Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Aug 20, 2017
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    California Dreaming?

    Reviewing the London Design Museum exhibition California: Designing Freedom, Richard Carr concludes that the dream may yet turn into a digital nightmare

    THE EXHIBITION, California: Designing Freedom at the Design Museum in London marks the change in design in America's west coast from products to electronic platforms – from the iconic interiors and furniture of designers such as Charles and Ray Eames – to Apple's first computer that was introduced to the public by Ridley Scott's promotional film of 1984.

    Before then, design was mainly concerned with products that reflected the boom years that followed the end of the Second World War. After 1984, the exhibition claims, what was important was not hardware but information.

    Given the enormity of the change, the exhibition is relatively sparse. It begins with the Apple computer already mentioned and looks at products and platforms that aim to maximise the freedom of the individual, which range from Google's mobile search engine that can be worn as a backpack and provides information on direct paths to local amenities, to the Waymo Firefly self-driving car that will take you to where you want to go.

    For the designer, there are the Adobe typefaces and Emigre digital fonts that break out of the strictures of traditional typefaces, and for the individual keen to experience movement and speed, there are skateboards for local travel and Harley Davidson motorbikes for the freedom of the road.

    For those who like communal living, there are the geodesic domes created by Buckminster Fuller, and for architects like Frank Gehry, CAD (Computer Aided Design) that enable them to destroy the tyranny of the right angle. And for those who believe in democracy, there is the mobile, electronic voting booth introduced by LA County in 2015 and still in use today.

    What the Apple computer of 1984, and the Macintosh, the PowerBook, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad have done is to transfer the ability to communicate and store vast amounts of information – originally developed for the military – to everyone across the globe. But not only have they facilitated world-wide connectivity; they have also led to a fixation on the self. As Justin McGuirk says in the book that accompanies the exhibition, "This fixation on the self goes far beyond the 'meet space.' We now have a whole new realm online in which to create our identities... We have endless platforms for self-expression, or just self-documentation. And every tweet and selfie feeds the system."

    But it also means, as he says, that designers at Apple, Facebook, Google etc have tremendous influence on our behaviour. Every swipe and micro gesture that we make matters, and they seem to be leading to a condition in which we record ourselves in real time, all the time. We are reaching a state when, if something isn't photographed, it isn't real – a state predicted by Guy Debord's book, The Society of the Spectacle, in which everything must be rendered as an image.

    However, there is one aspect of the dominance of California's (and Seattle's) technological companies that the exhibition does not examine: their detrimental affect on creativity – and on society at large.

    As Jonathan Taplln says in his new book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon have Cornered Culture and What it Means for Us, his charge against Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo and WhatsApp includes hate attacks, trolling, fake news, boycotting advertisers, cyber-bullying and facilitating secret communication between terrorists.

    Quite apart from the way in which these companies move money around the world to avoid paying taxes – and the EU has recently ordered Apple to pay 13bn Euros in back taxes, and fined Google 2.4bn Euros for manipulating internet search results – Taplin accuses Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) of stealing the work of artists, musicians and journalists, and claims that while Google, the largest media company in the world, amasses $60bn advertising revenue a year, the artists, film-makers and musicians have all become the poorer.

    There are, of course, other charges: that Twitter's anonymity 'brings out the worst in humans'; that gig-companies like Uber are destroying job security; and that robots and AI (artificial intelligence) are already being used by companies such as Amazon to get rid of error-prone and unreliable workers. It seems, according to Taplin, that in the relatively near future, half of America's jobs will be automated away.

    The freedom designed by California may yet turn into a nightmare.

    California: Designing Freedom continues till October 17.

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