Understanding Uselessness


By Aditya Dev Sood

Etymologically, the word innovation has at its root ‘the new,’ Latin nova. But innovations are always also useful in a new and relevant way, else they would be merely variations. At CKS we are always involved in the design of new and useful things that have not hitherto existed, and therefore we involve ourselves, in user-experience, usability, use-case-analysis. Usefulness and utility are always at the core of everything we do — doubly so because we do our work under the sign of the greater common good.

This is why I was extremely interested in attending a workshop this past weekend entitled ‘Understanding Uselessness.’ We were a small group, led by a slender man with a shaved head. He asked the group to define uselessness, or to give examples of things that were useless. Of course we struggled, for art and dirt and fools all ultimately have their uses, seen from the right perspective. It is the nature of the mind that once one is asked about uselessness, one can only ever see a use for everything in bigbangation.

Perhaps, the facilitator suggested, uselessness is not a property of things, but a figuration, a way of expressing one’s relation to things. Someone else offered that it was in the way that we looked at the world that instrumentality or its absence resided. In the absence of instrumentality we looked with less scrutiny, perhaps we even saw beauty and grace. I finally spoke up, pointing out that we must distinguish between uselessness, utility and a third attribute, the causing of pain, or harm, toxicity — unusability.

We sat in semi-shade on the grass. The conversation meandered around for a while until it was time for us to stop. In retrospect, I’m not sure there was any point. In fact, it was gloriously, elegantly, stylishly useless.

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