Welcome to the Crapularity: Design as a Problem – winnaar Pruys Bekaert Vox Pop


Geert Bekaert-prijs

Ter stimulering van de architectuurkritiek en bevordering van de dialoog.

If the pitfall of every discipline is to view the world only from its own perspective, then the pitfall of design is to consider every problem in the world a design problem. In addition to asking what “Design Can Do”, one also needs to ask what design cannot do – and where it even becomes a problem rather than a solution.

afbeelding van Ron Amadeo

picture Ron Amadeo / Nest

More than ever before, design has become interventions – into public and private, human and non-human spheres. Ever since design ceased to restrict itself to products and services, it has taken up ambitions of reinventing the world that, in the past, had been the domain of radical art and political movements. The latter two intersected in a number of artists’ commune experiments, most radically perhaps in the Otto Muehl commune of the 1970s and 1980s that had grown out of Vienna Actionism’s transgressive body and performance art. In its gradual deterioration from a free-love experiment to quasi-fascism and systematic child abuse, the Muehl commune embodied the ultimate dreams and horrors of interventionist art.[1]

One could re-read 1960s-80s commune experiments – the Muehl commune, the Manson Family, the Children of God, the Rajneesh movement and their reenactment in exploitation and art house movies such as Fernando di Leo’s “Avere vent’anni” [1978], Christian Anders’ “Love Camp” [1981] and Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots” [1998] – as radical precursors to social design. Examples of the social design practiced in these communes include the computer-generated ‘fuck list’ used in the Muehl commune to make sure that none of its members would have repeated sex with the same person in order to prevent the emergence of traditional family structures.

After Muehl, contemporary art largely gave up on revolutionizing everyday life. This job was taken up by design, in toned-down, reformist ways. Design took up social tasks and embraced processes rather than products. This did, however, not free design from commodity fetishism. As Anja Groten has shown in her paper on the workshop-ization of design, processes can become just another thing.[2] When things become fetishes in the digital age, they contribute to what the British technology anthropologist Justin Pickard called “the crapularity” in 2011:

“3D printing + spam + micropayments = tribbles that you get billed for, as it replicates wildly out of control. 90% of everything is rubbish, and it’s all in your spare room – or someone else’s spare room, which you’re forced to rent through AirBnB”.[3]

The Crapularity can be read as an update of a pre-digital phenomenon first described in 1996 by Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker: “G.A.S.”, the “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome”:

“All horizontal surfaces are covered by guitars – acoustics, electrics, lap steels, old ones, new ones, weird little ukulele-like things with no proper names […] and mind you this roomful of strings and frets are only the ones that he has sitting around the house and ALMOST NEVER USES AT THE GIG”.

Later, the acronym “GAS” became more broadly understood as “gear aquisition syndrome”, referring to the obsessive collection and accumulation of all kind of things such as work tools, photographic and astronomic equipment. “GAS” describes the collapse of impulse control in addicted consumption and has become a subject of academic research.[4]

While GAS is a textbook example of commodity fetishism as defined by Marx for the industrial age, the Crapularity describes a 21st century post-apocalyptic condition caused by newer types of products, along with newer types of services and design: media design (3D printing and spam, in Pickard’s example), service design (micropayments, rents), architecture, social design (the “sharing economy” of Airbnb which was begun by a group of designers as a community project).

In the Crapularity, design becomes the cause of wicked problems, much like the pest doctor who realizes that he is the cause of the plague in Lars von Trier’s 1987 film Epidemic. This sharply contradicts the commonly held belief that design is a way of tackling those problems. The term “wicked problem” was coined by design theorist Horst Rittel and urbanist Melvyn Webber in 1973 and defined, among others, by the lack of a “definitive formulation” and lack of a “stopping rule” and the fact that each wicked problem can be “considered to be a symptom of another problem”.[5]

While GAS still might have a “definite formulation” and a simple “stopping rule” (namely, stopping to acquire gear), the Crapularity amounts to a more complex, non-linear and indeed wicked problem, mostly because of its far-reaching involvement of non-human actors.

In an application of the contemporary philosophy of Object-Oriented Ontology to design, the design theoretician Ian Bogost created so-called “Latour Litanies”, computer-generated lists of both human and non-human things. They were made up of words that an algorithm randomly picked from titles of Wikipedia articles, and read as follows:

Emergency medical services in Iceland, Oklahoma State Highway 71, Prince Masahito, Virginia Gay, 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron, 1991 Tokyo Indoor, Occidentarius platypogon[6]

Bogost’s Litanies were meant as tools for imagining a world where human and non-human entities are equal. But they can also be read as crapularity lists of things that can “replicate out of control” like (Pickard)’s “tribbles […] in your spare room”. In the Crapularity, design can no longer be abstracted from production and no longer be used to add (imaginary) surplus value to crapular things. Apple, for example, still advertises its products under the Western, Platonic paradigm of being “Designed in California”, while not advertising their manufacturing in China’s Shenzhen special economic zone. In the age of GAS and the Crapularity, these manufacturing zones strike back. They not only take over production, but also design. The products of the upstart photographic equipment manufacturer Aputure, for example, bear the label “Designed by Aputure in Shenzhen – Assembled in China”.

Both types of design-production, Apple’s and Aputure’s, end up in various crapular economic feedback loops. These feedback loops include GAS consumption, bottom-up globalization such as the multi-storey specialist electronics shopping centers in Shenzhen and Guangzhou that serve African traders who export the goods to their home countries, the global economy of AliExpress consumption, their links to the human/non-human zombie armies of shadow banking, fintechs and crypto currency mining, resulting in whole batteries of mutually interwoven, meta- and super-wicked problems from financial system bubbles to post-democratic politics and environmental collapse.

These symptoms make the crapularity a present-day reality, not only a piece of futurology of which Pickard wrote his coinage in 2011. Therefore, we are already past “living in apocalyptic times of ecological breakdown, the biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines and the total digital control over our lives”, as Žižek wrote in 2010.[7] The poet, musician and Afrofuturist Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) sums this up as follows: “The end of the world has already happened and it’s okay. […] It didn’t look like what they said, but we did it. What the fuck are you going to do now?”[8]

For designers, it could mean that they acknowledge and embrace the design of wicked problems, rather than thinking of design as their solution.

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