September 10, 2014 | 3 Comments

Technicals (Various Designers)

From the curators: For as long as there have been automobiles, there have been hacked versions—vehicles modified for a purpose beyond their original function and mode of transportation. Even before the automobile, horse-drawn carts adapted to fit machine gun platforms, known as tachanka, were prevalent in eastern Europe. During WWII, units like the British Special Air Service (SAS) made use of unarmored vehicles outfitted with machine guns or other weaponry. It was not until the early 1990s, however, that such hacked vehicles earned their current name, “technicals.” During the Somali Civil War, organizations like the United Nations were unable to bring their own protection and hired guards and drivers on the ground, dubbed “technical assistants.” Over time, the term evolved to signify the vehicles owned by these guard companies, and later to reference vehicles with heavy weaponry mounted on the back. Now found in war- and guerrilla-torn areas throughout the world, technicals are a significant symbol of power, popular for their speed, durability, and efficiency at moving both men and weapons in unison. In the early 2000s, technicals again gained attention when they were recognized as the vehicles of choice for leaders of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. From the civil war in Sierra Leone to the Iraq ISIS conflict, these vehicles remain an integral design in the arsenal of conflict. 

In the final years of the war in Sierra Leone, I returned to the country of my father, where I had spent part of my childhood. Like many returnees, I had come to help members of my family caught up in the fighting, which by then had lasted more than a decade. The village where my family lived had been behind enemy lines. To reach them I needed to rent a car, preferably a four-wheel drive, but available vehicles were scarce. Eventually I secured one: a black Toyota 4×4 with tinted windows. We departed Freetown at dawn, drove along and around roads cratered by shellfire. In the late afternoon, we had reached the dirt track to the village. What struck me most was the emptiness, the absence of people. Occasionally in the distance we saw men repairing damaged roofs, but along roads where I was used to seeing schoolchildren, women toting loads, men on bicycles–we did not pass a soul. Then, rounding a corner: a small group of women carrying firewood. We slowed for them, but instead of waving and greeting us, they dropped their loads and ran into the bush. We laughed. We thought we had merely surprised them. Then the same thing happened again. And then again. Women saw our approaching vehicle and fled in silence. We looked at ourselves through their eyes: deep throated engine, darkened windows, alloy wheels. The kind of vehicle a rap artist might drive. The kind of vehicle the rebel militia might drive.

The women had been running for their lives.

When I was a kid we were driven to school every day in a Land Rover. A decade out of British rule, we maintained a high regard for the possessions of the overlord. The Sierra Leone army inherited British army vehicles: the stripped-down Defender, light, rugged, possessed of almost rigid suspension, made for fighting men—and we schoolchildren who bounced on our arses on the bare benches in the back. Over the years the Land Rover was replaced with new objects of desire: the Nissan Pathfinder, the Nissan Patrol, the Toyota 4Runner, the ever popular Hilux, flatbeds and pickups in all their forms. The Peugeot 504 pickup, King of the African Road throughout the 1970s. The saloon cars became the continent’s most popular bush taxi. Defender. Patrol. These names invoke violence, force. Protection, the manufacturers would doubtless say. Discovery, 4Runner, Pathfinder: adventure, boldness, machismo. Landcruiser: the big beast of Third World wars, the Landcruiser would become the status symbol of the top brass, of Osama bin Laden, the U.N., the world’s NGOs.

By contrast the name of by far the most widely used technical vehicle seems less of a fit. Hilux. Hi-lux. High as in “high riding.” “Lux” meaning luxury. “The vehicular equivalent of the AK47,” a former U.S. army ranger told Time magazine. A rigid steel frame construction with a cab and body fitted on the top. Beloved of farmers, construction crews, rebel armies, warlords, Somali pirates, and Afghan insurgents. Good for moving workers, good for moving contingents of men. Mount a machine gun on a tripod on the back and you have a gunship. The design of the Hilux on the battlefield has proved a perfect and unintended synthesis of form and function. Fast. Maneuverable. High ground clearance. Light enough to cross minefields without detonating mines, it’s said. So popular they even named a war after it: the Libya-Chad “Toyota War” of the 1980s was fought with cavalries of Hiluxes.

When I was writing about Croatia, a friend—a war correspondent who had reported the conflict in the former Yugoslavia—pointed out something which later seemed so obvious I wondered how I could have missed it. “The reason that war kicked off so fast,” he said, “was because they were a nation of hunters. Every man had a gun and knew how to use it.” When people go to war they fight with whatever comes to hand. In Sierra Leone every man was a farmer, every man owned a cutlass or a machete. In Sierra Leone before the war if you saw a gang of men in the back of a Toyota Hilux carrying machetes, you’d think they were farm workers on their way to clear the bush.

A few years later, you’d be running for your life.


Does the Technical suggest that no design is inherently benign--everything depends on context and on the ingenuity (malicious or otherwise) of its user?

  1. December 22, 2014, 2:26 am

    Sam Haddix

    The Design of Good Intentions

    The designer can never know how their work will become appropriated. Intentions become lost in the translation between culture and time. Strange that this same propensity is responsible for so much good. Think of art, music, literature, cuisine, programming, or architecture without this creative force. The urban landscape is itself an ever-evolving play of appropriation and collage.

    But if the question is violence, then the work of the designer must simultaneously concern both the design of the ‘thing’ and the design of the ethical parameters around any engagement with the ‘thing’; precisely how is a difficult question. Rules and regulations are no guarantee, and even well intentioned affordances may become co-opted for alternate ends.

    When atomic energy was released for humankind’s control and benefit, Einstein said that humankind must develop a higher form of thought if we were ever going to be able to use the energy with wisdom. Perhaps our responsibility is not so much to design ‘safe things’ as to collectively work towards a society that acts with responsibility. Gun violence might have much more to do with education than legislative, regulatory, and judicial law.

    Yet there is also a designerly narcissism to the framing. Are we asking the right questions? Should an interrogation of the Libya-Chad violence of the 1980s center around the design of the Hilux, or the political and cultural implications borne from the ‘design’ of colonial rule in both Libya and Chad (Italian and French, respectively)?

  2. December 30, 2014, 9:36 pm

    Stan Fisher

    I keep hoping for one

    Sometimes – maybe often – the practical application of things can be over-thought by academics. Not that the exercise is pointless; rather, it causes one to stop and wonder, Well, why is that the case? The truth of the matter in this discourse is that the Taliban and their pals use devices – AK47s, Toyota Hiluxes, Suburbans (wonder how those come in?), because they are useful and accessible, and this has nothing to do with their antipathy for digital technology. Like Land Cruisers, the Jeep was designed and built to perform a military function, and quite by happenstance, its design has become iconic. Similarly, the Austin Healey “BugEye” Sprite was designed and built not for any utilitarian purpose – just fun – but its design, caused by the same cost-saving consciousness (the ‘bug eye” headlights are there because the retractable one s of the original design were too complex and expense), has enduring appeal to generations of auto enthusiasts.

    It seems more a case of adapting a tool to one’s desired use – in fact, some race car drivers have read their cars as little more than tools to achieve a specific goal, no different than a farmer with a harrow or a Taliban with a Toyota. It’s incomprehensible to me that anyone should suggest that the conflict results from the tools used to wage it: whatever it is, if you’ve got a pickup truck, you can pack a bunch of bad guys and guns in its bed. No rocket – or art – science there.

  3. December 30, 2014, 10:47 pm

    Austin Rhoads

    The Technical suggests that no design is inherently benign. Due to it’s availability and practicality, it’s put to use in violence. The same could be said for many objects. The intention of the designer becomes irrelevant once a thing is out in the world.
    Is there design that is inherently evil? Does context play the same role in the design of something expressly made for harm?