Design for democracy

No one can predict the effects of the information revolution, but one thing is certain, argues Gaynor Williams, the status quo is doing it no favours. We are kept in the dark about what is going on and it’s up to those with imagination and conscience to e

In 1942 US vice-president Henry Wallace declared that this was “the century of the common man”. Was he right? To some extent, I suppose, yes. This was the century of comprehensive education, mass manufacturing and increasing wealth and leisure time, the century that women got the vote. And now, electorates of the world are giving the boot to long-standing governments: the socialists in Australia and Spain, for instance. Even Chancellor Kohl is shaking in his size 18 Hush Puppies.

Yet the common man never really has felt powerful. And people still don’t. They feel huge unease about the future, focused on lack of control over the one thing that will eventually deliver power over to them – technology.

To quote author Robert Harris in the Sunday Times recently: “There seems to be a sense that something has stalled, or even gone into reverse, that new technology has begun to undermine all the things it was once supposed to provide: leisure, security, comfort, a sense of control over one’s own life.” But why not look at it another way? Aren’t our democratic systems failing to keep up with new technology? We need to redesign the system.

Take genetic engineering, arms manufacture, or intense farming: technology is being used to “help” us, the consumer and voter, in ways we scarcely understand. Monstrous – or wondrous – things may be being done in the name of progress, and yet you know little or nothing about it. And when did anyone actually ask you your opinion? Is this truly democratic choice? And this despite the fact that it is now easier to consult the “common man” than it has ever been in history.

Technology isn’t the problem. The printing press was invented 400 years before mass literacy: society was given a huge breathing space to adapt to the issues it brought. Then came mass education and Das Kapital. We are not supposed to have ruling elites, yet we still do. While the country agonises over BSE, those in the Houses of Parliament eat Aberdeen Angus with a pedigree guaranteed by a hereditary peer. The “classless society” is governed by Lord This and Lady That. And so on…

Now what, you might be asking, has this to do with design? Well, what inspired me to this outburst was the thought that it’s imagination, not cold logic, that must mould our futures. The old linear model for rational thought is about to be discarded, if you listen to the management theorists and computer boffins. Designers, trained in intuitive thought, will be essential to that process.

The student winner of the Design Council’s Design Visions competition in 1995 was spot on. The brief was to update Parliament – to “redesign” it so that it finally became relevant to the common man. A trained designer, Tobias Lee, found a way to get true democratic representation into Government. The instrument was technology – in this case, virtual technology. Not only did he suggest instant “virtual” voting – which makes proportional representation look like an ideological dinosaur – but ordinary voters could, at an instant, visit Parliament in virtual space and see what was going on for themselves. The idea has gone no further for now – but it is waiting defiantly in the annals of history.

The Virtual Parliament, or a version of it, will happen. Eventually. And it is designers like Lee who will in the end be a vital part of the freedom new technology will bring. We can’t second-guess the effects of the information revolution any more than we could the industrial one. But we do know that designers will be working at the cutting edge of technology, wrestling with moral issues while they meet their deadlines. How do you guarantee quality in quick-time? Will design be customised to the point where we have no standards?

Already, design and engineering teams teleconference across time-zones to produce a world-wide car like the Mondeo. Graphic designers wrestle with something weird called the World Wide Web. Soon, through the power of the computer, product designers will no doubt be customising grandad’s golf clubs, and grannie’s gloves will be made to fit her and her alone, as they once would have been custom-made for a grandee. Now there’s democracy for you.

Businessmen like Josiah Wedgewood used design and technology to forge the industrial revolution and the future: are designers now ready for the next challenge?

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