Beyond Things Past (1971–72), a slideshow by the experimental architecture collective Ant Farm, opens with two depictions of the human-technology interface. The first centers on a nude woman and man, their bodies attached by a series of electric nodes to a computer array that promises a virtual window into their thoughts. In the second, a man in the staid attire of a Cold Warrior connects a telephone receiver to an open panel of wires, gaining access to an invisible communications network. These images of the reciprocal acts of “plugging-out” and “plugging-in” register a new awareness of the human relationship to technology, tinged by both a sense of possibility and an ironic skepticism verging on the parodic. Ant Farm’s project reflects a deep ambivalence about technology prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly within the counterculture in which the group were famous participants. Those taking issue with the status quo saw technology as an engine in the production of a militarized culture and repressed subjects. At the same time, many of these critics were also drawn to digital tools as a means of personal and collective liberation.
In hindsight this anxiety and excitement seem equally appropriate. Technological developments of recent decades have ushered in fundamental transformations in contemporary life. As physicist Ursula Franklin notes in The Real World of Technology, “There seems to be a very drastic change in what it means today to be human—what it means to be a woman, a child, a man; to be rich or poor; to be an insider or an outsider.”1 The works assembled in Designed in California attest to the state’s role as a laboratory for these changes in technology and living, with its universities, corporate offices, design studios, and homes serving as experimental sites for prototyping possible futures. The scope and speed of these recent technological developments illustrate how deeply the design of tools shapes our day-to-day life and informs the kinds of subjects we become.
This of course is not unique to the digital age; objects and daily acts have always contributed to the definition of selves. As novelist Ursula K. Le Guin notes, whether “hi” or “low,” digital or analog, “Technology is the active human interface with the material world.”2 Philosopher Michel Foucault argued that all technologies imply “modes of training and modification of individuals.”3 These realizations have recently been echoed by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, who note that the emergence of the human coincides with the invention of the tool; the human is a fundamentally “prosthetic being” constituted through her external supports.4 In any era, “design is always the design of the human.”5
However, the degree, pace, and breadth of recent innovations have had consequences that exceed many previous periods of technological change. The nature of these transformations is also more centralized and controlled by fewer interests than ever before. This scenario poses crucial questions for both citizens and designers. What kinds of selves do contemporary technologies produce? And what is the role of designers and users in ensuring that technology supports our collective interests?