An open letter to the organisers of SuperHumanism

The self-avowed aim of SuperHumanism was ‘to realign the design and communications industry, and through it the entire planet, to respond to the needs of humanity… to build and sustain trust when faith in institutions, brands and Government is under siege and cynicism about the future is on the increase’.

Richard Seymour said some apparently sensible things, but on closer inspection ends up sounding either banal or rather iffy: ‘The fundamental thing is that design is about people’. You don’t say. ‘we should pull technology towards our emotional needs’. I’d rather technology behaved like technology. I don’t want it responding to my emotions. I’d rather engage with another human being. Show me someone who enjoys the ‘human’ voice at the end of a busy phone line telling us ‘one of our representatives will be with you shortly’ and I’ll show you a liar.

John Warwicker of Tomato has never been backward about coming forward to declare his group’s allegiance to the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola and Sony. He believes, ‘A caring social humanist version of democratic capitalism is possible and also economically and culturally viable’. Perhaps his view is simple wish-fulfilment.

Warwicker says, ‘Being human is about wasting and destroying as well as creating we have to start communicating with respect.’ This is the theory, but his practice, through the work of Tomato, makes him a prime exponent of the very wastefulness he decries. Can we expect to see Tomato turning its attention away from wasteful, exploitative megacorporations to those smaller bodies and special interest groups, which pay little or nothing?

The fact that what Warwicker does in his day job is by it’s nature part of the problem, and as such can never be part of the solution, seems to have escaped him.

‘SuperHumanism intends to do its bit to restore the population’s faith in brands and business the idea is not to bring capitalism to its knees nor to scapegoat the bad guys, but to use design in more considerate ways, so that companies become more appealing to customers.’ We don’t need, or want, the ‘BodyShopisation’ of global corporations. This would be nothing more than adding a veneer of social concern to the rotten old edifice. Real change is incompatible with the real aspirations of corporations. Their raison d’être is to make as much money as possible for their bosses and turn in a decent dividend for the shareholders. Beyond that, not much else matters. At least with naked greed we can see the picture clearly for what it is.

If we are serious about making the world a better place we need to look further than the narrow confines of our own professions. We need to understand how things got to where they are now before we can change them. So let’s be realistic about this: however nice you guys might be, what do you really know about history, philosophy and politics? Your understanding of the issues that underpin our current situation appears woefully inadequate: anything such as this is conspicuous by its absence from within any of SuperHumanism’s texts. Is this because such things are not ‘sexy’? Possibly tainted with such undesirable traits as ‘dry’, ‘difficult’, ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual’? Soundbite ad-speak aphorisms may be the language you understand, but why not tackle something that attempts a deeper analysis of our current malaise?

If you’re genuine about expanding the debate about the future of design, why did you charge a prohibitive £400-plus admission fee and invite the same old/ rich faces to participate? If you’re not going to bite the hand that feeds you, just give it a bit of a nip (for example, the relationship between SuperHumanism and the British Design & Art Direction, plus sponsorship from some not short-of-a-few-bob organisation), why didn’t you hold the whole thing for free?

As for being participatory and democratic, where was the participation of the paying punters? Why was there so little time for people from the floor to speak? Why did you not just join the expanding list of signatories to the First Things First 2000 manifesto, or at least engage in debate with them?

The original FTF manifesto generated debate beyond that of the design world. Why isn’t SuperHumanism raising these issues in the national media and reaching out to the rest of humanity, beyond the confines of ‘designland’? Where is the SuperHumanism website discussion area?

Why have we heard nothing from the SuperHumanism post-conference? Could this be because the issues that generated the conference are still around, despite the intentions of a small bunch of designers? It must be quite a downer that after promising to change the world in a day, things are exactly the same the day after the conference.

JoAnne Steele Designs

London EC1

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