Leveraging Tension

The Critical Engineering Manifesto is bold. It is a clear cut, no bullshit declaration of how critical engineers should have a moral understanding and explicit control in the work that they create. I think it is really important that standards like these are considered or even reflected on for all makers of any kind. Whether or not you implement in your work the manifesto to its purest degree, working on something that is detrimental or harmful only hinders society’s progression. And making things blindly is almost equally bad, because you aren’t actively considering the implications that your creation may have. (the word codemonkey comes to mind here). Thus having something like this manifesto is truly important because it shows that there are those who declare and acknowledge that there is a true responsibility in the role of all makers.

When I looked Julian Oliver and Danja Vasilev’s work you can see how it supports the manifesto but how it also has a creativity and artistic symbolism in the materialization of their products and work. It bridges form and metaphors in a powerful way. I thought Aisling’s point “the act of criticality has very much bee a part of artistic practice”, truly shown through with the various examples of both of these critical engineers. But I think this work also bridged nicely to Aisling’s statement that “rather than just conceiving of the role of the human as primarily to increase the efficiency of an algorithm or facilitate a transaction, we can adopt a more radical position and and consider the human also as an active and subversive force.”  This I think is really powerful because it implies that there is a potential to utilize the force of “the human” not by pleasing are creating the more “friendly” or practical thing, but rather by leveraging tension and provocative reflection/response to ignite modifications in society.

Exploit and Exposure

“Everything is going to be alright” is no longer a phrase that exists within the glossary of a critical practitioner. There may be no right, there may be no easy truths, but all will be revealed and all will be reflected upon.

After reading the Critical Engineering Manifesto, I feel as if I’ve been just been warned. What is coming? An oncoming revolution? A new paradigm? The truth is that it seems these movements have been here, I suppose just “unevenly distributed” for some time. Regardless, hide your disciplines and hide your techno-social dependencies, because the critical engineers are coming to break down your firewalls and expose all of your dirty passwords. If I’m being overly facetious, sue me–better yet, exploit me.

Of course, there exists validity in what Oliver & Vasiliev claim. Separate from the somewhat forceful-tone, I applaud this manifesto. My only concern is that they’ve limited their scope to the language of disciplines, where, very clearly “art, architecture, activism, philosphy, and invention” are all distinguished from “engineering”. I’m not impressed this segregation. This manifesto reads powerfully, it’s written potently, but until it accepts our stance in a post-disciplinary future, I’m unable to engage in tireless debate/discussion surrounding the various praxes we comfort ourselves with.

Design as Liberation

I am excited that critical engineering is being practiced. I am a believer that everything is designed and everyone is a designer. I support the application of creative methodology in any field. It allows for the design and creation of things outside of the preferable future. It supports the provocative nature of critical design that drives socio-political change in the present.

The ability for any profession to create beyond its for-profit industry requirements is liberating and I am glad that Oliver, Savičić and Vasiliev have provided a precedent and manifesto for critical engineers to follow and expand on. I’m not an engineer but I can relate to these practices in my own work as a designer, and that transdisciplinary value is what makes them powerful.


Tropes are known as patterns in media and perhaps society, but tropisms are the tendencies for some systems to respond to specific stimuli. e.g. Heliotropism is when plants turn toward or away from the sun on purpose. Both terms come from the greek τρόπος, meaning turning to or following.

Much of Julian Oliver’s work, in particular things like the Snowden Templates seem to offer a meeting of these two definitions in what we could possibly call Tropetropism. This project relies on the trope of CIA or NSA presentations that tend to summarize some nefarious wiretapping activity with overcrowded slides with understated captions. By capitalizing on this pattern that is known to many people regardless of their interest in his work, Oliver tricks us into an alternative framing of the information at hand.

In the same way, much of the work we have discussed seams to use recognizable or imaginable patterns to help us see a specific perspective, not intended by the pattern, but orchestrated by the curator who exposes the pattern to us in a specific context. The tropes of our current world become the signal of our future and give us a tool to comment with. As the Critical Engineering Manifesto points out, exploiting our world is a desirable way to expose it for what it is.

Critical Engineering

It is almost funny to find that critical design and critical engineering are defined so similarly. The only difference seems to be that critical engineering focuses more on revealing technology than human behavior or future habits. Another thing I notice while looking through Oliver’s and Vasiliev’s work is that it seems to be small scale. I think their project make very important points that could create really interesting conversation, but how much  are these projects (and other critical design/engineering) really getting viewed and making an impact? I have a feeling that unless you are looking for it, it is invisible.

So then it really seems like a marketing problem, doesn’t it? Oliver and Vasiliev are making some really cool and interesting things that a lot of people would want to make too or at least say something about it. What I especially like about critical engineering is that it seems to live outside of an exhibit and in the real world. So then isn’t this an opportunity to “trick” the media into promoting it and getting it to go viral? Or maybe it has and I have lived under a rock. Either way, a common theme of these readings is that these critical practices are meant to spark discussion and there are issues getting people involved in that discussion and it seems almost too easy to take the first steps to solve that problem.

Presentation and Persistence

Having made my way through Revell’s lecture, it’s become apparent that the persistence of SCD to distinguish itself from other fields of (and around) design emerges from its greatest proponent’s presentations. What I mean is that Revell’s lecture, whilst thorough and quite well-referenced, still manages to come off a bit ‘quick’, though not necessarily “hand-wavy”. Of course, this interpretation may easily be the result of having ready through it in under an hour, rather than having heard it in it’s original 2-hour glory. But alas, tha may just be the point. Revell’s lecture is quite informative to read, but I would also imagine it being quite exhausting to sit through. Why? More specifically, why did Revell need to persist through nearly every definition, example, and expertise of SCD? Perhaps it’s because it’s to build credibility for the discipline (or his own credentials), but perhaps it’s because without so many examples, without a “history”, an audience may simply not “get it”. That’s alright, the field has an arguably short history, compared to other subsets of the design discipline–but this brings me to another (almost counter-) point: still, despite its short history, it’s been persistent so long, it’s beginning to prevail, and no longer just within the walls of the RCA. Audiences are interested. Designers are interested. As such, whilst Revell’s extensive notations are of great investment for any individual to learn more, it’s his pacing through the various terms, definitions, examples, and expertises of SCD that we learn more from.


I’m conflicted. I really, really like the practice of design fiction / speculative design, but I dislike the attempts of social and political disruptions that seem to go along with it. I don’t want to engage in discussions of possible/probable/preferable outcomes and ethics and responsibility. I don’t have an innate desire to stick it to The Man. I just want to make the future.

I took a modern art history course in my fourth year of undergrad, and I left each lecture annoyed and angry. The selfishness that went along with the selfless pursuit of new forms of art disgusted me. The single-minded vigilantist search to expose “the truth”, and the disregard of consequence for the holders of that truth when exposed, made me disappointed in that subculture of humanity. I feel a little bad saying it, but I’m beginning to feel the same way about the heroes of this hacker movement.