Axiology Within a Designed Object Ontology
Design is the effective assemblage of possibility. This is our most core truth. Now, stating this outright may seem strange, but it is from this initial postulate that we’ll first analyze design ontologically and consistently. This whole thing is about some other whole being greater than its individual parts, i.e. that “the possible can also be seen as an inherent structure in virtually all” designs. Design is thus all around us. It can be happen, and it can be done. It “evolves at the threshold of actuality. It is a dimension of the actual that both transcends the actual and is inherent in it.” The implications here, of course, are tied inextricably to notions of morality.
But as a historiographic line of published philosophical inquiry, the morality and ethics of designed objects has followed steadily in tandem with the recent growth and dissemination of newer digital technologies (as has everything, really). In 1980, American social scientist Langdon Winner famously asked: “Do artifacts have politics?” The eponymous article, now widely cited as the first of its kind, was concerned primarily with a rather comprehensive analysis of urban overpasses in New York City. Built high enough for car clearance, but too low for bus clearance, some of these bridges prevented lower-class and predominantly darker-skinned residents from accessing the beach via public transportation means. Winner eventually argued that the overpasses, as realized intentions of their makers, were themselves racist.
In 1992, French anthropologist Bruno Latour expanded on Winner’s example, claiming such artifacts are bearers of morality as they constantly help people to make all kinds of decisions. This shift marks an important transition from interpreting creature agency to upgrading intentionality toward object function(s). Latour argued that many human actions and interpretations are inseparably molded by the technologies we use to enact and interpret the world around us. He termed this the mediation approach to moral artifact analysis, and in keeping with the example of vehicles, pointed to cars as generating ethical questions of conduct (e.g. that driving fast is ethically dubious in many scenarios) that weren’t questions before (i.e. that driving fast couldn’t be ethical conduct before cars enabled driving fast) — but, more interestingly, that the car itself posed an object-ethical question: that while automobiles could be driven safely, any act of driving was becoming itself ethically dubious the more we learned about fossil fuel pollution. These are separate orders of ethics. Described differently:
“From communication theory, we have learned that meaning is something that is exchanged or even produced in the process of mediation, that the medium plays an active role in the construction and communication of meaning, and that, conversely, the medium carries and conveys meaning in a way that also is fundamentally determined by what is conveyed. In this way, design[ed] objects are important as media expressing and affecting.”
We are interested in the first half of that final sentence, in the “expressing” of designed objects as a modality. But there is little literature that meditates on this expressing. Most inquiry following Latour is dedicated to fleshing out the affecting qualities of physical assemblages. Objective, ontological analyses of value have separately evolved to study information systems as they pertain to operations of designed objects, primarily computational machines and newfound artificial intelligence.
This means that “there are two ways to take mediation analyses into the ethics [and aesthetics] of design. One, they can be used to develop moral assessments. [...] Two, the conclusion that artifacts do have specific form of morality also shifts ethics from the domain of language to that of materiality.” But because we are investigating value assignments of objects irrespective of human benefit, we are interested only in the script of a result, the script being the point of axiology simply because it’s the last level of teleology before the object falls into the realm of human mediation.
The Point of Axiology
Axiology was first used by French philosopher Paul Lapie in 1902 to describe the balance between ethics and aesthetics. Today, for instance, axiology refers often to communication theory (much like notions of entropy do), to research of research — i.e. to studying freedoms and values within administered research itself, raising questions of what procedural design can, does and should do performatively and consequently. So it is well suited to similar meta-analyses here.
For aesthetics, we turn to French philosopher Raymond Ruyer, who describes aesthetics as “the qualitative excess of an act lived purely for its own sake, as a value in itself, over and against any function the act might also fulfill.” And this result, this excess of function, is referred to as the aesthetic yield. Something is here considered more aesthetic (at its core) the more versatile it is, and it’s exactly “by using the concept of the imaginary on the one hand [...] and the realization in a physical, concrete and material medium on the other, we are able to discuss how meaning can be transferred in a way that detaches it from the designer.”
This axiological compass now takes us into the territory of method. How do we determine honesty of material? Do we exhaustively count every individualized excess of function? The short answer is, as it always seems to be, yes and no.'
Our object case study will be Belgian design duo and renowned design-activist enthusiasts Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s 2004-2008 Vitra commission Vegetal, a 2.6-x-2-x-1.75-foot polyamide chair. It retails for $650 USD. The earlier philosophical inquiries (à la Winner, Latour et al.) of the morality of objects used the term artifacts to free up operational assignments from epistemological concerns. Except here the mass-produced is front and center — i.e. the concept of chair as artifact points to a particular realization of concept, while — with something practically injection-molded like Vegetal — the concept cannot be pinned to any one realization, and we can further consider manufacturing process. This separation better reflects our prior assertion of modality, of Vegetal as modality. And while any iteration of this modality shares essentially identical script, we can still discuss this point of axiology summarily. We are not concerned with the history, influences, or even the creature agency intention(s) of Vegetal, and so we will not discuss them. Our case study is limited to honesty of material and excess of function.
The chair has four legs and a rounded shell seat. The entire object is a single piece and a single color. According to Vitra, the chair’s script is a 0.7% “stable steel compound of iron and carbon with added alloys” and 99.3% polyamide, “a very strong thermoplastic synthetic material.” Polyamide occurs both naturally and artificially. It is a macromolecule with repeating amide bonds found in protein-based textiles like wool. When man-made, polyamides can be created through step-growth or solid-phase synthesis — the latter the “highly energy-efficient process” used in Vegetal: a chemical reactant solution method where molecules are essentially cooked together in a big vat. At the end of the product life cycle, Vegetal “materials can be used thermally to generate energy or can be crushed and recycled as materials,” meaning the chair “is 100% recyclable.” However, because the script contains no moving parts and is a single biobased unit, the product life cycle is persistent, and the material only corrupts at temperatures above 400-degrees Fahrenheit. A trivial indicator of Vegetal’s Achilles’ heel: if the chair is exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods, the color “may change over time.” Otherwise, it thus appears Vegetal is manufactured from a material that performs superbly and would constitute as possessing a low ethical yield.
Aesthetically, because function is separate from human benefit, we analyze all descriptions beyond what is absolutely necessary for the object to function as its modality. While there is a utilitarian relativism to addressing such functions — i.e. if creature agency intent purported the chair should be placed upside-down, for instance, then the four legs (otherwise necessary for the chair to be upright) would become a qualitative excess — we can safely assume that more excess would beget more functionality, which means each extra component re-informs functionality in a kind of aesthetic feedback loop. And, most importantly, that these augmenting assignments can be thus derived from a single functional assignment. So, the Vegetal script, as a chair modality result, can be said to possess the following extraneous details: 1) its single color, 2) its asymmetrically intertwined, three-level, flat branch-shell ribs, and 3) the seating and backing curvature. That’s it. We don’t ascribe aesthetics to its material construction, environmental friendliness, or its carefully considered touch. This means that we can ascribe to the Vegetal a high aesthetic yield.
This combined set of ideas only describes one conceptual way to appraise and value the constituents of one ontology. It is a combined meta-ethical and aesthetic mechanism within a designed object ontology within a classical, physicalist framework. The impetus of laying out such groundwork arose from one question: can objects be valued universally and without regard to their creature agency intentions? Since most object value assignments project a moral code onto an object in reverse analysis (consequentialism, utilitarianism, environmentalism, &c.), our goal was to extrapolate from within the object a teleological set of descriptors. It is incredibly difficult to cast aside the histories and implications of objects when analyzing them as pure physical assemblages. But it is an exercise useful for understanding why we make what we make.
Bouroullec, Ronan and Erwan. “Vegetal, 2008,” Vitra, accessed online: vitra.com/enus/product/vegetal.
Foss, Karen A. and Stephen W. Littlejohn. Theories of Human Communication, Waveland Press, 2004.
Folkmann, Mads Nygaard. “Design and Possibility,” The Aesthetics of Imagination in Design, MIT Press, 2013.
Latour, Bruno. “Where Are The Missing Masses? The Sociology of A Few Mundane Artifacts,” Shaping Technology / Building Society, MIT Press, 1992.
Massumi, Brian. What Animals Teach Us About Politics, Duke University Press, 2014.
Palmer, Robert J. “Polyamides, Plastics,” Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Technology, Wiley Online Library, 2001.
Winner, Langdon. "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, 1980.
Verbeek, PeterPaul. “Morality in Design: Design Ethics and the Morality of Technological Artifacts,” Philosophy and Design, Springer, 2009.