A Morality of ThingsA transdisciplinary dialogue on material agency and the ethical dimension of design, MSc. thesis, 2018.

Abstract: Over the past sixty years, the impact and the distribution of things designed are so embedded in our daily lives that we understand the role of objects far less than we think we do. Such a phenomenon on the global scale represents a profound shift in the relationships between humans and the artificial that it demands changes in our understanding and level of awareness regarding the forces of — and how we relate to — what we make. The way we experience the world is a product of our interaction with things, as well as our identity and our values. From this perspective, a substantial part of our everyday morality rests upon things designed.

This research investigates the shift towards material agency and hones the notion of morality within the realm of design by generating a discussion between the positions of social science and philosophy theories with contemporary design practices and their objects. It does so first, by turning the attention from humans to things to appraise the moral relevance of objects in particular moments of interaction and from the perspective of conceptual thinkers, and second, by addressing the making of things from the perspective of the makers. Through this transdisciplinary reflection, I intend to draw lines between both realms and to expose commonalities, misconceptions, and controversies that will contribute not only to closing the gap between these fields, but also further the discourse and help re-think the way people and designers relate to and through the material world.

In the first part, drawing from French sociologist Bruno Latour and Dutch philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek, the thesis attempts to locate morality not just in humans but in the interaction between humans and things. Through a variety of concrete cases, traversing various levels of social analysis, it is shown how objects can set action and morality in motion, which demonstrates that we not only shape things, but they shape us — and our moral frameworks — in return.

Design processes and production methods are ever more fragmented and distributed among many different people, times and places. Whether unintentional or because designers simply do not care, this detachment, this little to no control over processes of the making is not only physical, but also ethical, and it demands a deeper understanding of the forces of — and how we relate to — how we make.

In the second part, the perspective is turned around by giving a panorama of contemporary design modalities and analysing the transformation of designer’s knowledge and the agency of their practice by discussing two cases that introduce another way of making. Dutch-based Italian duo Studio Formafantasma helps to investigate material as language — thinking through the object. Through examining the projects Autarchy and Botanica, I analyse critical objects’ agency as propositions and as a renewed version of craft. Alternatively, Dutch Social Enterprise Fairphone helps investigate how design addresses the moral dimension of the materials that make an object and its process by showing how designing has concrete spatiotemporal impact. It is also discussed how a product can emerge from research, as one effective possibility for activism and as a concrete instance of change.

To conclude, I discuss contemporary values of design and what this transdisciplinary perspective brings up. In this regard, I reflect on what it means to work from the border, where these two bodies of knowledge overlap, pointing out the differences and similarities between words and things in order to understand to which extent they can remain — or not — impenetrable.

© Franca López Barbera 2013–2023. All the material on this page, including images, videos, and texts is intended for personal use only. If you'd like to download or reproduce any of the content for commercial use, please make sure to obtain permission first and/or reference accordingly.