These four books have been the most essential of my readings to understand the current history of the Global North and the way in which it dominates the world, including creating a European-centered monoculture so that anyone outside of this western way of thinking and behaving is considered inferior, thus destroying the numerous powerful cultures of the indigenous people that live in the “unoccupied territories” before the Europeans invaded and colonized them. Some of the books also show why the current practice of design is a from of colonization, where foreign experts go into a foreign land and tell the inhabitants what they must do.

So here are the four books, presented to you in the same order that I discovered and learned from them. Obviously, I have read far more than these four and the others will be acknowledged in my writings, but these four were of critical importance to my new understanding of the world, the history we have inherited, and the activities we must do to change things.

And the paper? Well, the books all point to our history and the difficulties the current world faces. The paper, by the Australian designer Tony Fry, points to the activities we must do, especially in the education of designers.

Fry, T. Design Education in a broken world. The Studio at the Edge of the World.

Book 1: Why our design methods are wrong

Easterly, W. (2013). The tyranny of experts: economists, dictators, and the forgotten rights of the poor. Basic Books.

Recommended to me by Necla Tschirgi, Distinguished Professor, Human Security and Peacebuilding, and the University of San Diego.

This book dramatically made me change my mind about how design should work when engaging in societal needs. We have to give up our dictatorial methods. We must let the work be guided by the community. Here is the tyranny of experts: they (we?) go into a new region of the world, perhaps sending in our design researchers and anthropologists to study the people. We then engage in deep thought and develop solutions to the problems that exist. We develop a huge plan, costing $billions and taking decades. And they invariably fail, but only after wasting billions of money, usually a lot more than was budgeted.

What’s the problem? The problem is that experts are indeed experts at the problems, and they propose sensible solutions. But they do not know the people, their resources, their culture.

When we do community-driven work, we don’t need to send in anthropologists. The community understands themselves: they are aware of the issues.

Book 2: Design for the pluriverse

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the pluriverse: radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Duke University Press.

Easterly’s book (book 1) made me realize that the way that we apply our Human-Centered Design methods to communities was wrong because they were forcing our western views upon people without their consent and participation, and thereby without a full understanding of their ways of life, their resources, and capabilities.

Escobar’s book provided me with a deep understanding of the many different ways of being on the earth, ways that were destroyed by the colonization carried out by the European powers, with the damage still existing today.

I started corresponding with Escobar, which, among other things, led to a weekly set of meetings with me, Escobar, Fernando Flores, B. Rousse, and Terry Winograd. Winograd (an old friend, is a computer scientist at Stanford) who wrote an important book with Fernando Flores called “Understanding Computers and Cognition,” in part inspired by Winograd’s work on language understanding and Heidegger’s very different view of the world, a topic Flores had studied after he left Chile (where we was a cabinet office in the Allende regime, jailed afterward, and then emigrated to the United States where he got a PhD in Philosophy at UC Berkeley. Rousse got his PhD in philosophy at Berkeley, is an authority on Heidegger, and works for Fernando in his consulting company. And to round out the circle, Escobar had studied with Flores at Berkeley.

Book 3: The History of Colonization, and massive industrial power, and racism, all seen throughout the eye of the English Empire of cotton.

Beckert, S. (2014). Empire of cotton: a global history. Alfred A. Knopf.

Cotton? When I first was told I had to learn the history of cotton, I resisted: why would I be interested? But my friend, Fernando Flores, who kept recommending this course of action was persuasive, and because I respected his opinions, I purchased and read about the Empire of Cotton.

Wow! It is a powerful book. The history of the English domination of the cotton trade at the start of the Industrial revolution illustrates the rise of colonization, of monopolistic trade, and then the rise of slavery as an international trade. And then racism, because the slaves the English bought in Africa and then sold to the plantation owners in the English colonies in what is today the southern United States were all black. The slaves imported from Africa to the English colonies in what is today the United States in order to tend the cotton being grown on southern plantations were black. This created discrimination — and racism — against all black people in the colonies, for anyone black was considered a slave.

Here is the official book review from the publisher:

The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality in the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world.

Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in 1780, these men created a potent innovation (Beckert calls it war capitalism, capitalism based on unrestrained actions of private individuals; the domination of masters over slaves, of colonial capitalists over indigenous inhabitants), and crucially affected the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia. We see how this thing called war capitalism shaped the rise of cotton, and then was used as a lever to transform the world.

The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, workers and factory owners. In this as in so many other ways, Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the modern world. The result is a book as unsettling and disturbing as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.”

Book 4: Equity for all people

​Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design justice: community-led practices to build the worlds we need. The MIT Press.

This is a marvelous book, describing how we completely ignore a large number of people, not out of biases, but out of ignorance. It isn’t just the power and mindset of the establishment, often identified as the privileged white males The book, for me, was an eye-opener about all the ways that discrimination occurs. More than you might imagine, even if you think you are already tuned to many of the ailments. In other words, however bad you think it is, this book will show you it is worse. But what I really liked about the book is that it has a positive attitude. Its goal is not to show all the things that are wrong but rather to show what we should be doing to correct the wrongs.

After I discovered this book I talked with Sasha (the author). The best way to describe its impact upon me is to show you what I wrote about it in a draft chapter of my book. Sasha co-founded the “Design Justice Network.” She used to be at the MIT Media Lab, but she has now co-founded and is Director of R&D, The Algorithmic Justice League. Here is what I wrote:

I plead guilty. Let me explain.

Those of us born in western countries (anyplace in the world) take for granted many aspects of life without much thought because it all seems so perfectly obvious and natural, that to consider that there might be different ways of life and different beliefs defies all sensibility. Probably the easiest way to illustrate this is by quoting a rather damning indictment of my own work, an indictment that I agree with (and is what I was referring to when I opened this section with my guilty plea).

The Design of Everyday Things is a canonical design text. It’s full of useful insights and compelling examples. However, it almost entirely ignores race, class, gender, disability, and other axes of inequality. Norman very briefly states that capitalism has shaped the design of objects but says it in passing and never relates it to the key concepts of the book. Race and racism appear nowhere. He uses the term women only once … Gay, lesbian, transgender: none of these terms appear. Disability is barely discussed … He thus firmly subscribes to the individual/medical model of disability that locates disability in “defective” bodies and as a “problem” to be solved, rather than the social/relational model (that recognizes how society actively disables people with physical or psychological differences, functional limitations, or impairments through unnecessary exclusion, rather than taking action to meet their access needs, let alone the disability justice model, created by Disabled B/I/PoC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color) as they fight to dismantle able-bodied supremacy as a key axis of power within the matrix of domination.

In other words, the book is a compendium of designed objects that are difficult to use that provides key principles for better design, but it almost entirely ignores questions of how race, class, gender, disability, and other aspects of the matrix of domination shape and constrain access. Excerpts from “Design Justice” (Costanza-Chock, 2020, pp. 36-37)

The original text was 360 words: I reduced it by 1/3 to 221 words.

Notice that I am not guilty for anything that I did. I am guilty for what I did NOT do. And this is what growing up in a monoculture does for us. This is especially true for those of us who grew up in a comfortable life, with supporting parents, and who today are part of the white establishment (through no merit or fault of our won, I add – it simply happened, so we think). “White privilege? No, not for me,” we each say to ourselves. “Racist, biased, prejudiced? Not me.” Well, Costanza-Chock is explaining that I am deluding myself. I am not only a racist, but many other things as well. Mostly through subconscious beliefs and ignorance. A good description of how this comes about is Kendi’s book “How to be an antiracist (Kendi, 2019).

In many cases, however, the harm was done quite deliberately, when colonizers destroyed the records of the people they conquered (e.g., the Aztecs in what is today Mexico), or the temples and places of worship, or forbid the use of indigenous languages.

How does this apply to design? Basically everywhere was taken over by western designers. I have visited design schools across the world, and they are all similar. Some may focus upon training the skills of craft workers, others upon more “modern” methods of applying design to mass-marketed products, to systems, and structures, or to the ever-increasing role of computer-based products, and games, but in all of these the methods are those developed in Europe and the United States: a monoculture of methods.

The Paper: Design education in a broken world

Fry, T. Design Education in a broken world. The Studio at the Edge of the World.

Tony Fry and his collaborators have written numerous books and articles about the current state of the world. They are part of the movement called Ontological Design, a movement that was triggered by the Winograd and Flores book “Understanding Computers and Cognition.”

But, as I told Fry:

I have digested the history of our being in this world and very much understand the destruction that we have ourselves created. And I have bought the argument that it is design that has gotten us here, design mostly caused by people throughout history that considered the earth a finite resource, both to collect materials and to dump waste. So it is design, I am saying, that must get us out — but not the same kind of design that got us here.

I no longer want to read about the ailments of society and the fundamental causes. I get it. I get it. What I need to know is what actions can we take? What are the positive steps out of this mess. Arguing for a new attitude and new respect for those in the pluriverse and the global south is fine, but that is not action.

Your paper “Design Education in a Broken World” contains the best prescriptions I have seen. Many of the other works project a feeling if despair. The greed of our capitalistic society has gotten us here, that plus the arrogance and colonizing efforts and monoculture of the global north. So unless we revolt completely, these pieces make me feel, there is no hope. Your ten suggestions give me hope.

I don’t completely agree with all these statements, but I completely agree with the spirit. They provide a powerful start. Thank you.