In a session called Digital Futures, Paul Caplan finished off Contemporary Issues today with the appropriate amount of volume, energy and aplomb that every finale lecture of a module should have. This is no mean feat considering the session was based on a fairly dense but not-so-intimidating-after-all bit of theory about Power and Truth from French philosopher, Michel Foucault [pictured on the left].

No technology, hardware or software, is neutral, argues Paul. A device like the iPad may seem like a pretty innocent, albeit sexy, looking piece of machinery; however, the resources and labour that goes into making the material, physical iPad device involves mining special ores, metals, extensive but faraway Fordist-style production lines in its Foxconn factories. Far more than simply a cold metal object in our hands, the iPad is linked to a vast material world, a city in fact, of 240,000 workers whose labour is dedicated to the making of this object. And when the iPad makes way for iPad2, iPad3 and iPad4, these discarded devices get sent to developing countries as e-waste. Now this stuff isn’t bio-degradable. If and when e-waste gets incinerated, it may release toxic chemicals such as mercury, carbon into the atmosphere.

In other words, Steve Job’s most famous creation yet is clearly a thing with a very real presence in the world and has real impact. On the consumption side of things, the effects of its usage also have concrete impact on the way we communicate, perceive, access, share and create knowledge. Apple’s closed system prevents us from buying music tracks outside of iTunes, prevents us from buying apps outside of the App Store, prevents us from reading the ebooks we design in iAuthor on an Amazon Kindle; we are no longer simply consumers, we are made into subjects: Apple users. Why? For a range of reasons, to sell us more products, to categorize us for advertisers, to subsume every personal detail so that we become invaluable data points for the benefit of few. And as today’s 1st years proved in their 90-second presentations, you can apply this to other objects/interfaces such as Facebook, Google, Twitter,, 4oD, etc. The way we see the world, read the news, do our shopping, socialize and express ourselves on the Internet – our regimes of ‘Truth’ – is now inextricably linked to an elaborate network of digital objects that are not just powerful, but also power-full. They are deeply embedded in a network of power relations.

If this is all starting to sound a bit bleak and conspiracy-ish, it’s because IT IS! Thankfully however, Foucault points out that the status of truth is always and constantly contested and struggled for. Unlike in the age of feudal or sovereign, power today is far more insidious, sophisticated, subtle and difficult to pin down as One Thing. Which means it is not easy to control, regulate or even contain! From a design practitioner’s point of view, the challenge is to understand how and where power operates so that you will learn to manage it to your advantage.

– Cui