An Online Design Journey of

From the book In W. Harcourt (Ed.) Women @ Internet: Creating New Cultures in Cyberspace. London: Zed Books, p 69-75 (1999).


By Silvia Austerlic

Internet, a New Culture of Design

The goal of this chapter is to visualize the Internet as a space for cultural production and a novel medium for understanding and organizing collectively constructed knowledge. Internet can be seen as bringing about a new culture of design, originating not in science but in engineering, and yet to fully enter academic discussions. Rather than seeing technology and globalization as neutral instruments, the design perspective suggests they are proposing a new rationality and an ambitious yet concrete opportunity for change resting on a new knowledge economy and on culture-based local identities. We may interpret in this light, for instance, the new international community and decentralized managerial networks through which a 'global' or 'universal' logic find their meaning.

The Chilean Fernando Flores - one of the first people who applied cybernetics on a large scale to problems of social organization in Latin America - maintains that the new information technology poses a radical challenge: how to navigate global spaces in order to design local, actions (Flores, 1994). We are in a period of juncture and transition, and the future will depend on the consensus we might be able to generate. We must be able to generate spaces in which we can envision more just worlds, and commit ourselves to creating them. Flores believes that we must find a universal logic of organizations that makes possible long term strategies. The design of tools and the organization's cognitive capacitv are closely linked in this vision, which also suggests ways to transform cognitive and cultural resources into capital. Consequently, we need a theory of the economy that makes visible all these manifold forms of capital as central players. Individual and social transformation occur side by side in this new theory.

According to Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar, computer information and biological technologies are bringing about a fundamental transformation in the structure and meaning of modern society, from the vantage points of biology, language, history and culture (Escobar, 1997). The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world: it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones. The explosion of new technologies, the formation of geopolitical blocs, and novel forms of digitalized planetary connectivity are fostering novel scenarios and world orders, calling for alternatives approaches. Notions such as globalization, innovation and technology themselves awake unprecedented fears and possibilities, especiallv since thev reflect the tremendous cultural changes we are Witnessing. We mav thus understand globalization as a dynamic and conflictive period marked by the irruption of processes fuelled by new and original media that alter scales and categories of social life.

Brief Ontology of Design

In this context, 'design' is understood in a broad sense, as a potentiality which characterizes each human being and which manifests itself in the invention of new social practices, be they products, services or trends. Here 'innovation' means not only material and technical crea6ons, but, more importantly, new forms of living life and facing challenges, resulting in contrasting 'styles'. Hence the need to formulate new conceptual tools that allow us to be sensitive to changes, and to approach them with creativity and a keen sense of their historical specificity. A corollarv of these definitions is that each person can be seen as the designer of his/her particular field of knowledge and action, which requires that we specify the 'domain' (the local context) which is the object of design actions. Design actions, in turn, may produce changes in the reality of the user. The core of design process is thus the formulation of specifications in time and space, which makes of design a fundamental activity with ramifications in all areas of human activity.

For the German designer Gui Bonsiepe - who moved to Latin America in 1968 - the epistemology of design can be articulated around seven principles. First, design is a domain that can become manifest in any area of knowledge and human action. Second, it is oriented towards the future. Third, it introduces something new in the world, and is thus linked to innovation. Fourth, it is connected to body and space, particularly cognitive space. Fifth, design is oriented towards effective actions. Sixth, it is linguistically anchored in a field of values and judgements. Finallv, seventh, it establishes an articulation between user and -artifact; the user - in his or her perceptual, logical and operational dimensions - is of major concern to the designer (Bonsiepe, 1991). The interface constitutes the designer's central domain of attention; it is through interface design that the designer articulates a space of action for the user. In a sense, design outlines the sociocultural efficacy of a community of clients, encompassing this community's lifestyle and technological media. Design is the design of something that does not yet exist. Its ontological structure is composed of four domains: a user or social agent; a task to be fulfilled; a tool or artifact to carry out the task; and an interface that connects the three former domains to the human body.

A Sustainable Strategy for Developing Countries

As a designer working in the field of social communication and information since 1995 1 have begun to explore the enormous human potential of the Net. As a tool for developing countries, where sustainable development does not have to do with owning new technological information, but with solving 'South' communication needs and problems. Therefore, in order to challenge the 'have-nots' situation, we should not only teach this 'profile' of potential computer users the technical aspects of the Net, but also help them to find new creative strategies for community organization. For designing, in cooperation, decentralized 'soft-hearted' communication systems - the kind that have few material resources but are full of good quality information.

From design's perspective, if we could produce 'problems' and solutions' in terms of 'information', potential community networks could be articulated in profitable technosocial systems, and the benefits would consist of people using them for encouraging dialogue and providing a forum for voices that too often go unheard. Via computer networking technology, communities can now be connected electronically in order to pursue activities such as community and public health projects, long-distance learning, performances and 'virtual spaces' for creative interchange.

One of the chief advantages of the Internet is the access it gives to a vast amount of information while permitting the exchange of ideas and experiences with 'a multiplicity of new social actors. Before this potential is realized, however, any organization, enterprise or social actor must define its identity and underlying vision and goals. To this end, it needs to develop a complex management capability in each of the areas in which it acts, with concrete projects and objectives-, it must also be capable of continuous self-improvement. Only in @s way will information become a powerful tool for decision making and for competing successfully in the global market. In this sense, connectivity is not restricted to the digital aspects but involves the human actors -- organizations, the public sector, the community. What is at stake is the transformation of the practices that are engendering new worlds at present.

In this cultural context, when I refer to the Net I am not talking about a terminal. Rather I imagine it as a source; with the possibility to expand traditional limits and to find new possibilities to democratize, development, using the vast communication potential of the Net. And when 1 say communication, I do not refer to the new media only, but to communication as the core of our human, as a social commitment to rebuild what global forces have destroyed (Schuler, 1996).

Design as a Tool for Change in Latin America

It is clear that any country that decides to utilize design as an instrument for competing in international markets must abide by international quality criteria, decided upon bv advanced countries on the basis of growing complexity and automation. These criteria are often at odds with the needs of developing societies, given that they tend to produce exclusion, unemployment and a very technologized future. The current technological revolution, however, opens up new avenues and parameters of access to global possibilities that could channel local action. It is not in the domain of hardware and software, but in education that Latin America might have greater opportunities. Bearing in mind the goal of design with new technologies, the question thus becomes how to weave together the designer's mind, an orientation towards quality, and a set of effective practices within the overall context of a 'modern' project that visualizes and materializes them. What is needed in order to compete in the information society is not so much quantity but the added value - understood as meaning and context - of what is being said; this in turn requires attention to cultural context, and to the wider dimensions of telecommunications when thinking about content.

So, if it is true that new technologies are transforming modern structure, can the Third World countries reposition themselves creatively in the space of this transformation as relevant and vocal actors in the conversations that are shaping the world, and perhaps as creators of alternative discourses about society, nature and economy? I believe that this innovative attitude is possible; it is in fact validated by recent Latin American literature on design by authors such as Fernando Flores, Gui Bonsiepe, Fernando Flores Morador and Tomas Maldonaldo. Our dignity as Latin Americans demands from us a critical and creative attitude in facing the challenges of the future, and the future is the space of design. As we navigate among the variouss currents of design in this chapter, we embark upon a collective task of design ourselves.

An interesting example of identity-driven technological appropriation is the Red de Humanistas Latincamericanos (Latin American Humanist Network, RHLA), an electronic forum devoted to information production and exchange of issues relevant to Latin America. The Red has a Web page created in January 1996 and a discussion list (August 1996). In March 1997 it embarked on the creation of the Latin American Virtual University (Universidad Virtual Latinoamericana, with which I work from the perspective of communicator and designer. For the director of the RHLA, Fernando Flores Morador, 'the secret of cultural identity lies in our difference from known cultural tendencies. To be different is the alternative left us if we want to be ourselves: to this end, we must identify those areas in which we can build our difference. It is a question of exercising a universal culture for our particular realization' (Flores Morador, 1996, p. 30).

ICTs and Education for Innovation

There is the hope, in some communities worldwide, that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can make a difference that improves the quality of life, especially for the poor living in rural and remote areas. Material requirements are simple: such basic needs as uncomplicated access to safe drinking water, education and good health facilities, to have enough to eat and to have a shelter. The fulfilment of these needs requires the construction and operation of water supply schemes, schools and health facilities it requires the production of food, expert knowledge and other resources. It is important to realize that education, for it to be meaningful, must be in concert with expert and indigenous knowledge, and with local needs. Knowledge is dependent on time and space, and no amount of 'globalization' can remove these elements if education is to be relevant to people. Therefore, education should be the domain of the of the very basic level of human organization and evolve around cultural needs, in tune with local knowledge and the evolution of the community's own knowledge base.

Design shares with education its orienta6on towards the future. Like language, it is constitutive of human action. Thus we need to talk not, just about the design of objects, but about the design of situations in which life unfolds. Situations, not objects, are constitutive of design. How do we educate people capable of innovation, that is, of detecting change and acting from a new paradigm yet to be invented? How can we design our own autonomy? What is at stake is our own identity and the creation or our own peculiar models of technological and cultural change.

For some, new technologies embody a critique of conventional development; in this respect, they afford hopeful opportunities for developing countries. Whereas conventional development demands passivity, homogenization, and unidirectionality towards particular states, new technologies foster interactivity, multiplicity and alterity. Hence the need to question the centrality of markets and production as principles of social lie, something that the neoliberal ideology in vogue seems incapable of doing.

If philosophy constituted the pillar of the classical university, and the sciences were the basis of the modern academy, design could well become the foundation of the university of the future to the extent that it purports to integrate cultures and forms of knowledge into a new educational strategy. For Bonsiepe, it is urgent to invent, identify and define the principles of design; this could be a Southern contribution to avoid increasing peripheralization, for 'we are trapped not so much by lack of knowledge, as by the ignorance of our ignorance. In this resides the essence of underdevelopment' (Bonsiepe, 1996, p. 5).

To counteract peripheralization it is thus necessary to constitute critically the mind and identity of Southern peoples as the, most suitable field for experiments in a type of modernity centered on a mature cultural emancipation. We might find signposts for this process in various Places, from Paulo Freire's notion of education as a practice for freedom (Freire, 1985) to Fernando Flores Morador's theses on Latin American reality (Flores Morador, 1996). What we need now is to outline the contents of new profiles of leadership, belonging, and work based on well-defined politics of solidarity and national identities freed from the shackles of conventional development.

Inventing our Future

Within the new agendas, where 1CTs can help is, for example, in the planning and design of these activities by providing relevant and useful information, though we also need a social framework for finding what works ' in terms of adaptive strategies in communities, focusing on the basic elements of a livelihood systemsí (households, families, communities) - instead of solely on the relationship between an individual and work/job - and identifying what technologies and policy interventions can make a real difference to those living in poverty. Central to this process are the indigenous forms of mobilization and organization, and the means of communication. The major concern is to devise new ways to use the electronic media to enhance the effectiveness of the existing forms of communication. Cultural identities are important. New computer networks can be thought of as an important tool, but this is only a partial viewpoint, for it leaves the most critical questions unanswered: who uses the tool and controls its use, what policies guide its use, and what is the purpose of the tool.

An orientation towards information and virtuality is not enough without a new approach to the contents of education. As the Rector of Latin American Virtual University says, 'each of us can either invent our future with novel and appropriate elements, or insist on the perpetuation of what has become obsolete' (DAmbrosio, forthcoming). The creativity demanded by this project certainly entails risks, difficult beginnings, and leaving our fears behind. Yet, we have new tools at our disposal with which we can give direction. Not so much to these tools' future evolution but to our knowledge and to our desire to inaugurate a new era on this old planet, an era capable of generating agreements on how to conceptualize and bring about an authentic Virtual Peace.

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