Thursday, September 3, 2009

Parasitism in design

Humans have a tendency to see parallels in the world we create and the natural world, hence the many expressions and metaphors we use with reference to nature and natural occurrences। Concepts and expressions like "when it rains it pours " and “the lions share” come about through what we observe in nature. Our habit of "naturalizing" things man made (like language) not only helps us to understand how things work, but is also a part of a universal logic that rules everything around us. Just as terms like "survival of the fittest" and "bull and bear market" can be applied to different phenomena in business, so design can to be seen in a more holistic terms. Objects and the design field as a whole should always be looked at in the context of the greater scheme of things. In this sense, a vase shouldn't be viewed as an entity on its own. It should rather be viewed as part of its environment; i.e. on a side table, in a living room, in an apartment, in a complex, on a street, in a neighborhood, in a city, in a province, in a country, and so on until we see its place in the universe. This description of how objects should be viewed, while long winded, is necessary in order to understand the context of an object and how it relates to other entities, and as an extension, how the field of design reflects the reality of the universe.

Parallels can be drawn between different systems in existence, including those we create as humans। Let us take the example of how the natural law of survival of the fittest is reflected in the human field of business. Just as evolution requires for the survival of the fittest, so business is ruthless in its competition which sees only the best adapted companies surviving. Of course, what constitutes as "the fittest" is not easily defined. It does not necessarily mean that the most powerful will survive while the meek die out. Clown fish, for instance, would not live long in shark infested waters, but they have found a niche in hiding amongst poisonous anemones. In the same way businesses can survive, and indeed prosper, by not being big but instead appealing to niche markets.

Another parallel that can be drawn between nature and a facet of human life is the presence of symbiosis in design. "Symbiosis" is described as close and often long-term interactions between different biological species[1]. For our purposes here, it is important to note that it refers to different species which have a close relationship, rather than members of the same species. As such, chimpanzees which groom each other can't be considered to be in a symbiotic relationship since they are of the same species, whereas the previously mentioned clown fish and sea anemone can. Symbiotic relationships can be seen as being mutualistic, parasitic, or commensal in nature [2]। In mutualism, both organisms benefit (bees pollinating flowers), commensalism only one benefits while the other is not harmed (mites using other insects for transport), but in parasitism one organism benefits to the other's detriment (mosquitoes feeding on humans).

Symbiosis in Business
These different kinds of relationships can be seen in the very integrated field of business, too। Mutualism occurs when two or more businesses interact for their common benefit. The partnership between ATT and Apple means that iPhones are only sold with ATT contracts, allowing ATT to benefit from the popularity of iPhones while the partnership allows Apple to implement new services like "Visual Voicemail" that it could not have without cooperation from a service provider[3]. Commensalism takes place when a company piggybacks on another, without affecting its sales or reputation either negatively or positively. Taking Apple as an example again, companies that sell covers for iPods are in a commensal relationship with Apple. Sponsorships can sometimes be considered as being commensal, but only when the sponsor does not gain good publicity from the act. Parasitism in business has always been around with companies copying successful ones and stealing customers with lower prices. Often successful restaurants are copied, sometimes in name and sometimes in their entire business model, sometimes even opening right next door to the originals. If for instance a restaurant calling itself KFG and selling fried chicken opens near a KFC, it could be considered a parasite.

Symbiosis in Design
Symbiosis appears in design too। Many objects and products can be seen to have symbiotic relationships. But before we start exploring these, we need to define what qualifies as a symbiotic relationship for objects. Just as organisms in symbiotic relationships are of different species, so objects in these relationships also need to be separate entities. Different parts of an object which are essential to it functioning can't be seen to have this kind of relationship since they are in essence one "organism." Tyres and rims are part of the animal that is a car, and as such not individuals. But books and a bookcase are in a symbiotic relationship as they are unattached objects which are able to function without each other.

Let us now consider the different types of symbiotic relationships that appear in design। Mutualism can be seen in design when two individual objects complement each other and both benefit from the relationship। A hairdryer and a brush can be used together to help a user both dry their hair and style it at the same time। Hair is dried faster, improving the effectiveness of the dryer, and styled better allowing the brush to perform its function better।

Commensalism also exists in design। Certain products don't really benefit much from a relationship with another, which does। An example of this would be a work lamp clamped onto a desk। The desk can perform its function perfectly without the lamp, even though a user might benefit from the extra light; but the lamp needs the desk for height and support। In the same way, cell phones do not really benefit from the addition of charms to them, but charms gain a reason for existence from being attached to a cell phone।

One aspect of symbiotic relationships which is less well represented in design is that of parasitism। The main reason for this is the negative connotations that come with parasitism since it requires that one object is disadvantaged by another. Such a negative result from a relationship is not something that any designer would be proud of as the value of the "parasite" comes at the expense of another. It usually occurs through illegal or unethical products, such as when a design is copied and then sold as an original. As we have seen with Apple products in recent years, many copycats have emerged. The copies are often reverse engineered from the originals; saving on development costs, piggybacking on their success and resulting in a loss of profit from the original developer. Another more visible way that parasitism can be seen in our lives, especially in Taiwan, is the presence of illegal rooftop apartments and shop extensions. The extensions gain support and space from the building they are built on after it has been erected, without giving anything back in return. As these extensions are built after the initial building has already been completed, allowance has not been made for their structure, and so they are a hazard especially when typhoons and earthquakes strike. In addition to this they, have a negative effect on the drainage of the "host" and damage its aesthetics. All of these factors add up to classify these extensions as parasites.

But must a parasitic product necessarily be seen as a negative? After all, even though parasites are detrimental to an individual organism, they can have a positive effect on an ecosystem as a whole by, for instance, keeping a population in control[4]। In the same way, a parasitic product may harm another while actually being of benefit to the user। By understanding how parasitism works and what benefits can be gained from it, we can better understand the relationships between different objects and ethics in design.

[1] http://en।

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