“Be Right Back”—Black Mirror Series 2 Episode 1
“Be Right Back”;—Black Mirror Series 2 Episode 1

We get the reality we pay for but life could be different: the light & dark of critical design

By Oliver Damian

In the design as a critique chapter of Dunne & Raby’s book “Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming”, they outlined the possibilities of socially-engaged design beyond styling, propaganda or self-promotion. These included design as satire & critique, inspiration, reflection, ‘highbrow’ entertainment, aesthetic explorations, speculations about possible futures and as a catalyst for change.

Critical design as a practice was motivated by their concerns with uncritical drive behind technological progress when technology is always assumed to be good and capable of solving any problem.

They defined critical design as an attitude towards or position on a design that challenges the narrow assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about products and the role they have in our lives. They contrasted critical design with an affirmative design which reinforces the status quo.

To Dune & Raby, critical design is also a “way of unpicking the different hopes, fears, promises, delusions, and nightmares of technological development and change, especially how scientific discoveries move from the laboratory to everyday life through the marketplace”. This is congruent with Genevieve Bell’s socio-technological imagination critique of technology where she richly explains why technology is not just about the technology itself, it is also about the stories we tell and get told about the technology.

Dune & Raby do not consider critical design need to be always negative. To them, a critical design could also be a “gentle refusal, a turning away from what exists, a longing, wishful thinking, a desire, and even a dream.” Rather than a philosophical stance, they focus more critical thinking. To them critical design is critical thought translated to materiality.

What I really like about Dune & Raby’s stance with critical design is that to them critical design is not just a commentary about the status quo. Sure it has a layer of commentary but more than that, to them all good critical design offers an alternative to how things are. It’s a dialectical opposition between fiction and reality. This is refreshing to me. Every human and their dog have an opinion on everything nowadays. Everyone is a harsh critic. But very few people create and offer genuine alternatives to what is being criticised.

Contrary to the economic viability triumvir of IDEO’s design thinking innovation triumvirate, Dunne & Raby designs products that have no market like the statistical clock which speaks out fatality statistics. To them, that was the point. To confront people with alternative needs and hint at a parallel world of philosophical products. They said these kinds of objects are designed in anticipation of that time. So in a way, this approach of Dune & Raby is like a form of futuring using objects instead of text, images, sound or other media.

Dune & Raby goes beyond the designer to the user, the citizen. To them, it is by buying things that they become real, moving from the virtual space of research and development by way of advertising into our lives. We get the reality we pay for. To them, shoppers who are more discriminating (critical shoppers) could prevent certain material realities taking shape and encouraging others to flourish. I agree with their assertion that manufacturers don’t really know what things we would buy to create the reality we would embrace, they just offer them and use advertising to persuade us.

Dune & Raby adjusts the Marxist ideology where workers have power and they can exercise this power by striking (refusing to work) into the capitalist consumers have power and we can exercise our powers as consumers by withholding consumption.

I like their idea of opting out of consumerist culture and opt-in for voluntary simplicity with lower consumption and much more leisure time. Because to them, it is through buying goods that reality takes shape. The moment money is exchanged, a possible future becomes real. If it did not sell it would be sent back, thus becoming a rejected reality. To Dune & Raby, the moment we part with our money is the moment a little bit of reality is created. To them, it goes beyond a physical & cultural materiality. It includes psychological, ethical, and behavioural reality as well.

To Dune & Raby, one of the purposes of critical design is to help us become more discerning citizen-consumers.

Another use of critical design for Dune & Raby is to extend the limited range of emotional & psychological experiences offered by designed objects through dark design, the positive use of negativity.

To them, darkness can be an antidote to naive techno-utopianism and can jolt people into action. In a way, this is what the Black Miror series does. Episode 1 of series 2 &lquo;Be Right Back” explores what happens when we as citizen-consumers share as much as possible of our life memories, thoughts, and behaviours in social media, and artificial intelligence technology has become so good in using all these data to re-create a version of us after we die. How would that affect our relationships to those we left behind after we die? As what one would see from the episode, it’s not all roses.

In contrast to what could be a sombre mood of a dark design, Dune & Raby also advocate for the use of humour. It is quite ironic now in 2017 when fake news has become a meme that they mention their fake 4 July 2009 New York Times project.

To finish, Dune & Raby posits critical design between the extreme shock & weirdness of art, and the normality of what is assimilated. To them the key feature of critical design as distinct from art is how well it sits in the this world. It’s here-and-now but at the same time it also belongs to another yet-to-exist one. It’s a bit like the the Gnostic teaching of ‘be in the world but not of the world.’

That’s why it is important for Dunne & Raby for the design to be made physical, for the values & beliefs to be embodied. Something that’s accepted as being here but disturbs us a bit. Quoting Martin Amis, Dunne & Raby referred to this as a “complicated pleasure ”.

Lastly, like Genevieve Bell, Dune & Raby highlights the importance of using imagination to challenge how we think about everyday life. By this, we keep alive other possibilities. Life could be different.

References

  1. Be Right Back 2013, television program, Black Mirror, Channel 4, London, 11 February.
  2. Bell G. 2013, Stanford Seminar – Magical Thinking: Fear, Wonder & Technology, video recording, YouTube, viewed 20 October 2017, <https://youtu.be/5aKZwKFFDYw>.
  3. Dunne, A. & Raby, F. 2013, ‘Design as critique’, Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  4. IDEO U n.d., Design Thinking, viewed 20 October 2017,<https://www.ideou.com/pages/design-thinking>.
  5. Sims D. 2013, 'Black Mirror: "Be Right Back"', TV reviews, AV/TV Club,viewed 20 October 2017,<https://tv.avclub.com/black-mirror-be-right-back-1798178877>.