SHAP­ING A WORLD FOR DIG­I­TAL HU­MAN­ISM

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - MELANGE - By Mar­garet Childs

MAK di­rec­tor Christoph Thun-ho­hen­stein on the res­o­nance of ob­jects, dig­i­tal hu­man­ism and how we can de­sign our way out of the sin­gu­lar­ity

Every day, as the sun rises over the rooftops of the Ringstrasse, the red brick build­ing across from Stuben­tor comes alive. The façade of the Mu­seum für ange­wandte Kunst (MAK) is only sur­passed by the or­nate ceil­ing fres­coes and mo­saic tile of the in­te­rior. This is no con­ven­tional gallery for art and ar­ti­facts. This mu­seum finds beauty in the ev­ery­day; fol­lows cre­ative so­lu­tions through­out his­tory, in the present and an­tic­i­pates it’s fu­ture. It houses over 600,000 ob­jects in its de­sign col­lec­tion, not in­clud­ing fine art.

Aside from the eight ex­hibits from the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, fash­ion shows, Tedx con­fer­ences and other cul­tural events, the MAK hosts ex­cep­tional tour­ing shows like Ste­fan Sag­meis­ter’s Happy Show at the Vi­enna Bi­en­nale where you can pe­ruse ex­hibits on robotics, artificial in­tel­li­gence and ur­ban de­sign.

Thun-ho­hen­stein says good ob­jects res­onate. “If they’re made well, eco­log­i­cally, sus­tain­ably, high qual­ity and well-de­signed the ob­jects have res­o­nance. Mass con­sump­tion, dis­pos­able prod­ucts don’t res­onate.”

The MAK di­rec­tor’s knowl­edge of Aus­trian de­sign, art and ar­chi­tec­ture his­tory gives him an edge when look­ing at the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of de­sign trends. He noted that in the same way that Bie­der­meier is one of the roots of early 20th cen­tury mod­ernism, our time will be among the sources of a new moder­nity.

“To­day peo­ple are talk­ing about Neo-bie­der­meier,” Thun-ho­hen­stein re­ported, “and some of the same de­sire to re­treat into the apo­lit­i­cal.” He sees the anonymity we achieve on so­cial me­dia as a cer­tain type of so­cial with­drawal, in which we feel safe to curse and in­sult other peo­ple, or even hate them. “That’s an­other rea­son we need de­sign, in or­der to moder­ate this de­cen­tral­ity bet­ter; to fa­cil­i­tate open con­fronta­tion.”

He is a big fan of smart­phones, but is also aware of the com­pli­cated way they change how we in­ter­act with our world. “Our en­tire lives are or­ga­nized via smart­phones,” said Thun-ho­hen­stein. From your con­tacts, to your sched­ule and ac­cess to in­stant in­for­ma­tion, we lose sight of the re­al­ity of our re­la­tion­ship with the de­vice. “We gen­er­ate un­be­liev­able amounts of data that are sold and then used to tar­get us with ad­ver­tis­ing,” he said. He’s clearly thought about this a lot. “The prob­lem is that we don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing and how trans­par­ent each of us has be­come be­cause of it.”

The Vi­enna Bi­en­nale team drafted a Dig­i­tal Hu­man­ism Man­i­festo that asks how to de­sign our dig­i­tal moder­nity so that it’s fash­ioned in a hu­man and hu­man­ist way. “This is the dis­cus­sion we need to be hav­ing on a larger scale. Next to the big dig­i­tal mo­nop­o­lies we need much more lo­cal qual­ity and re­gional pro­duc­tion.”

De­sign plays a key role, he said, be­cause it can ap­proach the prob­lem in com­pre­hen­sive and spe­cific ways. “Fine art doesn’t need to have any con­crete use. Of course we hope artists treat the sub­ject in their work, but they don’t have to. You can straight up com­mis­sion a de­signer to set their wits to it in a project.”

The MAK is not alone in the project of de­sign­ing our way out of anonymity. Along with the Kun­sthalle Wien, the Univer­sity of Ap­plied Arts, cul­ture cen­ters, the Vi­enna Busi­ness Agency and the Aus­trian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (AIT), the goal is to de­vise ways to show how dig­i­tal moder­nity can be made sus­tain­able and fit for the fu­ture.

“De­sign is prob­a­bly the key dis­ci­pline be­cause it can do a great job con­nect­ing fine art and ar­chi­tec­ture.” Hor­ror sto­ries and dystopian tales of machines tak­ing over are noth­ing new. But Thun-ho­hen­stein, his team and his part­ners want to keep ob­jects in their place.

“We peo­ple have to re­main the ones with our fin­ger on the but­ton,” he said. “We can’t be­come the tools of our tools.”

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