Ontological Design

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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)


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)