05.26.22
Sloan Leo + Lee Moreau | Audio

The Futures Archive S2E6: The Bug Zapper


Note: This episode addresses topics particularly sensitive in light of this week's school shooting in Texas. While Design Observer has never shied away from difficult conversations, the editors acknowledge that this content may be difficult for some listeners.

Content Warning: Violence, killing, and death are discussed in this episode.

It would be hard to find someone who wants to share space with a mosquito. Hence, the creation of the bug zapper. But as designers, how do we address what lives and what doesn't? On this episode of The Futures Archive Lee Moreau and Sloan Leo go deep on how human-centered design doesn't always reflect humanity.

With additional insights from David MacNeal, Juliano Morimoto, Spee Kosloff, Paula Antonelli, and Lindsay Garcia.

Sloan Leo summed up the need for designers to remember their purpose:
There is a need for humans to exert their authority, but there is also a need for us to exert our love. The thing that I hope we hold space for is: This is all practice because it's not going to be resolved, and it shouldn't be. That would create some sort of stagnancy. Life is actually about holding space for dynamism, changes and cycles.
Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

Sloan Leo (they/he) is a Community Design theorist, educator, and practitioner. They are the founder of FLOX Studio, a community design and strategy studio. 

David MacNeal is a writer and the author of Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them.

Dr. Juliano Morimoto is an entomologist and lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Spee Kosloff is an associate professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno and co-author of "Killing Begets Killing: Evidence From a Bug-Killing Paradigm That Initial Killing Fuels Subsequent Killing".

Paola Antonelli is an author, architect, and the Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as MoMA's founding director of Research and Development.

Lindsay Garcia is an artist, scholar, and an assistant dean at Brown University. Her current book manuscript Pest-humanism: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the non/Human Imaginary looks at how visual and cultural representations of infestation reify and subvert the marginalization of Black people, immigrants, and those who identify as LGBTQ+.


Subscribe to The Futures Archive on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. And you can browse the show archive.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Hi, everyone, this is Lee. Every week is a little different on this show. And this week, while we're still talking about design, we're going to be talking about some pretty serious issues. And so I want to make sure that everyone who's listening is aware of that is in a good place when they're listening. And I encourage you to check our show notes prior to listening to the episode so you understand the context of what we're talking about and prepare ourselves a bit. Beyond that, I welcome you to the conversation and I hope you find this conversation as powerful as it was for us. And I thank you for listening.

Welcome to The Futures Archive, a show about human centered design where this season, we'll take an object, look for the human at the center and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau...

Sloan Leo
... and I am Sloan Leo.

Lee Moreau
On each episode we're going to start with an object with power. Today the object is the bug zapper. We'll look at the history of that object from our perspective, as designers who've done work in human centered design. Not just how it looks and feels and sounds and smells, but also the relationship between that object and the people it was designed for...

Sloan Leo
... and with other humans too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic. Later on, we'll hear from Vanessa Riley Thurman, a member of Automattic's Designer Experience Team.

Lee Moreau
Sloan Leo, it's wonderful to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Sloan Leo
Lee, it is a thrill to be here.

Lee Moreau
So I'm wondering—for this particular episode, I'm wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your history as a child with bugs and insects. Where you this sort of like, like kid that like loved the creepy crawly stuff?

Sloan Leo
So I have a relationship with a very specific beetle. I don't like like spiders, I'm not in the mood for mosquitoes—but I went to Egyptian archeology camp when I was like 11 at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York. And Egyptian archeology camp—I went because I had become obsessed with scarabs, which are technically dung beetles, and they felt kind of magical with their iridescent wings and the shape of the body, which I will tell you, the shape of a scarab beetle is actually the most recently discovered shape in science or math where ever shapes come from. It's called a scutoid, s-c-u-t-o-i-d. And that only happened last year. So I think that if scarabs are an insect, then I'm down for insects.

Lee Moreau
So, like, you're in some sense you're down with it, but you've got a very kind of narrow band that you're excited about. I personally was like, not really into bugs at all. They were not my thing. They pretty much just made me feel uncomfortable. And they still do. And I grew up in like a rural part of Maine, so there were plenty of bugs around all the time. And the mosquitoes were legendary, as you can imagine.

Sloan Leo
I can only imagine.

Lee Moreau
But that wasn't my wasn't my thing. So I was definitely not the kid on the playground that was, like, all excited about the bugs.

Sloan Leo
I get you in that, like, they freak me out, but I live in a ground floor garden apartment right now. I do have cockroaches. And I had decided to just call them beetles like they're just big beetles, because otherwise, just if we're going to enter the creepy crawly, they freaked me out because the first day I was there, I was getting ready for a zoom call in the mirror, putting my shirt on, and all of a sudden they feel something crawling inside my shirt. And it literally crawled out from behind my neck on top of my head. And I just about lost my brain. And I was like: But it's just a beetle. I am bigger. I will win. This is my apartment. And it began the saga we are now in, which is Sloan against the very large beetles in the ground floor apartment.

Lee Moreau
We're going to talk a lot more about topics like that in today's episode on the bug zapper. I think part of the track that we're on together, this sort of journey in the season is about convenience, right? And I think part of the convenience is in life is just staying away from some of that icky gross stuff that we'd just rather not come into contact with. That is a that is a mark in some sense of convenience. Like my life is more convenient because I just don't have to deal with that.

Sloan Leo
Yeah. I mean, I definitely think that the bug zapper there is this like I don't have to deal with it. And I think a lot about, as we all know, like who has the authority or power to do that and also like what are the consequences of avoiding discomfort?

Lee Moreau
That's I mean, I think that's going to come up over and over, who—who has to manage discomfort, who has to deal with it, who can just assign that to someone else or take their mind off of it completely?

Sloan Leo
Yeah. And like, you know, discomfort and irritation are not unrelated. And I do think about that idea of like, how does a pearl happen, right? It's like the irritation of the sand inside the oyster, whatever it is. So I think there's value in being uncomfortable. And so as we're meandering today, it's like, is there value in being uncomfortable because of a bug? Maybe. Maybe we land there. We'll find out.

Lee Moreau
All right. So let's hear a little bit more about the bug zapper. We'll talk to our, some actually not so regular guests and experts because this is a topic we really haven't broached yet or even come close to. And so far, this is what we've heard.

David MacNeal
The word bug means a disturbance, means a ghost. This bad negative thing.

Lee Moreau
David MacNeal is the author of Bugged: The Insects Who Ruled the World and the People Obsessed with Them.

David MacNeal
What you have is like centuries of people being devastated by insects. Fleas on rats during the Black Plague, like we didn't know that at the time, but, you know, we found that out later on. And then it wasn't really until, you know, the 1600s that we actually started caring so much. I mean, we have some of the first exterminators ever that were offering their services. So 1690, there's this like sign going around in London and it says: May the destroyers of peace be destroyed by us.

Lee Moreau
That's dark.

Sloan Leo
It's also just so dramatic.

Lee Moreau
But it's such a it's such a dark vision about what human power is. It's like we're just going to take care of that and be done with this. It's an authoritative kind of tone, absolutely.

Sloan Leo
Oh, completely. But also, that's not an uncommon reaction, particularly for a certain set of people in our population to have this kind of like insanely rage filled expression and like embodiment of like I kind of strikes terror in the hearts of people or mosquitoes.

Lee Moreau
So, you know, I think when we were talking about the blender last time, we were talking about convenience in the sense that when you you make something more convenient, it actually does in some ways inconvenience either other people or it takes time or it kind of complicates life in a way that you didn't quite understand. With the bug zapper I think we're going to enter a domain that's similar, which is that there are unintended consequences of something as seemingly simple as a bug zapper.

Sloan Leo
Mm-hmm. Completely. I mean, I think about, like, convenience really is about the performance of relieving ourselves of labor. Like hitting something with a flyswatter. Right. Like requires some sort of fine motor skills, some sort of, like, ability to focus on a very small point and get it and move swiftly, but also then to, like, deal with the remains. Where the bug zapper is kind of like no muss, no fuss. It's this idea, again, this kind of performance of like, I have no labor, I live a life of leisure, I own a bug zapper and a blender.

Lee Moreau
I think one of the things that's different about this is that, you know, the everything we were talking about with the blender had this sort of domestic landscape and I think we problematized that phrase the last time we spoke, but sort of in your home domestic space environment that we're talking about here, we're actually talking about the outside. And it's sort of humankind's attempts to conquer not just the interior space of the home, but also everything else that's out there.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, we moved on to the outdoors and we were deciding this is also our house. And, you know, it'd be remiss to be like, oh, well, this is just about like, I don't like mosquitos, but mosquito borne diseases kill lots of people all over the world. Like malaria is a major issue. And if they if people who are in places where there's a high malaria, we're like: I want a bug zapper. I'm not going to be like: Well, controlling nature, are we? I'm going to be like, okay, I don't want. You want to get malaria!

Lee Moreau
No, I think that's a really good point. Like, there are some significant issues that come from having insects in our lives. So to hear more about the history of the bug zapper, we're going to hear a little bit more from David MacNeal, who's going to take us from the 1600s a little bit closer to today.

David MacNeal
In 1875, a Plattsmouth Nebraska telegraphor message nearby towns to verify engage a dark cloud 1800 miles long and 110 miles wide, composed of 10 billion locusts. To this day, it remains the largest locust swarm on record. The pest known as the Rocky Mountain locusts was widespread in the Midwest they caused $200 million in crop damage and was rumored to derail locomotive wheels as well as Western expansion plans. And so billions of locusts, and within 30 years after, like people killing these insects, collecting bushels, getting paid for being bounty hunters, we made this locusts extinct within 30 years.

Lee Moreau
That's intense. I mean, in 30 years, we eradicated a species. I mean, the power that we have. I mean, the subtext in this whole this whole series, this whole season is power.

Sloan Leo
Yeah. And we're we're definitely communal, I think, by nature, no pun intended. But we we are wildly reckless about the ecosystem that actually sustains us. It's it's kind of shocking, right? Like we're basically the frog in the pot who's decided to turn on the water.

Lee Moreau
Right.

Sloan Leo
And we're like, cool it's a sauna. And like, but we're not going to get out. Like, that's it.

Lee Moreau
That's part of this notion of convenience, right? It's like we want the pond to be just a little bit warmer. Wouldn't it be more comfortable if the pond was just a tiny bit warmer? But this is some of this kind of notion of power is—this is, our thirst for convenience is to bend the world around us to our will.

Sloan Leo
And we are powerful. But I don't know that our power is being used for good and not evil sometimes.

Lee Moreau
In this story about the bug zapper, we talked to many experts and in talking to David MacNeal, we started to understand that this is a great expression of human ingenuity, which is to create a device that will help to solve a problem like the fundamental problem solving, gee whiz, we did it. And the first bug zapper was patented in 1934 and over time there have been some improvements. But really it's effectively the same thing, which is you have this sort of like glowing thing at the middle and all these bugs are like— Oh, I love glowing things. And they all kind of fly in, rush to the object, and then they get they hit this like electrified mesh and just zap and die and, you know, the sound, right? That zz zzzz.

Sloan Leo
Zz zz.

Lee Moreau
Yes

Sloan Leo
It's like the mosquito sound, but electrified. It's like taking them from acoustic into like an amplified sound. It's it's terrible.

Lee Moreau
So I remember when I was a kid, there was a place where I'd go to a camp and there were many camps with bug zappers. And it's really the only place that I remember them being. And the sound triggers very clear memories for me, both of like the blue light and the the flash that would happen, but also like I would you'd walk by in the morning and you'd see all the dead bugs near the bug zappers. There's evidence, right, of this process.

Sloan Leo
There's evidence. And again, there's just this reminder that there's some-there was harm happened here, you know.

Lee Moreau
So, you know, this is a podcast about human centered design. And so you—could the argument, could be made that this is a simple design problem solved beautifully by the power and the intelligence of human centered design. What would you say to that?

Sloan Leo
Well, Lee, you know how I feel about HCD. We have to evolve beyond single metrics and like vanity solutions, things that look good, feel good. And, you know, we interrupt systems and human centered design thinking us as designers know best, where we don't actually know the full narrative, the value set, the way someone's life is working. I'm not saying that there is like a desire to have a lot of mosquitoes—like I wear in DEET in the backyard, or I could be at least—but like there is a just a super humanness where it's like, but I can control my ecosystem. But that also doesn't feel true for every culture and every era within the human identity. There's those bumper stickers that say Coexist. Kind of like the hippie vibes.

Lee Moreau
Yes.

Sloan Leo
And I think it's true. Like human centered design actually is about solving for a problem. Whereas as I would say, community design is about solving for the problem of how do we better coexist together.

Juliano Morimoto
A world without insects is a world without humanity. That's what it looks like.

Lee Moreau
Dr. Juliano Morimoto is an entomologist and lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Juliano Morimoto
So if we want to exterminate insects, we are by default exterminating ourselves.

Lee Moreau
Dr. Morimoto is part of a research team that's working to educate the public about the interconnectivity between insect ecosystems and their services to human life in the kind of interrelationship between, well, our world and their world, or the fact that we're in the same world.

Juliano Morimoto
Insects are so fundamental to all ecosystems that it's difficult to imagine life as we know in the world without insects.

Lee Moreau
You know, we kind of take for granted the things that we actually get from bugs. We think of bugs as sort of a pest, but there are some really important things that we depend on that we get from insects like honey and pollination, which I think without which we'd be in real trouble. There's silk, there's wax. And you know, this this is a really dominant foodstuff across in many, many cultures around the world. So this is not something that we can just abandon. We really do depend on insects.

Sloan Leo
And also, I want to push us to widen that frame even a little more morally, to say that there is deserving this for living that is also extended to insects, even if we cannot extract value from their death or their life. Right. Like there is something about coexistence to me in both my spiritual practice and my kind of human living being practice, where it's like there's value in them, but there's also just like the deservedness of life.

Lee Moreau
And it's not a us and them sort of proposition.

Sloan Leo
No, we're here together on a rock floating in space. And to be clear what I can tell right now Lee, this is the best rock. Everything else. It's very hot, very cold, very far away. Very, very dire out there on Mars. So I'm like: can we stay here.

Lee Moreau
With the insects there's also dimension that's like beyond, as you said, utility or the fact that we have to live together. They also inspire us to thinking about the world in new ways.

Sloan Leo
Totally. It's actually one of my favorite words, of which there is a list of favorite words, of course Lee. But the one I'm thinking about today is biomimicry or biomimetic. And the idea of taking like silk, and what do we know about silk to create stronger buildings? What do we know about from underwater sea creatures that glow? What does that teach us about illumination? I feel like biomimicry invites us as human beings to say in the world was outside my physical body and the world is not the built environment, not the constructed environment—Where is there a lesson from nature? Where is there a sacred truth? And I think there's there is a shift towards that in design. Right. We're not talking about design as if designers are just like burn more coal like and those designers are pretty quiet or not anywhere near me, thank the goodness.

Lee Moreau
Yeah.

Sloan Leo
But there is this like shift within design where people are talking about, you know, the words like sustainability and equity. But what they're talking about is trying to get more harmonized, having a better and more integrated connection with like a full world where there's less separation, less silos of ideas, less silos of practice. And I see that a lot in the design of green spaces. I worked for the Trust for Public Land, and a big part of what they did was designing with community, with the physical environment to create playgrounds that could manage, they could act as green infrastructure, right. So I think some of this is about as I think about a lot of community design is about being in rights and they put that in air quotes but in right or just relationship with each other and the universe around us.

Lee Moreau
So you're talking, and I love this, you're talking about harmony. But if we go back to the bug zapper, we basically have identified this killing machine that we all have to live with or we all live with. Like there's some kind of comfort level with this notion that we live with this. Talk about the rest of your work at Flox Studios and how that kind of almost absurdity-we need to rethink the framing for the way that we confront something almost as absurd as that.

Sloan Leo
Yeah. I mean, I've been talking to some folks at The New School as we're thinking about how do we help design students and design professionals to navigate the both grief of change and the discomfort or distress change causes, or that something that kind of ruffles our feathers, creates an irritation, makes us unsettled, right. So, yes, the bug zapper is a very kind of concrete, poignant example of like — This thing causing irritation, I don't like it, I invented the thing, it's gone. And designers, we do design out the discomfort for ourselves and for other people. Half the times we're seeing problem solving, what we're saying is make yourself more comfortable, make the people around you more comfortable. And what we say at Flox, the way we think about it, is like the discomfort that you experience. We don't just need to move that away so that somebody else is uncomfortable. We need to actually grapple with and hold some space for like life sometimes involves discomfort and it is actually somewhat immature, I would say, that we can just absolve ourselves of any discomfort. It means we don't have discipline. If you don't have structure, that means we actually can't be in community together, right. Like there are neighbors in your neighborhood, which is the first community people think about is like, where do I live, or where do I work that are annoying, like a mosquito. But you don't just like tell them they have to move, smoke their apartment out, right. And when that happens, we use much bigger, darker words which we won't go into here. But like in general, community design and the way we work at Flox Studio is like— it is not even a design constraint. It is a fact. There will be discomfort and it is not something we have to get away from.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web and a new workplace all around the world.

Vanessa Riley Thurman
My name is Vanessa Riley Thurman. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I work on the designer experience team at Automattic.

Lee Moreau
Vanessa draws on her own personal experiences in her role supporting designers at Automattic.

Vanessa Riley Thurman
I think my background as a designer is so critical to my ability to do the work that I do now. So my job, practically speaking, means that I am looking at the critical moments in designers careers in trying to ensure that we're delivering what they need at those points. When I was a designer, there were not a lot of people like me helping me to advance throughout my career. I had to advocate for myself a lot, possibly too much. But there were a few people who really made a difference and who believed in me. And so as part of my work at Automattic and as part of my career in general, I'm trying to increase the diversity of design and to make sure that all types of people are represented. I think in design in particular, that's a really strategic advantage that a company can have, an incredible creative advantage when you have all of these different perspectives. So that passion for that perspective is something that I definitely bring to Automattic into my work.

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at Automattic dot com slash design. That's auto-m-a-double t-i-c dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
So it's one thing to talk about at a population scale to say like, okay, there are people somewhere else either on our planet or in our country or something that need to be maybe less comfortable or maybe be inconvenienced, right. But when we apply that to ourselves, we start to take on those personal implications and sit with it. That's a different dimension, and it's often much harder to broach. So those personal implications, those come through in the bug zapper in a really kind of scary way. We're going to hear a little bit more about some of those personal implications and the narrative that that starts to lead us into.

Spee Kosloff
I've also conducted research examining killing behavior in a sort of novel bug paradigm I developed with a colleague of mine, Andy Martins.

Lee Moreau
Spee Kosloff is an associate professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno.

David MacNeal
Together, we developed this a-simulated killing experience where participants would come into the lab and so in this procedure would be asked to take little pill bags and pour them into out of a little tiny plastic cup into a funnel that would then go seemingly down into a coffee grinder. Seemed like a bug extermination machine. And participants believed they would actually be shoveling bugs into this killing machine and then pressing a button for 3 seconds to exterminate them. What we found is that we can get some interesting dynamic motion and behavior from folks by having them go through a killing experience.

Lee Moreau
A bug zapper effectively is something that exterminated insects. That is the point. In the work that Spee Kosloff was doing, and he's published a lot on this particular topic and one of his his publications was called Killing Begets Killing: Evidence from a Bug Killing Paradigm that Initial Killing Fuels Subsequent Killing. And just I think in the title he intended to put the word killing five times as a way to really hit people over the head with this. But what he found was that basically that humans, us, who were more comfortable with killing insects at greater numbers, became over time much more comfortable with the idea. And there's a sort of snowball effect that would happen where at first there was some level of discomfort. But once you got more familiar, more comfortable with it, it was okay, a little bit more okay. And then suddenly it got to a place where it's sort of normalized. So we're going to hear a little bit more from Spee again, but sort of like hold that image in your head while he tells the rest of the story.

Spee Kosloff
We see that killing is a potentially problematic behavior. We can elicit dissociative responses. You can have a negative emotional or psychological response to it, and then in turn with we theorized, kind of motivates efforts to restore one's mood. And one of the unfortunate processes by which that can happen is by committing oneself more fervently to the process of killing, the act of killing.

Lee Moreau
So then we get to this place, which is even darker, which is not so much that you're more comfortable killing. It's the fact that you're almost embrace the idea, right. That the killing of the insects becomes something that you see in a more positive light, and therefore you get a sort of beneficial response to emotionally. While this is really dark in some respects, I think this is a space that we should be talking about. You were talking about like the irritation factor, right, and I think that we're very much in that space now.

Sloan Leo
There is there is a weightiness or a heaviness associated with death, particularly in American culture, where we lack a lot of shared rituals for hard transitions and difficult emotions that I think even just taking a moment here to acknowledge that our lives as people are filled with things that are very intense and can be described as dark. And also those things do have meaning—beauty, challenge, like the texture of our lives includes that. And I think that to not have it would feel, like we said earlier, a bit kind of inhuman. There's a lot of work around trauma and healing that I thought a lot about as we prepared for today's conversation. There is a woman named Marsha Linehan who created this framework, dialectical behavior therapy, DBT, and it's from the 1980s but it was designed to help with emotional regulation for people who struggle with that, which is most of us. But what it does is it tries to help people create distance between an emotionally catalyzing event. Like: I just got bit by a mosquito; I just got yelled at at work; I just had this weird killing experience in this science room and to say: Let me create space between my emotional experience and my emotional response. And I think that that's when I think about maturity. It is that ability to say, like, let me sit with this for a moment, calm down my kind of like lizard brain and then make a decision that gives me a sense of like greater integrity. And so that gets, when that gets interrupted, that's what trauma is, right, is that kind of like I have these deep internal responses that are embodied and not rational in the kind of conscious mind that make me go like kill it, like, just like quick action, just do it. And at that pause as designers and as people gives us the ability to maybe see a different outcome that's less violent and more kind, maybe more caring or just less bad.

Lee Moreau
The pause referred to, I'm thinking about in a very practical terms, in a scope of work, of a design project. The pause isn't really built in. We have to make space for that ourselves as design practitioners to ensure that we're making good decisions. Because, you know, the way that we write design briefs, it doesn't say like: Oh, after you actually identify the problem, pause and sit with that for a while before you actually act. I mean, I'd like to think that that's built in to the practice, but quite often it feels like it's completely ignored.

Sloan Leo
It's built into our practice at Flox, but it is definitely not common. We do it on a zoom where we'll say before we go to breakouts, we're going to each take a sip of water. And we also do it in projects where, you know, for example, today we had a client who's dealing with some heavy stuff and we said to them like, maybe we don't have that meeting today. We take a pause.

Lee Moreau
Among your clients and collaborators. I'm wondering if the notion of taking a pause is deemed as a convenience or inconvenience. Because I would say, like I can imagine, many client projects I've worked on where you'd be like: Wait, you want to take three or four weeks to just like sit with this? We don't have time for that.

Sloan Leo
Oh, totally. I mean, like, we really take the time to articulate the perception of cost and then to look at the perception of costs for the people who are feeling harmed. And then to say: They need more time. And if you as a leader can't step up and say, like, my team is pain right now, we got to take a minute, like, where is your humanity going?

Lee Moreau
So I want to go back and try to map this notion on to the bug zapper itself. So we're going to kind of like do a little, if we can, a little bit of a design exercise in real time.

Sloan Leo
Let's. I love it.

Lee Moreau
Let's hear a little bit more from Spee explaining his process and some of the learnings.

Spee Kosloff
When you do something over and over again or something becomes kind of the background noise of your life and it's normalized, stuff like that. It maybe makes it harder to just see it for what it is and to see it for how it's affecting you. So a bug zapper is a really great example of this because the more that we have death and destruction as a sort of background noise to our everyday life, the more we perhaps get habituated to that as the sort of hum or zap sounds that we're constantly encountering, perhaps the more almost depleted we are when it comes to actually having to devote our attentional resources to seeing death for what it is.

Sloan Leo
I think it goes back to, Lee, to this idea that like you adjust to things even when they are injust or problematic.

Lee Moreau
This notion of normalization, right.

Sloan Leo
Totally.

Spee Kosloff
If we start off with the principle that we would like to have less killing in the world, then we can look at this research we've done and say, hmm, well, now we're starting to maybe get a part of the picture as to why killing can occur and can get amplified. So maybe the more we learn about that, the more we we spread the word, the more we encourage people to to recognize that the killing is not just a robotic action, and it's also a motivated action we would prefer as a species to survive. And if we're going to do that, perhaps we need to become a little bit more aware of just how unaware we are of the things that drive our unfortunate actions.

Lee Moreau
And for me, this takeaway is super important in terms of design. We need to become aware of just how unaware we are and really appreciate that and kind of sit with it. Take the pause that you were describing earlier.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, I mean, the pause is partly to dial down our parasympathetic nervous system when we are in times that feel highly stimulating or overwhelming. And it's partly based on kind of meditative practice to me, but it's also just like literally we are overstimulated people, right? Everything's loud, everything's aggressive. Everything feels very hard, and I don't know during a global pandemic, like there is a hard, scratchy-ness to everything that makes our physical body respond like: Oh, I'm on the defense, I'm going to be safe. The kind of instinct to fight, fight, whatever. And the pause is really designed in our practice and designed into our practice to help people take a breath, to slow down their parasympathetic nervous system so that they can say: Okay, I actually need to think about this or, That reaction was rooted in a fear. So the pause is a way of also just bringing yourself to the present where we actually have a lot more control and agency.

Lee Moreau
So we're pretty deep into this conversation now, Sloan Leo, and I'm going to make a confession.

Sloan Leo
Do it.

Lee Moreau
Which is that I'm kind of uncomfortable with this notion of pause. And I say that because as somebody who is trained as an architect and a designer, like I'm all about the grind, right? In architecture, you're trained to work 20 hours a day. That's like baseline, right? If you could do 22, 24, wonderful. You know, and this is part of the way, it's part of the upbringing, it's part of the culture and this, this grind—and we call it a grind, which probably should have told me something long ago about what that's really all about—but the relationship between that grind, which is so foundational for most designers, and this notion of pause, this is a this is a culture shift. I don't even know how to describe it.

Sloan Leo
Yeah. I mean, racialized capitalism puts a high value on the performance and the commitment to work. You know, we talk about this idea of like a Protestant work ethic. We have tied capitalism and racialized capitalism—which is the system we live under—to our spiritual values in America and beyond, where it's like, I am a better person because I'm working so hard. I worked for a design firm that will go unnamed right now, and I was there for just three months because I was like, I'm doing this. And they would say things to me like, "Well, if you have a dinner at 6:00, it's not on your calendar, then it's work hours."" So they literally, Lee, wanted me to decide anything I was doing any time of my life: Weekends, early mornings, evenings was called "Golden Time," and if it wasn't marked, that was fair game for meetings. I would be working 12, 14 hour days as you do in a lot of these design studios, giving up your life. And they'ed be like: Oh, well, there's a meditation room, there's a lunch room. Everything you could need is here, right? Like everything was very convenient. But the consequence was that my entire life became a commitment to capitalist productivity. And I have also worked through that too Lee. Like, it's a thing that's in my business that's new as a value that I decided with the studio is like, we need time not just to rest, but just to be, just to see what's going to happen. So whether you start with just like an hour of pause in your practice, maybe taking 10 minutes before you hit the button on the bug zapper, like taking a moment to think about it, to feel it out is as important. It's all about slowing the eff down and saying, are these decisions the ones that are giving me the integrity I want? Am I a killer? Am I a like work obsessed, wild man? Or am I a person? Am I Lee with a family and a desire to see change in the world, but also a desire to like, maybe get better at napping? I don't know.

Lee Moreau
So the pause that we're talking about goes beyond the bug zapper. And not too shockingly, this notion of designed violence is which is fundamental to the inception of the bug zapper and the way that we use it is also not limited to the bug zapper.

Paola Antonelli
There's nothing as evergreen, tragically evergreen as violence, and there's nothing as powerful as design to understand the many facets and foibles of human nature.

Lee Moreau
Paola Antonelli is a senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as MoMA's founding director of Research and Development. She co-curated an exhibit about design and violence. We asked her about human centered design and its relationship to this notion of design and violence.

Paola Antonelli
The moment you say human-centered, you talk about violence. It is immediately a center of egotism and entitlement that is wrong because, you know, we talk about implicit bias just by thinking that you are the center of the universe your bias is that the universe is for you. It's not. And I think that's also one of the hardest, hardest decolonizations to actuate.

Lee Moreau
Of course, in a podcast on human-centered design or about human-centered design. This is tremendously provocative.

Sloan Leo
You know. I do think she's right. There is a need for humans to exert their authority, but there is also a need for us to exert our love. And so I think even in my comments today, the thing that I hope we hold space for is that this is all practice because it's not going to be resolved, and it shouldn't be because that would create some sort of stagnancy. And life is actually about holding space for dynamism and that changes and cycles. I think that focusing on human-centered design rather than community or biomimetic accommodating design, whatever you want to call it, means that we're not taking the full set of values and needs and harms and hopes and requirements for an effective global society and ecology into account. So I agree that the more we focus just on us as individuals and our personal or kind of tribal satisfaction in the sense of like small groups of people, we really miss out on the much fuller picture that makes our lives, I think our lives.

Lee Moreau
Well, you'll be happy to hear that there are some people who are thinking about these issues around the insect world and its relationship to humans in a different way than we've heard up until now.

Lindsay Garcia
So I developed out of this research, an art practice, social practice, performance art project called Feminist Pest Control, and out of it I developed a manifesto coined femifesto because, you know, feminism. And the main definition of pest animals are that pests are any human or non-human animal considered out of place or at the margins of normativity and cuteness.

Lee Moreau
Lindsay Garcia is an assistant dean at the college at Brown University. She's an environmental humanities scholar and also a performance artist. There's a long history to this, the associations around insects that she's trying to problematize and probe on.

Lindsay Garcia
There have been many different ways in which other humans or humans who might have marginalized identities have been compared to pest animals. And so one of the ways that I think about infestation or pest-ness is that there are material meaning like physically living in infestation effects that are disproportionate based on identity. There's also metaphorical and rhetorical ways that humans who inhabit marginalized identities are compared to pest animals. Because if, if we're thinking about how easy it is to kill a fly or a louse or a rat, if we are talking about a group of people in that way, then ultimately we are saying they are killable. They are disposable because they are the equivalent of this.

Lee Moreau
And so by broadening, right, this notion about what is a pest, this notion of pestness what is an insect, by broadening that to include the full spectrum of all life you start to think about things in a different way. And it very much echoes what you were saying earlier about this sort of living harmoniously.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, I mean, Lindsay's reflections on the way in which marginalized identities are often seen as unnecessary or as other or as annoying bothersome, is really possible because of who creates our like the majority of our mainstream narratives. And so for me, it feels like I have a deeply personal relationship with, I don't know Lindsay's work, but in hearing more about it today, it gives me chills. You know, we're living at a time where the eradication, the disruption, the lives of marginalized people, be they people with uteruses, people who are poor, people who are living on some sort of contested land or stolen land. There is a very realness and a rawness to this truth in here. And I think part of me that we talked about earlier wants to be like moving on back to the bug zapper. But the other part of me is that like what it brings up for me is both rage, shame in an odd way, and grief because these are not like these are not words these are actions that are taking against humans and people who look feel like sound like me and people who are similar in their social positions. And I do think that the more we can be in a human relationship, which again, was actually part of the impetus for human-centered design, was to find our way back to people. So while I can critique it, I think it's time to critique and move forward to community design, but that the direction it was moving in is the right idea. Because there is an ease of violence that comes when you don't see respect and can denounce someone else's literal humanity. And so I think that designing in community helps us to say: Oh, you also have a mom, you also have a fear of not being enough, you also want to do a really good job here, you know. And that ability to see each other and to be in dialog about the things that make us feel vulnerable or unstable is really important. Because my question is for people who look at people like me, who look at black folks, at trans youth, right now and see them as disposable as in: "I can create a policy that takes away your quality of life and literally is designed to harm you." Those folks are the folks that really need prayer and need some sort of space for joy to reenter their lives, because the moral mark on them is very dark, you know, and I think we've been circling that for this whole conversation is like what kind of people or circumstance create these moments of killing of a person or an idea of an insect? Who is it to take up space in the world that way to say, I am so important. It seems like that person is deeply flawed and a bit broken.

Lee Moreau
Who gets to judge what population can be zapped?

Sloan Leo
Yeah. Who decides if I'm deserving? And that is, I think, one of the most important questions we can be asking ourselves Lee. The world around us is dark right now, and a lot of that is because people have gone too far in having too much control.

Lindsay Garcia
If as an advocate or as an activist, I want to become more like a pest. How can I use that thinking in order to make larger, more gradual change? There's a proverb that I really like, which is, if you think you're too small, imagine sleeping with a mosquito. How disruptive and annoying and possibly harmful it can be. Like if you think of yourself as the mosquito, you can go pester other people into more socially equal spaces rather than continuing to live in these white supremacist universes that we currently live in.

Sloan Leo
It's helpful to hear this idea of like disruption in a way that isn't about like making another app for your iPhone, but actually about disrupting systems of inequity. But to pester with like a heart on fire for justice, not as a heart for being disruptive. I think that there's definitely—even in the language that Lindsay uses—like if as an advocate or as an activist, right. Like I have identity and have identify with both of those things. But in the way this is framed right now, I identify as like someone who's sad that my humanity is so easy to ignore. And again, particularly right now with the attack on trans folks, on black folks, and on people who have uteruses, which I fit all of those categories, and I'm also neurodivergent like the policy and political ecosystem of the U.S. and the globe is literally unsafe and violent towards me on a regular basis. So I live within a toxic, violent system. And so when I read things like as an advocate or as an activist, it's like, that's a good place to start but there are those of us who are taking those identities on because we don't have a choice because we have to survive under these conditions. And I think the more designers and design types and people who have power, which I think we all have something some type of power can hold on to, like disrupting requires choosing to put yourself in an uncomfortable position so that you're not just a bystander, but you're actually shaking it up. We need that, right? We need that rage to go into that kind of like shake it up, change it. Ask what I need. Ask what you can do. Figure it out. Because the way we are living, as Lindsay says, in this white supremacist universe, is about domination and violence and extraction.

Lee Moreau
And that's really at the core of is pausing there because just listening to your words but when you slip into those categorizations that this is a pest, this is zappable, this is somebody that we can ignore or marginalize or or legislate, as you were saying before, legislate away from ourselves. That's a moment where we've entered a place where we are designing a world that is not inclusive, not even attempting to be harmonious, but is taking our humanity away.

Sloan Leo
And that's the world we're designing in right now.

Lee Moreau
All the more reason why this pause that you're describing is so essential Sloan Leo.

Sloan Leo
Yeah. We gotta take a minute. Shits gotten real, very real in the last few years.

Lee Moreau
I'm wondering if you could you know, we every week we have this assignment that we do or this sort of meditative exercise. And I'm wondering if you have a thought and I think you do, coming out of this particular episode in our conversation about what our listeners might do as designers and as humans to reflect on the ideas that we've described and discussed today.

Sloan Leo
Could we if there could be like an actual pause in the podcast where we've decided to take a two minute pause or a five second pause which is actually a long time in the design of a podcast and say like, you know, we're going to take a moment to pause. Don't look at your phone. Don't wander around the kitchen. Don't try to figure something out. Just sit down for a second and don't do anything and pay attention to how hard that is. And then try it again until we talk again.

Lee Moreau
Thank you, Sloan Leo. I'm really glad we have this conversation together and I look forward to the next one. It is, I'm-I'm struck by how this simple topic of convenience has really taken us into some incredible places. And I thank you for that.

Sloan Leo
And I appreciate the way you hold space. Thanks, Lee.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show, go to TFA dot design observer dot com or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you liked what you heard today, please make sure to rate and review us and share it with your friends.

Sloan Leo
And you can make sure you're following me on Instagram at the real Sloan Leo or sign up for our What's the Flox newsletter at Flox Studio dot com.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you this season by Automattic. Thanks again to David MacNeal, Juliano Morimoto, Spee Kosloff, Paula Antonelli, and Lindsay Garcia for talking to The Futures Archive. You can find more about them in our shownotes at TFA dot design observer dot com along with a full transcription of our show. Our producer is Adina Karp. Owen Agnew edits the show. Thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsy Vardell.


Posted in: Product Design, The Futures Archive, Theory + Criticism



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Sloan Leo + Lee Moreau Sloan Leo (they/he) is a Community Design theorist, educator, and practitioner. They are the founder of FLOX Studio, a community design and strategy studio FLOX Studio is on a mission to alter the future of work by integrating community & social justice values, design thinking, and organizational development.


Sloan Leo + Lee Moreau Lee Moreau is the founding director of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation studio based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

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