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Design at the interface of 'Complexity'

This article is about technological complexity and designers' approaches for adapting it to us, or adapting us to technology. Thinking about complexity in terms of our changing relationship to technology reveals how we think about our relationship to our environment and our cultural assumptions that drive those relationships. This then shapes how we design and shape our environment through new technology. Designers are particularly interested in modifying our attitudes to technology in ways that either bring us back to simpler realities, or enable us to take the plunge and immerse ourselves more fully in our new technological environments. Both of these approaches can be viewed as different ways of dealing with modern complexity in our social and technological environment. Of a piece with this analysis of the role of technology in human society two philosophers and writers about design, Verbeek and Leonard Koren highlight the profound ability of design and technology to influence how we behave and relate to our environment and others around us, either for good or ill.

According to Verbeek our world is populated with more devices and machines and cannot now be understood or mastered without endowing these machines with a certain sense of moral agency or responsibility. This is a way of changing out view of our relationship to our technological environment. This idea is therefore a way of acknowledging the true complexity of these modern devices. Verbeek argues that modern technological complexity means that it is up to us to adapt our view of these machines and devices and engage and recognise the subtle ways they now shape our moral decisions. Whilst Verbeek doesn't explicitly acknowledge the profound complexity hidden in our new environments, he does argue that we should be aware of the manifold ways in which technology influences us. In contrast to the strict functionalism of minimalist design philosophy and theory, Verbeek claims that designers should therefore seek to shape technology with more awareness of ethical dimensions, in particular. He argues that new technologies can ‘nudge’ us to behave in certain ways, when these ways are offered as 'affordances'. He contrasts this approach with the notion of ‘functionality’ which sees devices as purely 'instrumental' in character, meaning that they are just tools to be used. This difference between viewing technology as merely tools, or acknowledging the complex ways that they affect and interact us, is a theme of complexity in relationships to an environment. Verbeek suggests we should accept and acknowledge that at the interface, technology is now profoundly re-shaping us rather than merely being used by us. Verbeek claims we can, and should, seek to control this process as designers rather than retreat from it.

On the other hand, echoing the philosopher, Puech, the designer and writer Leonard Koren argues for a more Eastern influenced philosophy of design. Koren particularly focuses on the aesthetics and philosophy of ‘Wabi-sabi’ which according to Koren, reject modern design values entirely. This idea of 'Wabi-sabi' also seems to be a complex attitude to objects, but rather different to Verbeek's ideas. Koren argues that traditional Eastern philosophy highlights how design can not only influence moral and ethical decisions but also affords a rich philosophical dimension. He argues that design can in fact connect us better with our place in our environment, and better place us as natural beings within a natural environment. In particular, Koren argues that the philosophy of ‘Wabi-sabi’ as exemplified in the design around the traditional ‘Tea Ceremony’ in Japan, can be an effective antidote to modern technology and its shaping of us. This is a rejection of modern design as the default aesthetic. Instead Koren proposes a re-embracing of older patterns of interaction with nature which embrace it's ability to shape us positively. This involves being accepting and being mindful of change and decay as part of our environment, and part of life.

Puech is also interested in the role of Eastern philosophy as an approach to modern technology. However, unlike Koren who seeks a refuge and a retreat, Puech encourages us to engage with our new technological environment. Puech focuses on directly addressing and changing our attitudes and relations towards modern technologies rather than retreating from them. He argues that the same Taoist approaches to an untameable and unpredictable nature can be adapted for use in a modern technology-driven environment. This approach seems promising because of the fundamental similarities between nature whose way in the Taoist view was always 'shadowy and indistinct'. Compare this to our modern technological environments which only have the superficial illusion of being planned and highly 'visible', but are environments whose influence and effects are also 'shadowy and indistinct' in many ways, as discussed in other articles in this blog.


Borgmann, Albert (2009) 'Technology and the character of contemporary life: A philosophical inquiry'. University of Chicago Press.

Koren, Leonard (2008) 'Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers'. Imperfect Publishing.

Puech, Michel "Beyond digital literarcy: Technological wisdom for the good life."

Puech, Michel. "The four cultures: Hybridizing science and humanities, East and West." (2010).

Verbeek, Peter-Paul (2011) 'Moralizing technology: Understanding and designing the morality of things'. University of Chicago Press.

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