It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Monday, June 06, 2011

"Critic of Professionalized Design"

A 2003 paper in memory of Illich, written by Carl Mitcham, has appeared online, for the first time at no cost to read. Originally published in an MIT journal called Design Issues, the paper officially costs $12 to view.

Evidently, this PDF's text is not searchable, but the paper is certainly worth a look by anyone interested in Illich - and especially in his thoughts on technology, "tools," and the growing influence of experts who seek to design urban spaces and the things people use in their daily lives. Ironically, we've noticed, many design professionals toss around the term "conviviality" seemingly without much knowledge of what Illich originally meant by it. For example, there are many proposals to weave into urban space all sorts of information technologies - more screens, that is, and schemes for "ubiquitous computing" that involve networks of hidden sensors and wireless access points.

Mitcham writes that while at Penn State in the early 1990s, he and Illich started to investigate the "historical archaeology of design." A paper with the working title of "Anti-Design: Notes for a Manifesto on Modern and Postmodern Artifice" was partially completed, its first paragraph reading, at one point:

Contra the widely promoted belief that design is something all human beings do and have done throughout history, but now must do more consciously and thoroughly than ever before, design is something that has had a history. Its beginnings can be traced to the rise of modernity, and it will almost certainly come to an end with the modern project. Indeed, we have an obligation not so much to promote designing as to learn to live without it, to resist its seductions, and to turn away from its pervasive and corrupting influence.

Mitcham and Illich planned to argue that 1) architects and industrial engineers rarely achieve their stated goals of expanding control and reducing unintended consequences, and even if they do so, 2) "experts and professionals ultimately would dehumanize the world." The project's aim, Mitcham recalls, was "to reanimate the moral criticism of designing as a lack of proportionality in ambition and contrivance."

We imagine that much of the thinking Illich brought to this aborted project would have resonated with his earlier thoughts on "research by people," as opposed to "research for people," a topic he wrote about at some length in the book Shadow Work. We also can see him criticizing the design industry as largely a make-work project, much as he viewed compulsory schooling as, in part, simply an employment program for intellectuals. We're pretty sure, too, that he would have been highly critical of the many designers who bestow the "Third World" with their latest gadgets and gizmos. Their stated goal, which strikes many as just a new, albeit thinly-disguised imperialism: "to change the world." In many cases, it appears to us that young, fresh-out-of-school designers use their work in impoverished areas to win publicity for themselves, boost their credibility, and beef up their portfolios, all with the aim of eventually winning big-bucks mainstream projects.

"Too often," Mitcham writes, "design treats the world as an enemy rather than a friend, and calls in experts to manipulate and manage."

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.