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Tuesday, November 02, 2004
Given that today will either see a massive change, or a massive continuation of the status quo, it seems a good time to look at Massive Change, the new polemical monograph from Bruce Mau and Jennifer Leonard. An exhibition, a radio show and, ultimately, a manifesto for design's re-engagement with global issues, the project divides the world of creativity into a series of design economies, each involving the re-channelling of previously malign influences into the common good.

These 'economies' include Military ('Can we re-imagine our use of military-derived technological power?'), Living ('We will design evolution') and Wealth & Politics ('We will eradicate poverty'). Each economy is given its own linklog, collating news stories from around the globe in order to extract common threads, future trends and evidence of design's power to effect change. It's a bit like a traditional linklog (e.g. memepool, metafilter, monkeyfilter, del.icio.us, etc. etc.), but somehow not quite as well organised - even commercial design link sites like engadget and mocoloco do a better job of presenting and, crucially, organising information.

The optimism on display is refreshing, to say the least. Can design really change the world? Perhaps the question should really be can objects and human ingenuity make the world a better place? Can we improve our lot yet continue to manufacture things that people desire? It's the ultimate paradox of consumer capitalism; how to create less within a system that demands more and more to function. Mau's Incomplete Manifesto for Growth is a 43-point call to creative arms (albeit a slightly dated - 'Avoid software. The problem with software is that everyone has it' - and irritating - 'Read only left-hand pages'), one which recommends you work within existing systems: 'Real innovation in design, or any other field, happens in context. That context is usually some form of cooperatively managed enterprise.'

On this evidence, Mau isn't keen to rock the boat. These things that are going to change the world have to exist within the framework already established by all the other things - namely that the methods of production, distribution and demand are all in place. If not, then the designer risks being accused of living atop an ivory tower, their idealism neglected by the dumb mass market. But crucially, Massive Change uses the term 'design' to emcompass all fields of human endeavour, be they traditional product development, scientific research or political initiatives. The word can't help but be de-based by these myriad loose and fluid associations - is 'design' about modern living, genetic engineering, pseudo-scientific posturing or the simple act of having an idea and seeing it through to fruition? All creative thought - 'design' - is therefore evidence of progress: things can only get better.

One unpalatable truth about this determinist view of design is that good things frequently come out of bad things. For example, a significant proportion of consumer-orientated technologies are derived from military technology and applications - such as the mobile phone. In presenting human creative endeavour as an ongoing process of incremental improvement, Massive Change is sometimes wilfully blind to the here and now. See, for example, strategic blimps, a musing about the US Department of Defense's Strategic Airlift Program, or the search for a super, bulk cargo-lifting aircraft. Cynics might point out that such a device, known in military circles as the WALRUS, is designed - that word again - to facilitate regime change, not famine relief. Yet Massive Change asks us to consider the device's impact on the latter, and look past the former as an inconvenient fact of life, a means to justify an end.

Some more comments in this short, snarky metafilter thread on the exhibition. The thread includes this link to Dean Allen's amusing Annotated Manifesto for Growth, in which he neatly punctures some of Mau's more asinine statements. Meanwhile, back in the 'real' world, feast your eyes on these canine accessories, including this insane dog divan. The is the Corb Grand Confort reinvented for your pooch. Put another way, it's the final stage in the journey of a designer object, from intended mass-produced, democratic 'good design,' to limited production elite designer item, to insanity.