Monday, July 12, 2010

Book review: "Designing Things" by Prasad Boradkar

It is always nice to find a new book with an intriguing title that resonates with ones own interests. That happened when I recently found the book "Designing Things - A critical introduction to the culture of objects" by Prasad Boradkar.

This is one book in a growing stream of writings focused on 'things', objects, and artifacts. There seems to be an increasing interest in the material world and especially in the world that consists of designed objects. There exists of course a long history of  research and studies with the 'thing' in focus, but never with the same intensity and richness as right now.

Boradkar has written a book that takes this growing interest in material things as a starting point. The book is presented as providing a 'map of the rapidly changing field of design studies'. Boradkar does indeed present a 'map'.  Even though there is an underlying theoretical perspective that the author favors, most of the book, with its different chapters, presents a large number of perspectives of 'things' and existing theories and approaches common within each of these.

Boradkar sets out to give an overview of how 'things' have been theorized over time. For instance, he presents a section called 'A brief history of the philosophy of things'. In about twelve pages he goes through the history from 'Thales to Verbeek'. I find the selection of thinkers to be appropriate and relevant and also in line with my own thinking, however the section is so short that it becomes more a brief abstract. I think that it will be quite difficult to understand and to get something out of this overview for those who are not already knowledgeable of this literature.

After this first chapter, 'Theorizing Things' which is a nice overview, Boradkar continues with eight chapters each devoted to one particular aspect of things. These aspects are: values, labor, production, aesthetics, needs, consumption and sustainability, objects as signs, and obsession of possession. In each of these chapters the author presents the most common theories, ideas, and work that have been done over time when it comes to that particular aspect of 'things'.

Even though I was quite excited to find the book, I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed. I was expecting some kind of critical analysis, a developed philosophical perspective, but the book does not provide any of that. It is instead a 'map' as it is presented as. Even though the author in the introduction does take a stand and positions himslef in a broader philosophical landscape (as a thinker within the general philosophy of Latour, Harman, and Verbeek) the the rest of the book is more a textbook that presents a large number of theories, models, frameworks, and ideas in a way that is quite introductory and without any serious critical analysis.

It is obvious that the author has not intended to present any emerging larger argument concerning the nature of philosophy of 'things' that would find a place in any existing discourse. When reading the book the author becomes more and more invisible the longer I read. In the introduction and first chapter there are attemtps at making a case, at pursuing and developing an argument, but this gets lost in the rest of the book and a textbook language takes over.

Anyhow, apart from not being a philosophical contribution,  the book can probably be quite valuable for anyone who is interested in how to think and analyze 'things' and do not know where to begin. The different chapters might help in finding out what aspect of 'thing'-studies might be of personal interest. The chapters also give the reader a good starting point when it comes to what to read. It is obvious that the author has a good knowledge of a large landscape of ideas and theories related to the 'culture of objects'.

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