Acknowledge the utopianism, the future mundane and other stuff from design

I’m interested in how we in education can climb down from a discourse populated with world class, no excuse and no failure, excellence, good not good enough, gold standard evidence?  It’s not that we should accept low standards but there is a concern that in the same way politicians compete for wearing the hairiest shirt and being the meanest in austere times then there is a similar trend for politicians to demand a particular standard in education with arguably unrealistic conditions and claim that only they are interested in the good of the children, for example,

My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England, standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee-paying independent. (Michael Gove, 2014)

(Not to be outdone or accused as an ‘enemy of promise’, I suggest all two-year olds should participate in an international Battle Royale (see a trailer outlining the policy here) to sort the wheat from the chaff.)

Anyway, as I said in my previous post, I think education can learn a lot from design.

A first step will be to see policy as a solution but also a problem.  At FutureEverything, the ever-wonderful Anab Jain (Superflux) paraphrased Lebbeus Woods in saying “design should not be judged [only?] by the problems it solves but the problems it creates.”  Where Woods talks of ‘design’ I think we could substitute ‘policy’.  Policy makers should look at the world through the same eyes as designers who see that the carefully honed objects they developed have become the bric-a-brac and junk that become landfill and clog our ecosystem.  The English public sector has been subjected to wave after wave of re-disorganisation (Pollitt 2007) and ‘initiativitis’ that clog the arteries of organisations.  Further, no politician seems to fear looking to harsh on education, teachers and teaching unions but low staff morale and stressed pupils ought to be seen as the consequences of national policy.

A second idea would be to consider drawing on the future mundane aesthetic (read about this here), the principles of which are:

1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent – don’t focus on heros but on everyday people because normal people will live in the future.  From this we can extrapolate, not everyone be they a teacher or a pupil can be outstanding or excellent. 50% will be below average.

2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space – the futuristic artifacts of the future, the holographic interfaces etc – will sit along existing technologies. For example, our keys (a very old technology) sit along our smart phones.  From this, we should be aware that the new is layered upon the old.  We cannot begin the world anew and if our concern is only our the shiny gadget we dismiss much of what people are doing when not using, for example, a holographic screwdriver.

3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space – things don’t work. For every technological marvel from tablets to Internet banking there are issues with batteries, connectivity, theft and smudged screens.  Furthermore, the world isn’t divided up as clearly into aseptic utopias bordered by grimy ghettos – something that could be argued against perhaps? – but there is a mixture of the two.

So we should remember that the slick managerial diagrams that outline policy – my favourite is the PSRM below – describe a complex and thorny reality.


In a classic future mundane scenario, see Tom Cruise being annoyed by a broken cereal box:

The future mundane aesthetic emerged in response to unrealistic visions of the future and made the case for the continuity of the present with the future, just as the past is part of the present.  Like design policy should not be developed in relationship to an anti-septic world, or to emphasise and be based around, for example, a particular type of competitive and aspirational child with assertive parents rather than the broad spectrum of children and families that find themselves in England’s schools.

Thirdly and lastly, and I’m not suggesting this as something that should happen (check out my post on design fictions here) but I think there’s something interesting in Rachel Rayns’s Zoe Star project.  Rachel, the artist-in-residence at Raspberry Pi, wanted to create a machine that monitored the health of her garden, the water level in the soil etc, and being a bit creative she decided that the machine should be a little bit different.  So she created Zoe Star.  Zoe is in a relationship with the garden, she monitors the garden and when things are going well she over shares (tweets) on Twitter but when things aren’t going so well she sends direct messages asking for help on Twitter.  We all know people like Zoe.ZoeStar

So what has Zoe Star, a small-scale, garden-monitoring, social media, arts installation got to do with something as apparently robust as PISA or school data management systems?  I’m fully aware that to anyone sold on RCTs and evidence-based teaching anything else is a trivial distraction, a tedious folly and again I’m not suggesting this as a real solution (see my post on design fictions).  Nevertheless, I like the fact that this is a data collection, management and communication system that is in relationship with its object.  I like that it is made of wood.  I like that it’s got a cute name and if someone tried to bully a profession with the readouts from such a machine they would look ridiculous.

I think it’s important not underestimate the importance of the machismo and a shiny veneer in the way people and agendas come to dominate systems.  Post-Snowden we are all wondering how such a thing as the building of a global super-surveillance system could happen?  Finn Brunton (2014) has written about how rooms designed like futuristic sets have been used as part of the seduction of politicians in consenting to widespread snooping,

“In fact, some of the settings against which the historic disclosure of twenty-first-century state surveillance are playing out echo fiction directly and deliberately. The current director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, based the design of the Information Dominance Center for the Army Intelligence and Security Command (the AISC, which he headed prior to his appointment to the NSA) on the bridge of the Enterprise, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.1 DBI Architects (DBIA), the company contracted for this project, have a ‘stealth’ practice that specializes in producing these dramatic environments. They have built spaces for Lockheed Martin, the US National Counterterrorism Center, GeoEye – the satellite imagery business used by Google Maps and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – and the remodelled White House Situation Room. (If you saw the picture of President Obama and the national security team looking on during the raid on the bin Laden compound, you’ve seen DBIA’s work.) Their style is one vast homage to Sir Ken Adam, designer of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove and numerous Bond villain command centres and secret bases; looking through their portfolio, one awaits the arrival of Roger Moore, jogging in and slaying henchmen. These interiors are like love hotel fantasy suites for geopolitical security services. For Alexander, DBIA delivered the sliding doors, gleaming chrome, central command chair, massive viewscreens and all the rest. Screen shot 2014-04-03 at 15.03.10

Naturally this is somewhat hilarious, with the hydraulic-hissing doors and thin science-fictional veneer – those contoured consoles enclose ancient CRT displays, beige keyboards, and database management software. It is also a brilliant bit of political scene-setting. In his time as head of the AISC, Alexander had many people to impress and political battles to win in order to rise to his current position, and bringing them aboard the Enterprise to sit in the captain’s chair helped smooth the way. Alexander is famous, as career political appointees go, for a kind of genial, unflappable charisma, particularly when articulating his steadily growing signals intelligence demands to computer-averse members of the US government and military. Letting his visitors play Captain Picard for a few minutes and watch the action on an updated Strangelovean Big Board was part of that capacity. The Information Dominance Room in Ft Belvoir, Virginia, was – as its name implies – one in a long line of chambers of political seduction, from Talleyrand’s carefully selected statuary to the looming Fascist offices, vast spaces for the theatre of intimidation and submission, parodied by Bertolucci’s The Conformist (emphasis added).”

I think that would be a good way to reverse the centralisation of power in education and the various hierarchies that have been built up in education.  If someone wants to flick a switch and change education for all children, in the state system, across the land they should have to stand next to a wooden box and then make the case for change from there…

James Duggan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *