If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.
July 28, 2015 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Dear Design Student - In Praise of the AK-47 (NSFW language)
The AK-47 is often cited as a well-designed object. And this case is usually made by pointing out that the AK-47 is easy to use, maintain, take-apart, modify, and manufacture. It’s a model of simplicity. And the original design, introduced in 1948, is still in use, even as the AK family has continued evolving...
...So where is the problem? Surely, a designer’s job is to design something to the best of their ability. As a designer, you are required to do your best work. And we’ve all had to design something we weren’t too crazy about. In which case your responsibility is to improve the design. How do you improve an object that’s designed to kill without making it more efficient at killing?
Mike Monteiro, echoing his How Designers Destroyed the World talk, on weapon design, and the ethical and moral responsibility of designers to "to design work that helps move humanity forward".
posted by SansPoint (115 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
So it's designed for killing. So what?
posted by wuwei at 8:55 AM on July 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


So quit taking money from people who want you to design stuff that kills people.
posted by The White Hat at 8:58 AM on July 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


while someone can certainly make the case that an AK-47, or any other kind of gun or rifle is designed, nothing whose primary purpose is to take away life can be said to be designed well.

So that. The point of TFA.
posted by billiebee at 9:00 AM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.

Ah, but you see, it's not designed to kill you. It's designed to kill the other guy. That's completely different.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:05 AM on July 28, 2015 [80 favorites]


Faint of Butt: Ah, but you see, it's not designed to kill you. It's designed to kill the other guy. That's completely different.

Well, that depends who's holding it, no?
posted by SansPoint at 9:06 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


But the T-34, for instance, made a big difference in beating the Nazis... so that's gotta be good design right? In the big scheme of things?

Yeah, fair enough, spend time designing stuff for the betterment of mankind... but it's not so simple.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:07 AM on July 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


This is a fine article until the end, but it's unreasonable to claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov is responsible for every person killed by an AK-47.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:08 AM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


There's a distinct if subtle difference between two of the points the author is putting forth:

But while someone can certainly make the case that an AK-47, or any other kind of gun or rifle is designed, nothing whose primary purpose is to take away life can be said to be designed well.
vs.
If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.

His definition of "bad design" is a morally defensible one, but just saying "by definition" doesn't actually make it true.
posted by Etrigan at 9:08 AM on July 28, 2015 [32 favorites]


Colour me cynical, but I sincerely doubt that anyone who designs weapons for a living will read this article, or care what Mike Montiero thinks about what they do for a living. Also I'm fairly sure most weapons designers are drawn from the ranks of the military and very large engineering faculties, not graphic design courses.

So, who is this aimed at? Photoshop jockeys who have been dabbling with 3D printing autonomous killdrones in their maker-pad in downtown SF?
posted by Happy Dave at 9:08 AM on July 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


He didn't specify whose definition...
posted by LogicalDash at 9:09 AM on July 28, 2015


nothing whose primary purpose is to take away life can be said to be designed well

"So long as we ignore the generally accepted meaning of the word 'design' and accept my new and rather uselessly arbitrary new meaning of the word."

I mean, for God's sake. It's fine to make an ethical argument against the making of guns. It's just self-congratulatory nonsense to pretend that things whose use you (mostly) disapprove of can't be "well designed."
posted by yoink at 9:09 AM on July 28, 2015 [43 favorites]


So, who is this aimed at?

Probably the person who asked the question at the top of the article.
posted by Etrigan at 9:09 AM on July 28, 2015


Mikhail Kalashnikov is responsible for as many deaths as the people who pulled those triggers.

I'm really, really against gun ownership and pro-gun control but that's a mess of bullshit that takes into account nothing more than "guns bad." Kalashnikov watched scores of fellow Red Army soldiers get massacred by the German Army, in part because of the USSR's sub-par weaponry. The war was over but fear of Nazis and of a conquering fascist army wasn't exactly a historical artifact back when Kalashnikov designed the gun; it was an absolutely real aspect of life that had just caused 20 million Soviet casualties and something like 9 million deaths. He was a military engineer and if we're talking about "ethics," I'd say using your skills to make sure the fascists didn't return to your homeland to kill more of your people is a pretty ethical move regardless of how the weapon was used afterward. I don't like guns, but Kalashnikov isn't Stalin.
posted by griphus at 9:09 AM on July 28, 2015 [126 favorites]


The weapon was designed a few years after Russia lost millions of young men fighting Nazi frickin' Germany. I'm sad that was necessary but it's not hard to understand why Kalashnikov was a Soviet hero, come on now.
posted by zjacreman at 9:09 AM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


MODOK sheds a single, gallon-sized tear.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:10 AM on July 28, 2015 [11 favorites]




The car strawman is interesting because cars (and highways in particular) ARE terribly designed and will kill us all whether or not that was their intention.
posted by mike_bling at 9:15 AM on July 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


There's not much point talking about the ethics of designing the AK-47, because 1. it's a fait accompli, and 2. it's question begging at its worst. Obviously the designer of the AK-47 did not arrive at his decision from the first premises held by the author.

And Kalashnikov could not be blamed for the USSR's decision to hand out AK-47s to proxies around the world. He did not know that would happen.

That said, we now live in a world where any fuckwit can score a Toyota-load of those things and start a People's Liberation Front of Mumbletifuck. And many do.

Meanwhile, those US proxies who score M-16s and M-4s score weapons with a non-negotiable expiration date. The delicacy of those weapons is a feature, not a bug.
posted by ocschwar at 9:16 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


It is often argued that designers, engineers and scientists have a moral obligation to never help develop weapons, or even systems that support the military. Instead see it as trite but entirely accurate that if one guy doesn't develop a technology, some other guy inevitably will; and perhaps under less ethical, humanitarian or well-regulated conditions. The use of technology may be evil, the design of an experiment may be evil, the selective dissemination of knowledge to malevolent parties may be evil. But the pursuit of scientific or technological knowledge in the abstract can never be evil. Technological progress exists in the ether waiting for some mind to reach out and grab on to it. It can't be stopped unilaterally.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:17 AM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


I feel like this guy would have done better to expand on the point he made about the bogus arguments about guns and gone after the the modern gun-fondler culture, and especially the organizations marketing their products and services towards them.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:17 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


who is this aimed at?

It's asking design students to consider the implications of what they design, and the potential safety, privacy violations etc. As he says:

"Obviously, firearms design is an extreme example of this. I doubt many of you will go on to become firearms designers, and fuck all of you that do. But how many of us are asked to design things that have the potential of causing harm to the people who come into contact with our work?"

Isn't that a reasonable thing to ask designers to consider?
posted by billiebee at 9:17 AM on July 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


So, who is this aimed at?

The very first words of the post are Dear Design Student, maybe that is a clue?
posted by kagredon at 9:17 AM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm fairly sure most weapons designers are drawn from the ranks of the military and very large engineering faculties, not graphic design courses.


You'd be surprised what kind of work defense contractors give freshly-minted engineering graduates.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:18 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, those US proxies who score M-16s and M-4s score weapons with a non-negotiable expiration date. The delicacy of those weapons is a feature, not a bug.

ocschwar, I'm very curious to read more about the by-design delicacy of the M16 and M4, but I'm having trouble turning anything up. Can you provide any links that elaborate on this?
posted by incomple at 9:24 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yesterday's solution is today's problem. This is the nature of technology.
posted by gwint at 9:29 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


A Glock’s “safety” is ON THE TRIGGER! You disengage the trigger and fire in the same motion. This is by design. This was a design decision.

It's one thing to criticize a design. It's another to criticize a feature from a place of ignorance. It would be like me criticizing a text written in Chinese -- I don't read/write/speak the language, so how is any of my criticism valid? The font color, maybe?

Glock's have three safeties and the trigger safety means the weapon will never not fire as a result of a positive action by the user. There's zero ambiguity, no "whoops, I left the safety on" or "gee, did I leave the safety on?" or "what happens if I pull the trigger?" If you really want it safe, you have to unload it, which is the whole point of "safe" in the first place.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:31 AM on July 28, 2015 [14 favorites]


Guns don't kill people; people kill people. So people are bad design. Therefore God is a bad designer. Therefore God is not an intelligent designer. Therefore God is not omnipotent and omniscient. Therefore maybe it's time to rethink the whole Guns & God thing.
posted by Kabanos at 9:34 AM on July 28, 2015 [9 favorites]



ocschwar, I'm very curious to read more about the by-design delicacy of the M16 and M4, but I'm having trouble turning anything up. Can you provide any links that elaborate on this?


Not enough of a gun weenie to come to any off the bat, but Wikipedia to the rescue.

The M16 has always had a reputation for poor reliability and has a malfunction rate of two per 1000 rounds fired.[254] The M16 uses a unique gas powered operating system. "This gas operating system works by passing high pressure propellant gasses tapped from the barrel down a tube and into the carrier group within the upper receiver, and is commonly but incorrectly referred to as a "direct impingement gas system" system. The gas expands within a donut shaped gas cylinder within the carrier. Because the bolt is prevented from moving forward by the barrel, the carrier is driven to the rear by the expanding gasses and thus converts the energy of the gas to movement of the rifle’s parts. The bolt bears a piston head and the cavity in the bolt carrier is the piston sleeve. It is more correct to call it an “internal piston” system."[257] This design is much lighter and more compact than a gas-piston design. However, this design requires that combustion byproducts from the discharged cartridge be blown into the receiver as well. This accumulating carbon and vaporized metal build-up within the receiver and bolt-carrier negatively affects reliability and necessitates more intensive maintenance on the part of the individual soldier. The DI operation increases the amount of heat that is deposited in the receiver while firing the M16 and causes essential lubricant to be "burned off". This requires frequent and generous applications of appropriate lubricant.[34] Lack of proper lubrication is the most common source of weapon stoppages or jams.[34]

The original M16 fared poorly in the jungles of Vietnam and was infamous for reliability problems in the harsh environment. As a result, it became the target of a Congressional investigation.[258] The investigation found that:[77]

posted by ocschwar at 9:38 AM on July 28, 2015


This other discussion, inspired by a public letter from many scientists and public figures recommending a ban on the creation of autonomous weapons systems, is highly relevant, so if you haven't read that, you might want to check it out as well..
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:40 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


> Therefore maybe it's time to rethink the whole Guns & God thing.

If there's no God, that's all the more reason I need guns.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:40 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm pro-gun-control, anti-war and anti-death-penalty, but the little ethical philosopher voice in my head really hates it when people conflate killing and murder. Murder is ethically indefensible; objects designed for murder are therefore ethically indefensible. If any killing can be justified ethically, then objects designed for killing, and not specifically murder, might under some circumstances be considered ethically justifiable.
posted by penduluum at 9:41 AM on July 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


However, this design requires that combustion byproducts from the discharged cartridge be blown into the receiver as well. This accumulating carbon and vaporized metal build-up within the receiver and bolt-carrier negatively affects reliability ...

Or as Ivan Chesnokov describes it: "IS BASICALLY SAME AS SHITS WHERE HE EATS"
posted by exogenous at 9:43 AM on July 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm fairly sure most weapons designers are drawn from the ranks of the military and very large engineering faculties, not graphic design courses.

Industrial design has been recognized as a career for nearly a century now. There are even schools and advanced degrees and everything. It's more than a few graphic design courses.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:45 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh! I knew about the M16 being considered far less reliable than the AK-47, but I thought you were saying that their unreliability was an actual feature intended to limit their usefulness by US proxies. I'm dumb. Nevermind!
posted by incomple at 9:45 AM on July 28, 2015


This is a fine article until the end, but it's unreasonable to claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov is responsible for every person killed by an AK-47.

Unless the result of that is another Sarah Winchester, because I would so be into the Kalashnikov Mystery House.
posted by plinth at 9:51 AM on July 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


"Oh! I knew about the M16 being considered far less reliable than the AK-47, but I thought you were saying that their unreliability was an actual feature intended to limit their usefulness by US proxies. I'm dumb. Nevermind!"

I don't think you misread it. I mean the comment that you're referencing ended with:

" The delicacy of those weapons is a feature, not a bug."
posted by I-baLL at 9:53 AM on July 28, 2015


Kalashnikov Mystery House.

Oh, you mean this?
posted by theodolite at 9:53 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is such an abuse of the word, "design". It comes from a domain where one definition is understood (art school grad making things pretty) and then seamlessly transitions over to another (engineering) as if one would ever be involved in the other. No, arts people will not be involved in weapon design, even if they want to be.
posted by indubitable at 9:53 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


"In hindsight, I wish I had designed a lawnmower."


-Mikhail Kalashnikov.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:54 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


It comes from a domain where one definition is understood (art school grad making things pretty)

I'm not an expert on these things by any means, but my impression is that this is disastrously wrong. Is that not the case?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:56 AM on July 28, 2015



"In hindsight, I wish I had designed a lawnmower."-Mikhail Kalashnikov.


I donno, killing people with guns seems a bit more humane than killing them with lawnmowers.
posted by pwnguin at 9:57 AM on July 28, 2015 [24 favorites]


Designer thinks he's a philosopher. Is not.

The basic point of a designer being responsible for their work is fine. The moral absolutism that all guns are bad, all cars are good is ridiculous.

I'm guessing that making / driving cars has done far more environmental damage than making / firing guns, but I'm not going to do the math. Meh.
posted by YAMWAK at 9:58 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I donno, killing people with guns seems a bit more humane than killing them with lawnmowers.

The real question is whether a Red Army platoon equipped with nothing but lawnmowers could take over the entire Roman Empire.

This joke brought to you by the year 2011.
posted by griphus at 9:59 AM on July 28, 2015 [15 favorites]



Oh! I knew about the M16 being considered far less reliable than the AK-47, but I thought you were saying that their unreliability was an actual feature intended to limit their usefulness by US proxies. I'm dumb. Never mind!


Well, I didn't say it was the intention of the designers, but it certainly is the effect. And for a Mefite who would like to see the brutality of the Cold War's hot proxy wars recede with time, it makes it a feature, not a bug.
posted by ocschwar at 10:00 AM on July 28, 2015


"In hindsight, I wish I had designed a lawnmower."
-Mikhail Kalashnikov.


Instead, they were left with this.
posted by Kabanos at 10:02 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I donno, killing people with guns seems a bit more humane than killing them with lawnmowers.

Pretty much. (Warning: the linked video clip is graphically violent. If only The Hobbit had featured a lawnmower scene.)
posted by zarq at 10:03 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Instead, they were left with this.

"Ask a Russian engineer to design you a shoe, and he'll give you something that looks like the box the shoes came in. Ask him to design something that will slaughter Germans, and he turns into Thomas fucking Edison." - Neil Stephenson
posted by griphus at 10:03 AM on July 28, 2015 [46 favorites]


This seems like a circumstance where pedantry over the distinction between "good" and "well" might actually be useful.

Nothing whose primary purpose is to take away life can be said to be good, though it can certainly be designed well.
posted by The World Famous at 10:05 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


necessitates more intensive maintenance on the part of the individual soldier

It's a tangent, but I can attest to this. I spent a brief and inglorious time in the military a long time ago, and the M16 was an absolute pain in my entire ass to clean with the supplied kit. Cleaning the barrel was fine--there was a portable ramrod in the cleaning kit--but you would not believe how many nooks and crannies there are in the fiddly internal bits of the rifle that took a lot more work.

(See the bolt in the lower right corner of that picture? See the cylindrical bit on the left of it? Huge amounts of carbon buildup would accumulate in there, and the cleaning kit didn't provide any reliable way of getting it out. We used to unwind wire hangers and hammer the ends flat with a rock to make crude but serviceable tools to scrape it out.)

(Another tangent: We used to pity the left-handed guys. See, the shell casings are ejected out the right side of the rifle. There's a clip-on deflector that's supposed to keep them away from a left-handed shooter, but one guy got a hot shell casing that came at him and then stuck in between his cheek and helmet strap. I never did find out if it left a scar. I hadn't thought about that in years.)

posted by Mr. Bad Example at 10:06 AM on July 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


This is such an abuse of the word, "design". It comes from a domain where one definition is understood (art school grad making things pretty) and then seamlessly transitions over to another (engineering) as if one would ever be involved in the other. No, arts people will not be involved in weapon design, even if they want to be.

This is a dumb piece of writing, even though I think Mike Monteiro is a pretty smart guy, but I don' t think this is exactly why it's dumb. It's dumb because it attempts to overload a common word with a well-understood and useful meaning to include an ethical imperative which is not normally understood by users of the word.

Rhetorically, this is shit. It would be like me making a strong claim that, say, you aren't really programming if you write software which does something bad. Or perhaps, to call back to an argument I made around here the other day, it would be like saying that a well designed database isn't well designed because databases are routinely used in systems that violate privacy.

This would be a silly argument for me to advance, and an even sillier one for me to believe, because it would obscure reality. Well-designed things do harm all the fucking time. This is in fact probably the nature of technology itself. Do you want to argue that people shouldn't design effective guns? Do you want to argue that guns are intrinsically a bad technology? Ok, fucking great, but don't try to make it harder to think about whether a given instrumentality is effective. That doesn't actually make it easier for people to make sound ethical decisions about the kind of technical work they do.
posted by brennen at 10:07 AM on July 28, 2015 [18 favorites]


There are as many types of rifles out there shooting up our villages, our churches, and our Marine recruiting stations as there is cereal in the cereal aisle.


the article author seems to be in favour of just not inventing guns in the first place, or getting rid of guns altogether. So what would the Marines do? Stick to sword fighting?
posted by Bwithh at 10:08 AM on July 28, 2015


The idea for a better rifle came to him as he lay in hospital in 1941-42, his left shoulder shattered by shrapnel at the battle of Bryansk, and heard other soldiers moaning about the uselessness of their rifles, and how few they had. He knew that first-hand; on his way to the hospital, Germans armed with MP-38s had massacred the other injured men in his convoy. The Motherland had to be better defended. And the job was up to him.
posted by Bwithh at 10:12 AM on July 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


Kalashnikov Mystery House

You open a door. What's behind it? More rifles!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:13 AM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


it would be like saying that a well designed database isn't well designed because databases are routinely used in systems that violate privacy

Well, no, because the sole purpose of a database isn't to do harm. You can design something which does its job well but can also be used in a harmful way. Guns can only be used in a harmful way.
posted by billiebee at 10:14 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Kalashnikov Mystery House

You open a door. What's behind it? More rifles!


Well...that's if you ever make it past the shoulder-high lawn.
posted by yoink at 10:15 AM on July 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


the DI system of the AR rifles solves a couple of problems, and in doing so creates a couple new ones.

Sounds like a job for a good designer!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:16 AM on July 28, 2015




"Isn't that a reasonable thing to ask designers to consider?"

Sure, it's an entirely reasonable thing to ask designers to consider. Unfortunately, this article is a bullshit jeremiad posing as a reasonable consideration, full of question begging, bait-and-switch, conflations… It ends up being worse than not answering the question at all, from a perspective of advocating for reductions in gun violence. And it misses an opportunity to talk about how things can be well designed or innovative or even beautiful and still not be ethical or come with complex moral decisions. I mean, fuck, since the AK-47 was created right after the Great Patriotic War, it's not too far afield to talk about how the Nazis created both an incredibly sophisticated system for mass murder, as well as some incredibly affecting art — Triumph of the Will isn't a terrible movie because of its aesthetics, but because of how the message of beautiful, human triumph is created in service of a racist, totalitarian ethos. Hell, Hitler was by all reports a great orator.

By pretending that these objects are inherently ugly or poorly designed, we step away from treating them as they exist in the world and from the ability to argue for a deeper understanding of context. That's dumb. This essay is dumb. And because of that, it's a bad piece of writing.
posted by klangklangston at 10:21 AM on July 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


Guns can only be used in a harmful way.

What about target shooting? With this comparison, a gun is like a bow and arrow, which is used more for archery these days but was originally designed to kill as well. So according to the author, the longbow is bad design.

And if we think that anything harmful = bad design, where does that leave poisons or drugs used for euthanasia?
posted by FJT at 10:22 AM on July 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


The privilege. It BURNS!

Wow. His family were immigrants because they were fleeing fascism, you are not as your parents moved here for work. Fleeing fascism is a true reason to immigrate, designing a gun to fight back against fascists is morally indefensible.

He really is correct when he describes himself as an asshole.
posted by N-stoff at 10:34 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, no, because the sole purpose of a database isn't to do harm. You can design something which does its job well but can also be used in a harmful way. Guns can only be used in a harmful way.

I don't love guns, particularly, but I don't really think this is true. I have direct experience of this not being true. But I'm not sure it matters very much. I was going to type more, but I think klangklangston's last paragraph says about what I wanted to.

The reality of made objects and the work of making things is hard enough, fraught enough with possible consequence, that substituting ideological devices for what little clarity can be found seems like a bad idea to me. No matter how well-intentioned the ideological device.
posted by brennen at 10:39 AM on July 28, 2015


pretending that these objects are inherently ugly or poorly designed

I don't think that he says that. They're clearly not poorly designed given how effective they are and he doesn't mention aesthetics.

And if we think that anything harmful = bad design, where does that leave poisons or drugs used for euthanasia?

Drugs aren't "designed" like objects though.
posted by billiebee at 10:40 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


What a stupid article. I'm especially rankled by his opening diatribe: "Fuck no. Fuck him. Fuck the AK-47. Fuck all guns and the people who design them, but especially fuck Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47."

Stating that Kalashnikov is directly responsible for every single death caused by the AK-47 is poor reasoning. It implies, in my eyes, that the people who kill with the AK-47 are doing so because they have an AK-47, not because they want to kill someone for some reason or another. It's removing the agency from these people and reducing them to nothing more than conduits for the intrinsic violence of a gun. Dumb. Is the kitchen knife manufacturer responsible for every domestic stabbing?
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 10:48 AM on July 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Anyway this only holds if you think killing people is bad!
posted by atoxyl at 10:58 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


"I don't think that he says that. They're clearly not poorly designed given how effective they are and he doesn't mention aesthetics. "

Dude flat out says that anything designed to kill is bad design. The two ways that "design" can be interpreted are either functional design or aesthetic design. He is saying that, and he's riding in front of his saddle because of it.
posted by klangklangston at 10:59 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.

I'm not sure "by definition" takes into account other kinds of possible goods (or at least lesser-bads).

If I can prevent a great evil with a gun that can't be accomplished otherwise, it's a good design.
If I can arbitrate between the lesser of two evils, it's a good (albeit perhaps unfortunately needed) design.
If I can do active good with a gun (say, provide food for my family), it's a good design.
If I can show that all of the above are possible and mitigate evil rather than contributing to more of it by virtue of having those values, it is a good design.

If considering the exceptions above, evil flourishes more because guns exist, this is the place to have an argument. But you can't just definitionally assume it.

I can think of a "best of all worlds" scenario in which not having any guns creates less evil, but as long as we live in an imperfect world, the "good" (or lesser-bad) that one can do with a particular design does not always mean the "perfect thing, all things being already perfect."
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:14 AM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter: a bullshit jeremiad posing as a reasonable consideration, full of question begging, bait-and-switch, conflations.
posted by rdone at 11:31 AM on July 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


He's not talking about as "making something work well". The former is probably understood also as 'well-engineered'; an AK-47 is well-engineered.

He's more speaking about design as "making something do good in the world". Which makes sense. For designers, I think design is kind of this all-encompassing presence pervading every single interaction and experience you undergo -- it's not at all about what it looks like, or an aesthetic, or a pretty salt shaker, etc. Most of the time, design is engaged with unconsciously, so bad design can make undesirable outcomes happen before you know it. Which is why I can see that for him, the question of design is intrinsically ethical. Design is evaluated by intent and impact.

Which is why his argument is that the AK-47, as something designed to create maximum harm, is an intrinsically unethical design.
posted by suedehead at 11:37 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


his argument is that the AK-47, as something designed to create maximum harm, is an intrinsically unethical design.

Except that he decided making that anodyne claim wouldn't get him the page-views he wanted and instead of making the entirely unexceptionable argument you suggest he decided to ride this silliness as far as it would take him:
nothing whose primary purpose is to take away life can be said to be designed well.
posted by yoink at 11:43 AM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Which is why his argument is that the AK-47, as something designed to create maximum harm, is an intrinsically unethical design.

But that's the thing: "to create maximum harm" is a reading of it shallow enough to be inaccurate.
posted by griphus at 11:44 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Shallow as far as evaluating the ethics of the impetus behind its design, I mean.
posted by griphus at 11:45 AM on July 28, 2015


This is a fine article until the end, but it's unreasonable to claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov is responsible for every person killed by an AK-47.

I'm fine with doing that if we also give him credit for every person liberated from colonial rule by AK-wielding armed forces. What a huge but sincerely complicated legacy that man will leave.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:47 AM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


He's more speaking about design as "making something do good in the world".

Do designers really think about their work in this manner? I mean, as a practical, everyday way of thinking, rather than the occasional lofty discussion at the bar? Because I'm fairly certain that the vast majority of people don't.
posted by Etrigan at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is such an abuse of the word, "design". It comes from a domain where one definition is understood (art school grad making things pretty) and then seamlessly transitions over to another (engineering) as if one would ever be involved in the other. No, arts people will not be involved in weapon design, even if they want to be.

Hi. I'm a designer, that went to the kind of school you're thinking (derisively) of. My job has been described (inaccurately) by people unfamiliar with design as "making things pretty".

Earlier in my career I worked for a well known design consultancy that was approached by a government contractor--they wanted us to design (in the interaction sense) the software tool that the workers in their factory would use to test missile guidance systems. So you know, they wanted us to help them build literal death machines.

Our company said no.*

In any kind of consulting/professional services work, you choose your clients and projects. I think getting design students to realize that they are choosing what kind of world they are making is a good thing. Design doesn't have any kind of formalized code of ethics for the profession as a whole, so you have to (or not) have your own personal code. We talked about this a lot at school, it was part of our formal education, and it's led me to decline work that isn't aligned with my values.

*…but they did, in leaner times, take on work in the adult entertainment industry. I wasn't there in this era, but as a colleague put it, they weren't ok with any kind of black money, but (some kinds of) pink money was just fine. This aligned well with my values.
posted by danny the boy at 11:51 AM on July 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yes, but that's different than the idiocy of this article declaring that "[i]f a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design."

You're talking about taking ethics into account when pursuing your profession. That's a fine and laudable thing, but it has no bearing on whether something is well-designed or not. The author of this piece is conflating the two, and as such comes across as so stupid it's not even worth engaging.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Guns can only be used in a harmful way.

That is, to put it lightly, a not-uncontroversial opinion. But whatever, that's a tedious argument in which nobody is going to convince anyone of anything other than what they already believe, so we'll skip it. But suffice it to say that people designing firearms are, as a class, probably not of that opinion and unlikely to be easily swayed.


TFA reminds me of the debates that used to rage on Slashdot years ago over whether computer engineers ought to refuse to work on 'killer drone' systems, or whatever the DARPA weapon-du-jour was.

And hey, everyone ought to have their own personal code, and shouldn't do things that they find reprehensible. But it's a bit of a Tony Stark-ian fantasy to imagine that your personal refusal to ever design the Next Big Thing in weapons systems is really going to hold back their development.

"Great man" theories of engineering history are almost always myopic (and, almost as often, political in origin). Kalashnikov is no exception, and although the guy seems to have been a pretty smart engineer, if you could take a time machine back to 1943 and kill him before he had a chance to design the AK-47, while you'd certainly prevent that particular rifle with that particular designation from being developed, the Soviets would just have ended up with a different rifle, probably with many of the same characteristics. (In all likelihood, it would have been a Simonov design based on the SKS with a detachable box magazine and selective fire, or maybe the Bulkin, which was part of the same design competition as the AK-47.) Also, many of the characteristics that made the AK-47 so widely used in subsequent decades weren't present in Kalashnikov's initial wartime design, but were added as a result of discoveries made during mass-production ramp-up later. E.g. the transition from a milled receiver to a stamped one. If they had tried to make an "SKS-47" in the same quantities as the AK, they probably would have learned and applied the same lessons.

If Kalashnikov's design seems revolutionary, it's largely because the Soviet Union wanted it to seem that way (well, and it was used in a whole bunch of revolutions, mostly because they were handed out like candy); Kalashnikov himself never hid the fact that it was an evolved design that drew heavily on contemporary German, American, and Russian weapons. That's how engineering works, the vast majority of the time, so it shouldn't be especially surprising. Sure, some engineers are better than others, by whatever standard you want to define as "better", and 'engineers' aren't a bin of interchangeable parts. But the number of people actively designing weapons at any time is a small fraction of the people who are probably qualified, in one way or another, to do so — Kalashnikov himself had no formal engineering training; he was a farmboy-turned-tractor-mechanic-turned-soldier — and so it's unlikely that any person's refusal is going to deprive the pool to the point where incremental improvements become impossible.

But certainly, if working on a weapons program is going to cause you to lose sleep at night, you shouldn't do it. But the effect that such a decision has is as personal as the motivation for it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:00 PM on July 28, 2015 [16 favorites]


Kalashnikov actually regretted designing the AK-47.

"I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people's lives, then can it be that I... a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?" he wrote.

So, basically, fuck Mike Monteiro. Or something...
posted by Chuffy at 12:11 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Do designers really think about their work in this manner? I mean, as a practical, everyday way of thinking, rather than the occasional lofty discussion at the bar? Because I'm fairly certain that the vast majority of people don't.

...yes? Do you know any designers? I think it's part of the central identity, of what attracts certain people to the profession. Designers are, very broadly, people who want to make the world a better place, through thoughtfulness.


But certainly, if working on a weapons program is going to cause you to lose sleep at night, you shouldn't do it. But the effect that such a decision has is as personal as the motivation for it.

I was asked to do a project for... the tourism board of a middle eastern city, that had been making news quite a bit for human rights issues. I said no, because I personally did not want to put my time into that, but a colleague ended up doing it. And that's fine. It is about your own personal ethical guidelines, and there's room in there for grey areas.

But the idea that "oh, someone else will just end up doing it" is... pretty cynical. Individual attitudes roll up into the greater reality. Like, consider what would have happened if the APA didn't collaborate with the Bush administration to redefine torture, and instead did the opposite: issued a condemnation. Would the torture still have happened? Would they have found some psychologists to directly support it? Sure. Would they have been ostracized by their own community? Hopefully. But I think the national dialog would have been meaningfully different. Individual attitudes add up.
posted by danny the boy at 12:24 PM on July 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Kadin2048,

That's a pretty odd angle to take. I don't think the issue is that any one person thinks their decision is going to shake the foundations of the world.

It may be inevitable that some military is going to get some engineer to design and build KillBot 9000, but it doesn't have to be you. You're right, that decision probably isn't going to make any difference at all in the grand scheme of things, but we make the ethical choice available to us.

I feel like your attitude encourages the opposite: someone's going to do it, so it doesn't matter if I chip in. Even if you can't change the world, you can change your world. You're still responsible for your part, however tiny that may actually be.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:28 PM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is assuming that the people involved in the design actually thought they were doing something unethical or immoral. There are people who truly believe that there's a greater good involved in committing torture or making weapons.

And to add nuance, I think Kalashnikov designing the AK-47 after seeing how badly outgunned Soviet soldiers were in comparison to their German counterparts in WWII is different than designing a state-of-art modern weapon system for the undisputed military hyper power on this planet.
posted by FJT at 12:40 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


And if we come to the conclusion that these products cannot be made safe, how many of us will see it as our responsibility to raise our hands and say “I’m not making this.”

You can't end the article here. This is where the problem begins, not where it ends. Many people whose jobs are socially destructive know they're not making the world a better place. (of course they often eventually rationalize their actions). Not everyone can easily say, "I won't make this", and even if you have the power to refuse, there's almost always someone more vulnerable out there whom they can pressure to do the work anyway. Someone trying to break into the industry, someone on a visa, someone with student loans to pay off, healthcare bills, children to feed or rent to pay...

It's great to encourage designers to refuse unethical work, but if we really want want workers to obey their consciences, we've got to stop making survival contingent on having a job.
posted by Wemmick at 12:51 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I highly recommend NY TImes reporter C.J. Chivers book The Gun . It covers the history of the AK/AKM platform and how it spread around the world. It is a fantastic view on how the USSR and other communist states operated. It includes a chapter on the reliability of the early M-16. I bought an AK after reading the book. Well, really its a WASR-10 (an AKM variant, the actual AK-47 saw very limited use) which is a Romanian built gun designed for the export market. I feel no guilt over owning it.
posted by nestor_makhno at 1:10 PM on July 28, 2015


> Designers are, very broadly, people who want to make the world a better place, through thoughtfulness.

This is overbroad. You can make the world better through thoughtfulness and still be considered immoral by people outside your social group. Design is not, by definition, a moral act. Design is engineering. Design, Build, Learn, Repeat.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. If you want to make a point, go ahead and make it in a way that's not just a tossed-off inflammatory one-liner.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:39 PM on July 28, 2015


Aside from being a dumb like reality tv dumb this rant reminds me how much I loathe the use of swearing in fauxlectual writing on the internet or elsewhere.
posted by Pembquist at 2:40 PM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


> Design is not, by definition, a moral act. Design is engineering. Design, Build, Learn, Repeat.

99 Percent Invisible, the (excellent!) podcast which is about the wonders of design, offers the disclaimer that design is about developing a solution to a problem, whether it's building a better rifle or solving the problem of basketball teams burning the clock for a boring game.

Making things look better, or in any case driving them to a desired appearance, is Styling, not Designing, at least in this paradigm. It's easy to see that these are separate acts, but both are creative words towards different ends, and between that and the lingual overlap, it's tempting to confuse the two.

At the risk of drifting the topic a little, Gaston Glock did the same thing for handguns that MK did for rifles; see the book "Glock, The Rise of America's Gun," by Paul M. Barnett. Aside from the effective safety described above, they have the same reputation as AKs for being abusable, unjammable, and simple to maintain.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:57 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


How about birth control? Obviously, its only purpose is to harm human life, and I'm certain no one would disagree with how evil that is, so it's bad design, right?

Seems like he's just trying to bait a fight using rhetorical slight of hand with the words "good" and "well," combined with a good dose of moral absolutism.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 3:02 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Guns can only be used in a harmful way.

This isn't true, or is the original article's claim that A gun’s only purpose is to kill.

Imagine somebody picks up a knife and says, "I'm going to stab you."

And I pick up a gun and say, "No you're not."

Now imagine guns had been designed in such a way that it wasn't possible to use one to threaten to harm somebody without actually harming them.

Even if you are against killing people, the way weapons are designed can be quite meaningful.
posted by layceepee at 3:05 PM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


So, who is this aimed at?

Teachers who have to decide whether to use the AK-47 as an example of "good design" in their design classes.
posted by subdee at 3:21 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I hope no one else said that already, the thread got a lot longer while I had the window open.
posted by subdee at 3:24 PM on July 28, 2015


The entire premise of this article is asinine. The AK-47 is well designed, in the sense that it effectively fulfills its intended function with elegance and economy. The author admits as much. This is what people mean when they say that something is well designed.

And that's a completely separate matter from whether or not the existence of the AK-47 is a net moral good. Yet the author demands that we conflate these two orthogonal concepts, for no reason except that it suits his thesis.

He's playing games with semantics. This is a bog-standard tactic of provocateur journalism: start with a commonly accepted notion; implicitly redefine one of its key terms; demonstrate that the (altered) notion doesn't make sense; boldly proclaim that you've disproven the original notion.

What I think he's really trying to say is something like "designers should strive to do more than just create well designed objects: they should also strive to create objects that are net moral goods, whose existence makes the world a better place".

But it's much harder to find anyone who would disagree with that notion, and I guess he needs someone to rail against, even if they're imaginary.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:29 PM on July 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


(Another tangent: We used to pity the left-handed guys. See, the shell casings are ejected out the right side of the rifle. There's a clip-on deflector that's supposed to keep them away from a left-handed shooter, but one guy got a hot shell casing that came at him and then stuck in between his cheek and helmet strap. I never did find out if it left a scar. I hadn't thought about that in years.)

posted by Mr. Bad Example


Speaking as a left-hander, if you want an example of fantastic design in weapons, the FN-P90 should rank pretty high on the list. Fully ambidextrous controls, spent casings ejected *downwards*, integrated reflex sight. Penetrates kevlar vests at 100m (innately anti-authoritarian terminal ballistics!) but only 2/3rds the recoil impulse of a 9mm handgun.

I've fired a couple hundred rounds with the civilian model - picking it up and using it is a lot like the first time you picked up an iPhone or one of Samsung's better knockoffs a few generations later. You never want to shoot anything else again for under 50 meter distances.

...then my co-worker told me exactly how much he had to go through to own one legally inside Boston's city limits, read: the mother of all Massachusetts bureaucratic nightmares. Apparently the local constabulary noticed the innately anti-authoritarian terminal ballistics bit.
posted by Ryvar at 3:32 PM on July 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


My first programming job out of school was with a small company that refused to work on military projects. I felt good about it. A few years later I was on my own and I was offered a contract to develop a really cool artificial intelligence system right in my area of interest and expertise, but it was for the military. It didn't directly kill people, but it helped train people to kill people. I no longer had a boss to decide for me which work was ethically acceptable, and I kind of agonized over the decision. I thought a lot about which systems I already participated in and what I was culpable for: Voting for presidential candidates who were not going to abolish the military; paying taxes that I knew would be used to fund the military. I solicited opinions from friends. The most helpful: people who acknowledged that ethical and moral people might reasonably decide it was OK to do military work; The least helpful: people who saw it as a black and white issue and didn't understand how I could even consider working for the Air Force (Aaron Swartz was one of those). This article probably falls under the "less helpful" category for me.

Eventually I decided it was acceptable, and I designed and implemented a successful system. I learned quite a bit from talking with my new colleagues, including reservists & active duty soldiers, usually after I prodded them into talking a little about the morality of what we were doing. They all saw our work as helping to protect their friends on the battlefield. That was one side of it, but definitely not the whole story and maybe a way to make them feel better about what we were doing. During the project the PI, my boss, was called up to go to Afghanistan. I remember him saying that he was glad he hadn't been sent to Iraq because he didn't think we should be there and he wasn't sure what he would do--I actually was a little surprised that soldiers weren't all unthinking jingoists.

I still feel that it can be morally acceptable to design guns, or design software that helps killing. But now I also think that "morally acceptable" is a pretty low bar, and that there's a lot of other stuff that should be prioritized over new tankbots or whatever when it comes to choosing how to allocate money and time. Those priorities can change if we suddenly need to fight a giant fascist army, but for now we seem to have this huge asymmetry of weapons that cost billions of dollars to develop being used to kill farmers on the other side of the world who might be angry at the United States, and I definitely don't want to participate in that.
posted by jjwiseman at 3:35 PM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Took me a few minutes to figure out why linking to "99 Percent Invisible" didn't relieve the itch in my brain, and here's why. This thread is reminiscent of episode "80: The Architect's Code" in which a group of activist architects (I bet their picket signs are very sound, structurally) proposes something similar to architects: they should not design prisons, or at least don't design them to deny human rights: access to human communication, long-distance lines of sight, natural light, and other things that are necessary for maintaining sanity and dignity.

The argument of the Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) is a lot more convincing than this article, that's for certain.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:51 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


How about birth control? Obviously, its only purpose is to harm human life

Actually birth control is designed to stop the creation of human life, not harm it. And the harm to someone who may be otherwise forced to create human life could potentially be far greater.
posted by billiebee at 4:19 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


The entire premise of this article is asinine. The AK-47 is well designed, in the sense that it effectively fulfills its intended function with elegance and economy. The author admits as much. This is what people mean when they say that something is well designed.

I agree with you; the author of this article conflates types of norms in a really basic and sophomoric way. There's a difference between moral norms and instrumental norms, and I don't think he really gets it.

But there's also something interesting in his critique about the way he thinks of design.

Take The Triumph of the Will. Is it a good movie? It's extremely well crafted. It succeeds in its propagandistic functions. It's aesthetically nice to look at. But someone might agree with all this and yet still think that it's not a good movie qua movie. That's because the value of what is expressed in a film is part of the value of a good film. A beautiful movie that isn't about anything in particular will be shallow... it would be a better movie if it expressed something deep, and a worse movie if it expressed something misleading and insidious. In other words, the aesthetic norms that govern movie evaluation include moral norms. Moral appraisal is not completely disjoint from aesthetic appraisal.

This guy seems to be thinking of "good design" as aesthetic rather than instrumental. A gun might be instrumentally well designed to kill, and The Triumph of the Will might be instrumentally well designed to spread propaganda, but that's not the only way that design can be appraised. Meeting instrumental goals is not what the author thinks of when the he thinks of successful design.

However, because film is representational and expressive, it's much easier to tell a story about how moral norms come to play a role in aesthetic film evaluation. Films can represent and express moral characters, moral messages, etc. Guns aren't obviously representional in that sense, so they don't have that link to moral norms. I don't think the author has fully thought through how moral norms would play a role in the aesthetics of gun design, so he just equivocates between talking about instrumental norms and moral norms.
posted by painquale at 4:26 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The story goes that Kalashnikov started focusing on building a better rifle after he was wounded in combat, and heard other soldiers in the hospital complaining about problems with their rifles. So he was designing something to help Russian soldiers.

I think to argue that designing a weapon is always morally wrong, you have to argue that being a soldier is also always morally wrong. Which would be consistent, and I'm not saying you can't argue that. But it sometimes does seem culturally, the soldier is the hero, the patriot, while the person who designs the tools for the soldier to do his heroic patriot duty is the villain. (Is it that the soldier is putting his own life on the line, so we admire his bravery? Is it just anti-intellectual?)



Consider the science-fiction idea of grey goo, or the over-optimizing singularity. These are things that serve one purpose very well but their pursuit of that one purpose crushes the rest of human life.

If you really want to bridge the gap between "this is a good design for purpose X but purpose X is immoral" and "this is a poor design because it's designed for purpose X" you have to consider it from that sort of perspective. The grey goo is well-designed if we assume the only constraint is "design something that will replicate itself." It is a bad design if you assume there's an unspoken design constraint that you can't destroy the world.
posted by RobotHero at 4:31 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Guns can only be used in a harmful way.

This isn't true


As this has been quoted back a few times it's probably worth saying that I get there's debate about this. It's my own viewpoint, not meant to be stated as The Truth, and coloured by the fact that I grew up somewhere where guns did only harm people (not so much with the shooting at target ranges in Belfast) and AK-47s - which we just called Kalashnikovs - were often the weapon of choice. I admit I'm not looking at it purely from a design perspective. Fwiw I'd lay the blame for the deaths they caused at the feet of the people who smuggled them in and used them rather than the designer.
posted by billiebee at 4:45 PM on July 28, 2015


As this has been quoted back a few times it's probably worth saying that I get there's debate about this. It's my own viewpoint, not meant to be stated as The Truth, and coloured by the fact that I grew up somewhere where guns did only harm people (not so much with the shooting at target ranges in Belfast) and AK-47s - which we just called Kalashnikovs - were often the weapon of choice.

Since I'm one of the people who quoted that, I want to say that I respect this perspective even if I'm not remotely equipped to understand it fully. I have never had anything like the experience of living in a place with a serious armed conflict underway. I still think that "guns do only harm" isn't really accurate, but I also think that knowledge probably pales in comparison to the experience of anyone who has had to live with their worst consequences.
posted by brennen at 9:27 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


*…but they did, in leaner times, take on work in the adult entertainment industry. I wasn't there in this era, but as a colleague put it, they weren't ok with any kind of black money, but (some kinds of) pink money was just fine.

So, their motto was "Make love not war"?
posted by 445supermag at 9:42 PM on July 28, 2015


And hey, everyone ought to have their own personal code, and shouldn't do things that they find reprehensible. But it's a bit of a Tony Stark-ian fantasy to imagine that your personal refusal to ever design the Next Big Thing in weapons systems is really going to hold back their development.

No offense personally, but I think this is one of the most reprehensible social attitudes ever, and a stance that breeds nothing but an apathetic maintenance of the status quo.

"Who cares if you do something bad? Other people will do it anyways."

Or: Let's say I'm a soldier in Iraq. "Who am I kidding? It's a fantasy to imagine that my small actions towards the local populace are going to chance anything when the big issue is US foreign policy. Might as well not spend any energy trying to be nice to the locals; other soldiers will be assholes anyways."

Or: let's say I'm a police officer in the US...
posted by suedehead at 10:38 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Which is why his argument is that the AK-47, as something designed to create maximum harm, is an intrinsically unethical design."

Right, and that's only supportable in a few moral schemata, and is totally vulnerable to utilitarian counterarguments.

"Maximum harm."
"By what measure?"
"It kills people."
"Is it ever justified to kill someone?"
"Sure, in self defense. Also, Nazis."
"In self defense, is it important that a gun works as reliably as possible?"

"It's killed more people than would otherwise have died!"
"How many of those were legitimate killings? Which also wouldn't have come from a different gun in the absence of AK-47s?"

"As this has been quoted back a few times it's probably worth saying that I get there's debate about this. It's my own viewpoint, not meant to be stated as The Truth, and coloured by the fact that I grew up somewhere where guns did only harm people (not so much with the shooting at target ranges in Belfast) and AK-47s - which we just called Kalashnikovs - were often the weapon of choice. I admit I'm not looking at it purely from a design perspective. Fwiw I'd lay the blame for the deaths they caused at the feet of the people who smuggled them in and used them rather than the designer."

So, I just finished reading The Resurrection Men, about the Shankill Butchers. One of the things that stuck out for me was the question of UVA guys got guns into the UK, and it seemed to mostly be the government. I don't know if that's true — the book's a fiction, after all — but while the U.S. has mass shootings all the time (batting 1,000 for 2015!), Belfast feels like it had bombings as often as we had mass shootings. I also kind of wonder if some of the AK-47's popularity in the Troubles was because it was harder to get a handgun than in the U.S. Even in gang wars, automatic rifles like that were pretty rare and an escalation from the handguns that do most of our murder here. That's part of what makes the recent spate of mass shootings stand out for Americans — the AR-15 used at Sandy Hook is the same Armalite Rifle that Gang of Four sang about. All other things being equal, most handguns won't penetrate like a rifle. I don't know how close to any of this stuff you were — or how much of Belfast was actually involved in that stuff, but I'm curious about your experience.
posted by klangklangston at 10:42 PM on July 28, 2015


Do designers really think about their work in this manner? I mean, as a practical, everyday way of thinking, rather than the occasional lofty discussion at the bar? Because I'm fairly certain that the vast majority of people don't.

Yup, absolutely. Check out Design for the Other 90%, a 2007 exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, a design museum.

I think a great deal of this sentiment has to do with the fact that good design doesn't take more resources; you can make someone's life incredibly better with the smart and clever application of inexpensive materials in a new way. I'd say that what is often called engineering is a subset of design, kind of, in which good design answers the question of "what should we do to solve the problem?" and good engineering then says "in what exact way does our solution work?" Obviously, the two are always necessarily intertwined. But engineering itself isn't always problem solving; if you built a robust security system for your home against break-ins, when the problem is really that your home is dimly lit from the outside, and an attractive target for burglars, you have a well-engineered but badly-designed system.

I think the problem with the term design to non-designers is that the practice of visual/material/spatial problem-solving is transparent; all objects you touch have been designed, and many of them work well enough that you don't give a second thought to them. Design thus appears to be about the visual/aesthetic practice of forming an object ('this gun looks so cool!'), or an explicit functionality ('this gun can fire a million rounds without jamming'), not so much the problem-solving process (why is it that you need a gun in the first place?)

In my experience, most design problems originate from the fact that the client/user is asking the wrong question at the outset. "We need a dishwasher, but don't have any place to put it; do we need a building permit to enlarge our kitchen?" The problem is that the solution is already assumed. "We need more semiautomatic weapons for our police force." Could it not be that the design solution to this is actually better police training, not increased purchases in firearms? Etc.

So in that light, speaking of design as something that changes people's lives? A conversation that happens all the time.
posted by suedehead at 10:59 PM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


klangklangston Collusion between the British Government and loyalist paramilitaries (mainly UVF and UDA) was widespread and it's believed they aided the smuggling of loyalist arms from South Africa. On the Republican side most were smuggled from Libya. Armalites were popular earlier in the conflict because they were light (easy to transport) and armour-piercing, given that IRA targets were the security forces. But handguns were used too.

As it happens I was talking to someone last night about this thread; his uncle was the person who met with Gaddafi and brokered the Libyan supply of arms (I have no involvement and neither does he but you can't pick your family). He said once AKs were introduced they were really popular because they were so efficient and versatile (automatic or semiautomatic). So well-designed in that sense. There were several mass shootings here but I think (I'd have to look for stats) most people who were shot dead were in single events, for example on the street on their way to work (like two of my Dad's employees/friends) or in their house when someone burst in.

I guess this is all derail actually, but it's maybe why I come down hard on the "guns are bad, m'kay?" side. Naive though it may sound to people from a gun culture (whether you subscribe to it or not), I'm someone who would be happy if no one designed any ever again.
posted by billiebee at 1:21 AM on July 29, 2015


This thread reminds me of the politics of working on the Death Star.
posted by TedW at 4:06 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Who cares if you do something bad? Other people will do it anyways."

I think that's a bit of an uncharitable interpretation of the point that Kadin2048 was making. His point was more against the "great man" interpretation of history, which in historiography is considered an antiquated and oversimplified narrative view of history.

And I think it's quite a jump to turn that into an attitude about giving up and embracing the status quo. I don't see a contradiction in believing you have to do the right thing, but also acknowledging that even your maximized contribution is going to be a drop in the ocean.
posted by FJT at 9:01 AM on July 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Or as Ivan Chesnokov describes it: "IS BASICALLY SAME AS SHITS WHERE HE EATS"

Oh man, I remember my great embarassment when I got out of the military, where we kind of trash on AK-47s because they belong to enemies and not us and thus must be shit, and continued my completely ignorant 'man, those are shitty weapons! Shit shit shit! Not like my good reliable M16!' and then when everyone finished laughing until they cried, they explained to me some things I desperately needed to know.
posted by corb at 10:45 AM on July 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


"The StG 44 was the first assault rifle...(it's) effect on post-war arms design was wide-ranging, as evidenced by Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK-47, and later Eugene Stoner's M16 and its variants. The Soviet Union was quick to..."

It's about function and form.
posted by clavdivs at 8:37 PM on July 29, 2015


And I think it's quite a jump to turn that into an attitude about giving up and embracing the status quo. I don't see a contradiction in believing you have to do the right thing, but also acknowledging that even your maximized contribution is going to be a drop in the ocean.

I suppose my argument against that way of thinking is that it removes all agency away from a person. 'History is an unstoppable force, moving by forces far beyond your control. The specific consequences of your actions are as minuscule to be meaningless. Ultimately, this means that if you choose to do the right thing, it will be a cute conceptual gesture, ultimately useless, like throwing a pebble into an endless abyss in the hopes of filling it up to create a bridge. In the face of this existential void, one's only meaning is to think about personal survival. Do the right thing when you can, but it's a drop in the ocean. There will always be better guns designed by someone anyways; it's just a matter of how the zeitgeist flows.'

Of course, there is a group of people who think precisely the opposite. Often times, they happen to wield money and/or power, perhaps due to this mindset. Most often, their actions are pretty reprehensible.

If you are an designer, designing objects meant to do harm without thinking about the long-term consequences and impact of your work is the path to being instrumentalized by precisely these forces. Not thinking about your actions because 'someone else will design it anyways' is a shirking of responsibility at best, and a 'good German'-esque complicity with factors you know to be bad, at worst.
posted by suedehead at 9:33 PM on July 29, 2015


> I suppose my argument against that way of thinking is that it removes all agency away from a person. 'History is an unstoppable force, moving by forces far beyond your control.'

Whenever I hear someone talking about the "right side of history" I feel the same reflexive revulsion.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:27 PM on July 29, 2015


Say you live in Rojava, with a Syrian dictator on one side, and theocrats on the other. Is it "bad design" if you come up with a weapon system that can slay your opponents and allow you (and your family) to increase their chance of survival?
posted by wuwei at 10:57 PM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


If that system involves women in combat and an alliance with the U.S., I guess.
posted by clavdivs at 11:42 PM on July 29, 2015


Of course, there is a group of people who think precisely the opposite. Often times, they happen to wield money and/or power, perhaps due to this mindset. Most often, their actions are pretty reprehensible.

The assertion that the actions of people who believe their choices have consequences and a meaningful impact are most often pretty reprehensible is not a good argument in favor of that particular worldview.
posted by layceepee at 6:09 AM on July 30, 2015


"You are directly responsible for what you put into the world."

Stop right there, since when are you directly responsible for anything? As far as I can tell, everything in my life started billions ago and is just the natural consequence of those events.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:10 PM on July 30, 2015


"Who cares if you do something bad? Other people will do it anyways."

The second sentence is unrelated to the first.

Even if the second part is true—the Death Freedom Star is still going to get built, or whatever—you might still decide not to take part in it, for reasons having nothing to do with a misplaced belief that your actions, in particular are going to change the big-picture outcome.

Aside from just being arrogant—your odds of being an irreplaceable cog in the machine are very low—basing your morality on a hypothetical big-picture effect rather than some sort of internal abstract calculus is fragile. What happens to the person who takes a 'principled' stand just because they think it will make a difference, only to see themselves trivially replaced and the project move forward anyway? I think that's the person who's more at risk to say "fuck it, who cares" the next time around.

In contrast, the person who knows and has already accepted the fact that their personal participation or lack thereof will have zero measurable outcome when the history books are written, but decides what they will or won't do based on their own moral code, is unlikely to be surprised or swayed when the apparent futility is demonstrated. They're not going to work on the first Death Star, and they're not going to work on the second or third one, either.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:13 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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