Looking back at the three projects I completed with throughout the Critical Making course I took last year Bill Gaver’s work on ludic design emerged as a key text, shaping the methods I deployed to build technologies, and providing a starting point for establishing the theoretical contexts that informed my work. After reviewing all of my project notes, it became apparent that each build—despite thematic differences—originated in a desire to create technologies that explored notions of play, that stimulated new experiences and that asked questions about how we live in the world. My interest in the ludic seems to have emerged from the cognitive dissonance I felt as I encountered Gaver’s ideas; I spent a lot of time thinking about how to create conditions that could enable ‘mindful ambiguity’ or ‘structured open-endedness.’ In addition to providing productive conceptual prompts, Gaver’s was one of the few texts that offered strategies for designing objects that could probe those exciting concepts. In a course where material engagement is as important as conceptual engagement, Gaver’s ability to describe well-articulated design methods, alongside a rich theoretical framework and example projects, proved particularly useful. Indeed, in explicating two interrelated design approaches, “overstatement” and “self-effacement,” I found that Gaver provided tools for engaging with the unique aspects of materials, similar to what Tim Ingold calls the “textility” of things, while also providing methods for reading, unpacking and contributing to rhetorics of design. Gaver’s work provides a rich set of tools for approaching research and design from the perspective of critical making.
My first attempt at employing Gaver’s design strategies arose from an effort to create a moral technology. For this project I built an object named Bell Tolls that used the sound of a ringing bell to make audible a statistical representation of malaria deaths.
The success of this project rested on fostering an affective engagement with class participants. I needed my object to provoke an ethical response without “overcoding” the meanings attached to the work. In other words, I had to design ambiguity into the project so that individuals could approach it on their own terms, and build from it their own interpretations and understandings. Gaver’s notion of overstatement seemed like the best method to achieve this end since it is tuned towards mobilizing exaggeration with the goal of provoking individuals to assert their own interpretations of objects and experiences, and consequently avow their commitments and attachments.
My interpretation of overstatement, within the context of this project, resulted in the decision to exaggerate the abstract and constructed nature of statistical representations of malaria deaths. I thought that incessantly ringing a bell, at the rate at which malaria deaths occur, exaggerated the absurdity and horror of both death and the abstraction of death. What’s more, overstatement also led me to select the bell as the core material of this project. Inspired by Anthony Dunne’s call to use technology to “…extend the range of cultural values, building on what is already understood, rather than illustrating it,” I specifically set out to use culturally loaded materials that would, in and of themselves, contribute to processes of exaggeration. Recognizing that there are a host of cultural associations tied to bells—the passage of time, the raising of an alarm, the summoning of workers, celebration and death—I designed Bell Tolls to allow for productive ambiguities and slippages to emerge between and among these concepts. Employing Gaver’s strategy of overstatement informed both my conceptual and material processes, and provided an interesting path to navigate through the tricky territory of morality and technology
Gaver, William. “Designing for Homo Ludens, Still.” In (Re) Searching the Digital Bauhaus, edited by T. Binder, J. Lowgren, and L. Malmborg, 163–178. London: Springer-Verlag London Limited, 2008.
Ingold, Tim. “The Textility of Making.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34, no. 1 (2010): 91–102.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.