The Design Economy: How to Meet the Challenges of the Next Economic Era

Joe Costello, author of the new book Of, By, For: The New Politics of Money, Debt & Democracy, has a message for America: our political economy must be democratically reformed. As we confront a moment of massive historical change, Costello explores, among other things, how electronic information technologies are transforming industrial economies. He explains how the understanding of this shaping process, or design, can help us meet the challenge of the next economic era. Hint: We're going to have to wake up to our power as citizens to get there.  


The following is an excerpt from Of, By, For: The Politics of Money, Debt & Democracyby Joe Costello (SmashWords, 2012).


"The ordinary person senses the greatness of the odds against him even without thought or analysis, and he adapts his attitudes unconsciously. A huge passivity has settled on industrial society. For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their living by waiting on machines, listening much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods." -- Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

Humanity's great agrarian era produced agrarian government systems, economies, and cultures. Human life and human identity derived overwhelmingly from the processes of farming. The much shorter two-centuries old industrial era redefined life. The processes of production and consumption became the overwhelming dual identities of individuals and our institutions that evolved to foster the processes of unlimited industrial growth. As we move into the design economy, increasingly the most imperative questions will be what are the roles, identities, institutions, and processes of design.

Design has been part of human history before the beginning of civilization. It has at times played an instrumental role with the designing of hunting tools, farming implements, and industrial technologies. However today, information, the raw material of design, is becoming not simply ubiquitous but fundamental to every aspect of human life. For example, with our knowledge of DNA comes the ability to manipulate the very information codes of life itself.

Presently, many of the processes of design - the creation of information, its editing communication, and finally decision making for its utilization - are in turns both centralized and insufficient. We need to evolve our institutions, organizations, and individual roles to understand that design is increasingly the primary value of political economy, ultimately creating a value shift from industrialization's quantitative value of infinite growth based on unlimited production and consumption to design's more qualitative values of participation, efficiency, elegance, and enough.

If we look at the processes of design today, we see rapid change. Companies, governments, NGOs, and individuals each year produce an exponentially greater amount of information. In the distribution and communication of information, paper is in great decline as electronic media explodes. Creation and communication of news and public affairs, once the exclusive domain of print, was supplanted by electronic broadcast media by the mid-20th century, and is now rapidly being replaced by the networked microprocessor, creating both a plethora of real and potentially valuable information, but also an unprecedented amount of noise, with little or no value. Noise grows as what could be useful information is communicated with no ability for the individual or organization to place it in meaningful context.

Yet, even the gaining of valuable information is hamstrung in utilization as the decision making for political economy remains tremendously centralized. Much of the wealth, and thus the economic decision making of the nation is concentrated in the Fortune 500. At the same time, over the past century as government power became more greatly centralized in Washington DC, political decision making became further and further removed from state, localities and the citizen. As previously noted, information both for consumer purposes and electoral decisions - the only direct role citizens have in political decision making - is overwhelmingly manipulative and based on primal motivations, not the rational decision making necessary for civilized design.

In an information environment overwhelmed with noise, the individual is increasingly at a disadvantage as it becomes ever more difficult to filter or more appropriately edit information so that it might be utilized. Individuals face a tsunami of information provided with little or no context, making it difficult to put any of it to use. In contrast, the industrial organization, be it the Fortune 500 or a federal bureaucracy has advantage in contextualizing much of the information they need to make decisions, not to mention the power to then implement. Thus, they can staff tremendous numbers for simply editing information flows. However, over time, this can also become a disadvantage in large organizations and bureaucracies as information channels become locked-in, leading to stagnation and inability of the organization or bureaucracy to utilize new information. And just as importantly, these large structures play a role in protecting the status-quo, manipulating information flows to suit their self-interests.

We need to begin to evolve our institutions, organizations, and bureaucracies with an understanding that the creation, processing, and utilization of information is not simply an essential component, but the predominant one. This means both changing our institutions and creating new ones. It necessitates reviving the idea of associations, an essential part of the American republic's democratic history. As Tocqueville wrote of the vibrant agrarian American republic, "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations." Yet, this necessary distributed formation of associations has been lost or replaced by the centralized order instilled by the Fortune 500 and Washington DC.

A design economy needs to birth millions of design associations. They will be both local and geographically based and distributed electronically across global networks. They will stand alone and be distributively tied. These associations will create, edit, communicate, and utilize information, that is they will design. Most importantly, they will provide the individual, the citizen, the consumer a mean to be an active participant of the design economy.

In the end, the foundation of the design economy is not stuff, it's people. And for the design economy to transcend industrial life, people are going to need to be freed from industrial structures, most essentially the processes of unlimited production and consumption. People are going to need the time, and just importantly society is going to have to value the processes of design. Which means people as both individuals and collectively as associations are going to be valued as creators, editors, communicators and decision makers, in short we must revalue the citizen.  

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