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.

I was thinking about competitions and award ceremonies and this list: The Grammys, The Emmys, The Oscars, The Golden Globes, The CMAs, The People’s Choice. A few minutes later I made this addendum: The Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, The Super Bowl, The World Series, The Olympics, The BCS National Championship March Madness, The World Cup. Then it occurred to me that each profession could easily add its own events to the list. For design it might read: The AIGA Medal, The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards, The Addys, The Webbys, The INDEX Awards, The IMAs etc., multiplied by each national and some ethnic groups. I’d like to be able to find a good reason for all this activity.

When I’m feeling generous it comes out something like this: “Human beings love to recreate, and one of their fondest forms of play is friendly competition.” But I can also come up with much darker explanations. Now, perhaps darker explanations aren’t necessary when speaking about human achievement except, unfortunately, not all human achievements are creditable. Take the state of the natural environment, for instance. Bill McKibben and 350.org are sounding some very dark notes these days in their efforts to slow climate change and the other side effects of human achievement. And if I were a betting man, I’d bet that their methods aren’t half scary enough when it comes to being alarmist. Theirs, of course, is a laudable cause, but many of the industries/initiatives that got us into this mess were not. Why, then, are so many of us satisfied to stay tuned to our favorite cultural/sporting/gaming distractions, in fact, rarely thinking of them as “distractions?” Some of you may even be wondering, “Distractions from what?” And that’s precisely why I started the list at the top of this article. If I had to add to a list of distractions, I might add the following: World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, GTA5, Asassasain’s Creed, Angry Birds, Minecraft. Not intending to extol such a list, I’d prefer to draw attention to its serious limits. My dear students very often find themselves singing the praises of the technological webs they’ve grown up in. Granted, such webs go back a long time, probably as far back as the evolution of human language, or the development of agriculture, and certainly to the telegraph. But I’m speaking here about webs that specifically distract one’s attention from survival issues, substituting things like athletic and reality show competitions. Which generates yet another list: American Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, The X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance?, America’s Biggest Loser.

Without turning this into another bitch session about how multi-tasking makes us all dumber, I’d like to end the way I began. But this will be a list of some of the politically contentious issues many of us would prefer to ignore, but do so at our very great peril: Corporate Taxation, Keystone XL, The Affordable Care Act, Privatization of Education, Destruction of tropical forests, Immigration reform, Coal exports, The Pentagon’s budget. It is really just a shortlist of the much greater problems caused by our political and economic dysfunction. Unless, or until more of us sign off from The Cloud and remember that we are still standing on terra firma, it is a list that’s bound to grow and grow and grow.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.