David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

Inevitably, I return to Ivan Illich’s To Hell With Good Intentions, where he criticized a group of young Americans intending to do development field work in Mexico in the late ’60’s for being pretentious, complacent, and hypocritical middle-class idealists. “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as ‘good,’ a ‘sacrifice’ and ‘help’.”

There’s an important message here, one we are often reluctant to accept.

The current obsession with helping others through design “interventions” is a subject that has gathered a certain momentum over the last decade. I think it’s less a matter of whether such initiatives are sincere than how they arise. Illich might refer to it as the result of “bad conscience,” and to an extent this is probably accurate. Middle-class sons and daughters of the industrial north, beginning to suspect the affluence that is their birthright, get a latter day notion to “pay it forward.”

Not a week passes that I am not asked by a design student somewhere in the developed world about opportunities in social design. The vast majority of these inquiries are heartfelt, if also callow. I do not have any “placements” to make, am certainly not an “expert” in social design, and am usually at pains to help students realize that their best opportunity always begins within themselves, not with any existent system or infrastructure that can grease their skids and save them from “reinventing the wheel.” Young people have usually not yet realized that it is humanity’s Sisyphean fate to reinvent wheels.

Just as with any creative human endeavor, most social design initiatives begin with a curious observation followed by an inquiry. “Then, depending on one’s disposition, shouldn’t it be easy to find a way to encourage or discourage them?” you wonder. Not unless we also attempt to encourage/discourage other forms of entrepreneurship, I would argue. Let’s face it, the real disease of America in its most malign form is a fantastic melange of democracy and free enterprise capitalism, not the intentions of do-gooders. We need to address the causes of our troubles, not just their symptoms.

Where design do-gooderism often fails is in its inception, not its application. Here I am reminded of the firestorm Bruce Nussbaum created four years ago when he momentarily referred to social design as “neo-colonialist,” a serious and often valid complaint. Valid because not one in a thousand designers realizes that the Lord Cornwallis who surrendered the American colonies at Yorktown in 1781 is the same man who defeated Tipu Sahib, the last Sultan of Mysore, at Srirangapatna in 1799, thereby opening India to colonization. Or knows anything about the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the one that carved Africa into European spheres of influence? The bitter taste these experiences left in the mouths of millions of people worldwide makes a necessity of walking on eggshells, but again, Illich would say we have “an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy.”

Personally, I have no argument with altruism per se, and consider it a social benefit, if not a selector for human evolution. The design profession however, and this includes its educational branch, is a late-comer to the concept of altruism, and design criticism has been more apt to gush over apparent success stories, than criticize their “indelicacy.” This automatically makes design suspect, but also suggests why there has been such a craze for “social.”

The fact that many young people are idealistic ought to be applauded. Adolescents, obviously, can be a bit cynical— they are often seeing the “man behind the curtain” for the first time. But once people enter their twenties, an urge toward service arises. Frankly, the thought of a whole generation of millenarian cynics paints a dystopic landscape of hopelessness and anomie no one really wants to live to witness. On the other hand, by institutionalizing altruism, as we do with social design education programs, we not only commercialize it, but glorify it, and glorification is au fond anti-natural.

Talk of social networking design solutions often masks serious efforts to open new markets for the profession, a perennial problematic. Whether your name is Pentagram or IDEO, corporations are by no means disinterested entities. Just because they like cell phones and motor cars doesn’t mean people in non-industrial places want to import our social mores and economic systems. It’s more of the backhanded colonialist mush people in the developing world have been fed for 150 years.

Whether the acolytes of design do-gooderism are here to stay or are just living through a self-congratulatory phase remains to be determined by the historians. It’s only been five years since David Berman’s Do Good Design was published, and a majority of the designers I speak with seem pretty sure social design is a good thing. I’ve written previously about the dangers of remote solutions to local problems. This includes the importation of outside ideas by enthusiasts determined to render assistance to their fellow man.

Increasingly, governments have divested some of their collective interest in social programs as a result of budget cuts. This has opened the floodgates for George H.W. Bush’s “1000 points of light” approach to volunteerism which sometimes works for awhile, until its bald opportunism and myopia are exposed. While Christian missionaries go door to door in their efforts to save the unredeemed world, the contemporary saints of design are being canonized, penning their hagiography for future generations of altruists.

“Why criticize genuine efforts?” I was chided by the graduate students at Ball State. “Aren’t there enough problems in the world to go around?” In this question lies one of the key philosophical stumbling blocks: our inclination to think of life as a problem in need of solution. Insofar as problem setting/solving seems to be part of the human genetic makeup, it becomes a “wicked” or inescapable difficulty. We’d have to be less, or maybe more human if we really wanted to change. And here I’m thinking more of Theodore Sturgeon’s collective of paranormal children in More Than Human than Ray Kurzweil’s cyber-human Singularity.

Watching St. Paula Antonelli or St. Emily Pilloton on The Colbert Report shilling for design innovation is not terribly instructive. In an unholy Age of Hucksterism we are all in a hurry to make public fools of ourselves. It’s bred in the memetic bone from the moment we view our first television commercial. Self-promotion 101 is required reading in much of our design curriculum, too. How compulsively self-referential my students are as they prepare to enter the job market! A society obsessed with self-consciousness is bound to suffer an overdose of entrepreneurial zeal. Then again, Colbert is a comedy show, so we probably shouldn’t allow the irony to escape us.

In fact, there are just too many excellent examples of how one can avoid the curse of self-absorption. Mohandas K. Ghandi became famous for his approach to civil disobedience. As the historical link between H.D. Thoreau and M.L. King Jr., Ghandi now seems less important as an instance of rebellion than as a shining example of cultural resistance. Ghandi understood that one could accomplish much simply by not participating, by opting out, by knowing when to engage and when to ignore the profane world, both civil and commercial. This has been the method of mystics and holy men for millennia. Then again, in a land of 330,000,000 deities, holiness is usually sitting right next to you on the bus.

When writing about technological determinism in 1968, economist Robert Heilbronner asked a question for the ages: “Do Machines Make History?” Today we could pose a similar query about design altruism, only its history has yet to be inscribed, and no one can be sure whether we’ll evolve to a higher plane of enlightened caring, or remain the same idealistic youths who harden into mid-life opportunists.

Our species is an embodied contradiction. We need to contemplate the inherent conflicts of our nature in an effort to expand, revise, and redefine what it means to be altruistic. In so doing modern day saints will need to pardon us if we make a Faustian bargain about how much do-gooderism is appropriate, let alone what is necessary to get into Heaven.

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