Skip Navigation

2013 Winter Issue 4 (February 8, 2013)

Jony Ive, Richard Feynman, and Michel Foucault Walk Into a Bar

February 13, 2013
By Stuart Urback

And Stuart wishes he was walking with them...  

Quick aside: the Liberal Arts student in me must first admit to the fact that all three of these individuals are white men giving a rather one-dimensional view of the subject at hand. However, I think as archetypes for the types of themes I will be talking about, any number of different individuals would work; these three just happen to be personal heroes of mine.

So why would Ive, Feynman, and Foucault go into a theoretical bar?  Obviously to fulfill my need to explain the differences between methodology, field, and discipline. Ive is the designer, Feynman the Physicist, and Foucault the humanist. However, the bartender asks them to solve a problem, a problem that affected all of them: Where does alcohol come from?

However, the mythical bartender says they are not allowed to solve the problem in the field or methodology to which they were accustomed.  So Jony Ive solves the challenge in the humanistic field with a scientific methodology.  Richard Feynman solves the problem in the design field, using a humanistic methodology.  Finally, Michel Foucault, the scientist, uses a scientific field with a design methodology.  

And, the reason for this competition was to show how things like humanities, sciences, and design are actually massive hierarchies that contain many smaller functions and ideas.  Back to the problem.

Ive quickly gets to work developing an experimental paradigm, positing questions and answering them by collecting documents, conducting interviews and building understandings based on linguistic communication.

The paradigm he uses is focused and specific, emphasizing repeatability even though the focus is on a humanistic enterprise.  Because the focus is humanistic he will look at the relationship between social groups and alcohol.  If this sounds familiar it’s because I’m describing something akin to Anthropology and Ethnography.  However, there’s a part I haven’t mentioned: Ive is a designer so he has a different perspective and focus.  As a designer he will look at the subject as a series of systems and interfaces to build his understandings.

Feynman uses a research and “writing” based methodology to understand why humans don’t fly.  But, because he is working in the field of design, instead of writing after his research, he will sketch out and construct prototypes to understand how alcohol is developed.  Rather than the specific repeatability of the tests, using a humanistic methodology, Feynman continues to do research until he felt that the result fit into the context of previous research he was trying to build on.  However, Feynman being Feynman means he is also a physicist, so he will focus on the attributes and interactions of alcohol, what it is fundamentally made of and how it is defined.

Foucault, while grumbling, uses a design-based, iterative methodology to construct an understanding of alcohol.  This means he follows a number of steps including defining, collecting, brainstorming, developing, incorporating feedback, and improving and then redefining, recollecting, reanalyzing, redeveloping, and reincorporating new feedback in order to improve the result.  However, much to his dislike, Foucault is required to do this within the field of science, so he has to produce a result that is verifiable using repeatable steps, so he must document and notate every step and every iteration in the process.  However, as a humanist, he is looking at it for the meanings and connections that result from the creation of alcohol, even as he is producing a scientific paper.

So why does all of this matter?  Aside from the hilarity of imagining Foucault using a design methodology to produce a work of scientific research, the point of this entire thought experiment is to prove that what we often consider methodology, field, and discipline are all a part of a single package, the major, whether it is history, physics, anthropology, computer science, studio art, etc. We think of methodology, field, and discipline are inseparable, that to dissociate one from the other is to destroy the essence of what it means to hold the identity of a practitioner of a field.

But I disagree.  Feynman is a still a physicist when he designs using a humanistic methodology and Ive is still a designer even when he is using the scientific method to construct a humanistic argument.  Identities are made up of perspectives on which we view the world.  These perspectives are shaped by the methodologies we are taught and the field we are taught within, but they remain regardless of the fields we move into and the methodologies we utilize.  I’m not sure if it means that majors can be completely broken down into their requisite parts but I do think it means that these different methodologies, fields, and disciplines interact with each other on a much deeper level than the apparent connections of subject matter and practice than is immediately apparent.

So what happens when Ive, Foucault, and Feynman walk into a bar? They drink.

Add a comment

Please login to comment.