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Cameron: I’m talking about something which is a little bit dull and obvious, which is convenience. Everybody has a sense that–of course we are pursuing convenience. We’re all ratcheted to expect higher and and higher levels of convenience. The reason why we think technologies improve is because everyone is a little more convenient than the last one: that’s the kind of relative value I can see in switching. It’s a funny sort of discourse; it’s one of those discourses that doesn’t have a large academic presence. You don’t see a lot of people talking about it. It seems to be very sort of mundane and obvious. But I think there’s something more interesting in it, obviously, which is why I’m trying to talk a little bit about it. And I think it has a lot to do with what design does: the ways in which design, as the creation of material systems and products, interacts with everyday practices.

If you’re going to understand something about the forces of material devices that have been designed on lifestyles, one way to understand that kind of force has to do with rethinking of the concept of convenience. So what I’m trying to do is link the concept of convince to the idea of affordance in design: The idea that particular ways of structuring interfaces of products and systems encourage semi-conscious interactions that can become everyday practices. I’m trying to characterize that at the moment using the metaphor of gravity. It’s like a gravitational pull. I’m trying to account for this weak force. So one of the examples I would use: You’re at home. You need some milk. You step outside your house. You could walk to, hopefully you’re in a walkable suburb, and you can actually walk to a corner store and get some milk. But you will feel the pull of the vehicle parked outside your house. It’s not doing anything, and in certain kinds of readings of economics it’s just sitting there unused. It’s an underutilized resource. But it is doing something even when it’s not moving, which is affording a type of mobility. It’s not merely a possibility. If you think phenomenologically, it’s more than a possibility. It’s something that you would have to characterize as having a type of weak force. That weak force might divert you toward it, to get into the vehicle, and drive to the corner store to get your milk rather than walk. And it will do that because it’s supposedly more convenient.

But, of course, it depends how you frame it. It’s more convenient to walk if you don’t want to run down the quality of your vehicle and increase the need for maintenance. It’s more convenient to walk if you’re worried about climate change. On the other hand, the vehicle will use it’s own conveniences: You can listen to the radio; the temperature will be nice; you’ll feel whatever you feel when you drive the car a–certain kind of control. All these affective powers are sitting there and there’s something about that moment of almost walking past that vehicle that I’m trying to characterize. That phenomenology of the pull.

So, it’s a poetic idea, but I’m trying to give it give it a little bit of discursive currency. I’m trying to use actor-network theory: What is it that is actually holding the nodes of a network? I’m trying to characterize it in terms of non-human agency. Is it that the car is calling to you? Is it that it is pulling you? What is the kind of animism that this thing has? And what is the role of the designer in having given it that power? What is the relation of all of that to convenience? And I think this is very important if you’re trying to think about how do we direct society away from being materials intense. Having so much stuff. Feeling dependent on so much stuff. Feeling like you need to acquire more stuff. If you’re going to move away from a straight consumerist version–we’re all just duped by big advertising agents–you need to instead try and focus a little more on these powers of things.

Cameron Tonkinwise is Director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

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