Understanding Critical Design

In class we learned about something called critical design. The idea was completely foreign to me at first but after discussing the practice with Marina I now have a better understanding. In a way it kind of reminds me of science fiction. A good science fiction story will change something about the world and then build a story around it, examining the consequences of the altered world. The story itself can help us see our current world or potential future from a new, critical perspective. Similarly, critical design can help us gain a new critical perspective of the world through the design of new objects that are not necessarily useful beyond their ability to make us pause and think. This is closely related to design fiction.

I'd like to do a critical design project for my light pollution topic because doing something like critical design is outside of my comfort zone and I know I learn more when I do things like that.

Let's do this.

First I need to brainstorm some critical design ideas. I thought about it for a while and come up with these ideas:

  • Imagine a world where nobody can see the stars anymore. How would living in such a world impact our culture? Consider cultural artifacts like the song Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Would songs like this be re-written to only refer to things people could see?

  • Design a migration navigation system for birds that provides proper guidance and compensates for the distracting lights from below. Perhaps the birds get a neural implant or wear some kind of helmet, or there is a ground-based signaling device that guides birds away from larger cities. For any of these, what changes to the migration paths would be necessary to best aid the birds?

  • Make a system map showing lighting manufacturers, light pollution sources, influential organizations, and consequences to humans and animal life. OK, not a critical design, but the idea came to me while brainstorming so I wrote it down.

  • Consider a law that gets passed that makes illuminating the night sky illegal. Humans have to provide their own illumination when they walk down the street. Would we wear helmets or hats with shielded lights that do not project any light skyward? What would those look like?

  • Again consider a world where nobody can see the stars anymore. People have to pay to go to outer space to get inspiration or to make wishes. This would become very expensive. Can virtual reality stars serve as a replacement?

Of these ideas the migration navigation system appeals to me the most. It is also the most coherent idea and the one that I now find my brain migrating (sorry...) to. However, most of the research I have done so far has not had much to do with birds. That's OK because I did find a lot of bird related resources so I will adapt quickly.

Bird migration patterns are well studied by the scientific community. Also, there are readily available global light pollution maps. I have started searching for bird migration data. Images with lines all over them are everywhere but for what I want to do I need the data behind those images. After I find the data I can compare the migration routes to the light pollution data. Can I use the light pollution maps to calculate better routes for birds to follow? What would the maps look like? Can I model the death probability based on the amount of light pollution and then calculate the safest route?

With the designed migration routes, what way is best to guide birds along the new paths? With a neural implant? A special light-weight helmet? Strategically placed land-based towers that attract or repel birds?

This project isn't completely far-fetched. We already design terrestrial infrastructure to accommodate land-based animal migration. Why can't we do the same for birds?