Image by Th3 ProphetMan
Image by Th3 ProphetMan

I’d like to start off with an admittedly grandpa-sounding critique of a piece of technology in my house: My coffee maker’s status lights are too bright. My dad got it for my partner and I this past Christmas and we threw-out-the-box-immediately-wanna-keep it, but the thing has a lighthouse attached to it.  We live in a relatively small (and very old) place and our bedroom is a small room right off the kitchen. The first night we had the coffee maker I thought we had forgotten to turn off the TV.  We don’t really need alarm clocks anymore either, because when it finishes brewing it beeps like a smoke detector. Again, we love the coffee maker (Dad, seriously we love it.) but sometimes it feels like wearing a shoe that was designed for someone with six toes.

As anyone that has seen a Gary Hustwit documentary can tell you, design is super important. Not just for things worthy of a Jony Ive industrial design-gasm (climax at 1:17) but for all sorts of stuff. Even the mundane things like coffee makers. I did a Google image search of our coffee maker and when it isn’t floating in an ethereal white void its hanging out in some really swank kitchens:

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What is that? Granite? Rounded edges? Very sensible. Turns out our coffee maker wasn’t made for us. This coffee maker was thrust into the world with one singular mission: to take up a post in a suburban ranch house where it must scream its status across a great room to the very bottom of the stairs that lead up to the master bedroom. That’s what the focus group told it to do.

You can almost imagine the Land’s End couple sitting in the plain white room describing their daily coffee “ritual” and laughing nervously when one of them brings up that time last week where it was his turn to get the coffee maker ready in the morning but he didn’t remember if he had set it to brew at 7AM so I had to go down to check it and the floor was cold and you know how much I hate it when my feet get cold and… Why yes, it would be nice if I could tell if the timer was set from across the room.

If the brightness of my coffee maker is an indicator light for the latent, smoldering anger of young, suburban middle class couples then I expect the divorce rate to rise considerably in the next 5 years.

My coffee maker is, admittedly, a problem with extremely low consequences and easy solutions. I will grow used to the bright light or just put a piece of tape over the light. Its not even worth exchanging (if we had kept the box) for one of the dozens of other drip coffee makers that don’t have features associated with bigger homes. If you were to make a list of “Things that Impact Coffee Maker Design” I doubt house size would be high on that list and yet here is a case where it obviously seems to have impacted this appliance. Nice coffee makers are made for big homes because people that can afford big homes also have nice coffee makers.

I decided to share this Parable of the Coffee Maker because I think it is mundane enough to be irrefutable. When something isn’t quite designed to your lifestyle you experience it as “I love this thing but I don’t understand why it does X, Y, and Z.” It would seem to follow then, that design incompatibilities between designed object and user would become increasingly obvious as any given user drifts further away from the intended user of the designed object. But that is, generally, not the case. Design something that’s just a little off, and it’s an itch you can’t scratch. Design entire product categories with only specific people in mind and its difficult to imagine the material world any other way.

While I can easily describe the problem I have with my coffee maker, bigger or more pervasive incompatibilities can paradoxically be harder to detect and depict because while its easier to imagine a coffee pot with a dimmer light, its harder to think of a feminist cell phone or an anti-racist social media platform. While you could make a passable argument that building products with big houses in mind reinforces suburban sprawl, the Parable of the Coffee Maker does not do a good job of portraying the way product design is shot through with imperialist white-supremacist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy.

If you want a good example of patriarchal product design, look no further than the latest crop of smartphones. On a recent trip to to Turkey to study the Gezi Park protests, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci struggled with something she had noticed for a while: “good smartphones are designed for male hands.” She couldn’t use her phone one-handed which meant, when tear gas was shot into the crowd, she was unable to take a decent photo to document the event. She goes on to write:

As a woman, I’ve slowly been written out of the phone world and the phone market. That extra “.2″ inches of screen size on each upgrade simply means that I can no longer do what I enviously observe men do every day: Check messages one-handed while carrying groceries or a bag; type a quick note while on a moving bus or a train where I have to hold on not to fall.

It doesn’t stop with size. What’s preinstalled on the phone is also indicative of who designed it. There’s no good reason why most smartphones have a pre-installed “stocks” app but no period tracking app even though many more people experience periods than own stocks. If you happen to download one of the more popular period tracking apps you’ll have to deal with more awkward euphemisms for periods and intercourse than high school sex ed.

It isn’t news that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, but how that homogeneity affects their products is only just being recognized. Most of the time, defenders of the faith will mistake (perhaps intentionally) the structural problem of patriarchy or racism with the singular problem I described in the Parable of the Coffee Maker. You can see it on full display in the comments of Zeynep’s piece mentioned above. Since its easier to reveal and dismantle something once you’ve named it, let’s call this phenomena I’m about to describe “The Design Sir.” Tom Scocca’s recent essay on smarm captures a facet of the Design Sir:

If people really wanted a better world—what you might foolishly regard as a better world—they would have it already. So what if you signed up to use Facebook as a social network, and Facebook changed the terms of service to reverse your privacy settings and mine your data? So what if you would rather see poor people housed than billionaires’ investment apartments blotting out the sun? Some people have gone ahead and made the reality they wanted. Immense fortunes have bloomed in Silicon Valley on the most ephemeral and stupid windborne seeds of concepts, friends funding friends, apps copying apps, and the winners proclaiming themselves the elite of the newest of meritocracies. What’s was wrong with you, that you didn’t get a piece of it?

Or, put more simply, smarm “says ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ rather than making sure it does not do evil.” But the Design Sir doesn’t gravitate toward any ole’ “stupid windborne seeds of concepts.”  The Design Sir wants to build devices that control and manipulate. Nowhere is the Design Sir’s motivations more transparent than in a concept demo. Free from the restraints of what is technically possible or what anyone else would be willing to buy, the Design Sir is free to build the dystopian future of his dreams:

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I really need you to watch that video. If you’re on a train or something and don’t have headphones just play it on mute. You’ll get the idea. Done? Okay let’s keep going.

This particular concept demo (thanks to Kate Crawford and Nathan Jurgenson for tweeting about it last Saturday) is particularly telling because you get to see the world through the Design Sir’s eyes. As Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) tweeted, “What a perfect, affectless vision of a future where rich white dudes prey on the unsuspecting via devices that act like their mommies.” Design Sirs seek to augment the parts of reality that are a mystery to them: What do girls like? How do I clothe myself? The Design Sir’s smarm is bolstered by the false assumption that their work is based majorly on unbiased research. This is what Donna Haraway calls the [PDF] “gaze from nowhere.”  It allows bestows, “the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation.”

It may seem, up to this point, that the consequences of the Design Sir’s reign stop at too-big phones and glasses for the emotionally stunted but I think the problem goes much deeper. Langdon Winner’s (@langdonw) chapter “Political Ergonomics” in Buchanan and Margolin’s Discovering Design is a great theoretical starting point for realizing the full consequences of Design Sirs. In this chapter, Winner encourages us to think of technology less in terms of agnostic tools and instead see them as (his emphasis) “political artifacts that strongly condition the shared experience of power, authority, order, and freedom in modern society.” He suggests that we should think of designed objects the way Hannah Arendt described the creation of poetry or architecture. Separate from “labor” and “action,” people engaging in the production of “works” (as in works of art) are making “things that will endure.” They’re the physical instantiations of who we are and what our society values, promotes, and protects.

If we look through the portfolio of devices and services that have been deliberately and painstakingly designed, what do we find? What do these objects value, promote and protect?

Earlier this month Amanda Hess (@amandahess) wrote in the Pacific Standard:

On the Internet, women are overpowered and devalued. We don’t always think about our online lives in those terms—after all, our days are filled with work to do, friends to keep up with, Netflix to watch. But when anonymous harassers come along—saying they would like to rape us, or cut off our heads, or scrutinize our bodies in public, or shame us for our sexual habits—they serve to remind us in ways both big and small that we can’t be at ease online.

Hess illustrates that while private social media companies should keep our information away from prying eyes, “the impulse to protect our privacy can interfere with the law’s ability to protect us when we’re harassed.” Through popular pressure and focused campaigns, social media companies have begun to put serious effort into building “report abuse” features into their sites but there doesn’t seem to be any effort towards fundamentally altering sites to account for the persistent nature of harassment online. Which isn’t all to say that social media is antithetical to feminist or anti-racist values (see: sarcasm bombing) but the default reaction is to protect privacy and not necessarily people. Its an incredibly privileged and naive conceptualization of privacy that hasn’t been forged in catcalls and rape threats.

Hess’s essay is an excellent example of the messy situation most designers find themselves in. Its not about “striking a balance” between different “interest groups” or cowtowing to public pressure, design is –when you get right down to it– deciding what kind of world you want to live in. What is a designer to do?

Winner suggests that what’s needed is a new field of study that he calls, “political ergonomics.” He observes that “Many criticisms about the relation of technology and social life are actually a commentary about an unhappy fit between the two.” Political ergonomics would answer questions like, “Which kinds of hardware and software are distinctly compatible with conditions of freedom and social justice?” and “How can we design instrumental systems conducive to the practices of a good society?” The prickly part here, is that Design Sirs think they’re making a better society. They believe that so fully and with such a massive heaping of smarm that to suggest they may be causing harm sends them into a bizarre utilitarian calculus of comparing the Arab Spring to Rebecca Watson.

Creating a new expert class that consults and works with designers might help open up the creative process to think more deeply about the diversity of human experience. But I think we can get just as far by making a concerted effort to make design and engineering teams more diverse.

That being said, I’m uncomfortable with simply prescribing “more women in IT!” as the solution. First, because I feel a little weird outlining massive, structural problems and then telling young women in high school “welp, guess you should fix that” and second because recent research has shown that engineering programs actually make their graduates less interested in issues of social justice than when they came in. An article [PDF] in the latest issue of Science, Technology, and Human Values by Erin A. Cech of Rice University showed that even in engineering programs at all girls schools, “over the course of their engineering education students’ beliefs in the importance of professional and ethical responsibilities, understanding the consequences of technology, understanding how people use machines, and social consciousness all decline.” This culture of disengagement, as Cech calls it, is why I don’t think the answer lies in adding more professionals. Its the structure that needs changing.

There’s a lot of excellent work being done right now in the area of participatory design. The works of Matt Ratto, Phoebe Sengers, Sarah Wylie, and even the decidedly neoliberal Eric Von Hippel point toward new kinds of design processes that open up the work flow to non-experts. Carl Disalvo (@cdisalvo) has even coined the term adversarial design to describe objects that are designed to invoke dissensus and and disagreement. Not all finished products need to satisfy all people all the time. It would be totally fine, in fact, if things were designed to make Design Sirs as deeply uncomfortable on the internet as most women.

I opened up and spent a decent amount of time on the Parable of the Coffee Maker because I thought it was just as crucial to describe what is not at stake here, than what is. This isn’t about making products for her or soothing hurt feelings. This is about intervening in an institution that is making deep and fundamental changes to society without knowing or even seeing most of the people that compose it.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

Thanks to @smorewithface, @hautepop, and @tanyalokot for helping with some research.