An exploration of
dirty design philosophy
by Marjanne van Helvert


A Dirty time -
whY now?

We seem to be at a turning point in history. Normally, I would distrust anyone who says something like that, because it tends to signal an inability to see beyond one's own time. But that is exactly what I am talking about in this case. We have come to an interesting point in history, where time itself is getting a different treatment. New technologies are giving us an opportunity to see not only that the world is flat, or at least much more so than ever, but that time appears as an equally accessible plane of existence and knowledge. In this chapter I would like to add another dimension to what dirty design could mean, and why now is the time to talk about it.

Perhaps it is a sign of any time to say the present forms a break with the past. The twentieth century certainly saw many such declarations. Le Corbusier heralded the modern age with crisp, white outlines and a visionary if rather terrifying concept of machines for modern living that would cleanse civilization of bad taste and bad habits alike. In 1979 French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described the post-modern era as a break with the meta-narratives of the past. Another French post-modernist, Jean Baudrillard, declared the end of history in many of his writings in the 1990s. He understood this as the exact opposite of his contemporary, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who famously argued, in 1992, that the end of history marked the fulfillment of a definitive and superior state of civilization, namely that of free market capitalism and democracy, while Baudrillard stated that the ideal of any linear progress culminating in such a conclusive state has become obsolete.

In any case, I think that once again, or still, we are at a moment of fundamental change.
We find ourselves at the end of a historic period, that of modernism and postmodernism, that does not seem to want to end yet. The grand narratives of progress and modernity have largely subsided, but we still cling to them, and there has yet to come a new position to replace them. At the same time we have entered the age of network culture, where globalization changed our perspectives on each other forever, and where the hierarchy and linear narratives of the past are being challenged by the anarchic intelligence of the collective. This network culture, with its largely unregulated development, where knowledge is more democratic, more available, more interactive and therefore more objective than ever before, where hackers provoke the hierarchies and systems they consider reactionary or obsolete, where programmers dispute monopolized copyright laws, where idealists create free alternatives for the mainstream, and where the open-source system provides new insights on how we could move forward IRL; this might be the place where the roots and inspiration of revolutionary futures lie.

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling held a lecture at Transmediale in Berlin in 2010 - and I feel tempted to quote it in its entirety - in which he talks about network culture and its influence on the world of today:

"[I]t’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli. There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurrilous rumor. This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent. It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended. And it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction. The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work – it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder."

So how does this new temporal dimension - Sterling calls it atemporality - relate to dirty design? I see my concept of dirty as a reflection of the present time, which I think is what design should be. The norm of the universal, the clean and the anonymous is a product of the old world order, that might still be applicable to certain situations, but I would like to see it let go of its dominating grip on commercial design conventions, even if it is simply because it will become less and less relevant to its more savvy consumers. Through its origin in modernism, whitewash design relates to the failed meta-narrative of progress and the hierarchy of perfection. The shiny layer, the hermetic surface are in denial of the contemporary disorder we live in. They do not show what we have learned in the meantime. They pretend like we do not know about their dirty background, their dirty insides, and their dirty politics.

Sterling puts forward two metaphors which I would like to use as an illustration of how we can see dirty design in the contemporary context. The first one he calls
“Gothic High-Tech”, which would be the "analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. It is the symbol of the ruined castle. [...] The ruins of the unsustainable" (Sterling 2010). This is the old world order, the symbol of power, of the elite, of the venerated and the transcendent. These are the impenetrable walls, that acquired a white layer during modernism. Now that it has been shot full of holes, we can see what it is really made of, what it looks like inside. We can see the dirty world underneath the shiny white layer.

The second metaphor Sterling uses is
"Favela Chic", "the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order." (Ibidem) This is what is changing the world, and what we should all be on top of, exploring closely and critically. This is where new narratives will be born and where we will bring them into existence. The favela signifies a bottom up movement versus the top down tradition. It stands for the amateur experiment, the do-it-yourself attitude, the ability to work with the complex, organic dynamics rather than to simplify them. And this is the dirty design ethic and aesthetic I believe we should work with.

Presently, many consider the illusion unveiled, but might find it difficult to admit to the uncertainty of the new dynamics.
Claiming the end of an era does not mean we can perceive the beginnings of a new one. Perhaps it is time to try to embrace the contemporary disorder and the unfinished business we are left with. Instead of ignoring it, we could be inspired by and learn from our discontent with the status quo. And then perhaps we may realize that this chaotic present might not even be a period in between the last one and the next one, as Sterling states, but is in fact the next one already: one that unexpectedly has come down upon us in all its mind-blowing complexity, one that may finally make us realize that our existence is a never ending dynamic, that this duration is the missing link in our metaphysics, in our ethics and our aesthetics. Dirty is the present.