XXIX.1 January - February 2022
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Blurryism: Messing with dualisms through design

Matthew Lee-Smith

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The posthuman movement, a broad term that can be seen as including topics such as posthumanism, post-anthropocentrism, transhumanism, new materialism, and object-orientated ontology, is going from strength to strength. A glance at the Google Books Ngram Viewer graph of the term posthuman shows a sharp positive trend from the 1990s. Design and HCI journals, conferences, and books are also seeing increasing use of this and associated terms such as more-than-human design or animal-computer interaction. The posthuman movement challenges our position in the world, our self-appointed exceptionalism, and demonstrates that the line between us and everything else in the universe is not so easy to delineate, forcing us to reconsider how we perceive and interact with what is around us. If the reader is uninitiated in all things posthuman I suggest Francesca Ferrando's great YouTube series for a crash course. Design has a unique role in the posthuman movement as it can create manifestations of posthuman thought, ranging from concepts to fully functional products, interfaces, and systems for us all to experience, wrestle with, and learn from. One area of posthuman thought where design can have an impact is post-dualism, or moving beyond and challenging the notion of dualisms. A design approach to post-dualism needs to be nonbinary; I postulate that an approach called blurryism can be used to explore post-dualism in intriguing ways.

back to top  Insights


back to top  What are Dualisms and Why Should We Mess With Them?

A dualism is what results from saying, "There are two types of [insert concept here] in the world, A and B," and is normally denoted with the syntax A/B. Classic examples of this are human/nonhuman, nature/culture, pragmatic research through design/critical research through design, mind/body, male/female, subject/object, and so on. Dualisms are a core component of how we interact with the world. Sometimes it feels like we define ourselves based more on what we are not than what we are: We are not (like other) animals; we are not part of nature; we are not machines; and so on. Issues with dualism can arise when we attribute properties such as positive, good, and normal, or negative, bad, and abnormal to the sides of a dualism. As Ferrando puts it:


Although dualism does not have to be hierarchical, in the history of Western thought the two sides have been placed in a value system according to which one side would be the positive, the other the negative [1].

Human(+)/nonhuman(-), culture(+)/ nature(-), female(+)/male(-), and so on. The impact of these positive- and negative-sided dualisms can be seen throughout history. Therefore, one might argue, if we can resist dualistic thinking, we might in turn find it more difficult to prescribe these binary properties that oversimplify our world. Challenging dualisms is by no means new; Donna Haraway's blurring of the human/machine divide with her discussion of the cyborg is just one example. However, I argue that, in addition to looking for examples that already exist and detailing them, design's unique place in the endeavor of chipping away at dualisms is its ability to intentionally create contributions that confuse, dismantle, or blur these slash-based separations through their existence and our experience of them. We can design ourselves out of dualism and toward post-dualism.

back to top  Enter Blurryism

Blurryism is a term I use to describe the approach of producing design outputs (be they object, fiction, data, systems, etc.) that blur, expand, and populate the space between the two sides of a dualism, as well as the study of these blurred dualisms. Design outputs can achieve this, for example, by existing entirely on both sides of the dualism (C is both A and B), sitting between the two while encapsulating the essences of both sides to varying degrees (C is 25 percent A and 75 percent B), through use or modification (when A uses C, they shift toward B), or adding more sides (A,B,C,D, etc.). Creating an output that is both A and B is something of a monist or hybrid approach, rendering everything as one. Populating the space between the two sides of a dualism preserves the singular axis of the dualism and its suggested endpoints but does away with the harsh slash, replacing it instead with something like a tilde (A~B or A~C~B). A similar result could be achieved through the combination or use of a design output ([A+C]~B). Finally, adding more sides, or more appropriately in this context, nodes or points, to a dualism immediately destroys it, turning it into other shapes (tri-isms, quad-isms, etc.). These last three examples can also be seen as creating spectrums (or spectrumification if you like other made-up terms) out of dualisms. To sum up, dualisms (and the connotations they carry) can be challenged with blurryism through design; the more we design within and beyond these spaces, the more we defy and rebut arguments of "flukes" or "exceptions that prove the rules." But what might an example of that look like?

back to top  Blurring the Thing/Being Dualism

One example of a dualism that is increasingly under pressure from science, technology, design, and posthuman thought is the separation between things and beings. I am not going to go into a lengthy debate about what a thing is and what a being is—we all have some internal notion of these two concepts, so we will run with whatever you, the reader, are bringing to the table. However, perhaps because we see ourselves as beings, no matter where we individually place the distinction, we all appear to confer particular significance to this dualism, attaching greater value to beings as opposed to things. In what follows, I pick apart this dualism with design outputs from nature (the oldest designer) and humans (the fledging design apprentice trying to improve on their master's work). Nature does not see the world as we do; it does not need to create categories or taxonomies to understand itself and undertake its processes. Nature exists comfortably in a blurry universe where it experiments and creates unreservedly. In doing so, it generates a broad thing-being spectrum with no clear separations in between. Let us start with a rock. It is pretty inert and cannot change how it is, instead being changed by its environment—very thinglike. Next, let us move on to a crystal. Crystals are rocklike but, by the nature of their chemistry, can change their shape and "grow," an attribute that has an essence of beingness about it. But then we move on to examples such as viruses, something we are all too familiar with at the moment. These microscopic malfeasants are not seen as beings, but nonetheless they seem to have a certain je ne sais quoi that makes us uncomfortable with just calling them things [2]. Enter giant viruses that are larger and more genetically complicated than some bacteria (which giant viruses were mistaken for at first). This example could be seen as "post-thing" and "pre-being"—a "be-thing" if you will. These be-things further blur the line between the two ends of the not-so-dualistic dualism and act as "missing links" between things and beings. As such, the separation between these be-things and the first being on this list, bacteria, does not seem that wide. Now, I am not a scientist and I know that giant viruses are still under debate, but that is not important here. Moving on from bacteria, we can hop, skip, and jump through examples of beings such as houseplants, cats, and finally humans without much fuss. This spectrum is by no means complete. One could populate it until the cows come home… and then add them too. However, focusing on the point between the two original sides of the dualism, where one becomes the other like the focal point of a concave mirror where the reflection flips, is perhaps where problematizing can be the most effective. What can be seen through these limited examples from nature is not a crisp separation between natural things and natural beings but rather a blurry spectrum that unclearly transitions from one to the other.

Interestingly, for humans as the creator rather than the observer, the distinction to the dualism seems much clearer. Humans create things, not beings. But is this tenet a major obstacle for posthumanism and is it still the case? How far can we get by blurring the thing/being dualism with human-made technology and organisms of technology and information (i.e., simple to sophisticated technological objects)? Well, one might replace a rock with a hammer, crystals with Lego, and viruses with smartphones (read into that what you will). But what about giant viruses? We could put sophisticated AI or maybe conversational agents here.

Alternatively, there are some debates in robotics about the need for a "new ontological category" [3]. In design, however, we can look to the niche collections of technological objects (or possibly be-things) that "exist for themselves" or are explorations of concepts such as "purposeless" design. These include Morse Things [4], Botanical Printers [5], or Himilcos [6]. Are these examples be-things? Does the shift from considering what they do for us to how they exist for themselves make them more being-like? What is curious about them is that calling them just things does not quite do them justice. Also, what lies beyond these examples? What is the technology-based, information-driven equivalent of bacteria, houseplants, cats, or humans? Are they among us now or will we make them soon? How will they embody the concepts of being a being?

Furthermore, if we blur the nature/human dualism described here we see that these two spectrumized dualisms can build a quad-ism spectrum of nature-made [things ~ be-things ~ beings] and human-made [things ~ be-things ~ beings], which can be seen as mapping the interplay of two different blurry areas of a whole. We are all in nature, but we are focusing on blurry humans on one axis and blurry far-from human to blurry almost human on another. Also, we could easily replace humans and the rest of nature with other blurry entities, blurry cats interacting with blurry fungi, for example. This leads to questions such as: Can these interacting blurry entities codesign, share agency, and manifest their own things, be-things, and beings? All these questions and more arise from messing with just one dualism with blurryism and trying to populate the space between each side with existing or future design manifestations. Ultimately, design (and designers) is part of nature so while we tend to think that we are only ever creating things (interfaces, products, applications, and so on), nature does not draw a line between things and beings when it designs. Why, then, should we? Nature favors a blurry overlapping transition between things and beings (via blurry be-things), so perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we are starting to do the same with our propositions. This does not mean we are creating technological organisms that are "alive" but instead that we are carving our own path in the study of beingness, one that we can do ourselves or collaborate on with other organic and/or technological beings.

Equally, we might consider the digital transformation that has gripped much of the world in recent years as attempting to be as far removed from nature as is possible. This transformation has manifested through design in the creation of technologies and tools that have become commonplace and that we treat entirely as objects. Yet, when considered in the context of dualisms such as person/nonperson, physical/digital, subject/object, and self/other, we find that the emergence of a digital world is already blurring these dualisms in ways akin to those seen in nature and in ways that are increasingly disturbing to us in our posthuman world. Artificial intelligence's slow steps toward crossing the boundary into "true" intelligence (e.g., emergent, plastic, self-writing, etc.) continues to present us with problems, as recently exemplified by high court rulings for and against AI entities being recognized as coinventors on patents. In these cases, the appellant claimed that their "creative AI" contributed to the invention. However, where this was dismissed (i.e., in the U.S. and the U.K.) was due to the judges not considering the AI to be a "person." Yet can the contribution be dismissed? Are these sophisticated AIs now residing somewhere in between dualisms such as person/nonperson, creation/creator, apparatus/author? Similarly, the expansion of the self (and the blurring of the threshold) has accelerated in our era of smartphones (expansion of memory, thinking, sensing, etc.), social media (expansion into the digital world and creating alternate versions of the self), and the huge "data doubles" these technologies and activities create. Furthermore, how will the self be further expanded, and its thresholds blurred, when this data is entered into increasingly sophisticated digital twin models? Now, more so than ever, the self cannot be understood as only ending at the physical limits of our bodies. In these examples, we see how the design of products, applications, systems, and more are inadvertently and steadily blurring dualisms, presenting us with both reactive and prospective design challenges, such as whether such blurring should be prevented, accepted, nurtured, legislated, or predetermined, among other concerns.

back to top  Messing with Dualisms is Fun, Thought-Provoking, and Important

This article is intended to be a playful thought experiment. It is, however, aimed at broad and pernicious phenomena that structure how we think and perceive the world. We are surrounded by (human-constructed) dualisms, some blatant, some subtle. While many are probably harmless, it does not take long to see how in the right hands, or without challenge, dualisms can be used to limit, oppress, exclude—even kill. What are the dualisms that determine how we understand the possibilities for, and practice of, design, UX/UI, HCI, computer science, and beyond? Can identifying these dualisms (e.g., user/interface, owner/subscriber, online/offline), expanding and blurring them (user ~ interface, owner ~ subscriber, online ~ offline), and populating these new spaces lead to new ideas and perspectives? As we further embrace posthuman philosophy and the reflection and reframing it permits and encourages, we are increasingly aware that we should challenge and populate the void between the two sides of the dualisms we find in our lives. Turning to Ferrando again, she says:

Post-dualism is a necessary step in the final deconstruction of the human. We, as a society, may eventually overcome racism, sexism, and even anthropocentrism, but if we do not address the rigid form of dualistic mindset that allows for hierarchical sociopolitical constructions, then new forms of discrimination will emerge, such as portraying robots as the new "others" [1].

One way of doing this is through design, as it can actively and provocatively manifest examples, through the many strategies and outputs available in design, that we struggle to classify and have to reckon with. After all, didn't the design discipline itself start within the blurry space between the sciences/humanities dualism, and then slowly shatter this separation and who knows how many other dualisms in the process of establishing itself?

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my supervisors Tracy Ross, Garrath Wilson, Fung Po Tso, Stefano Cavazzi, and Jeremy Morley for their ongoing support. The research associated with this article is being conducted with the funding and support of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Embedded Intelligence (under grant reference EP/L014998/1), Loughborough University, and Ordnance Survey.

back to top  References

1. Ferrando, F. Philosophical Posthumanism. Bloomsbury Academic, London, U.K., 2019. DOI:10.5040/9781350059511

2. Villarreal, L.P. Are viruses alive? Scientific American 291, 6 (2004), 100–105.

3. Kahn, P.H., et al. The new ontological category hypothesis in human-robot interaction. Proc. of the 6th International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. ACM, New York, 2011, 159. DOI:10.1145/1957656.1957710

4. Wakkary, R., et al. Morse things: A design inquiry into the gap between things and us. Proc. of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 503–514. DOI:10.1145/3064663.3064734

5. Hsu, Y-Y., Tsai, W-C., Lee, W-C., and Liang, R-H. Botanical printer: An exploration on interaction design with plantness. Proc. of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 1055–1068. DOI:10.1145/3196709.3196809

6. Lee-Smith, M. The data hungry home: Humans harvesting data for living devices. Companion Publication of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2020, 527–535. DOI:10.1145/3393914.3395832

back to top  Author

Matthew Lee-Smith is a critical design researcher and wannabe design philosopher undertaking a Ph.D. at the School of Design and Creative Arts at Loughborough University. His research questions our expectations, experiences, and understanding of data and technology through a posthuman lens. He also believes in the possibility of technological beings. m.l.smith@lboro.ac.uk

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