Modes for toads

Nice DE-veining of ‘design thinking’ in the CHE:

Despite his enthusiasm, Miller struggles to define design thinking. “It’s an approach to problem-solving based on a few easy-to-grasp principles that sound obvious: ‘Show Don’t Tell,’ ‘Focus on Human Values,’ ‘Craft Clarity,’ ‘Embrace Experimentation,’ ‘Mindful of Process,’ ‘Bias Toward Action,’ and ‘Radical Collaboration.’” He explains further that these seven points can be reduced to what are known as the five “modes”: “Empathize,” “Define,” “Ideate,” “Prototype,” and “Test.” He seems particularly impressed with “Empathize”: “Human-centered design redescribes the classical aim of education as the care and tending of the soul.”
Beautiful. Compelling. But what does it mean? According to the’s An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE, “The Empathize Mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.” We can dress things up with language about the “soul,” but this is Business 101: Listen to your client and find out what he or she wants.

Miller calls the Empathize Mode “ethnography,” which is uncharitable  to cultural anthropologists who spend their entire lives learning how to observe other people. Few anthropologists would sign on to the idea that amateurs at a boot camp strolling around Stanford and gawking at strangers constitutes “ethnography.” The Empathize Mode of design thinking is roughly as ethnographic as a marketing focus group or a crew of consultants trying to suss out their clients’ desires.

Design thinking, in other words, is just a fancy way of talking about consulting. What Miller, Kelly, and Hennessy are asking us to imagine is that design consulting is a model for retooling all of education. They believe that we should use design thinking to reform education by treating students as clients. And they assert that design thinking should be a central part of what students learn, a lens through which graduates come to approach social reality. In other words, we should view all of society as if we are in the design-consulting business.

Okay maybe not so nice. But still, the designification of arts and any other kind of education is a wagon train that should stopped, frisked, emptied of its contents, its wheels broken and used for firewood and little shacks built from the wagon bodies to shield the shysters pioneers from the winter cold because THAT’s empathy and we’re not barbarians. The business-minded think everywhere they look is a frontier – that’s where all this consulting jargon comes from – when most of it is just the old world, with a deep culture you can share and learn something from, and even use for helpful, positive purposes that, yes, might even earn you a living. But no. Instead, it’s space travel. Deep tunnels. The hyperloop. Self-driving cars. Personal pods, juicer-toasters or whatever. And now some of the design thinkers want to change higher ed so their ‘IDEAS, man!’ make more sense. Just stop.

The green silk bomber

Tucked inside the shallowness, an essential truth about the power of commodity:

But there is more going on here, and it’s being ignored by detractors and defenders alike. The problem is not that Melania Trump wore an unsuitable, blithely out-of-touch outfit, although she did. The problem is that this administration turns every event — no matter how dire — into a kind of anesthetized luxury fashion shoot, which leads us to some disturbing political truths.

Fashion-magazine layouts have a particular feel to them. We know it well: stylized, blank, alluring in an anonymous way, suggestive of sex, but devoid of sensuality or personal emotion. The photographs draw us in, but the models don’t return our gaze. Instead, they tend to wear a kind of frozen, faraway gaze, a look that frees us to gawk unashamedly, without fear of being caught staring. Fashion models feign ignorance of the camera lens in order to signal that we are not their interlocutors, but rather voyeurs whose desires are roused only to be rechanneled toward the items for sale (clothes, jewels, handbags, etc.).

Such photos exist to cast the fetishizing spell of the commodity over us. They create, that is, a dissociative relationship with the viewer. And while Melania Trump was known to have been somewhat stiff as a model, she has clearly mastered that squinty, middle-distance gaze, which she regularly employs as First Lady.

Just so. The disassociation creates allowances for so much – what it takes to make what we use/eat/wear; what happens to the packaging – 40 seconds of use, 75 years in a landfill (or ocean); where does the gas/electricity comes from; what those processes are doing to the planet. We allow ourselves to be cut off from these things, conforming to a genre of existential hypnosis such that we cannot sense who we are and instead access an affinity for emptiness repackaged as fulfillment. Fearing anything that might soil our golden view, we reach for something far more depressing. And all the while, so much of this can be easily fixed. What are your associations?

Enters the Leaf

Primo Levi survived Auschwitz to write a prodigious amount of scholarship, essays and fiction before plunging to his death down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building in 1987. This is from the final section of his memoir, The Periodic Table, in which he imagines the life of a carbon atom.

Our character lies for hundreds of millions of years, bound to three atoms of oxygen and one of calcium, in the form of limestone: it already has a very long cosmic history behind it, but we shall ignore it. For it time does not exist, or exists only in the form of sluggish variations in temperature, daily or seasonal, if, for the good fortune of this tale, its position is not too far from the earth’s surface. Its existence, whose monotony cannot be thought of without horror, is a pitiless alternation of hots and colds, that is, of oscillations (always of equal frequency) a trifle more restricted and a trifle more ample: an imprisonment, for this potentially living personage, worthy of the Catholic Hell. To it, until this moment, the present tense is suited, which is that of description, rather than the past tense, which is that of narration – it is congealed in an eternal present, barely scratched by the moderate quivers of thermal agitation.

But, precisely for the good fortune of the narrator, whose story could otherwise have come to an end, the limestone rock ledge of which the atom forms a part lies on the surface. It lies within reach of man and his pickax (all honor to the pickax and its modern equivalents; they are still the most important intermediaries in the millennial dialogue between the elements and man): at any moment – which I, the narrator, decide out of pure caprice to be the year 1840 – a blow of the pickax detached it and sent it on its way to the lime kiln, plunging it into the world of things that change. It was roasted until it separated from the calcium, which remained so to speak with its feet on the ground and went to meet a less brilliant destiny, which we shall not narrate. Still firmly clinging to two of its three former oxygen companions, it issued from the chimney and took the path of the air. Its story, which once was immobile, now turned tumultuous.

It was caught by the wind, flung down on the earth, lifted ten kilometers high. It was breathed in by a falcon, descending into its precipitous lungs, but did not penetrate its rich blood and was expelled. It dissolved three times in the water of the sea, once in the water of a cascading torrent, and again was expelled. It traveled with the wind, for eight years: now high, now low, on the sea and among the clouds, over forests, deserts, and limitless expanses of ice; then it stumbled into capture and the organic adventure.

Carbon, in fact, is a singular element: it is the only element that can bind itself in long stable chains without a great expense of energy, and for life on earth (the only one we know so far) precisely long chains are required. Therefore carbon is the key element of living substance: but its promotion, its entry into the living world, is not easy and must follow an obligatory, intricate path, which has been clarified (and not yet definitively) only in recent years. If the elaboration of carbon were not a common daily occurrence, on the scale of billions of tons a week, wherever the green of a leaf appears, it would by full right deserve to be called a miracle.

The atom we are speaking of, accompanied by its two satellites, which maintained it in a gaseous state, was therefore borne by the wind along a row of vines in the year 1848. It had the good fortune to brush against a leaf, penetrate it, and be nailed there by a ray of the sun. If my language here becomes imprecise and allusive, it is not only because of my ignorance: this decisive event, this instantaneous work a tre – of the carbon dioxide, the light, and the vegetal greenery – has not yet been described in definitive terms, and perhaps it will not be for a long time to come, so different is it from the other ‘organic’ chemistry which is the cumbersome, slow, and ponderous work of man: and yet this refined, minute, and quick-witted chemistry was ‘invented’ two or three billion years ago by our silent sisters, the plants, which do not experiment and do not discuss, and whose temperature is identical to that of the environment in which they live. If to comprehend is the same as forming an image, we will never form an image of a happening whose scale is a millionth of a millimeter, whose rhythm is a millionth of a second and whose protagonists are in their essence invisible. Every verbal description must he inadequate, and one will be as good as the next, so let us settle for the following description.

Our atom of carbon enters the leaf, colliding with other innumerable (but here useless) molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. It adheres to a large and complicated molecule that activates it, and simultaneously receives the decisive message from the sky, in the flashing form of a packet of solar light: in an instant, like an insect caught by a spider, it is separated from its oxygen, combined with hydrogen and (one thinks) phosphorus, and finally inserted in a chain, whether long or short does not matter, but it is the chain of life. All this happens swiftly, in silence, at the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, and gratis: dear colleagues, when we learn to do likewise we will be sicut Deus [like God], and we will have also solved the problem of hunger in the world.

But there is more and worse, to our shame and that of our art.