Monthly Archives: October 2013

Are We Designing Ourselves To Death?

Last month, I read the printed issue of WIRED on the Future Of Design, and for some reason, I felt used, alienated, and just about ready to throw my computer and all my chic electronic devices out the window. Why? because I felt I was being limited and controlled through them. The moment I turned on an electronic device and opened an app, I was being manipulated by it to click this button or type that text or swipe some direction on the screen.  I did have a goal in mind, but that goal was being modified and changed by the device I was using. Now I could put these modifications down to the limitations of the hardware and software I had available to me, but that wasn’t the whole story, at least, not according to the articles in WIRED. Some of these limitations were set intentionally by designers in order to ensure that their users would have the “best experience” in using their products. WIRED noted this and proposed a future for design in an increasingly connected world.

Three words on the front cover, and referred to in each article, boldly proclaimed their vision for design: “Invisible, Beautiful, Everywhere.” The vision proclaimed by these words make sense when you consider the current focus of modern design as spearheaded by Apple: to make a device or service which allows the user to easily achieve the goal or end that he has in mind. Using those three words, WIRED painted a picture of devices invisibly woven into our reality that help us accomplish our goals simply and easily while removing supposedly frivolous and unnecessary choices as well as limiting error.

Sounds good right?

Yet somehow, at the end of this rosy picture, I wanted to punch a designer in the face. Why? because the modern designer suddenly sounds like a puppeteer who pulls the needed strings to ensure people use his devices as he intended. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If I design a store website, I want people to enjoy that online store so that they buy more. However, the reach of design does not simply end here. Good design inherently takes into account human psychology and the user’s goal, intentionally limiting the user’s focus to those tasks needed to accomplish that goal. For what broad goal are we designing these devices that they must be available “everywhere” to us?

These articles brought to my mind the last chapter in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Abolition of Man. C.S. Lewis describes the consequences of scientific planners crafting a superman. Since the cause must be greater than it’s effect, Lewis ridicules the superman idea with the logical conclusion that a superman will be limited and less than those scientific planners who brought him into existence. In the current push to design modern electronics to be invisible, beautiful and everywhere, I see a trend to design an experience using a similarly limited and materialistic conception of man and the world that either blithely ignores or shrilly protests any actual facts which do not fit within that conception of reality.

We designers need to be careful with the broad or final goal of design and the role our modern electronic devices play within our lives, for if we design wrong we will design ourselves toward death. So let us design not only for the immediate human goal, but also for the final or eternal Creator-given goal because only then will designers make experiences which allow human beings to be what they are created to be.

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Gnosticism masquerading as Catholicism

I went to a Catholic Mass several months ago that was celebrated beautifully. The priest sang the extraordinary form of the Mass, the servers all knew their duties, the congregation diligently participated. But it was during the homily that a false chord jarred the entire symphony of smells, actions, and sounds. I heard not the harmony of solid Catholic doctrine but a weak sycophantic Gnosticism masked with Catholic language.

In the previous week, I had studied Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, in which he lists the different characteristics of gnosticism. These characteristics nearly matched with the description of gnosticism given in Cardinal Ratzinger’s homilies on creation in In the Beginning. Gnostic thought creates an “Us versus Them” mentality, attacks love as unstable, does not believe in conversion of heart, attacks legitimate authority figures who do not agree with gnostic philosophy, and pushes its members to create or build some kind of salvation which is attainable here on earth.

Just a quick note before diving into the homily. My main goal is to point out the dangers of a creeping gnosticism for those who seek to be truly Catholic. I firmly believe that Gnostic thought is again permeating the Church, spurred by ignorance and reactionary thinking. I pray for this priest and his congregation because they are trying to do their best to live the faith in an increasingly hostile environment

The homily covered a then recent poll of both practicing and non-practicing Catholics in the United States, which revealed the devastating fact that most Catholics do not know or have confused ideas about major doctrines of the Catholic faith. But rather than pointing out the sorry state of Catholic religious education and calling for an evangelization of ignorant Catholics who are living pagan lives, the priest turned the poll into a whipping post for his own purposes. Blaming the results of the poll on the teachings of the Council of Vatican II, he called for his congregation to oppose ignorant Catholics and the evils they spread. He congratulated his congregation for being radically different from the “mainstream” that was presented in the poll by refusing to “get with the times” concerning dress, by eating organic foods, and by avoiding pharmaceutical drugs. Looking at the recent election of Pope Francis, and the “mainstream” adulation of his actions and speeches, he questioned whether the line of good popes had ended (not that those after Vatican II were that wonderful). He went so far as to cast doubt upon papal infallibility as he connected the possibility of a change in discipline so that priests could marry, to a possible change in doctrine which would allow women priests. He criticized the use of the word “Love” in connection with such “mainstream catholics”, insisting that all those in the room knew better. Finally, Citing the biblical verse that novelty tickles the ears of the foolish, he launched an all out attack upon the term “New Evangelization.”  The “New Evangelization,” as he saw it, was just an excuse to create a bunch of noise in order to promote “Love,” when what the Church really needed, as he saw it, was to kick out all the bad apples. He finally ended his sermon, with two things: First, that all these problems were due to Vatican II, and second, that all those listening to him should use their Liberty of Conscience and reject all this nonsense.

I’ll admit, I had a hard time stomaching all of this, and if we had been in a seminar rather than at Mass, I probably would have called him out on much of what he said. There was and still is a possibility that upon clarification of some of his points, I would realize that I had understood him all wrong, but I never got the opportunity to talk with him afterwards.

I will continue to pray for him. He was a truly passionate man, and I know he was trying to be a good Catholic and fulfill his vocation. If he ever reads this post, I hope he contacts me in case I understood him wrong. And to you, gentle reader, beware of the Gnostic, for his talk does attract those itchy ears. But do not kick him out, engage him in dialogue, and be willing to walk along his road, for then you might see how to help him out of his discordant echo chamber.