This Is for Everyone

Paola Antonelli / Michelle Fisher, Museum of Modern Art, New York

For a recent curatorial experiment on the website of The Museum of Modern Art, my colleagues Jamer Hunt, Michelle Fisher, and Kate Carmody and I have been tracking the ways in which design intersects with violence. Each week, we’ve asked one writer—and so far, they’ve been a mixture of authors, artists, designers, sociologists, academics, and laypeople—to respond to one design that tells us something about the many ways in which violence is manifested globally. We’ve talked about designs that link quite literally to violence in the post 9/11 era—from boxcutters to drone shadows, and visualizations of the credit crisis. We’ve also included designs that tell us about complex and often ambiguous systems of power—and their abuse—such as in the prison system; the promise and peril of open source design as suggested by the 3D Printed Gun; and we’ve included speculations on a future where insects are weaponized, humans are fed government-determined rations, and games replace warfare.

The powerful and personal “professional” responses to the design objects on the Design and Violence website are only matched by the comments sections, filled with agitated responses to the questions that accompany each post: Can we design a violent act to be more humane? Is execution always ugly? What other secretive acts carried out on behalf of the public need to be made more visible? We’ve also staged live debates around some of these issues at MoMA and we’ve been able to share the outcome online with people across the globe. How else but through the World Wide Web would we have been able to hear from and enter into discussion with a designer from Pakistan, an academic from New Zealand, a student from Brazil, and the other 100,000+ people who have visited the site since it began in fall 2013?

One particular post poked holes in this Pollyanna-ish view of the happy online community, and it has haunted me since I read it. We were lucky enough to host Gabriella Coleman’s response to Google’s Digital Attack Map, a data visualization project that reveals DDoS attacks in real time as they happen worldwide. As Coleman pointed out, the map doesn’t just show the slew of attacks on centers of capital. Like so many instances of designed violence, it’s what we don’t immediately see that ultimately proves most instructive. As she observed, “Africa is rarely the target destination for DDoS attacks. A net positive, one might think—until considering that this happy state of affairs is predicated on digital desolation, an entrenched artifact of colonial underdevelopment.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is leading the charge to change this and get 5 billion people access to the Internet. Whether we greet this plan with open arms or healthy skepticism, it’s hard to disagree with his statement that “connectivity is a human right” in an age when access to educational, economic, political, and social opportunities have moved into the virtual realm.

An oft-repeated refrain is that “design is for everybody”—whether you know it yet, or not. It’s true. Design is something that we’re all implicated in, enriched and challenged by, and forced to come into contact with every day whether it’s through a humble masterpiece like a Post-it note or a jelly-bean, the avant-garde intersections of design and science in the shape of a bionic limb, or the irritating confusion of a new ATM interface. The World Wide Web is part of this magnificently heterogeneous design tree and, as Tim Berners-Lee’s radically optimistic Tweet suggested, it is for everyone—or it should be, could be. When we think of the potential for designing this public space, we also have to think of our own social location and then—in the words of the inimitable Missy Elliott—“flip it and reverse it.” We need to figure out how to make that potential work for others and not just ourselves. That is where future radical design will live.

See the full list of 25 for 25 projects.