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Fiona Raby at the University of Amsterdam: Designs for fragile personalities in anxious times

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Room F201C of the University of Amsterdam’s Oudemanhuispoort building for an hour was the domain of Fiona Raby. She presented her ideas on design, which has close links to the design practice of Anthony Dunne. It is therefore no surprise that they also work together as Dunne & Raby on various projects. It is a vision on design that is not of technological futuristic visions, but of the fragile people, but still not pessimistic and depressing, but optimistic. Below is my account of the presentation.

Technological Utopias and Fragile People
According to Raby, the emotional world is taken from the home toward a medicinal state and the result of this shift we are seeing already in society in the growing pill culture. The space for imperfection is becoming smaller and we keep changing ourselves and, through the pill culture, to strive for perfection. This process is about the denial of our fears and anxieties instead of the much need celebration of these imperfections. And if we continue to surround ourselves with a technological utopia, Raby says that we are in fact really fragile people. What is interesting is the frailty of humanity and not the utopian vision.

Raby presents design as a way of problem solving and says that ‘it is at the heart of what we do’. In this way design can provide a counter discourse that revolves around society instead of just design. It is about checking the needs of society, look at its imperfections and in turn use that to solve problems. Don’t create a technological utopia based on a vision with no links to society, but try to use the imperfections instead of ignoring them.

But what happens when these problems become more complex and unsolvable? And how do we go about solving these problems? In this light Raby showed various design examples to emphasize these theories, below is a selection of those. The design project mentioned in the title can be found here: Designs for fragile personalities in anxious times.

Shopping Centre ‘BioLand’
A project by Dunne and Raby that relates to these questions is BioLand, a project worth checking out about a shopping centre that focusses ‘on deeply human needs and how biotechnology will impact on the ways these needs are met and understood.’ According to Raby, the future of the biotech world might be on the outskirts of any city. BioLand can be seen as a sandwich of all these different products that express the desires of what we really want.

Raby mentioned that ‘it is hard to imagine how design and the world of genetics can engage with eachother.’ BioLand is their idea to solve that problem. It is a search for something else than a technological utopia, it is a way ‘to develop proposals for hypothetical products and services which will be used as tools in later stages of the project to facilitate debate between the public and specialists about alternative biofutures.’

The shopping centre consists of seven departments:
1. IVF Land (Passion Conception Centre)
2. BioBank, Utility Pets, Clonetopia.
3. Immortality Inc.
4. ForEverAfter
5. GM Love
6. Future Perfect
7. Clinic

Evidence Dolls
Part of BioLand are the Evidence Dolls (2005) by Dunne and Raby. It is their response to genetics. Evidence Dolls, according to Raby, tries to show that in the future matching will not be about income or status, but about genetic material. The project consists of one hundred ‘specially designed dolls used to provoke discussion amongst a group of young women about the impact of genetic technology on their lifestyle.’ Basically the idea is that you can write on the blank doll and draw how you would like that part styled. Besides that ‘the Dolls come in three versions based on penis size (small, medium and large). A black indelible marker allows women to note down interesting characteristics of their lover. Hair, toenail clippings, saliva, and sperm can be collected and stored in the penis drawer.’

The dolls show a utopian view, the idea of a perfectly composed human being according to our personal standards and without the imperfections. Four single women reflected on the design. ‘Lady 01’ provided the most interesting responses : ‘Isn’t it selfish to pick what is best and not be happy with what nature gives you? I would like to clone this lover as a dog.’ Raby responds on this by mentioning that perhaps we can’t change humans, but we can do anything with the rest around us, such as our dogs.

The Technological Dream Series: No. 1 Robots

Because of lacking funds to actually launch this project, Fiona Raby shows us a short movieclip showing the main idea behind it. Raby says that we ‘grew up with idea of robots that would look out for us,’ and that society pushed robots towards ‘human-like things.’ But on the other hand, computers are disappearing inside our infrastructures. This project looks in between the two views in the form of five types of robots. What is society’s stance against robots, how would the interaction be with robots?

First: The autonomous robot that we have to co-exist with. It is alongside the human and doesn’t contribute much for us. It is completely autonomous and disconnected from us. This is visualized in the form of a person stepping in a circle. The circle does nothing besides just being there.
Second: A nervous robot that is anxious with social security. It senses everything in the room and it is very paranoid about what it is actually sensing. The form is cone shaped.
Third: An object where you stare in (for example an irisscan) which Raby sees as something you stare in, rather than you move through for example a gate at an airport. Interesting here it the relationship between the robot and yourself, before it realizes who you are or not .
Fourth: A robot that is constantly asks for attention and can’t be left alone. It wants to move around, but it can’t, so the human has to have some connection with it. The form is a lamp.
Fifth: This one is about Microbial fuel cells. What if a robot had to be fed in some way through a stomach, would that change our relation to what this thing is?

Mass production and Critical Design?
The aim of Dunne and Raby’s design is a way to reflect which they call Critical Design. What is interesting and made me think about after the lecture is the question if there is any goal to actually implement these ideas into massproduction. But within its meaning, I think Critical Design also opposes real commercial interests which is perhaps more on the side of technological utopianism.

The idea of society shopping for mass produced Critically Designed products at their BioLand is both intruiging and disturbing. But on the other hand: aren’t we already at a point that products placed in society create critical, or as Anthony Dunne calls them, psychosocial narratives of the design? For designers it is interesting to think about the design, for theorists it is perhaps more interesting to look at these psychosocial narratives used en masse in society. How do people actually interact with society and how do they apply their own meaning to products provided by the (forced) technological utopia?

As ‘Lady 01’ said it in Raby’s last slide: ‘Everything comes 10 years later. Usually the general public know about it at the last moment when everything falls apart. It’s too late, you can’t do anything about it anymore because its already here. I think we are being kept in ignorance.’

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