The following is a transcript of my brief remarks as part of a panel with Jenny L. Davis (@Jenny_L_Davis) about her recent book How Artifacts Afford:The Power and Politics of Everyday Things. The panel was hosted by the AIGA Design Educators Community and my role was to tie Jenny’s book to practices in the contemporary design classroom and to examine how today’s design students can benefit from observing their world through a critical affordance lens, delineated by the book’s ‘mechanisms and conditions framework’.
We design the world and the world designs us back.
Another world is possible.
I begin with these quotes in part because they seem to fit nicely with Jenny’s book, but also, since this is about design education, because they are the epigraph to one of the projects I give. Together, I think they present something on which students can spend some time ruminating, and, hopefully, given some context, see how we live in one very particular world that seems inevitable but is completely contingent or precarious. Its inevitability in part stems from the way our artifacts afford—particularly our computational artifacts, the ones for which our students design interfaces.
The approach that Jenny takes in the book—the mechanisms and conditions framework (which asks “how, for whom, and under what circumstances”), combined with her explicit orientation to the politics of technology—is a terrific way to scaffold learning about the intersection of technology and society. And it’s learning about this very intersection that I think is often undervalued in the design classroom, which, for a wide variety of reasons, has tended to train its focus on the “user” and the “designer” in a sort-of neoliberal individualist tradition that privileges a mindset of technocratic solutionism.
I think that Jenny’s lucid analysis resonates with the way I hope my students begin to see their role as designers within a broader socio-technical and political-economic system. But implementing any approach to learning about the broader interrelationships of technology and political economy in a design studio setting is challenging. For those of us that don’t have design theory seminars or who don’t have a Science and Technology Studies requirement for our students, however, incorporating as much about the politics of technology into the studio classroom as possible is essential for ensuring our students do not replicate Silicon Valley’s ideological hegemony and exacerbate its already catastrophic consequences for our society.
One of the keys for me here is listening to students—particularly when they make claims about “users,” about “design,” about “people,” or about “society.” These often come in informal conversations or in the context of their project work, and they open the door to interject some of the dynamics that Jenny’s book so eloquently addresses.
The way students talk about these terms (and others) indicate something about how students’ interactions with the affordances of the technologies they use everyday have shaped a worldview about who people are and how they should behave. The affordances of particular technologies are, as Jenny demonstrates in the book, shaped by and embedded within systems of power and privilege. As such, they apply particular parameters to what is possible to be done with those technologies. Thus, by affording, artifacts, interfaces, and infrastructures (to name a few), and design writ large shape what I call the “parameters of possibility.”
Uber affords a particular relationship between “users,” between rider and driver, between “users” and the “platform,” and more broadly between capital and labor. While its interfaces employ or reflect a variety of the mechanisms that Jenny describes, its affordances taken as a whole suggest to us a particular socio-technical-political-economic configuration is desirable. The fact that its affordances do different things (and do so to different user groups)—request, demand, encourage, discourage, or refuse—often goes unnoticed or unquestioned. And this is part of why Jenny’s work is so essential to the design classroom today. Not only because it asks students to be aware of the mechanisms by which their designs afford and the conditions under which those mechanisms operate, but also because it articulates the ways that the affordances they have interacted with throughout their lives have “designed them back,” imbued in them a particular worldview that is germane, for example, to the interests of capital and not labor. And, furthermore, that their interactions with the affordances of the technologies they use everyday have material consequences in the everyday lives of people to whom they are connected through those technologies.
In a class I offer called “experimental design practices,” we do a project loosely called “the future,” which centers on the history and contemporary practices of speculative design, strategic foresight, futurology, and other futures-oriented practices in design, computing, and contemporary art. In this project, students get a bit of a crash course survey on the history of using design and visual art as ways of predicting and exploring the future. And they create projects that fall somewhere roughly within the orbit of Speculative Design (while acknowledging and grappling with its myriad problems).
This semester, one student is particularly interested in self-driving cars, autonomous transportation, and the infrastructures that would enable it. She sees the progression from her use of Uber to autonomous vehicles as a utopian prospect. When I casually ask her what happens to the drivers, she pauses and is surprised to find that she does not have an answer. To her, the drivers were, in a sense, already robots. Uber’s interface, the ways its affordances do their work, and the material and subjective conditions of the student’s life shaped in her a particular outlook about people, about technology, and about what the future should be like. These are ideological in nature and reflect a successful osmosis of Uber’s corporate ideology into this student’s life.
This student visited me at my Zoom office hours and we had a relatively short, but seemingly not inconsequential chat about the future of autonomous vehicles, Prop 22, and Amazon and Google’s smart city aspirations. She ended the call by telling me, “society is messed up.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that this student had some kind of “false consciousness” of which she needed to be freed. Any appeal to some “true reality” existing is, as Stuart Hall argues, “the most ideological conception of all.” But if “sense,” and thus “common sense,” is “a production of our systems of representation,” then there is no better place to begin to understand the material consequences of those systems of representation than by considering the affordances of our technologies. This is particularly important when it comes to the way our technologies privilege an atomized, competitive individualism that has served as ideological ammunition for the right wing privatization of anything and everything.
But how do you get from “button” or “lever” as concepts of affordances to thinking about the rise of technologies that propagate the myth of individualist meritocracy? Well, the ways that they afford various actions and the way that the actions towards which we are guided then shape our ideas about who we are and what we’re supposed to do, then shape the conditions within which the mechanisms of affordances operate. It is a cycle—”we design the world and the world designs us back.”
This is where again I think Jenny’s book and its clear analytical approach comes in handy. Students may not be able to immediately connect seemingly innocuous interface design decisions to hegemonic ideologies and those in power who benefit from their propagation (although they might—we often don’t give them enough credit). But by drawing out a detailed analysis of their everyday experiences with technology via the mechanisms and conditions framework, a slower and more intentional analysis can build, leading students to see the conditional nature of technologies and interfaces, and helping them realize that, yes, another world is possible.
I want to suggest here that it’s not that we have to assign all the chapters of a single book, but rather that we, as design educators, understand and absorb all the information from a book like Jenny’s such that we can deploy its value across the curriculum both overtly (via assigned readings) and more subtly (via conversations, critiques, etc.). I look forward to experimenting with the various complementary methods to the mechanisms and conditions framework in my classes, and asking students to make visual/tangible the results of those investigations.
Zach Kaiser (@zacharykaiser) is Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Experience Architecture at Michigan State University. His research and creative practice examine the relationship between technological interfaces and political subjectivity, with a current focus on metrics and analytics in higher education.