Barbarians at the gates?
Through one window, the strangely beautiful remains of Coalcliff’s old industrial machinery sped past. Through the other, the ocean. I was taking the train down to the NSW South Coast, which I enjoy for its moody bluster, but that mood was broken by a loud banging at the end of the carriage.
“I know you’re fuckin’ in there, you bastard!” the man said. He squinted — as if by concentrating harder, he’d be able to see through the locked toilet door. The carriage’s “Occupied” sign had been lit since I’d gotten on at Redfern. The man, shoulders sunburned under his wifebeater, was obviously drunk and desperate to relieve himself.
“Open the fucking door. So you’re going to stay quiet in there, are you? Fuckwit.”
Surely he could find another carriage with a toilet? But this guy dug his heels in, banging on the door every few minutes and growing ever more incensed. And as the silence from the toilet seemed to mock him, his reading of the situation crept further into absurdity.
“You fuckin’ coward. When you get out, I’m gonna beat the shit outta you, you black cunt. You’re dead meat. This isn’t how we do things in Australia!”
The train, carrying the man and his many invisible enemies, sped on.
Station Ident: you’re reading a newsletter from Ben Hoh, a recovering human-centred design person. In the wake of staring deeply into the abyss of strategic design conundrums and political despair, I’m trying to piece together new perspectives on having a critical and creative practice, but without disavowing that abyss: The Crack runs through everything. Design is part of The Problem and yet core to any possible solutions. For me, the only way forward is to embrace this paradox in interesting and constructive ways.
If someone’s forwarded this thing to you in the hope you’ll find it interesting, you can subscribe here to secure my everlasting love. And please, pass it on if you think it might be of interest to anyone.
🏛 House of cards
The toilet incident did nothing to ease the worries that gnawed at me as I left Sydney. To top off our already glorious 2020, I ended the year dealing with an online identity theft problem that involved substantial sums of money. I managed to stop the bleeding before I lost all my assets to rogue Xbox vouchers and extravagant Christmas decorations (yes, really), but I’m still amazed at how unnerving this experience has been. I didn’t think I’d feel this unsure of the ground beneath my feet.
Of course, I knew that using a password manager is always better than remembering your own passwords, but I kept using my own password system because I was attached to its supposed cleverness: I used a combination of nonsense words supplemented by an alphanumeric code that was specific to each individual account. But such logic had surely been reverse engineered, and many of my accounts were compromised. The cracker even set up rules in in my Gmail account that automatically deleted any notifications from those compromised services. (If you don’t look at such filter settings often, or if you didn’t realise they existed, I really recommend you check them out — sooner rather than later.)
It’s not as if I was a total rube. As a kid, I used to spend my school holidays as a tiny apprentice to the Unix sysadmin at my dad’s university department, and I put that enthusiasm to work when I (supposedly) grew up, administering a digital media lab: I had all the lab’s machines authenticate at boot from an LDAP server and reinstall themselves afresh every morning from a pristine disk image, etc. And yet in my everyday life, I chose not to use two factor authentication for most things because I found it annoying. (Hint: always use two factor authentication where possible.) I’d also loosened the security of my home media server because I didn’t want to add any friction if my kids wanted to play Minecraft on it. Guess which machine the hackers were able to control via remote desktop?
💣 Metaphors for collapse
There are so many ways to frame apparently sudden and disastrous events. Just as I was writing that last paragraph, my laundry flooded: the sink plug, which had been lying randomly at the bottom of the empty basin, was nudged perfectly into place by a whirlpool of the washing machine’s draining water, which then pushed onward. Was it a force majeure, or an accident waiting to happen? (If you’ve read Atomic Habits like half the Internet, you’ll know that most things aren’t sudden. They creep up.)
Though trivial, my sink plug’s adventure reminds me of a recurring trope in those prematurely-cancelled space exploration TV dramas I’m so fond of. In James Parriot’s Defying Gravity (2009), a loose wrench left over from the Antares’ pre-launch maintenance phase evetually bridges a couple of critical power conduits, completely disabling the ship’s life support systems during its grand tour of the Solar System. Meanwhile, in Beau Willimon’s The First (2018), it’s not a faulty O-ring that destroys the first human mission to Mars mere seconds after liftoff, but a coin: the “lucky quarter” that the crew stick to the ship with chewing gum turns into a deadly projectile under intense pressure.
These things make for great stories in the Apollo 13 vein, and I’m the ideal audience for them. In 1986 I stared at my TV in disbelief when the Challenger became a horned cloud of doom, not least because my dad was working on a future mission within the Shuttle program. His project eventually flew on the Columbia in 1991, and a few years later we lost that ship, too.
But though oddly mundane, the wrench and the coin are still condensed by their narratives into exotic talismans of fortune. Meanwhile, in the more complex mundanity of reality, failures are usually more systemic and less handy to represent. Most designers know how the Challenger’s O-ring and Columbia’s heat-shield were imbricated in nested labyrinths of institutional dysfunction that inevitably involved heavy doses of bad information design. But it’s easy to take a surface gloss of Richard Feynmann and Edward Tufte’s critiques of how institutions like NASA and its contractors communicate, and then imagine that Steve Jobs could walk into the space program and dissolve that culture with a few judicious whiteboard lines. Reducing PowerPoint to the bogeyman is what transforms such institutional symptoms into the exotic talismans, just like the unlucky coin in The First is an excellent narrative shortcut.
Rather than simply fetishising coins, wrenches, bad PowerPoint slides, etc., how can we get a feel for the impending doom that is institutional rot? I don’t think my hacking incident was simply some wacky black swan event; it involved hubris that I’d decentralised into various habits. (My laundry exists on that continuum, too, but to a lesser extent.) And like so many things in the last year, a sharp shock managed to reveal foundations that were already rotting.
Recent political events in the U.S. exist within such a continuum, too. We can gape at the exotic “barbarians” who stormed the Capitol, but just as Hilary Clinton’s use of “deplorables” wasn’t just a tone-deaf election gaffe but also a piece of neoliberal sleight-of-hand that displaced her own policy investments in economic injustice, I fear that the collective liberal response to Trump and his fascist jackbooters is about how transgressive and exotic the latter have been, and to express relief that the madness is now finally over, rather than trying to gauge how much of the social and political landscape around us actually contributes to dysfunction.
Don’t get me wrong: like some of my old Trotskyist friends say, we must absolutely crush the fascists in the egg, and acquaint them with the pavement — any fascist raising their head in public is an emergency. But to stop there is to ignore the much wider state of emergency.
Meanwhile, can anybody think of a TV show that adequately represents institutional failure, instead of fetishising certain symptoms? The Wire, perhaps?
And the next time I turn on the washing machine, you can bet I’ll be eyeing that little plug.
Last week, my 10-year-old daughter invented a new word: “doomocracy”.
🐷 Ah-min-ah do-ki-do ah-mah-neh-la
Today, apropos of nothing, I give you the gift of Big Pig:
Were they not fucking magnificent? The aprons. The drums. That harmonica. Sherine Abeyratne’s huge voice. Any day can be improved with Big Pig. You’re welcome.
A sustainable portion of my love, etc.
As the train arrived at Wollongong, the drunken racist man laying siege to the locked toilet finally used the train’s panic button to call the guard’s compartment.
“Somebody’s been in there since Sutherland!” he complained, as the guard arrived in our carriage. The latter looked skeptical.
We all held our breath as the guard gingerly drew forth his keys to unlock the door. I craned my neck to see. Was it a dead body? A mythical “black cunt”, cowering within? The door opened.
The toilet was empty.