CMNS 354 – Lecture 12

Final lecture: Politics and Ethics in design

Recap: Configuration of users, how users are imagined by designers in order to create design. Actor-network theory to think about how things lash up.

Politics of design

“Politics” as relations of power. We are not going to take a tech determinism approach because it suggests that technologies can make impressions on us.

Silverstone and Mansell (p.214): How are relations of power embedded. Not to think of it as some people have it, some people don’t, but to think of these relationships of power as dynamic. “power is claimed, exercised, disputed.” (silverstone and mansell)

By being more attentive to the disputation of power, how can we make better design?

Take a look at readings for related/parallel approaches to looking at politics of design.

(winner reading) Do objects have politics?:

(Feenberg, Andrew. p.131): We need to be attentive to politics of technologies, because these technologies do have power and do exercise it over all sorts of facets of everyday life. “Technology is power in modern societies.” The masters of technology have huge influence over how systems are designed. Technology is expertise and power made durable. When we encounter medical or transportation systems we have difficulty contesting them because they are so ingrained in the way things should be done.

Austerity: Taking care and maintaining infrastructure is important, and speaks to enabling/constraining access and determining how people use the space, who can use spaces.  Ex/ sidewalk ramps

Ex/ Accessibility of website: making the visuals and navigation easy or difficult to use. Focusing on something like aesthetics is in itself a political decision, and can in turn ignore other aspects of accessibility.

Ex/ London’s metro accessibility: only metro stations built or upgraded after the 80s are wheelchair accessible, making much of the city unusable by people in wheelchairs.

By understanding that things lash up to each other, we can see the political importance of when things do not lash up. Choosing not to be attentive to how a design lashes up to other things or other people. Conscious omission of certain elements becomes political.

Being attentive to the maintanance of infrastructure = understanding how things lash up

Broken windows policing: Neighborhoods that are not taken care of are seen as left safe. By keeping things clean and maintained, and finding small scale crime (littering, vandalism) that leads to the deterioration of a neighborhood. This creates a virtuous cycle of people feeling safer, policing themselves, and reducing crime.

Arifacts have politics in that they enable and constrain symbolically and materially, the ways in which people things and ideas can lash up. And because of this they enable/constrain, and are therefore a place of power relations and politics.

Technical imaginary: How we develop and apply different categories, is in itself political.

Flores et al. is an example of technological determinism being mobilized to reinforce a certain imaginary of technology: It assumes that sooner or later technology will radically change – treats it as an inevitability. It also suggests that anyone that does not engage with technology in that way are not entitled to organizational improvement. Suchman questions the statement made by Flores et al.


Dallas smithe: when technology evolves and replaces labour, the users of that new technology give their free labour, replacing the labour of the displaced worker.

Winner takes issue with social scientists and designers that examine this but dont take the political leap to say ‘thats good or thats bad’.

The politics of standards: The standard user, the politics of configuring the standard user (homme moyenne). To standardize consumer goods or policies is inevitably to standardize those who consume them (Epstein, p.36).

Dunn: raises the idea that in all forms of asymetrical power relations we can also look for contestation. Who is being excluded is not always silent, but is intentional and institutionalized.

Ethics of design

who is and who isn’t a designer isn’t insitutionally formalized. Its much harder to say what is and what isnt ethical design.

How should ethics be embedded in design practice?

case studies: Open data and open technologies.

Open data: common argument: By making data open we are improving the democratic process. More accessibility = more informed citizens.

Ex/ transit info on google maps – open data standard allows information to be available. Public transit authorities have decided to make this information available.

The idea “open is always good” needs to be closer examined. What are the power dynamics involved with making information open. The information also must be maintained.

Peled explains why some agencies uploaded data and some did not. While open data was a good move for public popularity, when data was made open these institutions did not have any data to bargain for services from other agencies. The more data made available, the more demands from citizens and others to have more and constant access to that data. This led to a lot of technical managers of federal agencies to drag their feet and slowly and reluctantly, and minimally participate in open data initiatives.

Ex/ the driverless car: in a moment of emergency will it decide to preserve the people inside of the car, or prioritize the people outside the car?

Corey Doctrow: The coming civil war over general purpose computing: How do general citizens get to feed into the openness and ethical decisions of technology.

Issac Asimov’s laws of robotics. A fun way to think about ethics and their implications in design.

Exercise: 1. A self driving car must minimize harm of individuals inside and outside  the vehicle. 2.

Exam: Upload next week on Canvas by 5pm on April 7. Choose three of the 5 to answer. Each answer around 500 words.

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