Онтология овладевает умами под разными соусами. Вот очередной соус, вполне аппетитный.
«Онтологический дизайн — это дизайнерская дисциплина, связанная с проектированием человеческого жизненного опыта. Она делает это, исходя из одного существенного предположения: проектируя объекты, пространства, инструменты и опыт, мы фактически проектируем самого человека».
The Manifesto of Ontological Design
Ontological design is the design discipline concerned with designing human experience. It does so by operating under one essential assumption: that by designing objects, spaces, tools and experiences, we are in fact designing the human being itself. And the ability to design human beings is going to be central to survive the technological shifts of the coming decades with even a semblance of agency.
The feedback loop
The key assumption of ontological design is this: when we create the objects and contexts that surround us, we are in fact designing our very selves. In other words: first, we design our tools, and then they design us in return.
This feedback loop is ontological design’s central idea as a discipline. It constitutes its chief operative principle. Here’s how it unfolds:
In a sense, all the objects we surround ourselves with have this effect: they design us. Any chair has the property of discriminating between modalities of sitting. Chairs deny certain possibilities for how bodies exist in space, and enable others — chief among them being sitting down.
Wearing clothes does the same thing. It amplifies our ability to retain a stable bodily temperature and face the challenges of varying weather. Clothes are, in effect, prosthetics for our skin and bodily temperature maintenance.
Therefore, we can say that whenever a piece of clothing or a chair are created, that they constitute actions of ontological design. We could even say that all design is ontological, since all design is made to have an effect on existence itself — design is made to exist. But for this book I will focus on a few of ontological design’s more specific possibilities — that of designing human perception. To explore that, we must first reassess some commonly held assumptions.
Posthuman bodies have no limits
Human bodies have, strictly speaking, no limits. There is no one definable moment in spacetime where we can definitely say that our bodies end and our surroundings begin.
This much was said by Robert Pepperell, on his Posthuman manifesto. He states that “Human bodies have no boundaries”, and that “Consciousness (mind) and the environment (reality) cannot be separated; they are continuous. No finite division can be drawn between the environment, the body and the brain. The human is identifiable, but not definable”.
In posthuman terms, “human” is a set of functions, processes and flows, rather than a well-defined, static and discrete category. There is a continuity between human bodies, human minds and human tools, all of which constitute the extended entity defined here as the posthuman.
The subject of ontological design is precisely the posthuman. It is that ‘entity’ which the practitioner seeks to design.
For the purposes of ontological design, it is useful deconstruct the liberal, humanist, enlightenment-age assumption that there is such a thing as a “human individual”, who consists of a “body”, a “mind” and which lives in an “environment”. Such assumptions held sway for a variety of reasons, many of which had to do with sustaining the ontological underpinnings of modern societies in the last few hundred years.
However, “If we accept that the mind and body cannot be absolutely separated, and that the body and the environment cannot be absolutely separated, then we are left with the apparently absurd yet logically consistent conclusion that consciousness and the environment cannot be absolutely separated.”
By designing our environment, we are designing consciousness. By curating perception, we are designing reality. By designing objects, we are designing people. This is the operative engine of ontological design.
And that is precisely what we are designing: the continuous entity of the expanded human consciousness. It is designed by designing its environment, its body, its objects, desires, thoughts and tools.
The notion that we are designing for “human beings” is obsolete for the digital age; we are rather designing processes of “human becoming”. By crafting experiences, architecting environments and curating information, one is effectively configuring ontologically generative technologies — configuring “individuals”.
The posthuman is an entity that inhabits a feedback loop which traverses our minds, our bodies and our spaces. These aren’t discrete categories; rather, they are continuous intensities of relationality.
As such, it is insufficient to merely speak about designing a chair or a sweater. It’s also not quite enough to say, as is habitual in contemporary design circles, that we are designing the ‘experience’ of the sweater, or the ‘interactions’ of the chair.
Ontology is a compound word derived from the Greek Ont, meaning being, and logia, meaning study. It is the philosophical discipline that concerns itself with studying questions related to being, existence, becoming and reality.
As such, when we are speaking of ontological design, we are speaking of defining a systematic, creative approach to designing being, existence, and reality itself — through a chair, a sweater, cults, technologies, or whatever else we may come up with.
A car extends our locomotive ability, quickly transporting us across vast distances. A glass cup improves our ability to consume liquids. Our shoes expand the abrasive resistance of the soles of our feet, letting us walk for many miles comfortably. Both the Hubble telescope and eye-glasses are augmentations of the information processing capability of our optic nerves.
These are examples of augmentations and prosthetics to what is usually referred to as the physical human body; they are extensions of our senses and our muscles. However, from a posthuman perspective, we are an entity composed of flows, functions and processes, which can also be augmented in a variety of ways. So what about words? How do they augment us? What about music? Currencies? Ideologies? Rules? Grammar?
The category of prosthetic is not limited to the ‘physical’ part of our bodies. The Extended Mind Hypothesis — first proposed in 1998 by Andy Clark and David Chalmers — is the idea that objects within the environment function as part of the mind. Take “Otto” and “Inga” for example. They are both travelling to a museum simultaneously. Otto has Alzheimer’s, and has written the directions to the museum on his notebook. On the other side, Inga relies on the memory of previous trips to find her way.
From a functional perspective, Otto’s notebook has the same role as Inga’s memory — although one is a physical object and the other a mental property. Otto’s mind has been extended to include the notebook as the source of his own memory as well as a platform for interfacing with his own thoughts.
Prosthetics & Ontological Design
When we speak of ontological design, we are speaking of creating apparatuses to augment human cognition. The previous example posits a notebook as one of those apparatuses. However, they are not limited to physical objects. Ontological design can use any sort of medium, so long as it is done with the goal of intervening in the posthuman subject.
Otto’s notebook was a scaffolding that enhanced his brain’s memory ability. The process of using the map on the notebook enhanced his cognition, his urban navigation.
It served as the apparatus to which he payed his attention, and which in return provided him with direction. Otto exists thus in a symbiotic loop with his notebook (and with his clothing, his glasses, his language, his memes, etc.).
This anecdote is a synthesised enunciation of how ontological operates. It is a principle. However, when we expand the assumptions in this principle beyond just a couple examples or use cases, we find ourselves uncovering some profound implications.
Power and Discourse
The notoriously bald and notoriously french philosopher Michel Foucault is widely known for his perspectives on power. Foucault argues, among other things, that power is not a thing in itself, or the faculty of one agent or another. Rather, he argues that it exists in relationships between agents. Power is not only the property of a centralised system, operating through institutions (like the police, schools or the state); but also, in a diffuse and disseminated way, spread through fields of interaction. It is a property of the flows that emerge through processes and relationships between entities.
Foucault’s notion of power is crucial to understanding ontological design, because it offers great insights onto the processes, flows and relationships occurring in the posthuman feedback loop.
For Foucault, power is omnipresent not because it holds all things under its grip, but rather because it is produced at all moments, in the relationships between nodes of the social (and posthuman) body.
Power also defines regimes of truth; it defines that which, in any given circumstance, can or cannot be said. Discourses tend to be ruled by conventions, whose coherence is due to collective acceptance.
One example of such a discursive practice is the idea that, in many societies, every child, from a certain age onward, is supposed to know their name, their age, where they were born, their birthday and the names of their parents.
It is evident how these practices are ontologically generative. They, and the ideas that constitute them (age, name, origin, birthday) are effectively prosthetics to the child’s cognitive apparatus. They serve to define, determine and identify and who the child is within a complex discursive regime. They augment a series of cognitive faculties, functions and flows within the child — which have to do with their idea of self in relation to space, time, context and world.
Amorality and Technique
It is not my goal to question the legitimacy of the utility of any particular discursive form, as has become relatively common practice in mainstream culture. From an ontological design perspective, what’s relevant is the tactical polyvalence of discourses, and their utility within our design interventions. Foucault said that “(…) one should not imagine the world of discourse as being shared between accepted and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated discourse; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements, that can work in diverse strategies”.
In the context of ontological design, one should look at discourses in a utilitarian way. It is not the task of ontological design (as a methodology) to make ethical or moral judgements, to cast down systems of oppression and restore rightfulness and justice to an otherwise unjust world.
For the purposes of enunciating this discipline and its operative methodology, concepts like morality and justice should be understood technically, as power mechanisms within the discourses of their time. Ontological design is more of a techne than a philosophical or ethical body. It is closer to engineering than it is to critical theory or sociology. Yes, it exists within discourses and flows of power: so what? It’s not about fighting to remove them and return to an illusory Eden, or a much idealised Zion; rather it’s about facing and handling the problem of power technically.
Furthermore, ideas like ‘truth’, ‘good’ and ‘justice’ are socially, spatially and temporally situated. Foucault said himself: “Truth is a thing of this world (…)”. Discourses have a time and a place to which they belong, and we should not be blinded by our tendency to absolutise and universalise them. Rather, we should do like Foucault and embrace the Nietzschean tradition of looking “beyond good and evil”, towards power properly understood. As Nietzsche says, “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”
This formulation of ontological design as a methodology does not fundamentally dismiss the values of contemporary society — like liberty, the welfare state, free speech or the striving towards equality and justice. Nor does it accept them dogmatically as articles of faith. Rather, values and morals are seen as materia prima; technological resources to be used in the pursuit of ontological creativity. Belief is in this sense a technological problem, to be solved first and foremost by engineering the perception-reality continuum.
Flirting with dystopia
Ontological design simply states that it would be an intellectually imprecise gesture to consider the discourses of our time as the absolute standard for morality and reason — which is a profound trait of the humanist hegemony that is the normative discourse of global capitalism in our days.
To be able to test and explore ideas around power, oppression and discourses it is essential to elaborate ontologically creative frameworks; one might even gather creative and useful insights from the accidental, the immoral or the dystopian. In fact, it would be dangerous not to do so. If we aren’t capable of reverse engineering technologies by mapping their “negative” potential outcomes, then we aren’t capable of mapping them at all — a reliable way to get blindsided.
Paul Virilio’s idea of integral accident implies that technologies contain within themselves the potential for their own accidents. With every new technology, there also appears a new kind of disaster. In his own words, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress”.
Ontological design occupies itself with creating this metaphorical “ship”, a tool with which to navigate reality by augmenting the posthuman.
As such, and as ontological designers, we should try to approach our design-tasks amorally, as much as possible, so as not to become ourselves accidentally embedded in a diffuse mesh of normative regimes of truth and power relations — especially the ones that are the hardest to perceive — and strive to stay as close as possible to the metrics that actually matter: agency and effectivity in designing power flows. All else should be left to proper philosophy.
In the age of 4th generation warfare there is a pressing need for a design discipline geared towards ontology. Reality tunnel design is a competitive struggle; memes are weaponised, and the autonomous movement of the non-living is threatening to engulf us within its machinic desire. Belief is a technological problem bound to be solved — first by talented curators, the magically inclined and technomancers, and eventually by advanced neural networks and autonomous flows of capital.
History is the genealogy of this singularity, the event in whose threshold we now stand. Technologies have co-evolved with us and have led us to the edge of an abyss. What will happen to the idea of the “individual”? Sense-making is already in unsalvageable disarray, and it doesn’t stop there. What will happen to basic ontological functions like “time”, grammar, and even the distinction between “life” and “death”, when autonomous AI partners up with the markets, capital and the war machines, to curate optimum human reality? To technologically solve phenomenology?
This is a question we must answer, not only philosophically — but practically. And it will be inevitably answered.
It is my intention to outline a design methodology that empowers its practitioners in such a panorama.
Stay tuned to this space for further posts on this topic. Meanwhile, follow the Technosocial podcast, where Owen Cox and I explore the intersection of technology, society, philosophy and ontological design.