David Stairs Dear Bruce, Following your much-discussed July 7th “reasoned but misinformed volley” about design imperialism on the Fast Company blog, you were practically cut off at the knees for your viewpoint. The folks at Fast Company were probably happy about this, but it surprised me largely because I considered your piece not only uncontroversial, but mildly anachronistic. I’m criticizing myself here. Aside from the obvious intersections (age, gender, nationality), we are actually very much alike. Atavistic, I mean. Your critics are also very much alike, aside from the obvious intersections (age, gender, nationality). Terminally hip. Susan Szenasy, for example, once criticized me for being “old” and “cynical.” In fact, the cynicism trope seems to be a popular one when attempting to refute unfashionable criticism. And Emily Pilloton has also chided me for getting my facts wrong where her work is concerned, a similar complaint of Valerie Casey’s when I critiqued her hegemonic “designspeak” in a piece last year. One could almost wish that “corrective facts” were the only means of critical dialogue. Then I could stop thinking altogether. No more clever comments. Nary an embarrassing gaucherie, not to mention a pithy insight. Please don’t take offense at my calling you anachronistic either. It’s just that references to Peace Corps and Head Start experiences do date you in a way I can relate to. After all, I’m a former boy scout myself. My more immediate gripe is that it has taken you so long to come around to your current point of view about “humanitarian design” and that, only now, when it has finally become obscenely popular to do so, have you spoken out. My comparable experience also came through a foreign appointment, a Fulbright to Africa. I have been criticized more times than you can shake a stick at for the same things you overheard Emily criticized for in China. But it’s a valid gripe and, as the world evolves and the economic playing-field levels, we’re bound to hear it more and more from our developing world colleagues. In fact, the “next BIG thing” will probably be a rush of innovation originating in studios in Delhi, Rio, and Capetown. All good. When I returned from my last African residency I posted a piece to Design Observer that garnered a lot of response. Because my essay criticized an exhibit at the National Design Museum Ellen Lupton, a long time friend of the Cooper-Hewitt, called me a “smug expert.” Un-ironically, several of the projects featured in that exhibition’s catalog, including the Q Water Roller, the Life Straw, and the OLPC initiative, have fallen on critical hard times. Other similar endeavors, like the Play Pump and the Hippo Water Roller, are now considered marketing and infrastructure failures. This only reinforces what I’d written about the Western design community and its well-intentioned cheerleaders both at home and abroad. I’ve purposely refrained from joining this discussion to date because, at the risk of offending everyone involved, I don’t hear anyone saying anything new. Your original point is well taken, a little late, but better than never. The self-appointed Design Divas’ predilection for the truth as they see it will always seem to trump good-old fashioned field experience, whether Peace Corps or
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Fulbright, but lack of hard experience does come back to haunt them. Maria Popova’s call to redesign our critical language was itself successfully gainsaid by one of her own commentators who suggested that we must first consider redesigning affluence. Do you seriously think anyone from the North and West will volunteer for that assignment? Meanwhile, you’ve nailed the point that everyone else seems to be overlooking: dealing with corrupt and privileged local elites (those who make even imperialism look benign), whether domestic or international, will continue to be a tightrope walk. The human desire to “do good” is hard wired. Richard Dawkins has immortalized this fact. But everybody’s got turf to protect. So long as some of us live like kings while others live in squalor neo-colonialism and economic hegemonism will be alive and well in the neighborhood, in spite of our frequent lip service to “stakeholders.” And you’re right about another thing: designers from the developed world need to be very careful about how they “intervene” elsewhere. Remember that Arvind Lodaya once called design in the non-Western world a “cultural WMD.” This has been true since at least the time of the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851. I tell my students that, when it comes to such exchanges, especially where another nation’s cultural heritage is concerned, we are all potential terrorists. It’s not a popular message, and I frequently get shot at, but such is the messenger’s fate. By the way Maria, bottom billion in Swahili is “bilioni chini.” Asante na usiku mwema (Thank you and good night), David Stairs