Ontological Design

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The Concept

Daniel Fraga:

"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." (https://medium.com/datadriveninvestor/the-manifesto-of-ontological-design-7fdb19169107)

The Book


URL = http://fraga.space


Daniel Fraga:

"This book seeks to flesh out the design-tactics that can exist between subject, their relations and habits throughout everyday life. These design-tactics exist within fields of power; and by recognizing the existence of such fields, we can be creative with them. Whether we want to compete in the marketplace, advance certain cultural modes or simply create a sustainable reality for specific people — ontological design is a polyvalent craft. We should understand Design not as telling the subject what they should be, as if by force or imposition, but about designing how being takes place. More than designing messages in themselves, ontological design can design the very ways through which these messages are apprehended; curating the preconditions for thoughts and desires. Think of some of the largest technological reality mediators of our day and age, like Instagram, Apple, YouTube or Google. Their greatest power is not in choosing what to display. Their power lies in the fact that billions of people live by the habits they enable: we already live by the like, by googling, by sending, by clicking, forwarding, pausing and posting."


Contextual Quote: Technology is about designing subjects

"Today, technology allows us a new form of design: one that designs subjects, not objects; people, not things. By designing the information someone consumes, we can frame their opinions. By designing the interactions they have with digital devices, we can frame their thinking. This is known by not only tech giants but by military intelligence. And now, it is time that it becomes known by designers - especially those at the vanguard of dying paradigms. Our environments, our tools and even our ideas are extensions of ourselves. Our clothes extend our skin’s ability to keep our body warm, and our glasses improve our eye’s ability to see. This is simple enough. But what about language, or the internet? What does it do to us? How do they extend our humanity? More importantly: can we design that extension? In this century, algorithmically powered ontological design will radically reinvent what “human” means. It will not only be used to create “better” humans, but to redesign the very concepts of “better” itself, disrupting the values of the old world order and kickstarting a struggle for the new. Creatively terrifying designs are becoming possible."

- Daniel Fraga [1]


Daniel Fraga:

"Ontological Design explicitly addresses the post-human subject as a new category of design project. Rather than designing artefacts, the design of the future will architect human subjectivity via artefacts. In other words: as technological acceleration dissolves the borders between the subject and its world, ontological design gathers (and reinvents) them as project.

Generally speaking, designers today tend to operate under the assumption that that design is about serving the user, the individual or the customer. They are expected to come up with products and services to solve problems and help clients profit. Whenever the needs of the user are put in the centre of the project, we call this user-centric design, and on a good day that is the paradigm through which most designers strive to operate in.

However, ontological design adds a twist to the term ‘user-centric design’. Designs should not only adapt to user needs, in a user-centric manner, but should also define those needs, and engage in deliberate contextual curation. Isn’t it already the case that our environments and our tools design us, whether we are aware of that or not? We are surrounded by prosthetics. The impact that technology and the objects that surround have on us is more than just deep. It is not enough to say that the environment is influential therefore we should pay attention to the environment; we must understand that our tools, our technologies, our ideas — they are constitutional of the human being. Though this is much more salient in our era of advanced technology, it is a truth as old as our species. Technology has co-evolved with us; evolution goes on to this very day precisely through technology. Technology helped our ancestors win their evolutionary battles; and today it is the field where we fight ours. While many animals use technology, in their own way — think of termite hills, chimpanzees using sticks or beaver building dams — in the case of humans, technology is not merely something we use, but something that we are. We are the affordances of the discovery of fire, of clothing, of medicine and agriculture, calculated over the span of a thousands of generations. We’ve co-evolved with technology, and have been in a feedback loop with it since year zero.

As such, it is not enough for designers to try and help the user in solving problem X or Y; the way we are defining “problem”, “user”, and “design” must be updated. We need to move from designing products towards designing users themselves. The questions we need to be asking (if we are to keep up with the stampede of technocapitalism) are not “who are you designing for” or “what problem are you solving” — but rather “who are you designing”. Instead of asking “what are the needs of the users”, we should ask “how might we design our users” and “how might we network their functions”. User-centric design should therefore be replaced with user-network design, since the user is a network of overlapping functions.

A customer or user journey is a commonly used design tool, employed to study the interaction between a user and a product across all of the moments of their engagement. It’s a step by step, linear breakdown of the user’s relation to a designed artefact. In a ride-sharing mobile app, for example, a user journey would map out a series of steps that go from signing up, logging in, adding one’s payment details, allowing the use of location data and potentially towards asking for a car to pick us up from wherever we are. The philosophical assumptions underpinning the concept of a user journey are humanist and Cartesian: they presupposes that the user is a discrete individual who uses a digital product (a tool) to get a service. From this standpoint, the tool is understood as separate from the human. It is designed to serve him in a way very typical of our era, an era where individuality is held as a sacred, unquestioned tenet. In this paradigm, design-thinkers envision products that make people’s lives “easier”, that reduce pain and suffering, are simple, intuitive and helpful. In our humanist paradigm, design is limited to a superficial form of utilitarianism; that is, it has to settle for humanist definitions of “good”, usually defined as the maximisation of “happiness” and “well-being” for the highest possible number of people — and overlooking the cognitive dissonance that comes from the fact that all of this has to happen while making a profit. This is the paradigm of humanist design. It aligns well with the most immediate needs of capital, and it is aligned with its basic philosophies. But aren’t we missing something here? Can this type of design face the challenges of the 21st century and its extreme form of networked capitalism?

Today technology is becoming so advanced that some are beginning to speak of limbic capitalism: that is, a paradigm where attention and money are extracted from people by tapping into the deepest involuntary reflexes of their brains. At the forefront of technocapitalist competition, there is no question: if you are to succeed, you must tap into the unseen reflexes of the post-human body-mind. “Happiness” is a challenge that, from an addiction-design perspective, can easily be solved. Whenever a digital tool offers you a convenient service, they are simultaneously exploiting and commodifying your affects and thoughts. They are basically conscripting you, your functions and your needs into their networked competitive efforts. This should come as no surprise for those who are sober enough to realise it. It’s well known that today that many if not all successful digital companies operate under the assumption that the more you can nudge a person’s behaviour towards your goals, the more money you will make. Simple. If you can harness people’s instincts and strategically inscribe them into the networks of your operations, then you will be incredibly successful. The classic example of social media’s addiction enforcing algorithms — like those of instagram or facebook — is just one of many. Artists Carlota Fay Schoolman and Richard Serra, in a short film aptly titled “Television Delivers People” make the powerful point (at the time specifically about television, but in a way that applies even more neatly to the current digital paradigm) that it is the consumer that is consumed; that it is you who is the product of the TV, being delivered to advertisers who purchase your attention. If the product is free then actually, you are the commodity. “Surely”, you may retort, “no corporation is that advanced that they can perform such a massive and totalitarian design gesture”. To which I would reply that yes, individual corporations may not be able to enact such a grandiose gesture of manipulation. But the overall competitive climate of our age makes it so that we are, wether we like it or not, inscribed into this way of desiring, of thinking and existing. Today, an unseen religious mode has become pervasive across the globe; an ontological totalitarianism, in which human attention is the most prized commodity. It is fiercely competed for; it is assaulted, conquered, partitioned, curated, designed and delivered by every single actor under capitalism, no matter how “user-friendly” they purport to be.

This has a name: Swedish philosophers Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist call it attentionalism, the phase of capitalism where the most prized commodity is human attention:

Historically we express this by saying that capitalism vanquishes itself to death and is replaced by emerging attentionalism, a new communication-driven class 
structure that is built on sensors, sociograms and the control and understanding of information flows, which is completely disconnected from capitalism’s tax 
records, popularly elected parliamentarians and academic titles 

— Alexander Bard & Jan Söderqvist, Digital Libido: Sex, Power and Violence in the Network Society

Capitalism, taken to the extreme, becomes attentionalism. Not as an alternative or a negation, but as the outcome of a great intensification. Capitalism becomes so rabid that it begins to colonise even attention itself; in other words, in the digital age, there’s nothing more capitalist than attentionalism. In it, technology and capital are locked in an increasingly accelerating arms race to solve the problem of attentional extraction. The Swedes define attentionalism as “The value system which is gradually replacing economism as the informationalist paradigm is becoming established. Attention is determined by the interplay between the awareness and the credibility a person or network succeeds in creating”. So what is attention then, and why is it so valuable? Attention has the property of scarcity, meaning that after a certain threshold, the provision & extraction of attention cannot scale. Plastic and its derivatives can scale greatly; if your factory is making one bottle of plastic every hour, by updating your processes and technology (and tapping into the finite yet enormous resources of the Earth) you can begin to make ten thousand bottles of plastic per hour, which will make you a lot more money. Though unsustainable, this incentive for linear scaling is widespread in the “material”, “external” world. However, attention does not have this property because it is inextricably tied to time, which is conspicuously much more finite than plastic, at least from a human point of view. Everyone has a limited supply of time during which they can “pay” attention to something. Nursing or medicine, for example, are professions that depend on individual attention; during one hour, one nurse can only take care of a set amount of patients. However, occupations that are based on scalability tend to yield greater economic returns, such as software engineering. In them you only need to make a software once, and you can sell it a million times, thereby scaling the time invested in its creation a million fold. The property of scalability does not apply equally across the occupational spectrum, and it represents a bottleneck for the economical paradigm of attention extraction. Lives end, and thus human time to pay attention is limited.

Moreover, there is a limit to the informational capacity of one second of human attention: while our senses produce approximately 11 million bits per second, our conscious mind can only handle 50 bits per second. Even without diving into the distinction between conscious and unconscious attention, or into the fact that as our conscious states become altered, time-perception can dilate or compress, we can safely say that as a resource, attention is by definition scarce because it is bound to a limited supply of human time — and thus its value is commensurate with its scarcity. In the attentionalist economy, time and its finitude are a bottleneck; and as methods of attentional extraction become more sophisticated, and as attention becomes increasingly scarce, the outcome is that “capital seeks out attention rather than, as previously, the other way around”.

Attention follows desire and desire follows attention. It mediates what affects arise in post-humans, and is a key mediator for steering processes of valuation and in the mechanisms of power and desire. The habitual casting of attention onto an object of desire — which is another way to say, the relational mode by which subject and object are continuous — ends up forming how we desire, and thereby that which we call our “identity”. Notwithstanding the fact that we never fully consciously control our attention — our unconscious motivations, drives and desires are heavily involved in that — this trait is exacerbated and exploited to the extreme in attentionalism. What people desire is something can be carefully and extensively cultivated, steered and governed.

However, even contemporary technologies for attentionalist extraction evolve. The current paradigm is based on a rather binary way of valuing attention: where “more time”, “more data” and “more engagement” are good in and of themselves. The (mis)use of user data by tech giants, the deployment of micro-targeting to foster addiction or its use to promote political polarisation belong to this paradigm — which can be said to be rather linear and quantitative. However, this stage is but the first one. A second stage of attentionalist extraction will follow, where quantity is replaced with quality; where maximisation and scalability is replaced with immersion and affective depth. It will no longer be merely about tricking people to get their attention, but building their entire personality structures around them enjoying, deeply that paying of certain kinds of attention. Ontological design will come to the forefront as the means to weave together the many different attentional extraction & refinement artefacts. Immersion will be engineered not along one or a few vectors (several user journeys) but across many interconnected user systems. Deleuze & Guattari use the term dividual as opposed to individual; while the latter implies a sort of unitary indivisibility, in truth, we are more like the former, a collection of flows: multiple, contradicting and overlapping. We contain a multiplicity of different desires and wills, functions and intensities. It is the curation of systems of circumstances that inscribe the subject into a discourse; and this is the entry point for the world of technology and of capital into ontological design — designing the truth-games by which subjects process themselves as subjects. Therefore we should stop speaking of “user journeys” as if there was a “user” separate from the journey. No; the user and its myriad journeys coexist in a post-human continuum, an endless network. We must consider the user, its artefacts and a range of strategically pinpointed power relations under one total project: subjectivity. In utilitarian small-scale projects, such as mobile apps designed for a simple need (like hailing a cab or ordering food), we can naturally understand the utility of user journeys. But when we consider the subject as a project, user journeys will give way to highly complex and powerful user systems, deliberately articulating journeys, interfaces and relations across the artefacts of their designed world under a holistic strategy. Designers of the near future will no longer be designing apps, but doing total Design: networking a diverse array of functions sitting under a common spatial strategy and even semiotic, behavioural and epistemological directives, and ultimately framing the unfolding of the subject’s struggles — because subjectivity is struggle."



Daniel Fraga:

Prosthetics theory

"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.

“Ontological “

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.

Extended “body” ; Extended “mind”

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." (https://medium.com/datadriveninvestor/the-manifesto-of-ontological-design-7fdb19169107)