Changing Things
Changing Things

Johan Redström

Johan Redström is Professor and Research Director at Umeå Institute of Design, Sweden, and previously Design Director at the Interactive Institute. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Heather Wiltse

Heather Wiltse is Assistant Professor at the Umeå Institute of Design, Sweden. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019


Content Type:

Book Chapter



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DOI: 10.5040/9781350004368.ch-001
Page Range: 1–9

We are surrounded by things. It is hard to think of any moment of life in which we are not using or at least around artifacts designed and produced by humans. Acquiring, configuring, arranging, repurposing, and eventually disposing of things constitute a cycle that provides a kind of ongoing material narrative that continues throughout life. In at least industrialized regions, most humans arrive in the world to find a full assortment of things already present around them; and going through people’s things, deciding what to keep and what to dispose, often marks the last phase of settling their affairs after they have passed. Since its beginnings in mid-eighteenth-century Great Britain, the Industrial Revolution and corresponding development of consumer culture shifted the design, production, and acquisition of things into high gear and almost uninterrupted acceleration, such that some people and parts of the world are now often rather drowning in excess or discarded stuff, while many others suffer from the consequences. We are technological beings through and through and since our earliest beginnings, and gradually we have come to the point where it is now the artificial rather than what could be perhaps called “nature” that constitutes the ultimate horizon of our existence.

And now, again, the ways things are made and used have fundamentally changed. Many of the things we now live with do not take only physical form: smartphones and watches, laptops and game consoles, wearable health and fitness trackers, and similar are different from our things of the past. For reasons to be explored in this book, we will call these things fluid assemblages.

Whereas your mobile phone might look rather similar to any other sleek appliance at home, you only need to disconnect it from the network to realize just how different it is. The mobile phone, and what you do with it, is in no sense delimited or defined by its physical presence. Sure, we can touch it, feel it, look at it—but it is what we do with it, or perhaps rather through it, that defines its role in our life: searching, talking, watching, browsing, sharing, shopping, listening, tracking, posting, liking, and so on. It is nearly impossible to assess and understand what these things do based on physical appearance alone. Unlike our old stable and predictable physical things, these digital things are networked, dynamic, and contextually configured. Indeed, they can at times also be changeable and unpredictable things, even inscrutable when it comes to what they actually do and whom they really serve.

Just as we can recognize the very real actions and effects of these networked computational things, it is also in many cases becoming ever more difficult to clearly identify and pin them down. It is almost as if they emerge from some kind of virtual ether when activated, only to withdraw again when the applications are closed or the devices switched off. Moreover, they show up in different ways depending on the context, responding to variables such as user account, location, time, and so forth. They can also change over time as the code is updated, while the code that generates unique instances of things can travel across devices. But when they are up and running, these things—compositions of devices, code, and networked resources and connections—are remarkably solid in terms of providing certain kinds of functionality and enabling certain actions.

In what follows, we will explore the idea that the changes in what things are, and how we live with them, currently underway are in some ways as drastic as the shift from handmade to industrially manufactured things. And while this time it is also a change driven by technological developments and economic interests, to think of it as a matter of the digital and computational would be much like reducing the Industrial Revolution to a matter of iron and steel, steam engines and electricity. Rather, it is in the reconfigurations of relations between people and things, between the design of and life with, that the most significant transformations are taking place.

While the first decades of industrialized production were primarily about mimicking forms familiar from earlier forms of production, there was a gradual realization that this change actually called for a different understanding of how something becomes meaningful in someone’s life. This insight sparked the birth of industrial design as we now know it: the realization that the new industrial opportunities called for a new unity of art and technology, a new sociopolitical program, a new aesthetics, and above all a new vision of the “good life.” Or, as seen from another perspective, industrialized capitalism had to call a new discipline into being to realize its full potential—and so it did.

We will argue that we now face a challenge somewhat similar to this situation: a fundamentally different way of “making things” made possible by rapid technological development and further accelerated by new economical ideas that are currently radically outperforming the pace in which design develops. This is causing an increasingly problematic gap between what these new “things” are and the ways we are meant to incorporate them into the fabric of our everyday lives. Of course, there is already massive benefit present in our lives, just as also the first years of industrially produced copies of previously manmade objects were of great value. Indeed, one might even be inclined to think we are already doing so well that this should not be of too much concern. But there is also a slightly uncanny feeling that these new things bring about something that is not necessarily what we first thought. The fact that the business model of some of the now largest corporations is built on trading detailed information about what we do, with whom, where, and how, is at least sometimes causing concern, leaving us with a feeling that perhaps we do not quite understand precisely what it is that these things do. And while we’re at it, why do we always have to make do with “beta” these days, why can’t things just work?

At the same time, they are wonderful things. Things we want to have with us all the time. Things we want to keep in our hands. Some of them are the first things we pick up in the morning and the last things we put down when going to bed. They are things we use to stay in touch with loved ones. They offer safety, excitement, entertainment, inspiration, and much more. This complex situation cannot be reduced to a matter of good or bad. Instead we have to ask to what extent do our existing ways of relating to things, be it in use, design, practice, or theory, actually allow us to grasp what these new things are? And most important, what sense and sensibility do we now need to cultivate in order to design and live well with them?

Our purpose with this book is to investigate and begin to articulate some of the key characteristics of these things—these fluid assemblages—so that we might be able to better understand and care for their character and consequences. In doing this, we are attuned to the constant and in many ways inevitable interplay between theoretical lenses and empirical observations, many of which have originated with our own experiences of interacting with and through these things. The theoretical frameworks we are accustomed to thinking with, explicitly or implicitly, individually and within discursive communities, shape what we can see, connect, conceptualize, visualize, and articulate; and it is when these are no longer adequate to account for what we are seeing and break down that we must do the challenging and often distinctly uncomfortable work of pushing beyond them, even as the only way beyond is through.

In this spirit, we have worked explicitly and intentionally with an interplay between case studies and theoretical frameworks, using each to push back against and expand the other. Although we at times foreground one or the other, the two are always intertwined. Although we do our best to respect the areas of scholarship with which we engage, our faithfulness is primarily to the account we try to develop. Our aim is to develop a perspective that is incisive, rich, and connected to key foundational issues in philosophy, design, and related areas, not least because of the many strains of thought we bring into conversation with each other. We do not claim to do this comprehensively or rigorously, but hope that we can through our (unfaithful) articulations at least sketch the outlines of territories worth investigating—with the hope that others may join us there and improve on our efforts.

Even as we engage with things that currently exist, our goal is not merely to give an account of the present, but to identify the underlying dynamics, trajectories, and potentialities that may guide future developments. Moreover, while present configurations, technologies, and sociotechnical norms may provide the environment and resources that scaffold and shape ongoing processes of design and development, there is always the possibility to engage with these matters more explicitly and intentionally. This is the kind of reflective and critical engagement that we hope to enable and prototype here, inquiring into what is but always with an orientation to what things could (and perhaps should or should not) be assembled. In short, our project is about changing things.

About this book

Over time, a variety of ways of thinking and talking about contemporary things have been developed in order to attempt to understand them and the roles they play in the world. New technological developments require new theory, while (at least ideally) incisive critical theory can inform responsible and innovative design practice and, thus, the building of the artificial world. This interplay between things and “thing theory” has been ongoing at least since the Industrial Revolution, and has been made explicit in design theory, philosophy of technology, and other fields concerned with the character of contemporary life and society.

There are a few key assumptions and commitments that guide our investigation. The first is that when we refer to “things,” we mean designed technical artifacts, not things in general. Certainly, all the material things in the world are significant and worthy of philosophical consideration. But here we are more specifically concerned with things that are the objects of industrial design—things that are designed with at least some degree of professional design expertise and in service of particular client and user groups, goals, functions, and interests.

The second is that we are interested in how these things actually exist in the world and what they do. In this sense, our approach could be considered materialist in that we believe, to use the overused expression, matter matters and is not reducible to experience, concepts, semantics, discourse, social constructions, subjectivities, and the like. While these aspects are absolutely significant, and in very concrete ways, they also provide only a partial perspective. This is especially important to recognize as we consider things that outstrip our usual sense-making capabilities, thus requiring us, somewhat paradoxically, to move outside the frame of human experience.

At the same time, human experience is our motivation for addressing these things. We care about the ways in which things mediate human experience and engagement with the world, and how experience and engagement are shaped by the character of things and the variety of mediations they can enable. In the context of contemporary challenges such as sustainable development, such a human-centric view might seem quite insufficient as the things we are addressing, their production and their use, have an impact on the world far beyond human experience. The reason for starting with human experience instead lies with the need to understand and articulate how we perceive and act upon this new complexity. Or in other words, if the categories—such as “things”—we form and use as the basis for the way we understand and reason about our actions do not quite match what is actually there, then chances are we will not be very successful in changing things in the direction we intend.

Finally, while our focus here is on the things we call fluid assemblages, our investigation is in some ways broader. We find that in order to understand what is going on with fluid assemblages we need to bring in a number of different perspectives and work across a variety of scales, from the level of local interactions to that of larger social structures and dynamics. This is a matter of properly accounting for the different kinds of entities that are gathered together in things that guide their continual unfolding, modes of presence, appropriations, figurations, and configurations in social worlds in which they act in ways that are not neutral. As such, it turns out that a large extent of our investigation is as much about designed things in general as it is for fluid assemblages in particular, even as fluid assemblages represent gatherings of more striking dynamism and scale. While we point to fluid assemblages as a new and distinctive type of thing, we also recognize continuity with previous kinds of things rather than total rupture. In fact, many of the dynamics entailed in fluid assemblages are simply the realization of tendencies and forces at work long before technical developments enabled them to be expressed in this particular form.

Overview of the book

This book has three main parts. The first serves to introduce the notion of fluid assemblages and the design issues they entail. Following this introductory chapter, we ask the question of “What is going on with things?” In Chapter 3, “Just Press Play, Please,” we move deeper into a specific example of how these developments unfold, and we then conclude this first part with our initial account of what is a fluid assemblage.

The second part of the book engages more broadly in concepts and cases, taking a journey through a range of different domains and disciplines to enable a multifaceted view on things. In Chapter 4 we develop the concept of fluid assemblages in more detail. In the next two chapters we consider existing possibilities for considering things as they exist for us and things in themselves, respectively. Then in Chapter 7 we develop a conceptual toolkit for fluid assemblages, drawing on and applying concepts developed in other contexts. We try out the toolkit in Chapter 8, assembling an analytic playlist in an extended analysis of Spotify as one particular case.

With a set of cases and associated conceptions in place, we are then better equipped to return to the main question raised here, namely that of how to design and live well with fluid assemblages. The third and final part of the book consists of the concluding chapter in which we further articulate issues in the designing of and the living with fluid assemblages. In particular, we will discuss how the notion of an assemblage helps us explain why current aesthetics and approaches to design are seemingly not able to address and resolve certain critical issues in how these things are made part of our lives and how we use them. This opens up, or so we will argue, for rethinking how industrial design has come to configure design and use in relation to each other, and how this now needs to be replaced by other configurations to form a different social contract (much like how mass manufactured goods could not rest on the same social contract between maker and user as was the case when making was bespoke and a craftsmanship). Indeed, whereas things used to be passive resources for us to make part of our lives, we are perhaps now closer to a more symmetric set-up: we are quickly becoming as much part of the doings of things as they are a part of ours. We may even ask: if the primary human “product” of the industrially manufactured object was the “consumer,” what would be the corresponding entity brought about by the fluid assemblage? This book is an attempt to find out.