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Socio-Technical Assemblages

21st July 2009

Service designer + researcher
School of Design, Northumbria University
London + Newcastle, UK

1. In your view, how is your research/work related to Service Design?

I was initially attracted to service design because of a certain edge to it. Projects and writing by people talking about service design involved a systematic re-thinking of the structures of everyday life, from ownership (in Live|work’s early projects) to the regulation of sexual behaviour (in Jenna Singleton’s Sexlife). Very different in content and aesthetic to the visionary projects of groups like Archigram and Superstudio, I nonetheless felt that in a way they reprised their sensibility: design as (what I call in my PhD) a form of speculative anthropology.

While a lot of service design research is critical of a kind of common-wisdom view of the world (we endlessly hear how lonely and alienated we all are by ‘consumer culture’, and that something else is possible), it actually tends to be very tolerant of the way things are done now. Business profitability, nation-state governmentality, etc. are seen as fit to continue, but in slightly more pleasing forms. I’m not sure this needs to be the case; this is what drives my research. I’m interested in using service design as part of an intellectual inquiry into its own bases and assumptions, with the intention of developing alternatives that depart from these widely-felt expectations.

2. In your view, what is the most/less interesting aspect of Service Design?

There’s a strong tendency to see services as ‘things’: we often hear that services are ‘more complex’ than products. All kinds of means to grasp the complexity of an airline or a hospital can be applied – cybernetics, actor-network theory, etc. But the interaction between a prostitute and his or her john or jane is complex in a way I don’t think these approaches capture.

Instead, maybe we can see services as acts – something done on behalf of another, regulated by understandings ranging from the imperatives of need, force, or unilateral desire, to the subtle dynamics of voluntary co-operation. This leads us to see services as something like the benefits accrued to individuals from their collective inhabitation of a territory, which takes services beyond the human to being a function of any social animal.

From this position, service design is not ‘about’ dampening the ecological impact of human activity, the expansion of the third sector, designing pleasant and saleable ‘experiences’, ‘wellbeing’ or ‘community’. These are applied goals. Service design is ‘about’ designing systems of interpersonal exchange, and the socio-technical assemblages that result from this process. These assemblages are actors that (re-)shape landscapes – urban, rural, domestic, material, social, psychological.

3. Can you tell us about a Service Design research project(s) you did or read about?

ARK-INC is an ongoing collaboration with the artist Jon Ardern (www.jonardern.com). ARK-INC is a fictive organisation, a group of anonymous strategists, researchers, and funders that cultivates and manages the ‘ARK Movement’ – a diverse group of people who believe current social, political and technical paradigms are soon to dissolve in the face of climate change and energy descent, organised into covert, cell-like ‘Collectives’.

ARK-INC assist their fee-paying members in developing the skills, contacts, and equipment necessary to live in a post-cheap oil landscape characterised by violently unstable weather and social unrest. One view of it is as a satire of the ‘triple bottom line’ service designers often talk about. It makes money, it fosters a ‘community’, it is hyper-sustainable; simultaneously it’s a cult-like corporate ‘para-State’, undermining conventional systems of governance. It pragmatically addresses pressing issues: but do we want it? If not, why not?

The project has been exhibited around the world, and used as a trigger for conversations with people from design students to economists, environmentalists and ex-Pentagon consultants. A new website is forthcoming; in the meantime, an early overview is available at http://tinyurl.com/cg4hbf

4. Are there area(s) that you would like to do or see research on?

There are a number of areas. Benjamin Bratton (http://tinyurl.com/n65nck) has recently articulated the general case as well as anyone has:

“What we haven’t figured out, haven’t designed, are appropriate ways for a digital society to govern itself.  As it stands today, we have no idea what terms and limits of… citizenship of the Google Caliphate will entail and curtail. Some amalgam of post-secular cosmopolitanism, agonistic radical democracy, and post-rational actor microeconomics, largely driven by intersecting petabyte at-hand datasets and mutant strains of Abrahamic monotheism. But specifically, what is governance (let alone government) within this?”

More specifically, I’m interested in the interaction of design and (near-)future legal landscapes; what Allan Stoekl has called postsustainability, social systems that are ecologically viable as a side effect, rather than explicitly directed toward this end; and post- or non-human aspects of sociality.


Your suggestions for the blog:

Who would you like to invite in this conversation about Service Design Research?

Many people, but here’s a select few… Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, whose deeply relevant work (http://tinyurl.com/lmzuvv) carefully explores the kinds of interpersonal systems known to be or have been egalitarian, based on voluntary co-operation and mutual assistance – and the pressures, internal and external, that break them apart. International security commentator John Robb, the author of Brave New War and http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com. Vinay Gupta (http://guptaoption.com), a genuinely original thinker.

What is the question do you have about Service Design?

In an age of widespread and easy dissemination of information, ideas and (increasingly) light material production, desirable social-technical frameworks for inhabiting the world can and are developing outside of corporate and governmental programmes – and sometimes are antagonistic to them. What role does and might design play in this?

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