The Violent Side of Design

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The field of design is credited with improving our lives in many ways. But it also enables our darker impulses. It’s brought us the AK47, killer drones, and computer viruses.

Paola Antonelli has been thinking about this ambiguous nature of design. She’s the senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

She prompted a conversation among scientists, philosophers, activists and others on how recent design innovations can be used for violent means. She co-edited a book with design professor Jamer Hunt, called Design and Violence.

The project came from Antonelli’s discovery of Cody Wilson’s open-source plans for a 3-D printed gun and her reaction to it. She reached out to authors, activists, scientists and artists to contribute essays about design objects that could be used for violent means.

The products range from actual objects, like plastic handcuffs and green bullets, to the speculative, like the designs for a euthanasia rollercoaster.

Defense Distributed. The Liberator pistol. 2013. BSplus thermoplastic, nail, 2 1/2 x 8 1/2″ (6.35 x 21.59 cm). Photo: Michael Thad Carter for Forbes. Courtesy of Defense Distributed
Defense Distributed. The Liberator pistol. 2013. BSplus thermoplastic, nail, 2 1/2 x 8 1/2″ (6.35 x 21.59 cm). Photo: Michael Thad Carter for Forbes. Courtesy of Defense Distributed

“There’s always ambiguity which is quite interesting,” Antonelli said. “Design was born when the first tools in prehistory were designed. Probably the first tools were meant to kill. Animals, of course, but also enemies. So what is good and what is evil in everything, and especially in this case in design.”

You can read an excerpt from Design and Violence here.

Guy Mishaly (Israeli, b. 1983), Department of Industrial Design (est. 1983), Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (Israel, est. 1906). BLAST chair by explosion. 2011. Steel, 12 x 12 x 20″ (30 x 30 x 50 cm). Image and video courtesy of the designer. Photo by Oded Antman
Guy Mishaly (Israeli, b. 1983), Department of Industrial Design (est. 1983), Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (Israel, est. 1906). BLAST chair by explosion. 2011. Steel, 12 x 12 x 20″ (30 x 30 x 50 cm). Image and video courtesy of the designer. Photo by Oded Antman

From the book description: Design has a history of violence, yet professional discourse around design has been dominated by voices that only trumpet its commercial and aesthetic successes. Violence, defined here as the manifestation of the power to alter circumstances against the will of others and to their detriment, has always been ubiquitous, and in recent years technology has introduced dramatic new threats. Design and Violence sheds light on the complex impact of design on the built environment and on everyday life, as well as on the forms of violence in contemporary society. Published to accompany an online experiment launched by The Museum of Modern Art in 2013, this book brings together controversial, provocative, and compelling design projects with leading voices from the fields of art and design, science, law, criminal justice, ethics, finance, journalism, and social justice. Each author responds to one object—ranging from an AK-47 to a Euthanasia Rollercoaster, from plastic handcuffs to the Stuxnet digital virus—sparking dialogue, reflection, and debate. These experimental and wide-ranging conversations make Design and Violence an invaluable resource for lively discussions and classroom curricula.