My Blog

Post Image

Redesigning Trash

Posted January 18, 2015 by Karen Lorena

It is everywhere and no one wants to deal with it. It smells, it looks ugly, it is certainly unwanted, but seconds ago it was in your hands and it was serving a purpose. It is just that the mixture of many unwanted objects make up a mess: a stinky, ugly, big mess. I am talking, of course, about trash. We dispose objects everyday as if there were no consequences. It certainly is confortable to throw away everything that is no longer serving a purpose for us, but is this really the way to deal with trash?

This is by no chance a new subject, for years the issue of a “greener” world has been rumbling our ears. We know about the problem but we still do not have a solution for it, even after learning about recycling, reducing, reusing. It should not have to be that complicated. Human nature is to avoid complicated, we are constantly looking for simplicity in our day to day. We simply don’t want to spend more time finding out how to dispose something than how to use something. Maybe this is why the solutions we currently have are not working. We should stop thinking about trash as a disposable object and start thinking about it as an extension of our product: redesigning trash to no longer have trash.

This proposal about what to do with trash takes me to Latour’s lecture for the Newtworks of Design where I think he is very keen on his observations and his emphatic point of the need to redesign, but more importantly yet: the need of stop hiding behind the old protection of “matters of fact“. Latour cleverly points out that before industrialization almost no objects were simply “matters of fact” but the object itself was reduced to a statement of fact, determined by law and hence had a status of an apparent “fact.” The retourn, Latour points out, to objects as “things” (matters of concern) “complex gatherings and assemblages of disputed and contradictory issues- objectively calls forth the need for deep level process of configuratively “revolving” incommensurable moments and demands” Meaning that “matter, matters and materiality ” can and must be carefully redesigned.

What he is trying to say is that objects are sometimes redesigned the same because “that is just the way it has always been done”. Car doors (for instance, to give a quick example) have no justification for being done the way they are except that that’s how it has always been done. If you think about it, they have the poorest accessibility for the handicapped and they are always bumping into the car that is next to it. Their lousy design is just a consequence of something that has not changed in the past 100 years simply because it has been buried as a matter of fact and still after all the modernism has still not gotten to the point of being redesigned (modernized) as a “matter of concern.”

Latour argues that “design is one of the terms that has replaced the word “revolution.” To design or redesign everything (even nature, given the artificial world to which we’re doomed). To Latour eyes, redesigning, in a way is just another way of saying that something has been innovated, re-thought, re-looked. There are a lot of products there out in the market that have no added value, and that are there just because they sell, although they don’t last long. This, without taking in account the famous planned obsolescence that we are currently dealing with, where big corporations decisively sell out products that will eventually stop working and that (in case that you’re strong enough not to fall for wanting the “newer version”) you’ll end up doing it anyway because they stop working.

I have been thinking that design is everything and everywhere but not until this point have I ever thought that anyone could be, in fact anyone is, a designer. To be more specific, a “redesigner”, as Latour says, and I quote “Design has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, and, as I will argue, to nature itself which is in great need of being re-designed.” Therefore, if we are all designers and we are all in the same boat of collision towards the impeding crisis that we are facing: meaning climate change (with its social and economic implications), surveillance terror and the social breakdown due to economic crisis and the failure of government and public administration, then why don’t we all start taking a step forward towards a more humanitarian design that deals with making changes that benefit the planet instead of only some few pockets.

As Clive mentioned in his presentation “Design as a Mode of Acting in The World”, Latour’s argument is that design is key to the process of trying to reach out from the crisis in which we are now submerged. Design not as a marginal profession but as a mode of acting in the world and everyone should take a step in this, regardless if they are “designers” as professionals or not.

The solution to all of these, Heidegger said, should lie within the problem, and this is within the artificial world we have created. “Technology is to be confronted through what is akin to its essence and yet fundamentally different to it.” (The Question Concerning Technology). This is why right now, to my belief, we are left out with questioning ourselves what is the shift we would like this world crisis to take. It is in our hands to speculate about the changes that are in our hands and the outcomes that it will lead to.

First of all, to make changes we need to be conscious of what is happening, and since we already know that we are a step ahead from those who don’t. Secondly, at this point not much is left besides from speculating, thinking about scenarios taking in account all the realms of our reality. If it is true that we should embrace technology with all its social and political implications since the solutions lays in the problem itself as Heidegger said, then we should think of the world as how we see it and how we would want it to be and try to speculate outcomes. I think that design should be centered not in the economic system we have, as it currently is but in a more humanitarian way of thinking. Design should be thought of with empathy towards ourselves to create useful tools for humans, mindful of the environment, of society and that are at the same time ethically responsible. Designing with a more humanitarian target in mind could potentially allow us to design a world using the technology we have instead of allowing technology to shape the world around us as it has been happening. This disrupts greatly with our economical system but I believe that if it was more humanitarian then we can all take a step together into rethinking the world and it will not only be in the hands of a few.

This implication about finding a new way to deal with trash by means of technology of course has many implications. In the political realm, for instance, finding a way in which trash fits its way into our world without having to be disposed implies the government putting on their designer hats and make them think about the world as a non renewable resource instead of as a gold digging surface. It is not clear to me if the change has to start from bottom-up or from bottom-down. Does the people have to push the government or the government has to give incentives to the people? If, as I am suggesting, design (and designers) started being more humanitarian and less frivolous then maybe our authorities could find ways to not charge as much taxes to civilians producing less trash or to somehow compensate the effort being made.

Taking into consideration that the world we live in is now totally artificial and that technology advances are speeding up at a dangerous level. While we are concerned about surveillance being the main aspect to consider I would argue that what we should be keener about is artificial intelligence. We are not far from the day where artificial intelligence will fill our lives with drones and robots that might at some point stop finding us useful to keep “updating”. We, humans, the creators of them will be find useful, just as how we reclaim to our God, whichever God you believe in, that we do not need him anymore after we proclaimed our lovely planet Earth completely dominated by us. As Stephen Hawkins pointed out a few weeks ago “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” What is our end then? Are we getting exiled of our own planet just to conquer another one where we create robots as intelligent as the ones we already did to end up exiled of that planet as well?

If we were given the chance to start again, knowing the outcome we currently have, would we do it all the same? The answer to all of these might rely on critical design. Contrary to belief, critical design is an attitude more than anything else, it is using speculative design proposals to challenge assumptions about everyday life. It is constantly confused with art but it certainly is not art. It differs in that we expect art to be shocking and extreme whereas Critical design must be closer to everyday life and activities. Critical design poses questions rather than Design does solving them and it tries to “keep up with the world.” Sometimes design does not does this, and it is left behind all this complexity, but Critical design makes an effort to remain relevant to the complexities of technology, politics economics and environmental changes.

It is in our hands only to make a difference, to make a change in the way things are already been done. Hawking says we are condemned, but in his own statement there is a paradox, saying that technology and artificial intelligence have been useful so far but that at the same time it is this same tool the one that is giving us an expiration date in our planet is a tremendous statement to make. I think it will happen; it will definitely happen if we don’t act now towards a different future. How come a tool that has so many benefits is ending with the human race is out of my reach. We need to learn to use the tools we have to flip the page. We need to outsmart technology, artificial intelligence. Maybe intelligent humans are not intelligent enough to think critically about technology.

Popular culture is just an extrapolation of the main concerns that are going on around. No wonder dystopias are such a trend as well as zombie movies. Zombies are just a reflection of what we, as human kind, fear the most and also about what is already happening. We walk the streets without gazing the world, vulnerable of any dangers around us since we’re not paying attention. Numb (in a way) because it is hard to keep up with both realities; two equally artificial realities. I wonder sometimes what would happen if we brought back someone who lived 100 years ago, who is dead and therefore has not yet adapted to all the crazy technological “help” we now have access to. Would they trade our present for the ones they lived in? Are our “technological advances” really worthy of all the praise we give them? Are our wireless phones tradable for our non-renewable resources?

I am not saying technology is bad, au contraire, it is just the use we give it. Government, for example has always placed power, control and economic resources as priorities. Instead of building technology to win wars we need to be using it to win battles among ourselves, solve impeding issues like the trash one, start thinking about other concerns that can be solved by redesign. I believe there is the technology, the resources and the intelligence to create a self contained-non disposable smart product that everyone can use. What if the government started focusing on spending money not on technology advances for war purposes (as it has been historically happening) but in a more humanitarian cause? Start focusing on design centered on the people and planet’s benefit instead of economic. For a change to take place, we have to do some things differently, in my opinion one of those things is to do more humanitarian design and the other one should be to understand the technical building blocks of the technological realm so that we’re able to transfer it as a tool for our convenience rather than being used as instruments ourselves. Critical design takes up a big part in this area.

At this pace, when future archeologists in the future study our civilization they might only find trash. It somehow feels wrong that we have a lot of historical baggage that we get to look at and that all that we are leaving behind are all those things no one wants to deal with. The unwanted, what is left, the remains: trash. Is it truly possible to find a way in which trash can be reduced in a way that is still convenient and confortable enough for a regular human being to dispose? Maybe we are looking at it the wrong way, maybe it would change if we didn’t have to dispose that many things. Maybe instead of designing products and packages as different objects we could put them together and reduce significantly the amount of trash. Trash redesign is just only one of the many things that have to be redesigned in order to change our future, but I think it is a good start.

As designers, we are often seen as problem solvers, make things more efficient, better looking. But maybe, somehow between the process we are, or at least should be, instead of finding the answers, posing the questions.

When I was in junior high a very beloved teacher taught us about climate changes, earth deterioration, and holes in the ozone layer. I can still remember her words while she was almost leaving the room when she asked about what could we do about it and no one was able to give her a bright response. “Act as if what you do made a difference, she said.” And so I’ve tried to do this throughout my life, small changes in myself, trying to pull others around me to do the same. I’ve always, maybe since that day, considered myself an “eco-girl”. Later on, I decided to study Industrial Design because well, I wanted to study architecture, but then architecture shifted into design and I decided I liked more to design smaller things than buildings, and that is how I stumbled into this career, which I fell in love with. On my second semester, while studying about design’s history I found out that basically what started to really mess up the planet also started my career of choice: The Industrial Revolution.

I did not change my career but I was also never confortable with the fact that mass-producing things (my job, in a way) was also giving the Earth a shorter life span. Industrial design also generates a lot of trash all the time, I am aware of this as I am also aware of the fact that a big part of our economy relies on “trash products” that don’t add any value. But if we, as designers, do not think critically about what we are doing, the products we are creating, the effects that they are having on people then I am afraid that Hawking’s prediction will become true.

The World as now and forever artificial and we must be conscious of this and understand it as it is happening. Actually as it has already happened. It this is true and, as Clive Dilnot said in one of his lectures: how we predict the future is based on the past, ” We always (can’t help it to) predict the future as a “x+?”” then we are quickly getting closer to a nuclear explosion that will inevitably end with mankind. But who knows how far is that? What we should then do is start doing something for out wellbeing, if the Earth’s deterioration is irrevocable then how should we. So, if our future is filled with drones that are more intelligent than us and that try to get rid of us once they finish up “upgrading” what we can do is to design them in a way that they are smart enough not to kill our planet.

Every single thing in our existence generates trash. And since it is impossible to get rid of it, why don’t we start thinking about different ways of dealing with it? I believe that the technology is already there. If the human race is smart enough to create artificially intelligent drones that can exile us of our own planet. Is it really that hard to think and create smarter ways to deal with trash? It will disrupt our economical, political and social system. I am not saying that it won’t, but it is maybe just a small price to pay to keep our planet Earth alive. What about wearable/eatable or drinkable trash? Why don’t we start using that technology towards something from which we could actually benefit from?

Bill Joy, Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil say that the future doesn’t need us, that artificial intelligence made by ourselves will kick us out of our own planet. I say that maybe it is too crazy to think that at this point something can still be done, but truth is there is nothing worst than not trying. If we all put on out designing hats (as we all already are) and start thinking of the world as “matter of fact” instead of “matter of concern” then redesigning and reimagining, together with technology, can be our main tools into creating a better future. No contribution is too small and we should all start acting now. In fact I think that writing this paper and is already a start. I promise I won’t ever think the same way about trash, nor about design. If we all give thought to the situation and come out with something that we would like to solve then maybe together we will be able to do it. To me, today, the issue to solve is trash reduction. So I invite you, reader to start and joint me in this process: rethinking, reimagining, recreating, innovating: designing. Why don’t we start thinking critically about changing the world?

  • Bruno Latour, “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk)”, Keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting, September 3rd 2008
  • Cellan-Jones, Rory. “Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind.” BBC. December 2, 2014. Accessed December 11, 2014.
  • Dilnot, Clive.2014. Class lecture. Design for this Century from Parsons the New School for 
Design, New York, NY, October 16.
  • Heidegger, Martin. “Overcoming Metaphysics.” In The End of Philosophy, 102-110. University of Chicago Press, 1973.
  • Joy, Bill. “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us?” Wired. April 1, 2000. Accessed December 11, 2014.