Release and recover

Release and recover

Are we there yet?

My dreams are usually big on Freudian metaphor, but last night’s was strangely mundane: I was running a workshop with a team of all-weather safety engineers for a major European luxury car manufacturer. These people were trying to model drivers’ needs in extreme weather scenarios, but to my despair, they proved incapable of extending any kind of empathy beyond their circumscribed corporate roles, let alone to a road user... or a harsh weather environment. (Side note: I wonder how good designers are at fostering environmental empathy, let alone other forms.)

We usually “trust the process” to shake up these calcified states, but as the influence of design has moved up the chain and into domains like organisational psychology, the stakes often feel higher, and the usual tools seem less adequate. What are some of the things you do when you need to bring an extra jolt of perspective to a situation that’s gotten clogged?

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. “Creativity”, “innovation” and “resilience” have become neoliberal gambits, and yet we need inventiveness and flexibility more than ever. For me, the only way forward is to embrace this paradox in interesting and constructive ways.

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Recovering an expert kind of awe

I’ve never worked with a luxury car company, but this year I did work on a cool project that was nestled inside an honourable but nonetheless hidebound engineering culture. I was told that a common refrain at this place was “Don’t tell us to ‘engage’ with users — we know how to build an [insert vital piece of global infrastructure], so don’t insult our intelligence!” Hrm. In the end I think I equipped “my” people with enough tools to create a useful gravity well for change, but I couldn’t stop fantasising about broader initiatives to address that rigidity — something that might (as per the promise of org design) straddle the gap between tangible projects and the mirage of training and HR.

What sprung to mind was inspired by Tao Ruspoli’s 2009 documentary Being in the World. While it tends to mansplain the nature of mastery (with a ridiculous over-representation of dudes), Ruspoli’s film does succeed in capturing the openness to the world that people need when they’re operating at the top of their game. When the film shows a master carpenter hand-planing a piece of timber, he is exceeding the bare instrumental rationality needed to simply make something, and becomes one with the grain of the wood. When you’re in the zone — when you’re truly making something — you transcend the safe reproducibility of “best practice”, or what I call “the ‘IT manager’ approach to making things”.

My wager is that many people who begin a craft (yes, including engineering) might start with a tenuous but tantalising relationship with “being in the zone”, but lose touch with it and adopt the IT management approach to their field. They’re like the father in The Lego Movie, who’s forgotten that Lego is playful, and has instead taken to gluing down the pieces to preserve a preordained order. (His avatar, the villain Lord Business, is instrumental “IT management” rationality personified.)

Lord Business, enemy of freedom

Lord Business, enemy of freedom

So am I endorsing an embarrassing Shop Class as Soulcraft-style scheme to send jaded technical folk back to woodworking classes in order to recover their sense of engagement and creativity? Yes, actually. Cynics like Dan Lyons, author of Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us, find it all too easy to mock attempts to rediscover the inner child at work, but this curmudgeonry distracts us from the deeper truth, which Lyons can see but can’t clearly articulate: contemporary work’s neoliberal Emperor has no clothes because when read in its structural context, much of its rhetoric of freedom and candour is disingenuous, appealing to a real yearning for change, but at the expense of the true freedoms and deeper truths of the people doing the work.

By sneering about the apparent idiocy of using Lego in the workplace, Lyons actually obscures the real lesson: we do need to relearn how to work, but we should never let any workplace “bootcamp of relearning” be weaponised to keep us in a state of permanent, neoliberal bamboozlement. There’s a difference between a practitioner relearning the joy of being “in the zone” and a cult initiate being stripped of their capacity for self-determination by being “reborn”, and we must never forget that. We can do more than simply celebrate or reject the trend to reinvent work, and those of us who are interested in that endeavour would well to look to already existing political movements of precarious workers who interpret neoliberalism’s atomising strategies as ways to contain true flexibility.

Reclaiming Wonder

So instead of fostering total, pliable näiveté, we need to rediscover our sense of wonder and attunement with the world in the midst of our own expertise and collective self-determination. Australian philosopher Genevieve Lloyd’s Reclaiming Wonder: After the Sublime suggests some ways to think about this. Somewhat unfashionably, Lloyd returns to Plato’s Socratic dialogues to recapture the indeterminate nature of wonder — it hovers deliciously between ignorance and knowledge. By apprehending knowledge within such a dynamic of, uh, learning (fancy that!), we get a corrective to the stupid but pervasive idea that expertise needs to be jaded and perpetually unsurprised.

Recovering the sense of wonder that always exists in constitutive relation to our own expertise is precisely what I want to be working on in the future. I’ve helped design programs to foster creativity and engagement in organisations with a few of you readers in the past, and I think we did great work together, but beyond my reservations about such things becoming neoliberal re-education camps, I think we also missed a trick by failing to adequately acknowledge how close to home and therapeutic the reinvention of work can be. By situating the awe of engagement as something that was always lurking in deep in our practice, and then perhaps lost and thus recoverable, we have an almost spiritual, redemptive opportunity to rediscover why we ever pursued our callings, whatever they may be, in the first place.

Upon this rock I will build my non-church.

Release the gates…

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”

I’ve often felt that this proclamation by the Statue of Liberty makes more sense as the voice of public libraries than that of the American Dream (or even the gift of one imperiled revolutionary republic to another). Because this is how I’ve experienced libraries over the last few years: as a haven for the outcast. So many of the people I encounter in public libraries are unemployed, homeless or dealing with mental illness. As we’ve huddled together in the library, trying to get by — taking comfort in the pleasures of culture, applying for jobs, negotiating with government case workers, or disappearing down weird pet research rabbit-holes — I’ve thought of these folk as “my people”, far more than other designers, other “innovation” practitioners, overeducated theoretical leftists, or other categories into which I could be placed.

When so much of the space of the public seems simulated (do our various media monopolies really have much to contribute to a “public sphere”?), I’m so relieved public libraries are back, at least in my part of the world. But what a price we’ve paid: it’s time, now, to go beyond simply repeating ad nauseam our liberal-statist platitudes about making sacrifices for the greater good. Wherever you stand about things like pandemic lockdowns, we need to grieve for the damage we’ve done. So many of us lost an essential place for so long. Before they reopened, my son, who’s never really an expressed an affinity for libraries, recently told me that he ached to go back to our local one. I don’t think he realised how important they were to him.

And let them all come out

And believe me, you are no match
For a public that has seen the whites of your eyes

Continuing the theme of reopenings and comings-out, I dedicate this song to all my comrades in Melbourne, who this year endured a longer dark than most:

Rufus Wainwright’s “Release the Stars” is one of my favourite songs (forming part of my Trinity of Flaming Defiance, alongside Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” and The Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring”). Ostensibly about the old Hollywood studio system and its contractual confinement of talent, Wainwright’s camp showtune makes no bones about resonating much wider. “Yes of course / I am speaking in metaphors / For something more in your heart,” he croons, drawing a line of equivalence between the contradictory charms of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a lover’s entreaty to let go of posessiveness or insecurity, the joy of queer visibility, and a far more glamorous way to think about labour and surplus value:

So why not just release the gates and let them all come out
Remember that without them there would be no Paramount
No paramount need to hold onto what isn't yours
Release the stars

Via Wainwright’s lazy whine, these images become as exorbitant as fireworks. (I have to admit that his schtick is an acquired taste, but if you needed any more proof that Wainwright is one of the great tenors of the 21st Century, check out his rendition of The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. Jesus Christ.) For something so retro, “Release the Stars” is surprisingly abstract — a dazzling paean to deterritorialisation in general. And to re-entering a freer public after a period of confinement.

It’s no accident to me that Wainwright is friends with cultural theorist Michael Warner, author (with Lauren Berlant) of the great Publics and Counterpublics. Rather than reducing the public sphere to a domain of rational communication and deliberation, Warner treats our common enjoyments — of media consumption and production, of communities of sexual desire — as key to public life:

Imagine how powerless people would feel if their commonality and participation were simply defined by pre-given frameworks, by institutions and laws … What would the world look like if all ways of being public were more like applying for a driver's license or subscribing to a professional group — if, that is, formally organized mediations replaced the self-organized public as the image of belonging and common activity? Such is the image of totalitarianism: non-kin society organized by bureaucracy and law. …

Without a faith, justified or not, in self-organized publics, organically linked to our activity in their very existence, capable of being addressed, and capable of action, we would be nothing but the peasants of capital — which, of course, we might be, and some of us more than others. (Warner 2005: 67)

It’s easy these days to characterise late-20th Century cultural theory’s fascination with popular culture as a disabling detour into frivolity, but Warner’s take on the popular, non-technocratic aspects of “being public” is a great illustration of its continuing relevance. If we aproach those “pre-given frameworks that mediate the public” as a type of calcified “IT management of society” that needs unlearning, Wainwright’s unlikely celebrations of everything that isn’t miserly — of Hollywood stardom as something whose enjoyability requires radical redistribution for empancipatory ends, of free love, of being out — all become a way to rediscover what it might mean to truly make a society together, and be in the zone of engagement, politically and socially speaking. And notice how this is very much not the recourse to jaded expertise, technocratic elites and the aversion to popular enjoyment that we’ve been told time and again is the only way out of Trumplandia?

Release the gates. Let them all come out.

A sustainable portion of all my love,