Monday, February 18, 2013

David Maddalena on Design, Technology, and Intention

This morning I finished (low) tech writer by David Maddalena. When I first heard about it via this TreeHugger review, I wanted to get my hands on it because it seemed to explore themes I've been reflecting on recently. Primarily, in the must-have, new-tech-every-year, and for-every-problem consumer culture we find ourselves in, how do we restore the balance and regain some sanity? As with anything you anticipate, there's the gap what you expect something to be and what it actually is, how you think things will be and how they are, but this little volume didn't disappoint. Disclaimer: I am very much from the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' school of thought, or more precisely, if this still works, why buy another one? Or something different that does the same thing?

Maddalena's charge is looking into the things (the tools, the activities, the technologies) that last, performing functions as well or better than their Newer, Better, More Innovative [read: marketing buzzwords] cousins. Through a series of essays about bread knives, typewriters, bicycles, and hand-made maps, he covers topics like mobility, creativity, travel, ingenuity, craftsmanship and how they have adapted, for better or for worse, to the digital age. In its examination of craft and intention in design and the finished product, (low) tech writer reminds me of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida and its reflection on the photograph.

Today 'technology' means (largely) electronics, when technology in and of itself can be defined simply as a tool -- any tool that helps achieve a goal (go back to the dawn of humanity and think fire or the wheel or lever). For society, technology (i.e. tech) has come to mean something powered by electricity, battery, and/or microchip. Are we really not making, and thereby inventing, other tools? Hint: We are, but they're typically not as shiny or entertaining. At least not at first glance.

Maddalena pins this desire for something new on something he calls the Cult of Innovation. Designers, especially those in the employ of companies making and marketing products, invent new tools for which there exist successful and effective predecessors. Then there are the cases of inventions for problems we don't have, or ones we didn't know we had (because we already had something that seemed to do the trick just fine). I'm not going to go too far down this train of thought because it could be covered in a post all its own, but this redundancy is the result of an economy predicated on never-ending growth as a business model. One of the central questions of the collection is: What are the risks of innovating all of our problems away with more and more stuff? This sparks the related, what do we lose? What do we value? We shape things, the material, as much as they shape us.

Throughout, Maddalena shares his low tech principles, or characteristics that designers should incorporate into their products and consumers should seek. Key characteristics include simple, cheap, flexible (in terms of function) and durable. The high tech alternatives of complex, expensive, rigid (in terms of function) and disposable (literally or because of their short vanity timelines) should be considered carefully. The use of technology is, after all, for our benefit, and not the other way around.

(Low) tech writer is part lamenting progress, part a tutorial on intuition, and part philosophical text. Maddalena can be whiney and preachy at times (consider yourself warned) and truly insightful and powerful at others. I find it relates to larger themes of finding meaning in life (not to be confused with the Meaning of Life), and the knowledge that having more stuff ≠ being happy. On some level, we wouldn't be attracted to high tech things if they didn't bring us joy, and serve a purpose. As Maddalena points out, it's not that new technology is always bad, but it's about achieving a balance and having a clear answer to the question, "Who's the boss here?" Something I have tried to do lately (that can be really difficult) is be more intentional about using high tech and leave room for those low tech gems (objects and practices) that are generally more grounding and fulfilling.

I encourage you to check out more of Maddalena's work at, where you can read his essays and order a copy of the book.

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