Design: Making Man Central Again

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The “World Design Summit Organization” in Montreal this past October 23-25, 2017 was the chance for all Design non-profits and entities the world over to exchange not only on their responsibility in a world overtaken by extreme changes, but also on that of designers. Oddly, Artificial Intelligence was seldom on the agenda, and yet designers are continually faced with the very task of shaping the limits of a new kind of Humanism.

At the start of the Industrial Era, Design arose from the perpetual quest to get back and back in touch with the meaning-making behind craftsmanship, “manual labor”, purpose and Human-centered values just as lifeless assembly lines were outweighing Man-made work.

The theorization of “Scientific Management”* according to Ford, Taylor and Fayol led to an organizational or industrial analysis broken down into two categories of people: on the one hand, those who govern, brainstorm and develop processes and methods; on the other, those who carry them out mechanically for the sake of productivity. As a result of this gradual dehumanization and Man’s increasingly obsolete status, Industrial Design emerged, restoring to Man a human place in mass production.

Fast forward to the 21st century: The arrival of robots has us asking the same questions. Their increasingly elaborate functionality, coupled with our expectations that they be smart, sensitive and emotional, raises an eyebrow or two on our relationship to them and, on a broader level, to Mankind. What kinds of women and men are we to be, and how are we to adapt knowing that robots will be taking our place? This is the very role and responsibility of both Design and designer.

Instinctively, Man will want the robot to resemble him, have a heart, and love him just as much as he is capable of loving it back. It’s inevitable. To understand just how real the Humanization phenomenon of robots is today, take a closer look at the care and attention some kids show their new Tamagotchi* or how attached certain elderly are to their Nao. This behavior is no different from that seen in France as of late in relation to pets whose once “non-existent” status has shifted to one of human-like dimensions. Through a perhaps humanistic lens, Saudi Arabia recently granted citizenship to a female robot. Granting a robot citizenship is one thing, and a quite remarkable thing at that, but deeming it human although merely a machine stirs up concern.

The robot becomes sexualized and a citizen the same day

Artificial Intelligence will make robots more and more efficient. They already outperform Man when it comes to playing chess and Go. Automated tasks will be child’s play. They already paint like “Rembrandt”. Tomorrow, they may even be our connection to our neighbors, doctor, lawyer, banker, insurance agent or the government. The revolution is in motion. The first sexual robots are invading markets and phasing out the Other. To avoid straying too far from reality and to appease Mankind’s agony, what should a new form of Love look like?

How far will intelligent robots go to reverse the roles, making Man their servant and having him obey their orders, consenting to such an extent that the only option left will be to make them as human as possible? “The slave is always a tyrant, if he can get a chance to be one.” Given the likelihood that robot performance, regardless of task, will far exceed that of humans, it seems only natural, if not inevitable, that Man will become dependent on Artificial Intelligence-embedded robots.

In her work entitled, “A Manifesto for Global Design and Leadership”, Kolding School of Design Rector Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen writes, “The 19th and 20th century industry took its point of departure in these questions: What is profitable and what is technologically possible? In the 21st century, the main question to ask is: What makes sense?” Design’s very premise is making sense of where Mankind is headed once robots will have taken over. Sustainable development, resource economy, digital and physical transformations, aging populations, new mobilities and our security, among others, are nothing other than avatars masking a more burning issue: What changes will and must Man undergo and undertake to design a more balanced world despite the massive influx of intelligent robots capable of exponentially altering at record speeds the nature of every social tie we have to every thing and individual around us, and, in turn, changing the face of business as we know it? With all efforts aimed at instilling meaning, values and virtue across all facets of economic activity, the only question worth anything to businesses today is: “Where does Man fit into all of this, and more importantly, How?” Corporate Social Responsibility, or the tales of a “freedom-form company”, is nothing other than a smugly moralistic take on the movement in question. The real matter has to do with a corporate commitment to Humanity should businesses wish to stay in business. Should this not be their intention, then they  may as well make a beeline for the nearest Exit, adopt compliance, convention and conformity as their credo, say good-bye to originality, not to mention their identity, and be gobbled up by bigger fish with deeper pockets. The same goes for society in general. Robotization is throwing us the curve ball of a lifetime, whose pitch is aimed not only at testing our ability to survive the Man vs. Machine revolution, but also driving us to create a lasting footprint for generations to come that exemplifies our new roles and responsibilities in favor of a world boasting greater justice, cooperation and respect for the planet as robots continue to gain ground. This is Design’s greatest challenge today.

* Montreal Design Declaration available at


* The Principles of Scientific Management – 1911 – Frederick Winslow Taylor.

* Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe – La case de l’oncle Tom, trans. Louis Éhaut, p.337, Hachette, 1855.

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