing a busy boulevard she grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll trust you to get me across safely. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes trying to cross MG Road.” At that point I almost became a hazard myself, I was laughing so hard.

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October 1st, 2013

Cansu Akarsu

During my short career as a designer I have been a true nerd, spending all my free time participating in every workshop and design competition I found from all fields. Life is easy when you are learning, especially when one recognition follows the other, and motivates you to work on anything you love to work on. Still, I realize now that all the competitions, exhibitions, and networking events are far from the real recognition that comes with a village mother sparing the few dollars she earns to buy the product you have designed – this is how one falls in love with social design. Designing in real life and carrying out the process in the field is, on one hand, more frustrating and challenging, and on the other hand it is more meaningful, fun, and provides a unique learning experience.

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September 1st, 2013

David Stairs

“Tool hedonism is in ascendance.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer

Imagine a world where waste is more significant than thrift, where advertising trumps taste, and where novelty is the be-all end-all of existence. Not hard, is it? You’re living the dream everyday. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 look at the effects of television on society, entertainment came under scrutiny as a real but questionable substitute for public discourse. Had Postman lived long enough, he might have entitled the sequel Designing Ourselves to Death.

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August 10th, 2013

David Stairs


View from atop the Middle Sister in the west central Oregon Cascades reaches 100 miles north to Mt. Hood.

On a recent drive across country I was thinking about what the land must have looked like two hundred years ago. Lewis and Clark described an “Eden” of endless vistas and limitless game, a land practically untouched by human hand since time immemorial. It must have been an amazing sight.

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July 13th, 2013

David Stairs


Luco at music camp. I kept the phone.

The campaign began about nine months ago. From the beginning I was the primary target. I never had a chance. It wasn’t even a subtle assault. Mentioned with increasing frequency, insinuated into nearly every conversation, my thirteen year-old son managed to make his desire to have an iPhone known in no uncertain terms.

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June 14th, 2013

David Stairs

What can be considered radical anymore?


In their day, Vikings were pretty radical

Used to be this was easy to answer. Back in the ’60s we had Abbie Hoffman and Students for a Democratic Society, and Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. In the ’70’s there was Russel Means and AIM under siege at Wounded Knee. In Germany from the ’70’s to the ’90’s there was the Baader-Meinhof Group. Alas, as much as I admire Glenn Greenwald’s efforts to correctly define the meaning of terrorism, they feel more like Bob Woodward than Patty Hearst. Yet, without waxing nostalgic about countercultural revolution, I can think of one amazingly apposite and lasting example.

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May 21st, 2013

David Stairs

I recently came to the end of a three-year creativity cycle. This usually means it’s time to relax, reflect, and reconsider my options. For me, a great way to do a little lateral thinking is my annual painting chore.

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May 1st, 2013

David Stairs

Ask a group of student designers, any group, to develop a campaign while working in a large cohort, and they’re likely to react the way my Central Michigan University students did when I first made an unconventional proposal to them back in November 2012. I asked them to consider developing an online fundraiser for a rural African community-based organization. “This is our degree exhibition,” they replied. “How will we get any portfolio work out of this?” they asked in all seriousness. It was a predictable if callow reaction, one young designers are almost programmed to make by years of priming for local competitions through portfolio development courses.


Student brainstorming session

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April 11th, 2013

David Stairs


Young boys on the beach in Allepay, Kerala, India

Designers are frequently talking about skills and aesthetics, practice and theory, and these are important topics. But when it comes to politics, man can they get it wrong! I suspect it has more to do with privilege and cultural blindness than purposeful discrimination. And yet…

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March 22nd, 2013

David Stairs


Winter Park, FL. train station

I’m having this printed on a t-shirt in 100 pt. demi-bold letters:

I survived Universal Studios

Over the Christmas holidays I was invited to Florida by an old friend I hadn’t seen since 2005. Never mind that I have purposely avoided the “Sunshine State” my whole life. Each year my young son and I take a culture trip at holiday time. The last couple years have seen us visit first Chicago’s Field Museum and a Blue Man Group performance, then New York and the U.N., Hi-Line, Empire State, and a Broadway show. While staying with our friends in Winter Park we spent an afternoon visiting the Morse Museum’s fantastic L.C. Tiffany collection. When I walked into the chapel Tiffany designed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair I did a double take, having just seen Mark Wahlberg’s report on a recent Antiques Roadshow program. We also took in a performance by the Cirque du Soleil company resident at Downtown Disney. But one doesn’t travel to Orlando for high culture, as even the least experienced child knows. In a city based upon theme parks, they are a little hard to ignore.

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February 23rd, 2013

Editor’s note: To celebrate the first anniversary of the Indian Journal we’ve invited our friend Sumandro to share his thoughts on contemporary discussions of the Indian concept “jugaad.”

Sumandro

In a recent essay, Hamid Dabashi has spoken out against the continuation of the obnoxious (colonial) practice of identifying European socio-cultural artifacts as the universal form, while the non-European others get prefixed with ‘ethno’ — such as, referring to European music as ‘music’ and studying non-European music as ‘ethnomusicology.’ The same practice appears in action, and often enjoys uncritical celebration, in the domain of design. We are being told that the Indians have a magic word, jugaad, that means “startling ingenuity in the face of adversity.” The question, however, is why do the Indians need a special word for a phenomena that Europeans (not in the sense of the continent but in vague civilizational terms) simply call innovation? Or, can non-Europeans innovate?


Jua kali lunch box, Kenya

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February 12th, 2013

We’ve received the following link from Susana Nascimento, a longtime D-A-P reader in Portugal, and are passing it along. Best wishes for a successful summer Susana!