Keller Easterling: Medium Design. Knowing How to Work on the World (2021)

Photo by Terence Starkey on Unsplash

In previous Medium posts I have situated the craft of systems tinkering as a manifestation of a systemic way of being in the world. It is where we work creatively and respectfully with the friction that is inevitably bound up with our existence as sense-making entities in a world in flux. Here is an exciting and important book that expands our conception of possibility and agency as systems tinkerers.

It starts with another way of seeing. A shift from a foreground of things to a background of relationships between these things, from a set of atomised objects to a medium or a field. Imagine watching a pool table. You can describe it by enumerating and locating the balls that are spread over the bed. But that itemised report doesn’t say anything meaningful about the potential embedded in that constellation to offer a great game of pool. We might also say: the photographic representation is unable to reveal the propensity of the configuration and its affordance for a winning reconfiguration.

Whether this medium-oriented way of looking at the world is a reflection of a deeper ontological shift remains unclear. When Easterling invokes the metaphor of ‘the trapdoor’ that separates a ‘modern’ from a ‘non-modern’ mind, she seems to hint at a fundamentally different understanding of reality. But more often medium design — a logic of intervening in the world that takes its cue from this ecological perspective — is presented as a pragmatic approach to ‘working on the world’: “Medium design is not a thing. It has no content. It is only an ever-present approach to many things — an expanded means to generate change outside of some dominant cultural habits.” Also, there is nothing particularly novel about it: “Thinking in this way is at once common, often unexpressed, and profoundly underexploited.” In the first chapter in the book Easterling references a range of thinkers, including Michel Foucault, Jane Bennett and Michael Polanyi, who have foregrounded ideas about perception, agency and reality that pave the way to a dispositional, relational way of being in and acting on the world.

Buying into medium design as a viable strategy to work on the world gives way to other paradigmatic shifts.

  • Our understanding of what constitutes effective activism moves beyond the trusted binary templates of ‘us’ against ‘them’. We should not forfeit conventional political activism. However, direct resistance has the tendency to become monolithic, to strengthen the forces that it opposes and risks to become co-opted in bringing about its own defeat. It needs to complemented with the more stealthy and nebulous tactics of medium design.
  • We should be wary of thinking in terms of solutions that fit particularised problems. This habitually results in the conceptualisation of master plans that want to stabilise a problematic situation once and for all. But this kind of thinking pushes us into weak positions that do not take advantage of the latent, unfolding potential that is there. Whatever we design is destined to go wrong at some point, in some way. There is no way we can get rid of problems. We should see them as fuel for an ongoing process of dispositional unfolding.
  • Space is something else than undifferentiated Euclidean extension. To the contrary, space is the malleable chessboard upon which we square off against the well-entrenched tactics of the capitalist establishment. We need to approach space as plural, as spaces of interplay and entanglement, with exploitable affordances for positive change.

Clearly, medium design is not a matter of right or wrong, of clear ideological contours, of undisputable success. “Multiplying problems can be helpful. Messiness is smarter than newness. (…) Nothing is new, nothing is right, nothing is free, and there are no dramatic manifestos, ur-enemies, or universals.” That is its strength, and also its weakness, particularly in a culture galvanised by personal status, visual evidence and quantifiable solutions. Easterling is aware that this ‘knowing how’ is difficult to transmit, that it may be hard for medium design to sway our collective psyche. The search is on for persuasive cultural narratives that reframe our ambitions away from growth and winning, to collaborative exploration and wayfinding. It will be a very hard sell.

Much of the book is devoted to testing these ideas on societal challenges of increasing scope: from creating viable housing conditions for a burgeoning population to envisioning alternative ways of meeting the world’s mobility needs to adapting to the realities of climate change. Ultimately, the rationale behind medium design is to disarm, to subvert the structural violence and inequality that permeate our contemporary societies.

The discussion is suggestive rather than hands-on. The protocols of interplay, switching and hybridisation foregrounded in the book’s cases mix spatial artifacts and variables with all sorts of interventions, metrics and incentives. But we’re far from a systematic toolbox here. And while the author is sceptical about the pertinence of blockchain technologies to enable these protocols, she seems to underplay the vital importance of social capital. The insight that trustful human relationships are the ultimate breeding ground for medium designerly strategies is a startling oversight in Easterling’s exposé. Another attractor that is only very fleetingly hinted at is the aesthetic pleasure that could accompany the practice of medium design. What better incentive to dump the constraints of soul-destroying bullshit jobs that reinforce the status quo than to seize on an opportunity to lead lives that are more just, meaningful and beautiful at the same time.

This book offers immense food for thought. As far as I’m concerned it’s an instant classic.

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?