Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 106, Feb 2012

"Open" and the streamlining of consumerism

Over the last years design has evolved in many ways, and the design user, or consumer perhaps, seems to have been the force of gravity, pulling design agency towards itself. Now the user seems to be the main aesthetic form of expression in design. Or perhaps more accurately, the aim of today's design seems to be the design of the user, and user-engagement the best way to do it. When I think of it it seems like a parallel to the development of streamline designs of the 1930s; first there was no recognition of air resistance, then everything, from pencil sharpeners to locomotives, looked like smooth bubbles, so elegantly lubricated by design that air hardly saw them coming. It was as if design shaped the world so smooth that resistance disappeared. Is today's design so smooth that today's user also disappears in the ultimate experience of user-friendliness?

streamlined RepRap

Over the last century design has evolved immensely and the user has been a central figurehead in this evolution. From the early recognition that there is a user, for example in ergonomics and accessibility, to later versions of user studies and participatory modes of work, til today's hype around social innovation, experience design and the "open design" of full consumer engagement. Social innovation makes the user's everyday wishes and practices into specific collaborative design tasks and experience design takes on the huge task of creating specific experiences by design, from the visit at the zoo or the smell of popcorn to the sound of a closing car door. In every experience there is a user made happy, a consumer satisfied, and money to be made.

Over the last years a wave of "open design" has emerged; new forms of collaborative and shared manufacturing which has taken inspiration from the open source software movement. It is a Lego of the everyday, from the open prototyping platform of Arduino, a success story of global and collaborative interaction design, to life-size building materials of OpenStructures, making the everyday design into a recyclable Meccano. It seems the user is finally becoming the designer, being able to produce stuff at home, printing with 3D-printers or building stuff in open and free ways. Some designers feel threatened and in defence positions; Is it a disempowerment of the designer? Do we need designers anymore? Or what skills should the new open designer have? What is the new role of the consumer-designer, or "prosumer"?

If we look at it more broadly the picture changes slightly. We have all become designers today. We create our identities in ways that would seem incredible just a decade ago. We present ourselves through images and events on Facebook, and count the amount of "likes". We put together blogs and personal websites to create an image of ourselves as seamless identity entrepreneurs. As consumer products become cheaper, and copies overflow the markets at even faster paces, we can build the perfect home and dress like stars, producing images along the way, and we tell all about it over social media, and people may copy us too. We use social media to make us into social media. We use commodities to turn ourselves into commodities. We use copies to turn ourselves into copies.

Now open design enters the stage, the ideology of free manufacturing; design by the people and for the people. Open design is often described as a sort of sustainable design, or liberation from the gatekeepers of the consumer system. The argument usually goes that open products are transparent and ready to be modified, thus we can hopefully become more involved in the creation of our society and also keep stuff longer, and repair them, as we have made the stuff ourselves. Or in the media version; now everything is free and open, and since everyone is creative and innovate we can all become star designers.

And yes, now with open design we can also take identity production even one step further, as now every aspect of life can be designed by the consumer, not having to rely on ready-made stuff. We can design our furniture ourselves, our clothes and our whole environment. We can become total identity producers - designing and combining cheap open Lego-parts in new ways, making new stuff as often as we like, and these new products may also have to change more often, at least as often as we change our clothes. A century ago it was an honour to inherit a watch, not we have several in different colours and sizes. If I can print a new one every day, why not?

But what open design so effectively hides is the work behind the designs, the standards which makes parts connect, and the physical production of the pieces; three central components and the very Lego of "open". This is a trait open design has inherited from its parent, the open source movement. The Linux programmer, the epitome of emancipated immaterial labour, has full control of the computer's execution of programs and its inner workings, yet his own feeling of control hides the historical settings of his situation.

Lets start from the machine. The very physical computer has been produced by material labourers in the Far East, usually under dire circumstances. The standards or protocols, which makes his work possible, everything from the standard electricity plug to the TCP/IP protocol making e-mails possible, are decided over the top of his head, and as long as they work, they are almost invisible. And yes, the liberated or "free" software is a collaborative and open work, but it lies as a simulated top layer of freedom over a product which has enslaved people in classic industrial alienated work, or what is sometimes called "immaterial labour". And Facebook, Google and Hotmail are free to use, and so convenient in today's hectic world, but it comes at a price, and with no rights whatsoever for the user.

A similar layer of freedom lies over Open Design. We see the new experimental work of putting stuff together and innovating new ways to design at home, but become blind to how the very pieces of our Lego are produced, what standards are behind them (and what interests are behind those standards), and where does the compensation for the collective work go? Just like in our identity production, we spend our efforts dressing up for our own street wear blog, while refusing to see the sweatshop labour which stands as the foundation of this easily accessed and dressed freedom of ours. Likewise, we are free to dress how we like, and what a lovely freedom that is, but what is the price we pay, and to whom, and who remains unpaid?

So we may ask again, how open and free is Open Design really, and what ultimate purposes does it serve? Or to put it differently, what is really at stake in this open equation?

As we now are heading towards re-designing our whole lives as consumers, it will most probably be under a flag of "free" and "open", reshaping our identities by our own work, but it may serve other interests than the commons, or even ourselves. If we do not acquire skills to take this liberation of our everyday further, is not the openness of design just a continuation of consumerism, but with open means? It may even be a simulation of freedom to divert our attention away from our everyday apathy towards inequality and injustices in society, or issues of labour. Perhaps design in consumer society today so smooth and efficient, so streamlined into our everyday identity creation, that we no longer find any points of resistance. Or where would they be?

If we want open design to address issues beyond the current consumer economy, or to really address issues of sustainability, we would need to make the open paradigm somehow tackle issues of justice, civic engagement and civil virtues, creating human agency rather than focusing on open design systems of new commodities. How can design help us become better citizens? How can we open design processes to produce a better society? I am sorry designers, but more stuff, even if free and open, is not the answer to those two question.

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