Futures Rambling #94
By Laurie Aznavoorian
Last month I gave a presentation in Australia to a group of architects who invited me in to share my thoughts on the societal developments we should pay attention to that might impact our future. These are ideas to engage in, formulate opinions on and if we’re smart act on to best sustain ourselves and our industry moving forward. Identifying key drivers or influences that will impact the business of design is a daunting task, I began by exploring societal forces, popular movements, economics and technology that might translate to the practice of architecture.
Several rose to the surface that are highly relevant to our industry. Movements like the sharing economy – that spawned ABW and co-working environments, and the increased influence of digital on physical environments – whose impact must be explored further given its relative newness, have been well documented. Another that has been talked about less in the context of architecture and design, but should be due to the profound impact that it has, is the rampant rise of anti-intellectualism in society.
Anti-intellectualism isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. The American ethnobotanist, mystic, psychonaut, lecturer and author – who many would know for smoking dope daily and being an advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants – Terence Mckenna, suggested ‘the great evil that haunts our enterprise is an inability to distinguish shit from Shinola.’ Granted, he was speaking in a different time and context, never the less, these words begin to touch on the challenge we face.
Mckenna was talking about relativism, which he defined as an absence of logic and mathematical understanding that results in all ideas being placed on equal footing, therefore making it impossible to distinguish a good idea from a bad one. In his mind the problem was growing worse all the time “Just pick up a copy of Magical Blend or Shaman’s Drum and you’ll discover an appeal to the level of intellect that makes what’s going on with television advertising look like a meeting of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study.”
McKenna was attacking the rise of political correctness when he made his comment which is not anti-intellectualism per se; however, it’s not a big stretch to draw a parallel between this and the steady march we are currently on from dumb to dumber. In our society today being an intellect or academic is no longer valued, in fact in many ways it is pejorative. One need look no further than the political landscape to see evidence of this.
We live in a time when people’s main source of news and insights is Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, all are vehicles that dumb down messages and offer one sided approaches. The conundrum is that in creating a situation where one position is defined by opposition to another, rather than creatively articulating a point of connection, the results are generally not very good: racism, sexism, homophobia and religious hate all harken back to preferring one’s own perspective over another’s to the point of being unable to engage or cope with difference.
We have transported this type of divisiveness and an ‘us and them’ mindset into architectural practices which has caused both individuals and organisations to shy away from having debates about things that matter. Criticism is no longer valued, in fact these days when one engages in either criticism or debate they are likely to be labelled rogue, a cultural mismatch, or not a team player. The ‘crit’, the cornerstone to establishing good arguments that lead to better designs, has nearly been eliminated.
If inability to deal with differences is one side of the coin, the flip side and a position equally damaging for us, is having everything the same. In Australia we have something referred to as the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome, it is a deep sense of equality that Deakin University anthropologist Rohan Bastin suggests confuses equality with sameness. It proves damaging when we attempt to assimilate all by flattening out and making everything equal, identity is lost and value is hard to recognise.
Architects and designers have taken this route for an understandable reasons. Individuals and organisations that strive to be different struggle because it’s impossible to be successful in tender situations where evaluators use procurement matrices created to rank apples against apples. Clients too are risk adverse, with few willing to stick out their neck to choose the firm with a different approach. This of course assumes the design practice has the skill to articulate what is different about approach, despite all the rhetoric, jargon and chest pumping that proliferates, it all sounds pretty much the same.
Some say creativity and innovation are today’s hot currency. If this is indeed true the rise of anti-intellectualism is an even greater concern for architects and designers. It is impossible to be innovative and anti-intellectual at the same time. By shunning intellect, reason is also cast out, without reason and logic there is no problem solving, and that takes us back to shit and Shinola, because you get the former when you take the dumb route.
Mckenna said we shouldn’t be afraid to denounce pernicious forms of foolishness, he was referring to ‘Chaos Theorist, followers of the revelations of this or that New Age guru or someone channelling information from the Pleiades’. In our industry this could be translated as we can’t be afraid to bring back intellect and restore our position as experts. The form of safe, everything is the same, don’t rock the boat design so prevalent today is equally pernicious, as is organisations too afraid to challenge a status quo not working.
So as not end on a sour note, perhaps we take comfort from designers in other industries who believe the future will require us to be smarter and demand we make use of research and strategic skills. Harry West from the global design and strategy firm Frog believes design research will be a fundamental skill for all types of designers and John Rousseau from Artefact a technology product design company in Seattle says design strategist, people who have the ability to understand and model complex systems, will be indispensable. I really hope they’re right.
Adonis, James; We Love Being Dumb and Dumber; Sydney Morning Herald; January 8, 2015
Elder, John; Is Anti-intellectualism Killing the National Conversation? The Age; August 16, 2015
Niose, David; Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America – Social Dysfunction Can be Traced to the Abandonment of Reason; Psychology Today; June 23, 2015
Terence Mckenna denounces Relativism; Uploaded by MckennaCounterCulture May 2, 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YK3BahMxH4M