Design as cultural diaspora

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If we agree to the functionality of Victor Margolin's definition of design as the act of human making, we're fairly safe relating design to all human populations. In fact, it becomes part of the definition of being human. The quality of Ugandan basketry, for example, elevates it beyond the realm of "folk art," even though most practitioners are not highly educated, while "information design" in Africa is still in its infancy. Here a clash of cultures is possible, where one people is anxious to acquire the technology of another. It requires great patience and subtlety on the part of the "transferring culture" to encourage technological adoption while avoiding cultural hegemony.

Most design is grounded in the history of human technical advancement; it grows out of the native human desire to "trick nature," to use the words of Vilem Flusser. Societies tend to adopt new technologies based upon the adversities of their environment, e.g. although fire is useful in the tropics, it is not absolutely necessary for survival. When cultures interrelate, as the history of human migration indicates they must, some societies adopt the technologies of others.

In "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Jared Diamond gives a telling account of the classic encounter between Pisarro and the Incas. What we have learned since the 15th century is that so-called "conquered peoples" adopt technologies that may alter them, but they also exert an influence upon the conquerors. If we are to view these cultural interactions as something more than conquest and counter-revolution, we need to examine the many ways culture/technology adopters influence the paradigms they imitate. East Africans, for instance, import all of their vehicles from outside Africa, but physically and visually alter them to suit an older, self-trained mechanical tradition. The same people, raised in an agrarian, non-industrial society, are very covetous of manufactured goods, finding multiple uses for broken or discarded implements. This is very different from the discard culture that presently exists in the West.

As peoples of the developing world gradually join the world communication network they will need assistance from the rest of us. How they utilize these technologies, from e-mail on up, will be different from the ways we use them in the industrialized world. In transferring this technology we need to be respectful of continuing great cultural differences, despite oft repeated cliches about the "global village". Let us not repeat the errors of past cultures: we are designers, not conquistadores. Those design aspects of developing societies which could be harmed by design evolution might be placed on a list of "endangered cultural metiers" until they find their new place through the application of indigenous form. Helping other peoples of the world discover their own definitions of the word "design" is the best, probably the only kind of ambassadorship for the 21st century.