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What is a designer doing writing about economics?

What is a designer doing writing about economics? I've faced some variety of this question from the first time I've talked about it publicly, and to be honest I've never had a great answer beyond "it's what I've interested in, it doesn't have much to do with design'.

Often the question is nested inside one about my graduate program, NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. What does it have to do with ITP? There are a variety of ways I've tried to answer that. For one no one really knows what ITP is, its an ever evolving experiment in technology education, so it's often easy to just say "why not?" Or I can tell a personal story, I have a range of interests, design, tech theory, physical computing, and ITP is the space where more of them intersect than most. A nomad economics certainly isn't at the core of ITP, but it comes in on multiple peripheries, Art Kliener's study of management and organizations, Douglas Rushkoff's investigations into the pragmatics of consumer choice, Clay Shirky's "network economics", Steven Johnson's emergence, Alex Galloway's protocols... The one answer that almost got me to a real one was originally a throwaway phrase, "economics is the original mediated interaction".

It took a while to make that something clear and cohesive though. It came at one of those moments, I suspect I'm not alone in having them, where you've been studying something for a while, in depth, perhaps in too, and all of a sudden you pull back and say "what is this stuff anyway?"

So what is economics anyway? It's one of those questions that rarely gets bothered to be answered. We all have some sense of it, but economics text books tend to rush past in a page and practitioners are in way too deep to care about such a simple thing. But in a moment of vertigo, I found myself pulling back and needing to answer it.

economics: noun a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. (Merriam-Webster Online)

The dictionary definition wasn't bad and this one better than some, but it was also unsatisfying, all of them. Some unpacking was in order. A social science means it's concerned with humans, but it's rather telling that most definitions tend to obscure that fact. First and foremost economics is about humans. It's about humans and the "production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services". Now goods and services can roughly be broken down to two more elementary particles, materials and information. And "production, distribution and consumption" can similarly be reduced down to movement and transformation.

Economics then can be defined as the study of the relationship of humans to the movement and transformation of materials and information.


Let that one sit for a second, definitions are important.

Humans, materials, information, the moment I had that definition everything made a little bit more sense, the definition of economics was startlingly familiar, and more than anything else it was nearly identical to how I would define the practice of design. The relationship of humans to materials and information this is exactly where any design practice begins. On a textual level at least design and economics are practically identical!

Of course this isn't true in reality, as disciplines design and economics are radically different, with only rather rare and limited points of explicit crossover. The two disciplines are standing at nearly the exact same intersection, yet they want nothing to do with each other. Quiet honestly they don't even see to realize they are standing at the same place. And more than anything this thought struck me as intensely familiar.

As an undergraduate I studied anthropology. Or at least I started studying anthropology, by the end, while I had learned a few important things, I was mainly just frustrated by it. What had intrigued me about it, made me excited, made me want to charge into the classroom and learn, was how it sat at the juncture of so many disciplines. Biology, language, history, culture, theory, psychology, and yes even occasionally economics and nearly everything else short of physics. What could be a more fascinating and rapturous place than the intersection of these intensely human things?

Except.... well, when I got to that place something was horribly wrong. Here they were, biological anthropologists, psychological anthropologists, linguists, cultural anthropologists, there offices all lining the same hallway next to each other, all standing in the same place. Yet somehow they all were facing away from each other, ignoring each others words, preaching different gospels. As a student I felt completely lost, I wanted nothing more than to sit down at a table and launch a conversation between them all, but it just wasn't happening. Today I would have gotten angry not frustrated, and then I'd set about trying to change things. But back then I just settled on graduating and setting off into the world, leaving anthropology behind, although not necessarily what you could call the "anthropologist's eye".

Today the intersection of anthropology and design is a hot little field, the two go hand in hand it seems sharing the same obsession with humans and their objects and their information. Back then though it was a whole new world for me to become a designer, and after a quick detour through the bond trading floors of Wall Street, I set to work teaching myself the trade. Looking back it's clear I was just tackling the exact same problem from another angle. Design takes a far more pragmatic approach, it starts from the objects and works back and forth with the human side of things, but always ending up with a something as the result. Some of these things are more tangible than others, a hammer or a cellphone, as opposed to the bits of a website, the ink on paper of a poster or the light on a screen of motion graphics. But it's always a thing in the end (although recent events are threatening to change that.) Anthropology has always been about people first, the things are tools to learn more about the people. Economics isn't super concerned with either, but instead tends to focus on the movement between the two, the transactions that occur when people and objects meet in motion.

Transactions is a careful chosen word because it's always been a curious trait of neoclassical economics that while it's always about the movement of goods, services and wealth, it always wants to talk about them statically, in equilibrium. A nomad economics is about the movement, the connections, the circulation between humans and objects, money and information. Call it flow, to use an already overused yet under-appreciated term.

It is also at this point where design is moving ever so slightly closer to economics. In a move rather parallel to the way the "big five" accounting firms moved into consulting, leading design firms, IDEO and frog namely, are pushing towards the consulting business as well. "Design thinking" is the buzzword, but how and why its happening is I think a legitimate story. Consulting is a practice I like to think of as "pragmatic economics". It's concerned with the actual economy, with how firms are run, with how business gets done. Not with models and theories of economy, but with actual practice. And management consulting has for a long time been tightly interrelated with another site of pragmatic economics, accounting. A one point the "big eight" (at the time) accounting firms did just one thing, they came in and they audited the books, they ran the numbers from an outsiders perspective and then left. But coming in from the outside and looking at the numbers gives the account a rather remarkable perspective on how a business gets done. Being able see all the numbers of competing firms sure didn't hurt either, and it was only a matter of time before a significant amount of the accounting firms business came from consulting.

For a long time a designer's job was to make things. And when those things had pages or screens with was to organize information. Make the object, shape the information, cash the check and go. But to properly design a thing, to really do it right requires an intense understanding of the context. How does it get made? Who is the audience? What do they expect? How does it get sold? By whom? Where? Questions that sound a whole lot like economics. The questions might be similar but the approach is radically different. Design in this sense is moving towards another state of consulting, another state of pragmatic economics.

A nomad economics is in many senses a pragmatic economics as well, but it can not be limited solely to it. Instead it needs to reach towards the abstract, towards theory, but in doing so it must remain pragmatic. A pragmatic theory of economics, or better yet pragmatic theories of economics. It is in this space, where business practice meets anthropological understanding, meets the motion and transformation of materials and information that a nomad economics emerges from, evolves from, becomes cohesive. Accounting, anthropology, design, management consulting, materials in motion, information in circulation, this is where we begin, a nomad economics.

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