“Design: the skin of culture”

Derrick de Kerckhove, visiting professor of Politecnico di Milano

My name is Derrick de Kerckhove, visiting professor at the Politecnico di Milano, and at the University of Toronto I have been director of the Marshall McLuhan Program. I worked with Marshall McLuhan for ten years, I have translated two books and I have been responsible for organizing seminars; working with him also taught me to understand the role of Design.

Derrick de Kerckhove

Interview with Derrick de Kerckhove

Derrick de Kerckhove, you are one of the most internationally well-known Internet sociologists. A former student of Marshall McLuhan, a professor at the Universities of Toronto and Naples, for years you’ve been studying the effects of the digital revolution on human behaviour and interaction between people. This year you are visiting professor at the Politecnico’s School of Design where you teach a course in Social Media. Briefly explain to us the meaning of Marshall McLuhan’s words “In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin”.

This, McLuhan’s most profound insight, closely connects the whole electronic, now digital, environment, with the body as an extension of the central nervous system. The Internet of Things, Cloud Computing, Big Data and Social Media all together support a body-world continuum: electricity leads us all to be linked like a single sensitive skin of beings all connected. Skin feels, skin covers, skin communicates. The skin’s sensitivity is enhanced and reproduced through connections, Internet, satellites and everything that has had its beginnings in the electric age. I’m talking about Internet as a limbic system, the one that carries emotions in the body. Whenever we hear dramatic news, a massacre, a catastrophe, we feel a blow, a physical sensation. In this case, we’re talking about a specific reaction, but if we extend this concept to the fact that we’re invaded by news in real time, we understand that this immediacy makes the difference and touches us like skin. Humanity becomes like a body covered by a system of information and sensation that is generalized and extended to the whole planet.

In every period, design influences more than one single item or product line and thus reveals what might be called “the harmony of culture”. Design, insofar as it is the visible, auditory or structural outer form of cultural artefacts, proves to be the skin of culture. Could you explain the implications of this to us? How does it influence the so-called “crust of reality”?

The skin of culture has two meanings. The first is neurological, about the skin’s function as a system of protection, communication, integration and bodily self-identification. In this sense our skin today enters into a relationship with the web, with the satellites that function as a technical cover and perform the same functions as the organic. The second sense focuses on sensitivity, another function of the skin, which registers changes in temperature, wound, pain and pleasure, and so on. This aspect manifests itself in the instantaneous virality of web communications. McLuhan was absolutely right, and this insight is an inspiration for the world of design too. Design is about interpreting technology and its impact on the body. The crust of reality is the product of layers of cultural design.

Design, inasmuch as it is a part of the skin of culture, is a set of trends and “memes” which are repeated in various types of media and sector and often have to do with some new technology or other. I find that a good metaphor is music, though: technology is a musical instrument that produces design harmonies when it’s played. Yet design also influences the sound. New kinds of sound follow each other according to the characteristics of the instruments that produce them, exactly as a rock era follows the jazz era, then along comes disco, rap, house, techno or rave, and so on. Nowadays, with the pervasiveness of digitalisation and the forms of post-industrial design, there has been an explosion of design that goes beyond its traditional limit of industrial design. Design is no longer applied merely to concrete forms but is becoming ever more social and cognitive. The externalised senses, as McLuhan observed, produce new modes of expression through multimedia, virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, all audio-visual tools, all the way through to transmedia and so on. In this sense, Design is stretching in a number of not really new but recent directions such as cyberdesign, metadesign and social innovation.

I’m particularly interested in metadesign: the great challenges faced by design today are not about the production of objects but about the production of the production of objects. How can we give users a feeling of empowerment, the opportunity to create their process, their object? If, on the other hand, we think of cyberdesign, we understand the tole of design in managing interactivity in real time and redefining the service, the interaction and the target community. There is a need for a very strong cognitive design approach in the world of software. Forms of communication associated with platforms intended for public use are designed according to very specific objects: Twitter doesn’t connect people in the same way as Facebook does. Twitter works because it responds to a demand that is augmented by immediacy.

In terms of design, however, the genuine innovations for me continue to emerge from social innovation. This kind of initiative not only requires its use but often is set in motion commencing from design itself, starting with the involvement of communities in a project that is of benefit to the community, for example. Social innovation demands a type of design that is the destiny of design: creating harmony, creating social harmony! We urgently need this kind of contribution.

In the era of connectivity, how is the relationship between identity and the collective aspect reshaped? How can this relationship influence shared, participatory design practices in the world of design?

Connectivity takes the western man from the private to the public, from opacity to transparency, from the past to real time. The challenge of designing fashion and ways of living is how to interpret this change in such a way as to make it tolerable. One need only think that, in certain contexts, it is as if we were living naked in the street as already happens in the smart city that spies on every citizen (such as Singapore). The contemporary mind empties itself of downloadable contents, of memories, of long-term memory, and instead stays alerted to tackle the proliferating questions of the present. The cult of privacy, in my view, is destined to disappear. The collective aspect will be regulated by the big data and other data, and the world will be populated by instantaneous tribes. A part of the design world will need to work towards social innovation in order to facilitate this process or, perhaps, to put it better, to reduce the traumas associated with this transition.

Design benefits in several ways from sharing and co-design without being hindered by distance or by the wait for feedback. Collaborations are increasingly international in scope thanks to network connections, business networks, and highly accurate simulation tools. In addition, there is crowdsourcing, which extends the potential for participation to an even broader public. Another major guiding principle of new design is to create communities wherever possible and wherever needed. This undoubtedly brings communication projects to the fore: apps are a connective form of design. They depend on the creation of user communities.

Against this background, what is the true importance of transdisciplinarity and cross-pollination with the humanities for the world of Design?

Essential. Today the byword is collaboration. The individual genius belongs to the encyclopaedic era of Da Vinci and Galileo, and had already begun to lose its importance and meaning after Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. The problem today is that people know fewer things because everything is available on-line-in-real-time-on-demand. Transdisciplinary collaboration is fundamental when specialists no longer possess a general culture.

What is connective intelligence for? Private intelligence, if it has a good deal of content, various kinds of knowledge and a good level of inner connectivity, may be a source of inventiveness within the group. The group doesn’t have a great deal of content at its disposal nowadays, young people without history, yet not without curiosity or the ability to learn quickly. So it’s better to bring several minds together than leave the responsibility on just one person’s shoulders.

Finally, some advice for the academic world: what can we do to foster genuine internationalisation, not just in terms of opening up to other institutions, but also in terms of appropriating and disseminating in our teaching and research the transnational scenarios, ideas and models that are driving processes of current interest and innovation in the world?

My class at the Politecnico is more international than the one I had in Canada, which as it happens was dominated by Italians (I taught at the Catholic college of the University of Toronto). This is the best way to internationalise the academic context: to create flows of transfer and exchange, to do it online and offline at international professional conferences. This will certainly help to give a brand, a specific identity, to the Politecnico, which is already quite high up in the international rankings, not to mention the fact that Milan in any case enjoys a global reputation as a capital of fashion, industrial and home design.


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