As Scott mentioned in his post, part of the focus of class today was consumerism, and design’s role in shaping it. The discussion reminded me of a fascinating and controversial statement I heard recently regarding the role of consumerism and Western culture in creating an environment that encourages radicals and fundamentalism.
“The [clash between fundamentalist religion and more secular values] is as big a problem in Arkansas as it is in Afganistan […] and we in the West who are not fundamentalist need to look at what we’ve done wrong such that fundamentalists are on the rise. This is not to excuse the Taliban or Sarah Palin or any of those people whatsoever, but it is to say that we of progressive, Western values need to look at what we’ve done wrong so as to provoke this kind of reaction, and I think we’ve done a lot wrong.
“The rampant consumerist culture that suggests ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ is understandably going to provide a kind of backlash. I think a lot of the move towards fundamentalism in different cultures is an attempt to say “No, actually I want my life to mean something more than that, I want to be guided by certain ideals of the way the world should be.” […] If we continue to see fundamentalists as irrational idiots or if we look at them as cowardly, weak-kneed people who can’t understand how to live in the modern world… then we are lost, because the criticism of consumerist, contemporary culture is in many ways a valid one.” (Transcribed from the podcast)
Though controversial, I find her claim that the pendulum swing of fundamentalism is due, at least in part, to consumerism to hold a ring of credibility. Certainly the search for meaning is a powerful human motivator, and viewing fundamentalists as rational agents searching for meaning is a more mature and hopeful viewpoint. I can think of no immediate way to validate her hypothesis, but I would welcome suggestions.
Assuming her hypothesis to be true, though, the big question for us is whether designing meaningful interactions (instead mindless consumer experiences) could create a more moderate and peaceful society. Further, is it enough to simply design more meaningful interactions, or do we need to aim for a more fundamental shift in our culture? How would we approach that?