Over the next several weeks here on Felt & Wire, we’ll be celebrating the Makers of our Mohawk Maker Quarterly Issue 4. To kick off this series, we’ve interviewed Michael Rock, co-founder of 2×4, a global design consultancy headquartered in New York City. Michael is featured in our community issue of the Quarterly, and shares with us his insights on design and community.
What is the most important part of what you do as a designer? How do you share that with the world?
We live in an era wherein design has become the central metaphor. Since everything is designed — from genes to global alliances — everything is fair game for the designer. Design describes a kind of planning: all the possible knowns, and anticipated unknowns, of a condition are considered and a course of action is mapped out with the intention of achieving a specific end. I think design today can achieve two complimentary ends. It can focus resources — material and intellectual — to shape human experiences from the most minute to the most communal. And it can focus attention to make commentary and provide insight into conditions that govern our lives. I try to keep both those ends in mind when working. As to sharing it with the world, all our work is in the public realm so it is naturally shared.
How did the idea for your studio come to be?
2×4 started very organically, three designers/friends sharing a studio space. I would say the “idea” of the studio didn’t emerge until a couple of years after we started. At that point the three of us started to have conversations about what we wanted to do, the kind of work we wanted to engage in, etc. We were quite explicit: we wanted to work internationally, across disciplines and media, in multiple technologies, and for both commercial and cultural concerns. We said at the time we wanted to be a supermarket not a boutique and we have stayed pretty true to that mission.
In the Quarterly, you talk about the importance of designed things (media) influencing the creation of community. How has that affected your work? Do you see this as a good or bad thing?
I am often asked after I give lectures, some of which describe quite complex contemporary cultural conditions, if I see the situation I am describing as good or bad. I rarely, however, look at the world in such terms. Regarding the fact that media has an effect on the formation of community is neither good nor bad, it simply is. In fact, I believe it has always been the case. Both the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire were in a large part “imagined communities” formed by the consumption of media — and a common official language — determined by the power structure at the center. The historian Benedict Anderson has written in depth about the effect of national newspapers on the determination of national identification. Media reflects us, thus we are drawn by the reflections that feel most apt. The fact that designers of media come to embody that process, sometimes unconsciously, is not surprising. The only difference I see now is that technology has allowed us to use very precise data to hone the process. The danger there is that those in control of the data have enormous power and insight into the habits of the public.
What do you see for the future of community and media?
There are two competing situations that will arise. One is that Big Data will increasingly collate the public into increasingly refined segments and direct tailored messages that exploit shared values. (We already see this happening in the management of political campaigns wherein common issues can be exploited without regard for geographic affinity.) The other is that access to the internet will allow obscure fringe communities to coalesce: the continued development of communities based on affinity rather than communities based on location. One is top down, the other bottom up, and both are very significant. The reason why so-called “Net Neutrality” is such an important issue is that it represents the top-down attempt to dominate the bottom-up use of the internet. Both are about the discovery of specific communities and exploiting their ubiquity.