What does it mean to be human? An argument for cyborg-centred design

As the end of the year draws near, I thought the most fitting post to close the year would be an introduction to one of the ideas which has been providing the most creative fuel to my work this year. Most of my readers will likely be well-versed in the tenets of human-centred design. The central idea is that by working to understand broad human needs and designing for those needs first, we stand more chance of making valuable interventions. It’s a useful heuristic for moving away from technology-centric innovation. Design the right thing first, and then design it right. There are other advantages too. The human user stands usefully outside the delivery organisation and it’s disciplines. No-one discipline owns the human user, which makes the concept of the human a fantastic construct for interdisciplinary collaboration.

However there are significant problems in moving the idea of human-centred design past this first heuristic. In other words, once all involved have accepted this idea, how does it help us advance the complex requirements of multiple stakeholders, not least the business objectives of the process in the first place, and the technological / logistical feasibility of human need? We need to remember that human needs in the context of design and innovation are largely conceptual constructs, used to aid the process of discovering valuable new (often technological) interventions in the life of both the human and the business or organisation. A puritanical view of human-centred design does not necessarily value these objectives, it’s an asymmetrical perspective. However, most projects involve compromise. We are not looking for the pure execution of what would be best for the human user, but the most valuable intersection of value for all stakeholders. We often want to change behaviours, not simply serve them. Too often in human-centred design, these requirements are grafted in during the execution of a project, rather than incorporated in the methodological underpinnings.

In the search for ways of most effectively negotiating these tricky waters, the idea I’ve found most useful is that we can understand these complex hybrids of intersecting actors as singular organisms, cyborgs, joinings of the human and his/her technologies. So I’m closing out the year by arguing for a move away from human-centred design to cyborg-centred design.

There are a couple of key points to be made about this idea. The core of it is symmetry. Humans are no more necessarily privileged than any other actor. Neither is technology or business. This is not a move back to the bad old days when technology was privileged. It’s a flat perspective. You can go on to make weightings based on the goals of the project, but you start out with all the actors equal. This includes ideas and intangibles such as brand. Everything that can potentially influence the final cyborg entity should be considered. Remember this is really just another heuristic. It doesn’t imply that you must give equal attention to everything, just pragmatically consider it’s implications.

Secondly, this perspective understands that by engaging with this situation, you too are becoming part of this cyborg. The way that you map it out, connect the pieces together, influences the final design outcome. In other words, it’s a neutral perspective. We can map out a more human-centred, technology-centred or business-centred cyborg. These are choices we make, not methodological certainties. Following cyborg-centred design means we take responsibility for our assumptions. This helps to move us past thinking that a human-centred design approach necessarily delivers most value for humans, whilst mid-way through a project compromising to deliver business requirements. All the components are methodologically baked in.

Thirdly, and this is one of the most powerful aspects for me, by asking what new organism exists once our interventions are made, we start from the perspective of why. What would be the point of such a new organism existing? What would be the value? What would the human become with the aid of the prosthetic limb you wish to create for it. Why would any of the constituent parts wish to become this new entity? We must answer that question for each actor, in order to understand it’s part in the new entity we propose creating. This is an approach tailor made to understanding and developing complex product/service/platform ecologies.

There are many intellectual resources available for thinking about humans and technology as already complex cyborg organisms. Such a perspective argues that we have long been cyborg, that in fact the defining human characteristic is his/her interdependence with technology. A good place to start is the work of Nathan Jurgenson, author of the blog Cyborgology. Nicolas Nova’s work also appears to me to be steeped in cyborg-thinking, though he may not agree! If you’re ready to dig deeper, scholars such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Gilles Deleuze are all worth reading for their often quite different perspectives. And of course, I haven’t touched on transhumanism at all, the idea that we stand poised on the brink of bio-innovations that will radically destabilise the notion of the human in it’s entirety.

Cyborg-centred design is for me, a way to incorporate all of these ideas into my practice. It’s a means of more fruitfully understanding complex ecologies and being honest about my interventions in their practices. It’s a way to abstract from the rhetoric of human-centred design and incorporate all the stakeholder criteria that are necessarily a part of each project I undertake. I’m definitely not arguing that is that this is a brave new world, or that we must begin attaching devices to our limbs, but rather that we recognise the limits of pretending that the human and technology exist independently and orient our design practice around doing what is best for the organism as a whole. I’m arguing that this is what we already practice, and that we can gain a lot from recognising that and building it reflexively into our practices.

Weigh in in the comments to let me know what you think. Based on some conversations I’ve had about it, I think some people will love it and others will hate it, but there’s a great conversation to be had and I’d like nothing better than to spend my last week at work, in between Christmas parties and mulled wine, talking about the idea that I’ve found most productive this year.