Design and Existential Risk

Parsons The New School for Design is currently hosting an interesting lecture series, under the attention-getting theme "Design and Existential Risk." They're not kidding, either: the central question, threaded throughout the nine talks, is "What can the role be for design when the reality that faces us is more extraordinary than the worlds we have imagined in science fiction?"

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The goal of the series—conversations with leading thinkers, designers, authors and educators—is to critically question how the practice of design can imagine and prepare for "extreme existential risks" like resource wars, climate change, emerging diseases, and even artificial intelligence-gone-amok. According to series founder and moderator Ed Keller, the human race is rapidly approaching an "epistemological event horizon, beyond which we can barely speculate."

Curious and slightly alarmed by the assumptions underpinning the series, I emailed Ed some questions. In his thoughtful and thorough–if not exactly reassuring—answers, he touches on everything from the possible catastrophes that may befall us ("a biotech disaster, a science experiment run wild, or even the emergence of an AI system which is not human friendly") to the short-sightedness of most designers ("Humans think, at the MOST, at the thousand or occasionally ten thousand year timescale"). Read on for more insights into why designers ignore these risks at their—and our—peril.

What's your title and role at Parsons, and what's your own background?
I'm the Associate Dean for Distributed Learning and Technology, at Parsons The New School for Design. In this capacity, I am responsible for building and promoting technologically innovative approaches to design education at Parsons in the studio environment as well as in a broader curricular context. I also oversee the development of online, hybrid, and distributed learning models, and also have a small design practice with my partner/wife Carla Leitao; we do residential projects as well as interactive media installations and speculative competitions. Both of us are deeply informed by questions of technology, new material systems, and geopolitics in our academic work.

How did the Design and Existential Risk series come to be? Was it your idea?
When I was brought in to the Dean's Office at Parsons, I very much wanted to run a series of lectures/conversations with people who I felt were at the very epicenter of a debate that is taking place today around sustainability and the horizons of resources and human life. Our Dean at Parsons, Joel Towers, has a deep commitment to increasing the literacy around design for sustainability. I hoped that the Design and Existential Risk series could amplify the discourse around our re-definition of sustainability, and put it in a completely different framework.

What inspired your interest in these subjects?
In my academic research, my study covers a wide range, from the work of political economy (Bataille's Accursed Share) to science fiction (Stross' Accelerando) as a model for our contemporary technological condition. As well, I've been in a dialog with Geoff Manaugh [who was one of our DesignExRisk lecturers, along with Bruce Sterling] about science fiction as a form of political speculation. In fact, part of my conversation with Geoff Manaugh this past summer centered around a recent book by the physicist Paul Davies, titled The Eerie Silence—a fascinating text which explores in depth (and in laypersons' terms) the many reasons why aliens haven't shown up on earth yet.

One of the scientists Davies addresses is Robin Hanson, who was our second DesignExRisk speaker. Hanson's thinking about literally galactic scale economies and resource competition was really provocative and in part kicked off the DesignExRisk series, as it resonates with an argument I've been making for a while that designers (architects, product designers, urbanists, etc) don't usually think at that scale. Humans think, at the MOST, at the thousand or occasionally ten thousand year timescale. So given that, I wanted to force a confrontation with our own limitations as designers, to see if some of the ways we conceive of design, sustainability, and long term survival could get traction in an at least somewhat pragmatic context. And of course I wanted this to function as a provocation to our community at Parsons.


Why is this a particularly relevant topic today?
Statistically speaking, as time goes by, we face more and more the likelihood that a range of external and internal disasters might strike us on earth. This runs the full scale from Hollywood-scale asteroid strikes to much more local and human-generated problems such as resource wars, biotech accidents, or even artificial intelligence run AMOK. The human race has reached a point in its development where a large percentage of the population can recognize (through science and philosophy) the extraordinary position we hold in the galaxy—and we've also reached the point where technological advances create literally earth shattering/transforming devices or systems.

Historically we have never been able to do quite what we can now. I strongly believe that we have between 15 and 40 years to go before humanity hits a kind of 'singularity' of global proportions. This might be a biotech disaster, a science experiment run wild, or even the emergence of an AI system which is not human friendly (the 'Terminator' scenario, as absurd as that may seem).

If we don't think through all these possibilities as designers NOW we will reach them utterly unprepared for what they bring. The level of urgency is very high.


I'd like to pose one of the questions from the series' press release back to you: "What can the role be for design when the reality that faces us is more extraordinary than the worlds we have imagined in science fiction?"
I am very fond of science fiction, of all kinds! In the past five years, I've used some key scifi by writers like Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, and John Brunner as textbooks in my seminars and design studio classes. I find that 'hard' scifi, so called because it's based entirely on existing or plausible science, can get us quite a way towards understanding the ways that design is evolving.

So I see the role of design as twofold. First, it can respond to these 'scifi' situations and in ways that design has typically functioned, to create a world that is relatively familiar to us. In this model extraordinary aspects of the 'scenario' get reintegrated into a world context that we recognize.

But in the second case, design as a process and as a way of thinking actually pushes past the boundaries of what we usually think of as the 'normal' world of everyday life—and in this case, design helps us to reinvent nearly EVERYTHING about our world. We imagine possible worlds, and design helps us to both imagine them and realize them.


Tell us a bit about the range of speakers you've invited to participate in these conversations. How did you decide who to include, and are there any qualities or characteristics these people share?
Across the board, all the speakers share a commitment to transdisicplinary thinking—and all have an acute awareness of the range of technological and historical factors that condition human presence on earth today.

For example, in the case of Bruce Sterling, who is a renowned writer of scifi, journalism pieces, and nonfiction, two of his nonfiction books have proved especially interesting to me—his Shaping Things and Tomorrow Now are both works of speculative futurology, looking at the relatively near future and trying to anticipate the sociocultural, political, economic changes that will result from emerging technology and networks.

Some of the other folks we have joining us are designers and critics I've met over the years at schools like Columbia University and SCIArc. Benjamin Bratton brings his ability to think laterally across emerging technology (he was director of Yahoo's Advanced Strategies Group) into contact with his deep scholarship in political science and philosophy, linking the work of folks like Paul Virilio and Giorgio Agamben back to these questions of deep sustainability and the future of design.


Has organizing this series made you feel bleaker or more paranoid about the future?
So far, any increased pessimism has been balanced by the ideas that our participants have been offering. One of the most interesting ideas—though grim—that emerges when considering our place in the universe has been proposed by Robin Hanson: there may be a statistical 'great filter' that is a universal law of probability, such that any sufficiently advanced civilization runs the risk of either self annihilation or extinction due to external forces. It's dark stuff to be considering, but fascinating: as we understand a bit more of the workings of the universe and the likelihood of complex life and intelligence emerging on earth, we need to think this through, and rapidly—because, if the 'great filter' theory is right, we might have an outside chance at affecting the outcome—so in that sense I still maintain a stubborn optimism.

What's your personal prediction for the ways that design will (or won't) counteract our potentially unnerving future?
Design thinking cuts both ways. Usually we imagine that the stronger the designer, the better the solution. However, that is balanced by the dangers of the tools and systems that designers work with today—increasingly powerful in scope. In the past half-century nuclear energy has been seen as that kind of technology—one that humans might not yet be ready for. In our time, it continues to hold great promise and danger. Other emerging fields that go beyond the scope of the nuclear include biotechnology and AI.

Indeed, some researchers and scientists anticipate such an acceleration in computer technology that strong AI might become a reality in the next two or three decades. If so, this would be a complete game changer (even though it is one of the risk factors!). According to some, the only chance we have to make it through the huge technological leap forward we're caught in will be with the assistance of a friendly, global AI. Up to a point, such an intelligence will be designed. But after that point, of course, we'll be in a dialog with it—and one hopes it would be interested in working with us on engineering problems many orders of magnitude larger than geo-tecting problems or climate change. I find this a fascinating future.

One of the greatest challenges I think we face is designing not only our world, but our place in the universe.

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