Design & the Anthropocene

By Sharon Henry

Irvine, December 16, 2015 — Near the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, man discovered fire. This magical element allowed our early ancestors to warm their homes, cook food and clear vast forests for livestock and agriculture. By the Industrial Age, mankind had mastered the ability to extract fossil fuel, mine minerals and mobilize resources from the Earth to overcome nearly any environmental challenge.

In 2000, atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” to define a time in history when the effects of human behavior will have impacted the environment in ways that will be felt for thousands of years. Deforestation, mountaintop mining, rerouted rivers, species extinction, highly acidic oceans, and notable changes in the composition of the atmosphere are examples of geological modifications that distinguish the Anthropocene epoch – the age of man.

Keynote speaker Josh Berson opened the conference

Scholars working across the boundaries of the humanities, sciences, arts and engineering met at Calit2 this month for an experimental conference titled Design & the Anthropocene. Established to explore the role of transdisciplinary design in the age of the Anthropocene, the event was cosponsored by Calit2 at UC Irvine, and the university’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and School of Humanities. Presentations and participatory activities were intended to blend approaches and insights in order to frame new questions and develop new methodologies to respond to humans’ on the environment.

“Progress was a buzz word when I was growing up; we no longer think in those terms. We think in terms of maintaining the status quo, or ever-accelerating production. It’s that logic of acceleration that has somehow replaced that logic of value,” said Geoffrey Bowker, a professor at the UCI School of Information and Computer Science, and the conference’s organizer. “What are the practices that are really changing the face of the Earth? We can build good values into our technology. A way to do it is to bring together interdisciplinary groups …and out of that they produce information systems which really incorporate values that we want to propagate,” Bowker added.

Geoffrey Bowker participates in the Pecha Kucha exercise

Keynote speaker Josh Berson opened the conference. Berson, a researcher with The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, holds a doctorate in the history and anthropology of science, technology, and medicine.

Society has become instrumented, Berson said. From Fitbit trackers to GPS devices, the number of cues humans receive to ‘socially synchronize” and always “be on” has dramatically increased over the past 10 years, he explained. “We start to attach sensors to our bodies and our environment that generate time-series data about our physiology and behavior. That pervasive computing is doing something to how we use our bodies.”

More than a dozen participants delivered quick-paced presentations designed to grab the attention of the audience, convey key information and share ideas quickly. The exercise known as Pecha Kucha (Japanese for “chit-chat”) explored a variety of topics, including big data, rhythm, engagement, topography, permaculture and new materialism.


Presenter Maria Bose shared her paper, “Silicon Valley’s Anthropocenic Designs”

Following the presentations, participants met in small groups to collaborate and share design ideas and feedback about the concepts introduced in the Pecha Kucha exercise. Maria Bose, a doctoral candidate in UCI’s English department, shared her paper, “Silicon Valley’s Anthropocenic Designs.” In her work, Bose interprets Apple’s 2014 environmental responsibility campaign, “Better,” as well as signature green architectural projects commissioned by Silicon Valley goliaths including Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon. “I was struck by the common rhetorical impulse to move beyond simple strategies of greenwashing to offer, instead, visions of sustainability that work to displace concern for material circumstance by seizing upon the presiding value of a given corporation’s immaterial brand assets,” she said.

The effect of the eco-friendly structures “bring to mind post-apocalyptic space stations, underground bunkers and biodomes that signify the end of times,” Bose said. “These unusual buildings alluded to the economic theme of brand equity. The result wasn’t environmentalism but rather a complicated disavowal of ‘environment,’”

Closing keynote speaker Elizabeth Guffey, associate professor of art history at the State University of New York at Purchase, discussed highlights from her book, “Retro: The Culture of Revival.” 

“Retro' has crept into daily usage over the past 30 years. But there have yet been few attempts to define it,” she said. “It doesn't bother with tradition and doesn't try to reinforce social values. Instead, it often suggests a form of subversion while sidestepping historical accuracy.” Guffey believes that while the past three decades have brought profound advances in science and technology, they haven’t come close to sparking the creativity once predicted. Retro is rather a symptom of being drawn to past successes, because society’s visions for the future remain unclear, she added.

For more information about the event and speakers go to:


-- Sharon Henry