Few would deny there is a relation between things and the social world that surrounds them, but this relation is too easily downplayed and oversimplified.
The obvious mistake is taking technique and meaning as separate. That is to say: what a given object means depends on it’s physical properties. Obviously, a car can only play the role of maleness symbol because it allows it’s user to exert control and violence to the world around.
Although meaning is independent from the physical signal used to express it, in a cultural sense “meaning” is actually something more complex than sign-comprehension. When a thing “symbolizes” certain values it is not “read” as those values, but instead it changes a specific social scene where various actors can try to use it in various ways to seek their idiosyncratic goals.
For example: when a mobile phone is said to symbolize connectedness it’s owner does not want her friends to look at it and think “connectedness”. It is more like she wants to be assigned (fuzzy) values like “cool” or “in”. Her mobile phone might do that because, for example, this specific model has only recently became available, or because it is known to be expensive, or maybe because the girl has gone to the trouble of configuring it with funny ringtones.
And none of the meanings of the phone could be achieved if she simply carried along a piece of paper where you could read “connectedness”.
But it is important that the “coolness” effect of the phone is far from granted. That is, it might come to be that someone else has better ringtones, or the brand of cell phones might become infamous due to bugs or defects, or many other things. Maybe the guy she wants to impress is too hippie and thinks “gadgets hinder our contact with nature”.
We can’t, then, make moral judgements of the (extremely complex) social games in which artefacts get involved. That is to say: an artefact is not “bad” if it is inside (or even precipitating) an unhealthy social context. It is not “good” either when it helps to diminish social problems.
A car that encloses the driver inside a bunker-like cocoon that makes a sharp divide between his private world and the violence of his neighbourhood is not bad in itself, it is part of a system in need of change.
Material culture — like any other dimension of society — doesn’t accept simplistic approaches.
As a side-note, this implies that trying to (Papaneck style) present design as a “solution” to the woes of the world actually makes it more difficult to achieve synergistic cycles of design, where the forms of things are part of the betterment of the communities involved. The moral judgement made when you say that design should change the world necessarily excludes part of the actors involved. It creates “bad guys” instead of easing the communication between the parts.
Even avoiding segregation and moralization, we can still hide important cultural issues if we require political influences to be explicit. That is to say, we can’t disregard social phenomena when we can’t see them clearly.
Though concrete, clear results are very important, society also has fuzzy, subtle, subjective aspects (and the importance of those can only grow as we increase complexity!). We must be willing to accept this kind of issues, doing our best to acknowledge and accommodate them, using whatever partial knowledge we can find. Working with partial hypothesis is not so bad, after all.
Whether or not life can be reduced to physical, quantifiable phenomena, on a very concrete and direct sense we are also affected by abstract and unquantifiable things. Few things can be fuzzier than poetry, for example, but a good poem might be what the girl needs to impress that too-hippie boy she fancies!
You hardly can say the colour of a mobile phone will make it’s user commit less errors (or even, generally speaking, make her more happy). On the other hand, the colour certainly influences the role that this gadget will play on the user’s life: maybe she will be more likely to display this phone prominently in social circumstances if it has a bright colour. (Or maybe she will show it only at work to promote an “I take joy in my job” message, but hide it at leisure feeling it does not convey a “professional” enough image.) You can’t say exactly what the impact of the colour will be, but you can’t ignore it’s impact either.
And things, despite being in themselves physical, are also the product of massive amounts of non-physical influences. The phone would be inconceivable without language, it’s keyboard awkward without the idea of numbers. The sales of mobile phones are strongly influenced by such miscellanea as the ringtone fad or perceived coolness.
Feeling incapable to control such complexities, often designers take the stance that “just leaving things as they are can’t possibly be a political agenda”. That is to say, many designers refrain from using shapes which they feel might have an impact beyond the mere “liking or disliking” in fear of being too intrusive. But shallowness is not neutrality!
Those designers (implicitly) believe that continuation can’t affect society. That is not the case: keeping the status quo is one of the most violent stances there are. Continuation is not tolerance, it is the reaffirmation of specific rules. The maintenance of the current order uses a huge amount of energy (and violence), only it is applied in small and constant doses. Conservatism is not nonparticipation.
So, shape-creators must be aware that they have an effect on society, even if they can’t know precisely how it will develop in the long run. It can actually be liberating to accept the political role of a given artefact to be open, complex and unpredictable.
It can seem too demanding, then, to expect a designer to cope with this rapidly mutating scene. It certainly isn’t practical to conduct full ethnographic investigations for every single small project. But even stating the question like this hides the interplay of forms and politics — in what may yet be the worst way of so doing: denying responsibility.
Since every artefact is not only used, but used according to cultural forms and inside social networks, the political dimension of it is reflected unavoidably in every object. Any project will have political influence, even if the designer did not think about it explicitly — or using those terms. In fact, every design decision is a political decision!
Even, for example, deciding if a thing is cool or not is a political action. It is political because it tries to evaluate people’s reactions and desires. Therefore, it is not restricted to materiality, it deals with people. And it deals with people in a way that can hardly be regarded as neutral. Trying to make something “cool” (or “beautiful” or “functional” or “meaningful”) is a way to affect people.
Even if we try to think of an strictly technical project, one where the least subjectivity is involved — say a furniture design that follows strictly all the ergonometric tables, or a poster that is laid out with maximum visibility to a hierarchical set of data to be communicated — even such almost mechanical forms are following political decisions. This furniture has decided which are the ways someone sits on it or uses it, since without such decisions it is impossible to measure something to put it into ergonometric tables. And the poster has made the political decision of which information should be forced into viewers minds. Even more importantly, it decides how such information should be forced there.
And those decisions (particularly about how) can be very hard exactly because they are unclear. It is easy to measure how thick a table’s leg has to be to sustain weight (or estimate a value that is bound to be enough). It is much harder to measure the effect a given table has on culture.
As equal shapes can be part of different social processes, some better some worse, it feels obvious that shapes do not determine the social games. So, often designers will accept that things have a social dimension, but deny any possibility of dealing with such dimension. But this also downplays the relationship between society and things.
Even if a given object is part of different games and is used in different ways in different social contexts, it could not be used in the same ways if it’s form was different. Even if a design can’t be guaranteed to be socially “positive”, it will still be a social object. And even if we can’t make “benefaction design” to “solve the problems of the world”, we can still make a design that is open to multiple points of view, that deals with identity and cultural relevance, that enables negotiation of aesthetic values, that is open. We can make things that people can deal with in their own terms.
Designers often view themselves as lacking the means to create the goodness they envision. But this social dimension of things i am talking about is not about creating “good”. It is not about “building an better world”. It is not about searching for an utopia. It is about enhancing our comprehension.
And this shows how much good/bad distinctions are frail — distinctions underlined in most design ideologies, like “functional”, like “innovative”, like “value-added”.
Basically, to search for the political in the artefact is to try to understand the power things have over people’s lives.
In this way, saying every artefact to be political isn’t saying much: it is like saying that things are only important when they are used by people. But the consequences of this awareness are huge!
A ballpoint pen at the bottom of the ocean that no one knows about might be apolitical, but an imaginary one is not. As long as there are people involved there are power relationships which are influenced by the shapes of things. And this is a good thing — as long as the politics are dealt with openly and the negotiations are as fair as we can make them!