Reading Time: 18 minutes

“The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.”

-Ray Bradbury, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”

Talking about needs

Designers talk about needs. We talk about addressing needs, finding needs, responding to needs, respecting needs – the world is lush with needs and we will build a product to address each one. We talk about them as if they’re ineffable natural phenomena like cosmic inflation or erosion.

“Women need a service to freeze their eggs so they can wait to have children until they’ve gotten their career going.”

“Pool owners need a way to float drinks and snacks right on the water so they and their friends can socialize without having to get out and take breaks.”

“Parents need a way to take ice cream right out of the freezer and scoop it into a bowl without having to wait for it to thaw.”

We are willing to rank needs in terms of how they could be addressed through a discrete design, like the interface of an app (eg “People need to see the map right as they open the app, but they’ll also need access to the overlays so we should put a hamburger menu in the corner”), but never judge their significance outside that context. How do we know the need for a product is out there? Is it like a static charge you can feel six inches from a wool sweater? Is it the finding of a science, where young techs go out into the world with clipboards to collect data on how much yogurt we’re eating and how fast we’re responding to emails, pour the results into a server, and produce an objective analysis?

Some needs are irreducible. People need food. People need medical care. People can survive without clothing or showers, but it’s basically impossible to hold down a job without acceptable hygiene. Others are more flexible. People have to weigh the costs of owning a car (which averages about $5k/yr with taxes, repairs, gas, and insurance) against the additional time it takes to commute by public transit. If you don’t have the money to afford a car, and you live a decent distance from work, your only options are to commute by carpool train or bus.

So, where does the need for birthday cake Oreos or IOT door locks come from?

How much need is there?

If you’re an American making anywhere around the median salary (~$50k/yr) most of your money goes to taxes, housing, food, childcare, and a car. This is basically inelastic spending. You can shave corners off the quality of car or variety of food, but once you’re already cost conscious there’s not much room at the bottom. Gasoline doesn’t go on sale for half off if you wait until the end of the month when they get the new stock in and put the old gas on the clearance shelf. This means that companies are fighting for the marginal $5k/yr or so the average person has to spend on voluntary purchases. They also manufacture needs to absorb any income above that level. There is, in fact, plenty of room at the top.

Manufacturing identity – The Bernays model of advertising

Edward Bernays built the modern model of advertising (or marketing, PR, customer engagement, whatever you like to call it). The system is based on framing consumption as an expression of identity and personal values.

Here’s the basic formula: find an identity that has some cultural valence, create or modify products to reify that identity, and market the products as avenues to expressing that identity.

In Bernays’s career as a PR man, he came up with stunts that set the standard for modern pseudo-events. In 1929, Bernays hired a group of women to march in an Easter Parade in New York City. They lit cigarettes and smoked during the parade. Given how smoking was seen as masculine and somewhat transgressive for the time, it sparked a decent wave of media coverage. The women also wrote in to papers across the nation to say that they were lighting “torches of freedom” and taking a stand for women to express their rights through smoking. As a meta commentary on the nature of PR, it’s unlikely the stunt did much to move the needle on cigarette purchases, but through Bernays’s own retellings, has shaped how modern advertisers see their role.

“Choosy moms choose Jif.”

Fair trade coffee operates in this market of identity-based consumption. Since the average person can’t afford high end coffee, each tin including a letter from the nice brown coffee grower thanking the purchaser and the good people at Whole Foods for being so nice to him, it’s not going to supplant or displace unfair, wasteful, polluting, slave labor coffee. It doesn’t challenge power, but it does make floppy liberals with 401K’s feel like they’re doing something, and doing something is an essential part of their identity.

When you see the pretty middle-aged woman in the luxury sedan on tv, rumpling her kid’s hair as he comes running in from soccer practice, a single tasteful grass stain on his knee, the commercial is asking you if you’re this woman. If not, don’t you want to be her? In the sympathetic magic the commercial is channelling, the car is part of who the woman is. If you can afford this car, you can be this happy, this composed, this close to a smart blow-out and a mimosa.

McDonalds wants you to know they’re cool with the gays, especially when those gays are customers. They’re not terribly interested in living wages or justice for their LGBT employees, but they want you to know that you can be gay and eat their hamburgers at the same time.

Tesla isn’t saving the environment. They know where the cobalt in their lithium-in batteries comes from, right? They know where the majority of American electricity comes from, right? Why would purchasing a luxury electric car have an impact on greenhouse emissions? It’s going to prove to the world that electric cars are popular, thus causing affordable models to be produced, thus causing all non-wealthy people to purchase them, thus toppling the oil industry? How does that do anything about the billions of gallons of bunker fuel the USA consumes to ship products overseas and the billions more the military consumes playing dune buggies in Jalalabad? A Tesla is, however, a magnificent way to have a purchase do the work of living your beliefs for you while surrounded by plush leather.

Barbie is now in STEM. Advised by the best minds at MIT (including the inventor of the IndieGoGo sensation and later critical failure Jibo), Barbie has scientist outfits and fun new robot accessories. Playing with Barbie is empowering for women. It’s no longer perpetuating a degrading unattainable standard focused on physical appearance and lifestyle accoutrements. Barbie tells little girls that they can be anything they want, even a scientist of color. It’s a shame that when these girls do grow up and experience the crushing racism and sexism the actual STEM industry has to offer – an overwhelming factor in the underrepresentation of women in these fields – Mattel doesn’t have anything for them.

Disaster Capitalism – The short collapse and the long collapse

There are two timelines on which disaster capitalism can play out. The quick route is to exploit or engineer a shock to the system (like the invasion of Iraq or hurricane Maria). As it destabilizes economic and social structures, you fly in folks from think tanks to explain why having tax free zones, taking on gigantic debts, cutting huge checks to foreign contractors, and handing resources over to alien entities are all required to keep people from dying. Get the IMF down here stat! Put Morrison-Knudsen on the line – this country needs a hydroelectric plant yesterday! Who do we know at Hanes? These poor people are going to die if we don’t get them some entrepreneurship, now! Once everything of value, from farmland to mines to labor forces, has been reorganized to export value elsewhere the rolling debt crisis and immiserating wages are enough to keep that population dependent on its foreign creditors and job creators.

The long form version has the same prime movers – privatization of public goods, burdening everyone with crushing debt, exfiltrating capital from labor, making sure that all things that were once locally held are controlled by unaccountable entities far away – but the infiltration is much more personalized. As your town collapses (due to the mine closing, agribusiness giants targeting small dairy farmers, or national chains shifting business away from locally owned shops and compressing wages across the board) social relationships break down. Social capital is built up with trust over time. It’s a mesh of overlapping schedules, shared interests, durable assets, personal vouchers, and capacity to provide care.

If your neighbor has a kid about the same age as yours, you talk to her every day, and you’ve built up a solid foundation of trust over the course of years, chances are she might be up for shifting her hours at work so she can watch your kid after school a couple of days a week in exchange for you doing the same thing for her. You might even trade weekends watching each other’s children overnight so that you both can have the house to yourselves and spend some uninterrupted time having dinner and drinks with your partner. If she has to move because the repair shop closed down and the only job she could find with health insurance is a couple of towns over, that break leaves a matching hole in all of your lives – you, her, partners, kids. You might be able to cover the gap with money – paying someone for the service – but it’s a replacement for something built from social capital.

If everyone is obligated to move from place to place to find work (following Dick Florida’s not-at-all-motivated reasoning) people are uprooted and trust networks don’t have enough topsoil to take hold. This is why you don’t know your neighbors. This is why you don’t know the guy who owns the pizza shop down the street well enough to trust him to hold a key for you to let a guest stay in your apartment while you’re on vacation. In the absence of trust, we rely on money. We rely on the legal structures around businesses and transactions to ensure the wholeness of a deal. Now you’ve got a key safe app. Now, instead of your elderly neighbor who is home all day leaning out of her window to chat with the neighborhood and call around if a stranger is hopping your fence to look into your windows while you’re at work, you’ve got a doorbell webcam and an AI-assisted security service with 24-7 live human chat support.

Technologies operate in economic and social contexts. They are not metaphysically unmoored from human values. When people have work schedules that change randomly, rely on them to be available to answer emails or participate in slack threads after paid hours have ended, and must be adhered to at all times or risk instant firing, technology facilitates approximations of social relations through experiences that fit these new constraints.

Are you and your friends never available at the same time? Twitter is asynchronous, letting you hold a conversation spread out over time and time zones.

Are your conversations too short to move past standard pleasantries and catching up to learn about the shifting textures of your friend’s lives and personalities? Facebook lets you see an approximation of their intimate thoughts and lifestyle changes without having to catch up in person.

Are your checks from freelancing always late an unpredictable, leaving you late on the rent and short money to pay for your inhaler? There’s a suite of app-enabled microloan services eager to help you through this difficult time.

Are you worried you’ve got a medical problem, but you can’t afford to see a caregiver regularly, especially one who has the time to check up on the things that go beyond rashes and persistent coughs to become a collaborator in building the life you want to live? We’ve got the technology for you.

Theranos offered blood testing machines at Walgreens so you could pop in to make sure you don’t have cancer between dropping off the kids at before-school enrichment and your shift at Merry Maids. They advertised that their device took so little blood, and from such a convenient location that you could get tested all the time without causing lasting damage, and their new innovative technology could diagnose you without ever needing to see a physician. Theranos chose to roll out this service in Arizona specifically because the high number of uninsured people there. Theranos built its business on exploiting the needs manufactured by neoliberal healthcare, not to address the conditions that produced them.

No Logo

We are miserable. We are sick, depressed, and poor. For the first time in fifty years, Americans can expect to live a shorter life than their parents. It discomforts the powerful to identify the systemic barriers between us and a better life. Higher wages? Unions? Shorter working hours? Universal healthcare? Universal education? Reparations? These require politics, struggle, and solidarity to achieve. We cannot consume our way into paradise, or even a living wage. Confronting the idea that we have all the resources for everyone on Earth to live a just and dignified life makes the question of why those resources aren’t apportioned in terms of need plain. We might ask whether it’s moral for billionaires to exist when there’s even one person dying from lack of healthcare.

But, what if there are no oppressive systems? What if there is no society, as Thatcher famously claimed? What if all of your problems were caused by a series of minor inconveniences that could be addressed by products? Imagine how much more time you’ll have to spend getting to know your neighbors and forming a solid community down at the cafe where everyone trades their news and gossip when a friendly robot with a suite of relaxing boops and beeps crafted by a famous bald synthesizer genius takes care of the floors.

Maybe that extra time should be used to get ahead in your career. You don’t want to fall behind and get fired when the new crop of Stanford grads all come equipped with Flink and you’re still stuck on Hadoop, do you? You’ll probably develop a fentanyl addiction and die in a bus shelter nodding out under the gaze of a cop who refuses to carry naloxone. Not to worry – Linkedin offers an affordable service where you can learn the best new skills from the comfort of your laptop. After all, “In today’s knowledge-based economy, what you earn depends on what you learn.” Or maybe streamline that to “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.

Your home will be made more comfortable with lights you can adjust to the perfect hue with an app. Your relationships will be made more meaningful with this dedicated Facebook communication screen. Your body will be made more well with these designer smoothies that can even tell you when they’re out of date.

Kicktraq maps out Kickstarters – who gets funded, who comes up short. It’s instructive to look at how the quality of an idea is ancillary to being successful through since-closed Kickstarters. Good marketing and social capital make for plentiful backers. Nearly identical concepts will have substantially different outcomes. The same goes for marketing existing products as scrappy emerging ideas generated by starry-eyed San Franciscan wunderkinds.

Funding isn’t an indicator of competence. It might even be the opposite, given the hubris it takes to make the kinds of wild claims that get good blog engagement. Some of the most funded Kickstarters ever turned out late, disappointing dud products, and their creators moved on to create new ventures even after the thousands of comments from backers demanding their money back.

The Pebble Watch dragged years behind schedule and was an unmitigated flop once people had it in their hands, but its creator has gone on to sit on the board of Ycombinator (the Randian tech fund which was able to tolerate Peter Thiel’s racism, defense contracting, surveillance entrepreneurship, legal strong arm tactics, and vamprism until it became too gauche to be connected with Trump by association). The Juicero, which shares the imprimatur of “designed by Yves Béhar” with defunct companies Theranos and OLPC, proved to be a dud once people discovered that it amounted to an incredibly expensive way to squeeze juice out of a bag of juice. Still, its founder Doug Evans has pivoted to selling $22 bottles of “raw water” to the Goop crowd with barely a hiccup. Seemingly, it’s fine to make gigantic mistakes with other people’s money – gotta fail to succeed, right? It’s ok to be wrong about the glorious war you promised would be a walk in the park. We are substantially less forgiving when it comes to attending a pool party, playing with a BB gun, and speaking ill of ICE.

Manufacturing Disease – We can cure it for you wholesale

Many of the medical procedures we regularly receive aren’t backed up by evidence. Some are even holdovers from the victorian era. The medicalization of childbirth is a history of unnecessary, humiliating, and injurious fads. As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in “Natural Causes“:

“We were beginning to see that the medical profession, at the time still over 90 percent male, had transformed childbirth from a natural event into a surgical operation performed on an unconscious patient in what approximated a sterile environment. Routinely, the woman about to give birth was subjected to an enema, had her pubic hair shaved off, and was placed in the lithotomy position – on her back, with knees up and crotch spread wide open. As the baby began to emerge, the obstetrician performed an episiotomy, a surgical enlargement of the vaginal opening, which had to be stitched back together after birth. Each of these procedures came with a medical rationale: The enema was to prevent contamination with feces; the pubic hair was shaved because it might be unclean; the episiotomy was meant to ease the baby’s exit. But each of these was also painful, both physically and otherwise, and some came with their own risks, Shaving produces small cuts and abrasions that are open to infection; episiotomy scars heal m ore slowly than natural tears and can make it difficult for the woman to walk or relieve herself for weeks afterward. The lithotomy position may be more congenial for the physician than kneeling before a sitting woman, but it impedes the baby’s process through the birth canal and can lead to tailbone injuries in the mother.” 

Most of these procedures have been phased out of modern hospital births, though the lithotomy position still makes an appearance. Not all medicine is bunk. Some is provably beneficial. Some is more dubious. I mean to draw your attention to how a thing being perceived as correct, obvious, or natural creates the space to be filled with a procedure, a diagnosis, or a drug. This is an analog for how normalization can create need for any product or service.

Is anxiety a normal part of human life, or a disease that needs to be medically eradicated? If there are kinds of anxiety that are common and tolerable and others that are bad and need medicalization, how do we distinguish between the two extremes? The diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 (the final word on what is and is not a credentialed disease) amount to a questionnaire. I’m all for patient-led care, but in what way is a set of questions sufficient to diagnose a disease that is treated with material interventions? This doesn’t live up to the positivist, etiological standard of rigor medicine espouses.

There are real and disastrous effects on peoples’ lives from overenthusiastic medicalization. Industry funded trials have a nasty habit of showing the results the funder wanted when published. Often the problem is missing data from trials that didn’t make the drug look so hot. When anti-arrhythmia drugs were prescribed to patients who had suffered heart attacks, a significant portion of those people died from a heart event precipitated by the drug. Since they were so widely prescribed, the death toll reached over a 100,000 people in a few years. This could have been prevented, but an early trial of the anti-arrhythmia drug Lorcainide was suspended due to its unusually high death toll. The researchers figured something went wrong with their process, and the data was withheld. This could have been an early warning for doctors to keep a close eye on the drug’s side effects, but it was locked in a filing cabinet and forgotten.

Given that SSRI’s are widely prescribed, even for off-label uses ranging from erectile dysfunction to generalized anxiety, it’s frightening to know that dozens of trials studying the most commonly prescribed antidepressants that were registered with the FDA remain unpublished:

The meta-analysts found 74 eligible FDA-registered trials with 12,564 patients. Among them, a third (n = 26 trials [31%] with 3449 patients) had remained unpublished. The FDA had determined that half of the registered trials (38/74) had found statistically significant benefits for the antidepressant (“positive” trials). All but one of these trials had been published in journals. Conversely, of the other half trials (36/74) that were deemed to be “negative” by the FDA, one in three were published as “negative” results; another 11 trials were published, but the results were presented in such a way so as to seem “positive” and 22 “negative” trials were silenced and never appeared in the literature.
– Effectiveness of antidepressants: an evidence myth constructed from a thousand randomized trials?. Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2008

“I thought you were Dale!”

This same phenomenon happens in everyday life. Daily baths weren’t de rigeur in America until the 70’s. Deodorant, car wax, tooth whitening, and jaywalking had to be invented. Previously, people didn’t realize they smelled bad. They didn’t know they were marking themselves out as a rube for crossing against the light. When fashion changed over the course of centuries, it might take a generation to realize tulle was déclassé.

In commercials, we can recognize this call to action when we see it: “Hey, you didn’t know you smell bad/are being rude/look out of date/are embarrassing your friends, but it’s the truth, and here’s how to fix it.”

As a market heats up, competition on the quality of the product or value to the customer yields lower returns than shifting trends to break in your favor. Although forecasting companies claim to be able to predict fashion trends years in advance, the reality is that consumer demand doesn’t drive trends. Bernays proved it himself by manufacturing demand for hats on behalf of a hatmakers cabal through a phony fashion designer showcase (Edward Bernays, Propaganda Ch. 2). Forecasting companies aren’t predicting trends, they’re setting them. When they issue their portfolio of looks for the spring 2019 season, they’re giving clothing brands a roadmap by which to collude. Have you ever noticed how H&M, Forever 21, Zara, and Express will all flush their current garments and replace them with products that match across each brand? That every few months they manage to hit on the same set of materials, silhouettes, colors, and finishes without directly collaborating? This allows them to create visible markers of who is behind the times, generate lots of new desire to purchase, put out cheaply made clothing that is basically disposable, and ensure they’re not going to be left out in the cold in the latest round of “global fashion brand red rover”.

Planned Obsolescence – The hedonic treadmill

“Here is another example to think about, please. Remember how good stereo sounded when you first got it instead of mono? You know, mono just played one sort of flat music. Mono sounded okay when you first got it, because it was better than that scratchy thing that went like this, and you got your first stereo and it was so exciting, and nobody even mentioned that the tapes you played on your stereo had a little hiss in them. But now to just put a tape in something, you hear that hiss, and you think about your friends who have a CD, and they don’t have that hiss. So there’s a new need now for hissless music. All around music, a whole new need…

Now apologists for the system want to say “Well that need, you know, we didn’t create that need”. Well that seems highly dubious. Think of commodities like the hula hoop. Does anyone remember the great hula hoop movement in the United States? Where people went around demanding hula hoops? And then the capitalists went: “We’ll make them for you”. Well, no, that movement didn’t occur, see. I mean, there was no social movement called the Hula Hoop movement, and went around: “Hula hoops or death! Hula hoops or death!”, no some jackleg went: “You know, I bet you if we make these things like this, put out a few records, people will be sweet”. And the next thing you know, people needed them.”
Rick Roderick, Hegel in Modern Life

Which business is the better investment: one that sells every driver in America a car that will last them the rest of their lives, or one that sells every driver in America a car every year?

Recurring sales, even if they are sales of a low-premium product, are worth more to businesses than one-time purchases. It’s difficult to make an alluring hockey stick chart out of sales that are limited to the population of people who haven’t bought from you yet. That’s not a business with a growth strategy. That’s not a business that goes gangbusters on the stock market. That’s not what investors like to see.

As an added bonus, cheap products are competitive. If you reduce build quality, you can afford to reduce price. Metal housings are more expensive to ship – switch it to plastic. Ball bearings are mechanically complex – just press a bushing into the injection molded enclosure. When a cheap design fails, it prompts another buy. If your customer is optimizing for cost at the register, they’re going to learn to live with disposable products.

Shitty things edge out non-shitty things in the market. Most people don’t have that much money to spend, so rich people are the only ones who can afford things that hold their value (eg city real estate, classic cars, and degrees from the Ivy League). When people believe they’ve solved poverty by observing that rice costs a dollar a pound if you buy it in a one-pound bag from a bodega and thirty cents a pound if you buy it in a hundred-pound bag at Costco, and therefore all poor people should save up and shop at Costco, they’re managing to ignore the utility of having food now versus having food in two weeks.

It’s also valuable to lock people into an ecosystem where you can make old models of the same category of product obsolete. The central authority that administers a technology ecosystem has the power to declare devices obsolete. If a user wants to retain any of the value they’ve invested into a system (eg organizing files, backing up photos, producing clusters of information like iPhone’s “memories” feature), then they need to upgrade.

IOS no longer works on older model iPhones. When Google acquired Revolv to relaunch it as Nest, it remotely bricked all of Revolv’s existing thermostats. Nuts to you if you happened to be living in a climate where the thermostat was the thing keeping your pipes from bursting, I guess. And good luck trying to migrate away from Gmail.

More complex systems offer more opportunities to say “we had the best reasons for coercing you to buy the newest model – there’s a complicated thing it would be too hard to explain happening in the hardware”. Despite massive advances in hardware, rendering a typed letter on screen hasn’t gotten faster with each generation of computer. This is because the added capability is extra room to waste. When the pentagon budget swells, program managers end up ordering contractors to build bases no one plans on using rather than risk reducing their appropriation next year. When computer processing speed increases, we inflate the processes to consume the perceived extra space. Why optimize? Computers will only be faster next year. Additionally, when a coder’s job is to duct tape open source projects together rather than generate appropriate technologies (as David Graeber pointed out in his excellent book Bullshit Jobs), who invests in the upstream technology to prevent downstream inefficiencies? You need the faster computer because it’s the only way to run the new sloppier programs without infuriating lag.

Bring back actual needs

So, what are the real needs we should focus on? How do you approach an ethical and egalitarian relationship with people through design?

It starts with a material analysis. If you relegate the concept of need to “that which can be addressed by a discrete product, in a way that maximizes profits, in a format that will entice purchases”, then you have excluded the majority of all things people do to care for one another. You’ve eliminated nursing, aid, friendship, trust, community, solidarity, culture, infrastructure, and politics.

This instrumentalist framework cannot solve problems, because it cannot eliminate need. It can only offer palliative rejoinders to needs, whether they’re produced by capitalists through deprivation or engineering of the superstructure.

Design is more than objects. Design is the development and integration of systems. If you are willing to use wage-slave labor in one country to produce a product that’s supposed to uplift impoverished people in another, this is a design choice. If you are willing to build disposable clothing to profit from manufactured trends, this is a design choice. It is your choice to create future garbage. It is your choice to burn tons of bunker fuel first shipping raw materials and then finished clothing across the sea. It is your choice to hasten climate collapse to produce objects whose only purpose is to satisfy a discomfort that was placed in a person by the very same hand that takes their money.

I believe the urge to satisfy human needs is genuinely felt by designers. In my experience of the design world, individual designers feel just as constrained by their circumstances as the electrical worker how has to shut off your power or the city worker who has to deny your housing subsidy application. This is why I also believe designers who have any faith that design can be used to better the world need to become part of democratically owned and democratically controlled companies. I have faith that we would not choose this future for ourselves.


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