Design in the Iron Cage: Part II

10 min read Guest Blogger

Michael Palmyre is a human-centred researcher and designer at Tobias, working across government, health, finance and superannuation sectors. During his talk at UX New Zealand 2017, Michael will discuss if and how we are using design to make the world a more valuable place. Here, he shares his thoughts on design and the concept of the ‘Iron Cage’. 

Welcome to the Iron Cage

You made it.


Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’ concept speaks to how modern society has become bound to technical, economic and mechanical activities that have shaped the lives of individuals who then  —  unaware of the cage they are trapped in  —  reproduce the cage itself.

This, in short, was enabled by a cultural shift that Weber called ‘The Spirit of Capitalism’, where western culture came to see wealth and hard work as standalone virtues. That is: getting rich and working hard became the journey and the destination. What wealth was used for and what people actually worked hard to accomplish was no longer of great importance.

We exemplify this with mottos like ‘get shit done’  —  it doesn’t really matter what ‘shit’ is, as long as you’re doing it.


We further demonstrate this with the fetishism of startup culture, entrepreneurialism and the gospel of hard work. This sees us celebrate people who work endlessly to achieve some abstract notion of success.

‘Successful’ (read: profitable) examples of these cultural narratives are, like Cinderella and rags to riches stories, fairy tales and exceptions. They certainly aren’t the rule. If working hard really was the sure path to wealth, “every woman in Africa would be a millionaire”. 

So, the logic goes, work hard and get shit done because bigger, better things are always just ahead. But, where does this logic get us if we’re not engaging with the costs, outcomes and purpose of this work beyond self-aggrandizing entrepreneurialism, organizational goals and the bizarre measures of Gross Domestic Product and economic growth?

A mundane catastrophe

We’re designing our way to an efficient and convenient apocalypse.

We think of efficiency as something that reduces waste: higher levels of efficiency should result in higher levels of sustainability. But, the opposite tends to occur. Efficiency in design discourse doesn’t result in greater sustainability and less ecological damage. When we make it more efficient to produce things, more convenient to access things and ever easier to use them, we tend to consume things more carelessly and at higher rates. This is what our society encourages, and what our economic engine depends on.

Efficiency in design discourse rarely results in greater sustainability and less ecological damage.

Henry Ford (who apparently never said that thing about ‘faster horses’) solved a transportation problem with the automobile. In doing so, he created one of the biggest problems we’ve ever seen. Emissions, car production and roads have all been very destructive, but mass transportation has increased the velocity and scale of our destructive behavior, thus creating far bigger problems. 

So, clearly Tesla is the answer, right? Well, only if you focus on emissions.

Tesla isn’t challenging capitalism and unsustainable consumerism  —  it’s selling and profiting from a more efficient, green-washed form of the same thing. It solves the problem of ‘emissions’ while simultaneously fueling an ideology of exponential growth  —  which is where the real problem originates. 

Tesla solves the problem of ‘emissions’ while simultaneously fuelling an ideology of exponential growth.

Tesla does this by providing us with a more abundant, efficient and low-cost fuel to power mass transportation and enable us to continue on our destructive path. Cheap, limitless sources of energy don’t result in us doing less, we instead do more of the same.

In celebrating rational solutions like Tesla without engaging with the root problems of our ideology, we make bigger problems. So while we focus on shiny, hyper-connected, battery-powered futures and reduced emissions  —  like people who first celebrated cars focused on prestige and reduced volumes of horse dung  —  we ignore the other costs found in the supply chain like unethical cobalt that fuels war and uses child labor to create profit.

This is what happens when we rationalize using economic reason.michael-palmyre-uxnz-7.png

Elizabeth Shove argues that we are incredibly effective at becoming more efficient, but that we aren’t effective in reducing demand. The problem with efficiency, she says: “is that it maintains the status quo, and in doing so helps perpetuate unsustainable ways of life”.

The solution can’t be ‘more electric cars’ when the problem isn’t just about emissions. Our approach shouldn’t be about more efficient versions of the same problem. We should consider entirely different approaches  —  perhaps slow, low-tech ones  —  that are not based on techno-fetishes and continued growth. 

When you give people greater speed, they don’t use it to save time; they use it to consume more space. 

Seeking ever-efficient solutions to human problems gave us the Anthropocene. We put humans at the centre of the universe and shaped the world in a quest to ever-efficiently provide us with excess. Western civilisation’s growth model no longer just impacts other humans and our immediate ecologies, it now threatens our species and the planet. 

It is in the mundane, rational steps of everyday work that we collectively design our way to catastrophe.

Cheerful robots in iron cages

So many of our grand problems come down to the unseen/unknown impacts of our work and how we rationalise on the basis of increasing consumption and production. We get caught up in the granular activity of work and the organisational milieux of small wins. We struggle to see how we’re creating massive social and ecological failure because we haven’t really grasped the core project of our collective activity.

Karl Marx suggested this when he wrote about ideology: “They do not know it, but they are doing it”

Marx was talking about how we function without really knowing what goes on ‘behind the scenes’.

We go to work. We solve problems. We have good intentions. We get paid. We’re doing our jobs.

What we don’t realise is that we’re reproducing the capitalist system every day. We’re solidifying monopolies, perpetuating unsustainable growth, and contributing to social and ecological disaster.

Mills’ ‘Cheerful Robot’ concept described the alienated, mechanized individual who rationalized according to the economic, bureaucratic rationale of the organization. This individual lost freedom and reason by adopting the very ideology that promised increased freedom and reason. Worst still, this individual is happy with their robotic existence. 

“[A]s rationality increases… its locus, its control, is moved from the individual to the big-scale organization.

There is then rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom but the destroyer of it.”
— C. Wright Mills 

We are at risk of becoming cheerful robots in iron cages. We struggle to conceive of work, purpose and meaning beyond the bounds of our roles as consumers and producers  —  as someone’s customer and someone’s employee — and we celebrate this existence and our cage as symbols of progress.michael-palmyre-uxnz-8.png

We recreate this caged existence every day, and we tell the world to do the same. Design has been propagating this message. In fact, design has been used to shape the world in this image. What we design heralds economic reason — in the forms of efficiency, convenience and technological upscaling — as humanity’s savior; we design to convince others that this is a singular progressive truth; and then we shape behavior and environments according to this world view. We’ve done this at great cost to people and the planet — and without a full awareness of how this has occurred.

Breaking out of the iron cage

So how do we break out of the Iron Cage? This isn’t a simple question, and I won’t pretend to have a neat answer. The good news is that we aren’t the first people to think about this. The great news is that we, as designers, have the tools, energy and creativity to do this. 

Mills said that the rationalism paradox cannot be approached as a single grand problem, but nor can it be confronted or solved ‘as a series of small-scale issues’ because ‘[t]hey are structural’. In designerly terms, breaking out of the Iron Cage is a wicked problem.

We can locate some of these problems in un-reflexive quests for efficiency and profit, but the harder to grasp qualities of this issue lie in the fact that it’s a problem of ideology and cultural consciousness. Social and ecological problems are symptoms; the problem itself is not so tangible. 

To break out of the Iron Cage, we need to rethink and reclaim design, work, and the purpose of the organizations, governments and institutions that drive our societies. We need to reconfigure problem solving and decision making to be about a bigger project: social and ecological wellbeing and sustainability  —  for all people and the whole planet  —  because that’s what matters.

Here are some ways we might begin that journey:

See the World Differently

Start engaging with our current condition by seeing that it isn’t some kind of ‘natural order’. We are working on an ideological project, even if we don’t see it. We are not where we are because of some logical path to greatness. This way is not the only way. The world is rich with culturally diverse ways of seeing, being and knowing – and we have a lot to learn.

I encourage you to expose yourself to other ways of seeing, being and knowing. Where to start? Anthropology 101. Here’s a great resource from ANTH 101.

Reframe progress, purpose and rationalism

Mills implored us to not blindly use ‘technological abundance as the index of human quality and cultural progress’. Is your idea of the future based on consumerist growth fuelled by extractive economic models? Or do you hope to see meaningful, generative, creative and purpose-based communities? 

Change how you rationalise: consider social and ecological benefits and costs as priorities in your work, not as afterthoughts or collateral. Don’t just work on the problem in front of you. Rationalise your current work based on a greater purpose and a better world, even if that means subverting agendas. Debate, reframe and reassert the meanings of service, design, work and society.

Struggle for meaningful change

Meaningful change is an ongoing struggle, not a task on a to-do list. No single person drives cultural change. We as designers don’t dictate how organizations, governments and institutions rationalise, no matter how great our intentions and pitches are: this needs to be a collective movement.

This is a problem that extends far beyond what you’re paid to do. The domain of work is constrained by what your employer is in the business of doing. Try and make the world a better place in your job, but don’t stop there. If you’re serious about change, you need to be part of something bigger. Struggle for large scale social and political change. Engage with others who want to change the world for the better. Look for movements in your local area and across the globe.


Get started by joining us on the How Might We Do Good Slack team, where we’re discussing the problems we see, the barriers we face, and how we might go about creating meaningful change. You can sign up here.  

But, more importantly, get out in the world — not just online — and take part in ambitious movements that fight for equality, sustainability and wellbeing; to protect what is meaningful and valuable in the world for reasons other than economic ones; and to seek to change the project of our societies to be about purposeful and meaningful activity for people and the planet. 

Organize in your workplace, in your industry, in your community and with anyone and everyone who is driven to do better. Join marches. Be vocal. Show your support loudly. Acknowledge and encourage those who fight for what’s right. Challenge your thinking and the thinking of others. Be bold. Be radical. We change the world by getting together and fighting for it. 

Go well.

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you’d like to hear what Michael has to say about using design to make the world a more valuable place, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2017 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 11-13 October including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here. Got a burning question you’d like to ask Michael before the conference? You can tweet him here: @michaelpalmyre