Self Design; Then, Now, and Tomorrow

  • September 6th, 2017
  • ethnography, data ownership

The internet began as, and still is a decentralized network by design. In the early days a persons’ data often resided on a server they owned and maintained. Communities were formed by organically hyperlinking from one users’ server to another.

Hosted services emerged as the internet grew. These were useful for many reasons, including the elimination of maintaining your own server.

This had the side effect of causing the internet, which was highly distributed, to become increasingly centralized around these services as they scaled into the megaservices we now know today.

This fact is nothing unfamiliar to those of us with an understanding of network infrastructure, but is often abstracted away for the general user behind design decisions of increasingly questionable ethical intent.


To think about this, it is useful to revisit Enzo Mari, an Italian furniture designer, who in the 1970s self-published a pamphlet of furniture designs. You would mail a request (including postage) to his studio, and receive a free collection of designs—a precursor of today’s “open source” culture. Of course you can now order it through Amazon, or download the PDF.

An elementary technique to teach anyone to look at present production with a critical eye.

Each piece can be constructed using the most common materials available; cheap knotty pinewood, a handsaw, hammer, and nails. Common lengths of wood are utilized, and when a cut is required, it is repeated in order to limit the number of different lengths. If unable to cut the material yourself, you could send away for a kit (no longer available), or go to your local lumber yard to easily have the necessary cuts made for you.

The intention was not to replace, but to critique the means of furniture production of that day, and elevate the public understanding of those means. If the consumer knew how to recognize a good chair through experience it would assist in creating a demand for better chairs.

Literally it means auto = self and progettazione = design. But the term ‘self design’ is misleading since the word ‘design’ to the general public now signifies a series of superficially decorative objects.

The project is called Autoprogettazione, which loosely translates to self design. It is important to note the difference between self design and “DIY”, which implies a hobbyist activity. Self design promotes understanding and questions the ceremonial reverence a commercial transaction has in legitimizing an object.

A chair you’ve made is no less a chair than one you have purchased, and is arguably closer to truly being your chair.


Applying this technique of criticism to the technology we now interact with everyday, what form does it take? How would one learn to recognize when and how a product or service is benefiting or harming them?

Just as Autoprogettazione utilized common materials for furniture, what is the material of everyday technology, like social media and other forms of publishing? Is it possible to scale the technique with the internet? How can services be created which are immediately usable, but extendable and swappable to avoid the pitfalls of walled-gardens?


As our identities become increasingly entangled with our data, and we accelerate towards inhabiting the virtual landscapes of augmented and virtual reality, how do we engage with technology and the awareness that it is being developed to first benefit shareholders who profit off our attention, and is in no way neutral?

For those creating platforms and tools, there are clear decisions to be made.