Viagra and design thinking, technologies of agency?

I can only assume that media planners figure IDEO fans are men. That’s my guess from watching the recent 60 minutes profile of IDEO’s David Kelley (several times…research!). The first time I was presented with a Viagra ad, which I’ll return to in a moment. The second time, an arthritis ad featuring golfer Phil Mickelson. Both ads directed me to Golf Magazine for more information and then let me move on to my Charlie Rose interview.

The interview profiled IDEO co-founder David Kelley and his Palo Alto company IDEO. We learned about the importance of diversity in breakthrough creativity — anthropologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and business people, almost exclusively (it so happens) white, get together and talk across their domains of professionalized knowledge and liberal and technical educations. Not the only definition of diversity out there, but one to watch out for. Diversity doesn’t actually mean people from different class backgrounds or different social positionalities here. Diversity means people educated in different ways, but educated well with the “creative confidence” to meet the toughest challenges.

Kelley then tells a story of working on an early Apple mouse with Steve Jobs at Apple. The two became good friends, Kelley tells Rose.  Kelley on Jobs:

Kelley: “He would call me at 3am!”

Rose: “At 3am.”

Kelley: “We were bachelors so he knew he could call me. Right? So he’d call me at 3 o’clock, ‘hey it’s Steve.’ At 3 o’clock, I knew it was him. He’d just start, ‘you know those screws we’d use to hold those two things on the inside?’ He was deep!”

This story caught my ear as a story of creativity, as a story of economic production, and a story of masculinity. Kelley and Jobs are bachelors so they can devote their every moment of consciousness and responsiveness to the possibility of a creative project — here, the mouse. And in a world where collaboration is the key to creativity, there are no family accountabilities (women for Jobs and Kelley, though it need not be heterosexual I suppose) to fetter the creative feedback loops and produced momentum of brainstorms and productive development.

The story reminded me of my time working at Google. I went home for the evening once to find that my 23-year old teammates had made big product decisions while rock climbing together the night before. When I argued we should make big decisions at a more inclusive time and place, the product manager retorted “What? You want us to control when we come up with ideas?”

Romantic creativity and radical inclusivity seem irreconcilable here.

The Viagra commercial running with IDEO feature, viewable on YouTube, was itself a call to masculine confidence and creativity. The ad is called “The Age Where Giving Up Isn’t Who You Are.” The ad shows a grey, dusky solitary beach and an attractive, blue-eyed, aged man trying to start a fire. The wood is collected and piled, waiting for the spark. He pulls out his lighter, the manufactured and engineered tool for the job, and tries to flick it on. A part falls off of the head. The man looks slightly frustrated. “You’re at an age where giving up isn’t who you are. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in your way?” The protagonist goes to his toolbox, grabs a wood-paneled and brass pocketknife, and strikes the knife against the rock to spark a flame. His creative confidence meant that he didn’t give up in the face of technological failure. As soon as he lit the fire, a darkened tent 30 feet away lights up revealing the silhouette of a woman spreading out a bed on the ground.

The beneficiary of the fire on many levels?

So what does the masculinity have to do with IDEO? There are lots of women at IDEO, though I’m not sure of the percentages, so this isn’t a population representation problem. Rather, the masculine narratives we hear through these design stories (and the stories of ingenuity that associate themselves with design) often feature men, often feature heroes, and often feature the power of the idea as something that creates broader value absent of the labor or consumption it requires. Hence someone lighting the fire with creativity, and the wood burned is just found on a beach open for the taking and the labor of the knife is irrelevant. Hence a hero story on 60 minutes telling the story of a Steve Jobs and David Kelley as charismatic leaders and gurus with a lesson about thinking and caring creatives as the path to solutions, actual labor of change nowhere to be found.

What kinds of agency are recognizable here? And why are other kinds of agencies suppressed, hidden, or without consequence?

See also: Spacejump is about male enhancement for another cut through the question of technological progress and human agency

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6 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    I think I probably need to read masculinity studies or something. I’m definitely doing feminism by studying men most of the time! Ah that old computer science scene…

  2. zelda says:

    It’s an interesting question. I find that I am generally somewhat resistant to mandated linguistic change: it always appears to me with an Orwellian shadow, no matter how well-intentioned. In part because banishing any word — ditching crippled for disabled, for example — often fails to acknowledge how complex words and their histories of usage really are. And I feel this way even about some of the terrible words that are used towards women. So while I accept that the necessity for this does arise, I’m rarely altogether happy about it.

    With respect to inspiration, I suspect I have fewer negative associations than you do with this word. Partly because I connect it to its etymological roots in breathing (spirare) rather than to light-based imagery. It contains an idea of the spirit (of the world, of the gods) flowing in and thereby uniting the self/soul with the larger universe; it is an image of connection and porosity that does not imply the destructive transformations of fire imagery. It has loose affinities with things like rapture, ecstasy, grace, and what is nowadays termed ‘the flow’. While abduction may have less baggage in the Pearcean sense you mention, it still has a lot of baggage in other ways: the abduction of children and women is hardly an image I’d want to associate with creativity.

    I thought your Viagra commercial analysis was right on the money, by the way. And it nicely demonstrates one of the problems that continues to haunt western art: the enduring tropes we draw from Greek mythology, nearly all of which feature male heroes and subjected women. It’s a great and rich legacy of stories when you delve into it, but one that can be very hard for women to work with.

  3. Lilly says:

    Zelda, thanks for your caution. It got me thinking more carefully. When I think about the value on inspiration, I think more broadly of abduction — this idea that Pearce had about the insight or hunch people develop based on what they know of a situation, but not reducible to what is known either. It’s a bit of a creative leap. Abductions can be anything from a big romantic flash of an image to be sketched and filled in to figuring out how to deal with a broken shoelace. (As I understand it so far anyways.) Abduction has a lot less cultural baggage than inspiration tends to have these days.

    In the viagra commercial, inspiration is matched with lighting a fire. The idea literally creates environmental transformation and social surplus as a benefit. In my fieldwork, a design professor routinely invoked fire as an example of the first design — that promethean moment where humanity gets the ability to cook and survive in the cold, except that instead of stealing fire, these men are inventing it. The imagery of the spark (which I heard just today in SF with friends) that sets of the social change is another figure of fire, inspiration, and social transformation. Latour knows what he’s talking about when he talks about designers as the cautious prometheus, and he’s not talking about mass production and cad modelers that make design sketches into viable products.

    Do you think inspiration is worth holding onto as a phrase rather than a more technical one, like abduction?

  4. zelda says:

    I think we should be careful not to reject the possibility that creative inspiration can come out of seemingly nowhere, at unexpected times and places. To value this aspect of life is not to permalink it with romantic masculinity (the logos light that only shines on those wearing cowboy boots). Even less is it to say that the flash of inspiration and the decision what to do with that idea are necessarily one and the same. What I see in the rock-climbing story is not a cautionary tale about how ideas come to us, but about how exclusion zones are set up that shape participation in all stages of the process, from first sharing (hey I got this great idea….) to the long and difficult honing and making real. Not only are there very good practical reasons for making this process inclusive, but doing so will also generate even more, and often better, ideas.

  5. Lilly says:

    Wow, Maura! Thanks for making the connection to Turrell’s work! The inner light seems very unsociological and romantic. Fred Turner has a paper on romantic autonomism — collaborations between cybernetics influenced artists and the labor movement — where he talks about art making models focused more on participation, connection, and partnership (Journal of Visual Culture, 2008). The images of design thinking / viagra here are very much the opposite — the unencumbered creatives gaining confidence in their light and rocking the world.

  6. Maura Brewer says:

    All this talk about light, fire and erectile dysfunction is reminding me of the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA, which I went to see last week. It’s this massive technological spectacle, (really) expensive to get in, and visually stunning.

    The exhibition catalog features an essay by Michael Govan called “Inner Light,” in which Govan discusses how our experience of the world is essentially subjective, shaped by “the ‘inner light’ of our own perception.” Light is a metaphor for pure, unfettered thought, literally the flash of inspiration, like the fire-builder in your Viagra commercial.

    Here’s a quote from Turrell, taken from the Govan essay, “Light is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation.” This work isn’t about depicting anything, it’s the opposite – the freedom to depict nothing. So what aren’t we depicting? The labor costs and investment of capital and the technological apparatus itself, which is carefully kept out of view, among other things. Combined with the multiple photographs of Turrell wandering around the dessert in his cowboy hat, and this starts looking like a particularly virile brand of mysticism.