Design can, in fact, be evil. A reality perfectly summed up by renowned curator Paola Antonelli, in reaction to the world's first 3D-printed gun. "My view of design as something that does good for the masses was uprooted," she said. "I used to think of design as a benign force, but of course, not all design is for the general good, and we would be naive to believe so."
The handgun, originally named The Liberator, was assembled from printed plastic components and successfully fired in 2013. It highlighted how design —in this case, 3D-printing— even with the best of intentions can pave the way for tyranny.
Today, we call design or tech that makes a big enough impact "disruptive". Though it's generally used in a more positive context, to be disruptive is to ultimately create disorder. Disruptive solutions may bring the world forward, but often leave a path of destruction in their wake. This is particularly the case when it comes to the digital sphere - a medium that has delivered such prosperity while, in equal parts, offers so much promise and impending danger.
Let's look at a few of the world's most iconic examples.
In this digital age, surveillance is a huge issue. But providing full anonymity doesn't come without its drawbacks. 'Onion routing' is the technique of routing traffic through multiple servers and encrypting each layer, allowing users' web activity to be completely private. Tor, launched in 2002, has been a fundamental service for journalists, activists and whistleblowers and has been backed by the Human Rights Watch, the University of Cambridge, Google and many more. But, today, Tor's ex-director says "the criminal use of Tor has become overwhelming" supplying any kind of illicit product or behaviour you can think of, from counterfeit handbags and malware to drugs and child pornography.
Cryptocurrency followed a similar path; it burst the world of banking wide open — to everyone. Bitcoin, as the first decentralised cryptocurrency created in 2009, enables people to trade value over borders without intermediaries or fluctuating rates. Not surprisingly, it quickly caught the attention of organised crime as the cryptocurrency of choice for dark markets, like the iconic Silk Road. While Bitcoin's reputation has improved with Wall Street institutions now buying and selling the digital token, and its' use in legitimate businesses like Stripe and Expedia, it has a long way to go to counteract its' patchy reputation.
Proof that not everything done in the light is free from darkness. From Facebook and TikTok to WeChat and Viber. These were all created with the intention to connect people, which they certainly have, but ended up having a worse and farther-reaching impact than we could've anticipated. With at least 3.5 billion of us checking in daily, it's the perfect platform to spread misinformation, harvest masses of data, and even swing elections. Most infamously, the Cambridge Analytica case saw the private Facebook data of 50 million users acquired, in the largest known leak in Facebook history, and handed over to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Using this data, carefully tailored messages were concocted and dispersed across social media to target American voters, which many believed helped Trump unlawfully secure his 2016 presidential victory.
The Sharing Economy
Another seemingly harmless market that has since shown its teeth. Driven by "access over ownership" the sharing economy emerged to open-up and informalise labour markets. Airbnb, the poster child of the movement, changed the hotel business enabling private citizens to easily rent out their homes to vacationers. But after reaching critical mass, they've been called "oligarchs" who hoard properties and profits. They've caused housing shortages, soaring rent prices and tourism overloads forcing several cities across the world, including Amsterdam, Paris, New York and Berlin, to limit Airbnb's activity. Uber also reinvented a market to provide millions of jobs, but in turn, led to massive job losses and the controversies surrounding the company keep on coming.
While many caution the exploration of AI, including pioneer Elon Musk, the beginnings have shown great promise. AI algorithms combined with large datasets, for example, have helped us diagnose illness, improved road safety and forecast outbreak trajectories. But, there are specific issues it should never be applied to, particularly if they're combined with inherently flawed systems. Recently, several countries have tested the use of facial recognition and criminal stats to predict criminality with the idea to replace human error with smart, emotionless machines. But, many argue that these AI tools will only fuel bias and unfairly target minorities, worsening a deeply-rooted issue that's proven almost impossible to budge.
It's clear with great innovation, comes great consequence. But is the consequence ever avoidable? Do we have a moral responsibility to withhold something from the world without knowing the impact? Or do we accept the inevitable harm, hope for resilience and count on someone eventually righting our wrongs?
Of course, moving forward is never a straight line. But the critical question is: is progress for humanity, regardless of the casualties, still a measure of great design?
Image: Mitya Ivanov