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Siren Songs of the Machines

Two faces, one smiling, the other is obscured.
Two Faces

Two faces, one smiling, the other is obscured.

In Hertzian Tales (1999), Anthony Dunne establishes the foundations for critical design1—especially with the intrusion of electronic devices in everyday life.

Quoting Paul Virilio, Dunne introduces the concept of user-friendliness through its rhetorical, yet instrumentarian counterpart:

According to Virilio (1995): Interactive user-friendliness … is just a metaphor for the subtle enslavement of the human being to “intelligent” machines; a programmed symbiosis of man and computer … the total, unavowed disqualification of the human in favor of the definitive instrumental conditioning of the individual.

(Anthony Dunne)

“User-friendliness” therefore takes on an ironic, sophistic turn: by exposing only the smiling, “friendly” facette and hiding the other, shadow programme, the device exacerbates the division of learning, keeping the exploitees from understanding the (new) underlying structures of power.

The easy communication and transparency striven for by champions of user-friendliness simply make our seduction by machines more comfortable.

(Anthony Dunne)

Objects embody (hidden) values that, if we do not question them, ultimately end up in institutions—profiting those who programmed them in the first place.

Although transparency might improve efficiency and performance, it limits the potential richness of our engagement with the emerging electronic environment and encourages unthinking assimilation of the ideologies embedded in electronic objects. Instead, the distance between ourselves and the environment of electronic objects might be “poetized” to encourage skeptical sensitivity to the values and ideas this environment embodies. This could be done in a number of ways, of which the most promising is a form of functional estrangement: “para-functionality.”

(Anthony Dunne)

As Dunne notes, user-unfriendliness needs not to be “user-hostile”—constructive user-unfriendliness already exists in poetry, which Bertolt Brecht’s distancing illustrates eloquently: keeping the spectator critically awake, unfooled by the fiction set before their eyes, thanks to an “estrangement effect.”

Resisting the siren song of the machines.


  1. A more detailed article by Jeffrey and Shaowen Bardzell examines the concept of critical design in the scope of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s works, where the term was originally coined. ↩︎