Friday, May 11, 2007

Musings on the 'other 90%'

It was with glee that I initially read about an exhibition that opened this month at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The exhibition titled "Design for the other 90%" highlights the trend among enterprising designers to create affordable and socially responsible objects for 90% of the world’s population that may not have the creature comforts that the rest of us are used to... This is certainly commendable that these entrepreneurs are out there thinking about the 'other 90%'. On reflecting a little more on the term 'other 90%' it struck me as being excessively paternalistic and smacked of a little bit of condescension by the smug 10%.

My nascent thoughts were further solidified when I ran into the following story by Binyavanga Wainaina (editor of Kwani? - an African literary magazine...) this morning when his essay in the June issue of Harpers caught my eye. I have reproduced a part of the essay here. Read it till the very end... It makes you think.

"I once won a windup radio. I was living in South Africa, and had entered a radio competition coming up with some witty slogan. I received the radio gratefully. I was happy to discover that my radio was perfect. The winding up did not require much muscle power. The radio lasted for ages. It looked retro and retro was starting to look rather good to me. This was the early 90s. I was very broke at the time. My new possession offered me a way to imagine myself: a suffering saint, a frugal writer with his frugal radio. Frugal, not impoverished. Certainly not a failure. My radio lent nobility to being broke.

It also lent nobility to ingenuity. It was invented by Trevor Baylis, a kindly English swimming pool salesman who had seen a program about AIDS in Africa on the TV. Radio was the best way to educate people about the disease, he learned, but electricity was unreliable and batteries were expensive. "There was a need for an educational tool that did not rely on electricity... [and] Trevor picked up on the word 'need.'" His windup radio was the perfect invention for its stated purpose, and it received several awards from the BBC, including Best Product Design. It also won Baylis an Order of the British Empire. He was all over South African television and radio.

I don't know what became of it. I lost track of the thing about the time I moved. I had made a small killing in some dodgy marketing deal, so I bought new clothes, packed up, and moved to Cape Town. You didn't hear anything about the windup radio after a while, and I didn't know anyone else who had one.

But Baylis's Freeplay Radios still exist. You will find them among new age fisher folk in Oregon; neo blue-collar sculptors working out of lofts in postindustrial cities; back to earthers in Alberta; Social Forum activists and neo Grizzly Adams types everywhere. Angst ridden victims, all. But the enthusiasts of the windup radio suffer not from poverty or lack of information but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information.
They are the only people who can find nobility in a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are fucked."

Picture above: Ceramic Water Filter, Cambodia Designers: Dr. Fernando Mazariegos, Ron Rivera (Potters for Peace), and International Development Enterprises (IDE) Cambodia Manufacturer: Local private factory set up by IDE Cambodia, 2006 Ceramic clay, plastic container, colloidal silver paint Dimensions: 3.5’ h x 2’ w x 2’ d. Image ripped from the museum website.


Sally said...

that's a good read about the wind-up radio!...and interesting to hear about the 'other 90% project.'you're right it does sound like condescension... but well intended, so good on them for making an effort.

Thanks for posting.

Sunil said...

Yes, it is well intended and I salute the people who have taken the trouble to go ahead and apply their ingenuity to create works of practical use, but when I reflected on the essay a bit, the condescension came down full force. Of course some of the articles at the exhibition also tend to further accentuate the fact that they are living in abysmal conditions with little hope of escaping the environment (almost like a product of the conditions that you are born into – like it or not) - which is what the last line in the essay stated...

By the way, your portraits are comfortable. I enjoyed looking at them.