BY Rachel Abrams in News | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Promises, promises

Why the 'Superhumanism' conference couldn't live up to its own expectations

BY Rachel Abrams in News | 09 SEP 01

'One working day to save humanity from complex, out of control technology. One day to meet people's real needs, physical and emotional. Nine hours to restore the population's faith in brands and business', promised the promotional blurb to the 'Superhumanism' conference at Westminster's Church House in May. Far-fetched? Perhaps not. The conference had all the credentials to live up to such bold proclamations: reputable sponsors, an ambitious, zeitgeisty theme and a star-studded line-up of speakers. With noble intentions about 'inclusive', user-centred design, the emphasis was on the flavour of the Millennium - corporate branding with a conscience - in a dizzying survey of four hot topics: 'Empowering People', 'Technological Inversion', 'Emotional Ergonomics' and 'Fear and Trust'.

Among the hosts were D&AD (the design and art directors' professional body), The Financial Times and the Foreign Policy Centre, a trendy Westminster think-tank. With contributions from architect Rem Koolhaas, Oxford academic Theodore Zeldin, graphic designer Neville Brody, MIT Media Lab professor John Maeda, and branding gurus Naomi Klein and Dan Wieden, it was no surprise that the conference venue, backlit in pink and orange neon, looked like a Top of the Pops studio set. These are big names, and I had expected that they would at least offer the audience a few insights. But for all the high expectations 'Superhumanism' was doomed from its inception, flawed in execution and alarming in its spurious conclusions. So what happened?

In short, the discrepancy between the event and its promotion grew too large, allowing a worthwhile opportunity to fall through the gap. You would think that 'outcome-focused' designers and political apparatchiks would have seen this coming a mile off. It was doubly disappointing then, that co-convenors Richard Seymour and Mark Leonard, an accomplished industrial designer and a fêted New Labour strategist respectively, had failed to grasp this. At the outset I wondered whether they had ever asked themselves what might be achievable within the limited scope of a day-long conference.

What 'Superhumanism' attempted in breadth, it lost in depth and coherence. It seems unfair to name and shame individual speakers for cursory references to the theme, for flatly ignoring it, or for hijacking it with their own preoccupations. At least when John Maeda, for example, explained how his on-screen toys represented a shift in our interactions with zcomputers, I got a sense of a self-contained body of thought. Yet any historical perspective that might have enriched the theme was neglected. Instead, the convenors insisted on the novelty of our contemporary fate. Only Theodore Zeldin got down to the philosophical meat of what Humanism has meant over time, widening our perspective beyond the public/private tussle that Klein began in the opening session.

The situation might have been improved by the choice of a less expansive theme, with no-name speakers contributing alongside premium personalities. By asking the right questions, the conference programmers could have refined the scope of the event. Politicians and designers alike can afford to stand up for their own professional credibility: policy makers have no need to lean on creative practitioners to borrow 'cool', any more than designers need to rely on them for strategic thinking. Their mutual interdisciplinary aspirations, alongside Professor Maeda's hybridization of art and engineering, are as old as The Two Cultures characterized by C. P. Snow back in 1959. Furthermore, despite its supposed spirit of inclusiveness, conference tickets started at £360, thus excluding design students - the next generation of creative thinkers - public sector representatives and non-executives from small and medium enterprises.

Finally, it might have been more satisfying to aim for practical conclusions. From a similar perspective George Ritzer, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and author of The McDonaldization of Society (1993), suggested the following instructions forliving outside branded culture:

'...Try to live in an atypical environment, preferably one you have built yourself or have had built for you [...] Avoid daily routine as much as possible [...] Do as many things as you can for yourself [...] Once a week, park the car, unplug the microwave, avoid the freezer and cook a meal from scratch [...] Use cash rather than your credit card [...] Send back to the post office all junk mail [...] Seek out restaurants that use real china and metal utensils [...] If you are a regular at McDonald's develop personal ties with the counter people [...] Go to no movies with roman numerals after their names.'

Trading branded lifestyle for serious no-logo living? That would be a genuine step towards 'Superhumanism' and really would justify bunking off a day's work.