On the awkwardness of there being no rules

On the awkwardness of there being no rules

Since each day is now indistinguishable from the last, I can pretend that it hasn’t been months since my last missive… right?

While doing that surprisingly good neoliberal business program last year, I met Ben, a brilliant young aerospace engineer. He was courting venture capitalists to fund his orbital launch infrastructure as he designed multispectral imaging satellites in his parents’ basement. Perhaps inevitably, the two of us bonded over the grandiosity of space travel, but parted ways on more mundane futures like autonomous ground vehicles.

“As someone who doesn't drive,” I told him, “what worries me about self-driving cars is how they're supposed to interact with pedestrians — let alone humans driving other vehicles.”

“I don't foresee any problems,” said Ben. “As long as everyone obeys The Rules, everything will be fine.” (Did I mention that he was an engineer?)

“But at the moment, when I'm walking across a driveway and there's a car entering or exiting via that driveway, I can make eye contact with the driver, and they usually wave me across,” said I, Ben the Designer. “Isn't that nice?”

“But everyone should be following The Rules,” replied Ben the Engineer.

Well, there are Rules and there are rules. On one hand, there are unambiguous, codifiable regulations, and on the other, there's the messy world of sociable gestures we improvise in the ambiguous arena of “the street”, literal or figurative.

What are the rules for flirting? For a casual drug deal in a nightclub? Or cruising for anonymous sex at a beat? I’m completely serious when I say that the people who are bringing self-driving cars and other automated systems into our world would do well to deeply ponder these sorts of questions…

…to say nothing of those who are tasked with managing our current public health emergency, where the line that distinguishes rules and The Rules seems ever more blurry and contestable. What is design that successfully engages with real cultures of behaviour, rather than fantasies of compliance? How do we create systems of collective safety for publics that have balkanised to the extent that some don’t consider themselves part of a society (“mask me over my dead, sovereign body!”), or those that equate the common good with state power (a good many left-liberals these days, it seems)?

In short, how can we learn from what happens at bars, beats, street corners and other informal, fuzzy spaces of negotiation to help us survive and thrive?

Interlude: what is this, again?

You’re reading a newsletter from Ben Hoh, a recovering human centred design person. A couple of years ago I stared so deeply into the abyss of strategic design conundrums, political despair, personal Bad Times™ and burnout that I threw up my hands and took more than a year off to find some mental health equilibrium and reconsider… things.

This project pieces together new perspectives on having a critical and creative practice, but without disavowing that abyss. Call it what you will (contradiction, lacuna, aporia, the Dark Side of the Moon), but The Crack runs through everything. Design is part of The Problem and yet core to any possible solutions. Let’s face it: “creativity”, “innovation” and “resilience” are neoliberal strategies for Capital to keep moving at the expense of the rest of the universe. And yet we need inventiveness and flexibility more than ever. Finding contentment in the midst of this doesn't seem possible; for me, the only way forward is to embrace the crisis in interesting and constructive ways.

You probably subscribed to this a while ago — thanks for sticking around, and if you forgot why, I hope this is a reminder. 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.

The awkwardness of the encounter demands more of us

I call it “the teenage boy phenomenon”. When boys are trying figure out how to act — what’s cool to do and what’s uncool to do in particular situations — you often find some of them who do what they’re sure what one ought to do in a particular situation, and they do it because they’re sure they ought to do it, and it’s always a disaster.

— Sean Kelly, in Tao Ruspoli’s provocative but regrettably sausage-festy film, Being In the World (2010)

A bar’s odd combination of informality and ritual can be challenging for many (including myself!). And it’s no surprise to me that such discomfort, especially in its most toxic manifestations, can also be expressed in a longing for something much more codified: “Just tell me what to say after I buy her a drink!” What else are The Game and other intricate techniques of misogyny but a lethal desire to erase the uncertainty and the awkwardness of negotiating such situations? Here, new algorithmic Rules replace ethics or culture. (And those that fail to follow even these simple step-by-step instructions on the Heterosex Gameboard of Doom™ become even deeper failures: incels or hikikomori.)

Of course, we shouldn’t blanketly romanticise informality at the expense of prescriptive interventions; inverting my pickup artist example, there are reasons we should defend zero-tolerance safety policies against informal cultures of sexual harassment at conferences, for example — the list goes on forever. (And despite my anarcho tendencies, I’m nonetheless scandalously sympathetic to the idea of a revolutionary state forcibly curbing the power of finance capital by, uh, banning it.) But we’d miss a trick if we simply went along with the disavowal of awkwardness that a simple recourse to Rules would suggest. Surviving awkwardness requires an ethical depth and commitment to learning that a Rule can simply gloss over.

My point is that we should continue living in the awkward zone if we are to truly wrestle with evolving our behaviour. So many takes on our current hot-button landscape, whether they be of the “Cultural Marxists are censoring me!” variety or their self-caricatured woke reverse, seem to be terrified of the depths that true encounters demand of us. And even if we take “politics” out of it (something I deem impossible), the ethics of the encounter — whether we apply it to the future of transportation or our response to COVID-19 — has much to provide us as designers, makers of public policy, artists, etc.

In the world of transportation, I lean towards classic Scandinavian experiments: removing traffic lights at intersections and even the distinction between vehicular and pedestrian zones forces road users to recalibrate their vigilance and their sense of community and shared responsibility. I know these experiments aren’t universally applicable, but damn… Meanwhile, I remember my cockiness when I swaggered into the boardroom of a huge insurance company and told them, “If you want to innovate about road safety and car insurance, you need to be thinking about SEX!” — thinking that their heads would explode. “Road safety discourse is currently stuck in the Grim Reaper phase of AIDS prevention history,” I crowed, “so we need to learn from the community-led sexy harm reduction strategies that superseded it!” Silence. “Yes,” one of my client stakeholders sighed, “I have a Masters degree in public health and my last job was at ACON.” Schooled! So awkward. And yet so rewarding.

So, I have a challenge for you. Just as my insurance client was already open to the link between road safety and sexually transmitted viruses, please school me: what’s the link between the negotiated road encounter that’s so easily occluded by self-driving car triumphalism, and what we so desperately need in the future of transport, of public health, of mask-controversy… of how we’re going fucking survive the rest of this year? I look forward to hearing from you.

All my love,