Piss, bread and circuses

Piss, bread and circuses

Hello again. I recently visited the Australian Film, Television and Radio School for their latest Re:Frame event, which was about audience engagement in the attention economy. After just ten minutes, I wanted to stab my eyes with a pencil.

Station ident: After returning to design after a year away, I find that Everything Now Looks Very Strange Indeed™. This is another one of my updates on restarting a creative practice (which I’m calling Studio Thing), plus a dose of cultural and design commentary.

Ah yes, the eye-stabbing. I can imagine many interesting conversations about attention in a post-broadcast media world, but when this event opened with a keynote from self-proclaimed “Data Whisperer” Elisa Choy, they were almost occluded in advance. Choy’s talk represented everything that might be dubious about the meeting of Big Data and creative strategy: figuring her audience as a bunch of panicked TV executives, she opined about the declining ratings of big tentpole shows like MasterChef. As a panacea for this non-problem, Choy offered her data-whispering “methodology”: ambulance-chasing the public’s roiling opinions on social media, which we can then mirror by creating the Right Content™. Pet-swapping is hot, so we should make shows about pet-swapping! I kid you fucking not.

The death spiral of bread and circuses

The death spiral of bread and circuses

Look, I know, feedback loops have the potential to enable many things, but they’re not necessarily positive, and here I have to take a stand: this particularly impoverished approach to data and culture represents the tightening of a noose around society’s neck. Rather than opening up possibilities in cultural production, the weaponisation of social media metrics to slavishly create What the Public Wants only serves to narrow our focus to that of a cybernetic Id: the collective embodiment of the prototypical addict, reduced to drinking their own toxic urine from a tube. (Having myself sought professional help over poisonous feedback loops involving substances that amongst other things included, uh, Netflix, I don’t use such metaphors lightly.)

Of course, I’d merely shrug if such an approach weren’t already so sadly emblematic of where we’re at as a society. The dream of a perfectly closed loop of reactive idiocy won’t ever fully “work”, of course, but in this era of insta-populism and habit-forming media apparatuses that feed on our own bile, we’re nonetheless currently living the damage wreaked by such attempts. As strategists, designers and producers of culture, we should be doing everything we can to avoid this spiral into doom.

Georgia Rowe, a service designer at the ABC, slyly mentioned at the same event that being sensitive to the breadth of people’s lived contexts would be, you know, essential to any kind of useful loop of engagement. Her respect for that universe of possibility within the pores of everyday life, rather than its reduction into more yet grist for the mill, has always been the progressive horizon of Human-Centred Design. But I’m not sure that this is enough to counterbalance the spectre before us: media landlords, populist strongmen and other disreputables, busily instrumentalising our data into some kind of zombie-reptilian autonomic nervous system of anti-culture. And it’s not Georgia’s individual responsibility to create a stronger antidote to such tendencies, either; shouldn’t we collectively be pushing harder in other directions?

In fact, I wonder these days if the “human context” we so often highlight has become a fig-leaf or alibi for our underlying zombie-reptile tendencies. Is the very popularisation of Human-Centred Design in the current juncture, which correlates so strongly with the rise of our current digital product overlords, itself a symptom of our predicament? As someone who cut their teeth as a Director of Design at Australia’s first social-purpose-focused Human-Centred Design studio, it’s not easy for me to say this, but our obsessive focus on fashioning usable, desirable products, and thus the methods we use to do this — including HCD — are imbricated in this short-circuit of desire, and exploited by the profiteers of our attention. Perhaps some spanners need to be thrown into the works, lest design is sucked into its own black hole.

Beneath the pavement: the rave

The second keynote at Re:Frame was from Seb Chan, the Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Seb’s work is thankfully all about creating the conditions for reigniting curiosity and community, rather than death-spiralling. (He’s also an exemplary citizen of the Republic of Newsletters; Fresh and New is essential reading for anyone interested in culture and technology, as well as having an interesting “pay to access the archives” business model. Go and subscribe, immediately. Seb’s also responsible for giving me the kick in the pants to post a new issue: “I like your newsletter,” he told me after his talk as I blushed prettily, “… WHEN IT COMES OUT.” Ahem.)

Seb said a couple of slightly cryptic but suggestive things in his keynote that I think can help loosen design’s tendency to auto-asphyxiate under capitalism. Firstly, he noted that his design approach isn’t focused on reactively addressing “user needs”. (And he was also clear that neither is it about narrowly focusing on transactional interactions, as experience design so often is.) Secondly, he acknowledged that his current work in experience design inevitably draws from his background in organising electronic dance parties in the distant 20th Century — a different but related kind of “experience”. (No doubt some of you also remember going to Frigid in ‘90s Sydney. Good times!) Moreover, he provocatively described those events as “utopian, elite and exclusionary”.

It might be surprising to hear a senior figure of a public cultural institution use terms that could be interpreted as “anti-democratic”, but that’s not really the angle here. Seb’s approach certainly isn’t about disregarding the needs of ACMI’s visitors, or making it the sole preserve of over-educated latté-belters. Rather, going beyond “user needs” opens up possibilities that would be foreclosed by seeing visitors as simply customers who need to be mechanically serviced. And by being underground, 20th Century electronic dance culture created pockets of safety that enabled sexual minorities to have space to flourish, outside the panopticon of the dominant culture. Subcultures therefore serve as an alternative model for conceiving of how we might experience public institutions and infrastructures. The upshot is not how to make museums more obscure, but how we can use this insight to create spaces of conviviality across our social terrain.

In a recent newsletter, Seb put it this way:

When people in the cultural sector talk about museums or libraries as aiming to become ‘town squares’ or similar, I wonder if they are missing a trick. A town square is where only the loudest voices can be heard. Perhaps a town square is not what is needed, but an ecology of smaller niches where smaller voices thrive? And the institutional role lies in being a facilitator of the connections between niches?

Essentially, this is about a different way to be public.

Beneath the pavement: limestone caves

Thinking about this thought-bomb, I’m reminded of nothing less than W.H. Auden’s magnificent 1948 poem “In Praise of Limestone”, which contrasts the gentle affordances of limestone caves with other, less forgiving geological spaces:

“Come!“ purred the clays and gravels,
“On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.”

Against a totalising, scorched-earth concept of public space, Auden yearns for his sensual pockets of limestone. He’s not uncritical — like anybody who’s grappled with the limits of the identity politics that sometimes come with subcultural niches, the poem is ambivalent about the indulgence and narcissism that such spaces can engender, but it’s suggestive of something much more interesting to me than the flattened, data-whispered zombie dystopia of The Public (Opinion) that appears to be all the rage these days.

More on publics and counterpublics next week! I’m currently in Melbourne for the sometimes-provocative SDNOW conference, and there’s too much to write about…


A sustainable portion of all my love,