What Becomes of Human Centered Design When A River is a Human?

More than human centered design

What Becomes of Human Centered Design When A River is a Human?

This is not a hypothetical question.

In Aotearoa (what for some is New Zealand) the Māori have worked to have the Whanganui River given the same legal status as a person. This is not limited to a single river, Mount Taranaki has a similar designation, and the status is being extended to other humans across Aotearoa (rivers, forests, and mountains).

These actions are not limited to Aotearoa, we find similar actions in South America and elsewhere. They are happening all around us — and many of us are involved in these worldmaking efforts.

Other ways of being alive exist where trees and mountains are humans. Other “worlds” exist where chairs and tables are animate. Other worlds abound.  And with each what it means for us to be a human radically changes.

Given these developments, we can no longer ignore the fact that what might have once been taken as universal and ahistorical is actually not.  Our recent western concept of “human” — is quite provincial— its historical, quite recent and not at all universal.

We have to ask ourselves, are our human human-centered design practices dangerously myopic? What is at stake when we silence difference in the name of human centered design?

Why isn’t the recognition of ontological difference part of creativity and design?

Is “Universal Design” the Problem with Human Centered Design?

In the modern west a consensus has developed across the sciences that humans are deep down the same the world over — we all have the same essence and needs— we all have the same “nature”. And that this shared nature finds different collective expression in the differing “cultures” scattered across the globe.

Most of our contemporary design, innovation and management practices have evolved out of this consensus.

Can this model of one nature and many cultures (mono-naturalism + multi-culturalism) come to terms with a river being a human?

Where nature and culture meet
Modern Perspective: Confluence of nature and culture

The problem with a universal model of human centered design — and any other model that assumes we are all deep down the same — is that it cannot come to terms with actual difference.

The modernist universalizing western perspective explains rivers as people as superstitions to be overcome, or as elaborate metaphors that are not meant in any literal sense — “of course, no one is claiming rocks are people, that would be silly, they are simply getting at the fact that everything is energy and “alive”— but they don’t have our modern words for it!”

Multiculturalism explains away and denies real difference.

Let’s focus on the style of judgement being used in this universalizing perspective:

  1. It is assumed that judgement can be passed, because “we” (the scientists, designers and western experts) have special access to reality (nature).
  2. Culture is deemed ultimately to be superficial — at the core all cultures, no matter how different they seem — are expressions of the same essential nature.
  3. Human centered design (HCD) to the degree it assumes to know what the human “is” — is complicit in making and maintaining “a world where only one world is possible.”
  4. It is a style of engaging with reality where there are only quantitative differences but no qualitative difference.

Can this model of one Nature + many Cultures that underpins Human Centered Design ethically come to terms with difference?

This is both a general ethical question and a question about how we should conceptualize creativity. Ethically universalizing styles of judgement erases the other. They involve a colonial perspective — they subsume or colonize (erase) all difference from inside of one perspective.

And from the perspective of creativity, it reduces creativity ultimately to only involving change-in-degree. But what of change-in-kind? What of qualitative difference?

Two form of creativity - change in degree and change in kind
Two types of creativity. Design Thinking yields changes in degree. Novelty emerges from change in kind.

It is impossible to engage with qualitative change (fully half of creativity) if we do not have a model of difference that is willing to recognize difference in kind and not just in degree. Any and all forms of universalizing creativity or design practices are ones that ultimately do not adequately come to terms with difference in kind.

The underlying model of Nature + Culture needs to change. We need an alternative model of how we become who we are as collective beings that does not begin by assuming that we must all be the same.

We need to recognize that the Maori are not simply another culture expressing a universal truth of humanness — they are part of a different way of being alive.

In putting aside the concepts of Nature and Culture how do we speak about our collective practices? What does it mean to have a different way of being alive?

On Worlds and Worldmaking

What we do as a collective is not the reflection or expression of a set of underlying essences (what the Nature+Culture model assumes). Rather what we do, with others (both “human” and “non-human”) makes us who we are. Nothing exists alone, everything exists in relation and through relations (assemblages). These specific practices and the roles of everything involved allow a logic to emerge and this logic in turn shapes all of the parts.

Diagramming the process of Worldmaking
4 Phases of Worldmaking

We call this assemblage a world. A world is:

  • A specific relational way of being alive (an assemblage) that gives rise to implicit and explicit practices, concepts, environments that shapes who we are, how we act and how we sense and know.
  • Ongoing relational processes that give rise to our most basic concepts, and practices via emergence.
  • The assemblage is an ecology of relations between humans and non-humans that generate what the anthropologist Philippe Descola calls ‘schemas’ – or  “deeply internalized…cognitive and corporeal templates that govern the expression of an ethos”. (See above diagram).
  • There are two elements of such schemas, which play a particular role in structuring worlds around concepts of what is “inside” and what is “outside” (see diagram below: Descola’s Four Schema’s).
    [1] Identifications: by which differences and continuities are established between subjects via analogies and contrasts.
    [2] Relationships: which are developed, stabilized and maintained via norms organizing groupings of beings.
  • Our daily actions in specific environments with specific tools (physical and conceptual) make and remake a world. In this way a world is not reducible to a “worldview”. We call this process “worldmaking” and the outcome a “world” (a word of caution, it is easy to speak of outcomes — but worlds are not static — worlds are always worlds-in-the-making).
  • While it is reasonable to say there is a “modernist perspective” or an “animist perspective” — these are high level abstractions that are deeply entangled in the worlds from which they emerge. Most of what makes up a world cannot be fully explicated or reduced to abstractions. Most of what makes up a world are practices that involve specific bodies in specific environments doing specific things
  • Worlds are not cultures — or at least not in the modernist sense of the term.
  • Neither is a world a mindset — a worldview. This puts far too much emphasis on ideas.
  • Nor is it a paradigm — it is more general and more regulating/ordering.
  • It is hard to recognize that we have a world for we are so “of” our world (and not simply “in” it).

Whatever judgement we make about another world — say an animist world such as the Māori world— our judgement cannot ultimately replace, subsume or explain away an other worlds actuality or difference.

Take as an example the animist world understanding that rocks, tools and rivers are also humans. Does Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs now apply to a chair? Maslow’s model cannot expand that far, we are dealing with an un-subsumable difference. When a chair is a human —then what a human is — is something very different.

All of our worlds most general concepts — nature, self, matter — these are “worldly” concepts. They emerge historically from a set of practices, have specific effects and co-make a “world” — but not “The World”. An other world is irreducible. All worlds are irreducible.

We Have a World (Too)

Critical to this (and critical to any form of disruptive creativity) is to diagnose/disclose our world (and to no longer confuse it with “reality”). While this is something far larger than the scope of this article, we can articulate some very broad aspects:

  • Our world is what Descola terms “naturalism” (in that we organize humans via relative external characteristics (culture) and a fixed internal essence (nature).
  • We make a very clear divide between humans and non-humans (anthropocentric)
  • We live in a world of primary and secondary qualities
  • We have a series of organizing dualities: material-immaterial, nature-culture, pure-impure, male-female, etc.
  • NOTE: we will look at this in detail in future articles — sign-up for our newsletter to wander this journey with us.

Other World Exist

If we can model a “world” and our world — then we can also model how many worlds meet and engage with “reality” without needing to resort to an essentialist model:

Many worlds exist within other worlds
A world where many worlds exist

The total space of assemblages forms the total space of worlds.

Here it is useful to contrast the modernist model of a single ontology with a model that allows for multiple fundamental ontologies to co-exist:

Where cultures and worlds meet
On "Cultures" and "Worlds"

World is always plural: worlds.

Much of what we are discussing in this article draws heavily upon the work of the anthropologist Philippe Descola. Here is a lecture by Philippe Descola on worlds and animals. He wrote an important book on the topic of worlds: Beyond Nature and Culture. It is worth a close read, in it he makes an argument that there are in general four basic schema/worlds (we are summarizing quite radically):

  1. Naturalism
  2. Animism
  3. Totemism
  4. Analogism

He posits that you can understand these four schema based upon how these worlds conceptualize what is inside (inferiority) and what is outside (physicality).

While such a summary is far far too brief — what we hope you can sense is that our world (what he calls Naturalism or the Modern Perspective) is not The World — and that other worlds exist:

 Four worlds as described by Descola
Philippe Descola's Four Schema / Worlds

Preliminary Thoughts for Human Centered Design & Worlds

If other worlds exist then Design has much to reconsider…

Other worlds are possible quote

There are differences that change everything. Here are some preliminary thoughts (we would love to hear your thoughts— we are very much still working out what this means):

  • We cannot speak for everyone — this is both an ethical and aesthetic stance: there is no final external measure to judge a world — judgement is always immanent to a practice.
    - Universal practices and assumptions cannot continue: Human Centered Design is a form of colonial practice that we need to move out of.
  • Design needs to assume as an ethical principle of “Ontological Self-Determination” and creativity needs to assume “Ontogenetic Self-Determination” (This is a concept borrowed from Viveros de Castro).
  • That other worlds exist is an “ontological” challenge — it challenges what it is “to be” (the study of which is termed “ontology”).  
    - This challenge asks of us a new type of engaged listening — a listening that does not begin with the urge to translate, empathize, generalize or assist.
    - It is a far more active “listening” — for if worlds cannot be fully explicated but only understood via immersive practice — then we need to become far engaged.
  • Our engagements and listening need to take on the form of alliance and diplomacy — a negotiation between differences which acknowledge that the difference cannot be erased. (A fundamental underdeveloped aspect of creativity is diplomacy —acknowledging and negotiating difference).
  • Empathy cannot be a first principle or practice — it assumes too much (that we already understand what it is to experience what they experience).
  • Creativity begins in caring for difference — for other modes of being alive.
  • Creativity begins in recognizing that all of our universal terms (including creativity) are of a world and a historical mode of being alive.
  • Creativity is an aesthetic and an ethical project. Aesthetic in that it involves the creation of new worlds and ethical in that it involves the creation of new worlds in a reality of many worlds.
  • Worldmaking is fundamental to design, creativity, politics, aesthetics and ethics.

Now What Becomes of Human Centered Design Practices?

What happens to your human centered design practice when we acknowledge differences and give rise to alternative voices?  Our creative endeavors become open to worlds of creative possibilities.  

Can one Nature + many Cultures that underpins Human Centered Design principles ethically come to terms with difference? In a modern world of inclusivity and embracing of difference, is empathy enough?

Difference can evolve for human centered designers once we evolve away from myopic known outcomes. Moving beyond empathy. Discarding the assumptions of knowing what human “is” — in order to design a world where other worlds are possible.

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