XVIII.2 March + April 2011
Page: 34
Digital Citation

Digital interdependence and how to design for it

Ann Light

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This article is about interdependence and what that means for design. It is about how computers, in particular those that are networked, have the potential to make global relations more apparent to us. And it is about how we, as interaction designers and design researchers, use this knowledge to support lifestyles in which these diverse connections are acknowledged and celebrated. What happens to interaction design if we keep social and causal links in the foreground and look beyond user experience? In these pages, I argue that it means lifting our heads from our computer screens and taking a whole-cost view of our work. And it means designing with networks to stress our interdependence and drive recognition of it.

The concept of interdependence used here is drawn from literature on child development. A baby is dependent on caregivers. As the child grows, he or she becomes independent. But a fully rounded adult is not independent of all care, responsibility, or ties.

Interdependence is a desired state in which links with others are recognized, acknowledged, developed and delighted in. Applied here, interdependence involves an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of life: social, cultural, and environmental factors in all their richness [1]. (See "Stories of Interconnectedness," which suggests how these facets interrelate.) To work toward interdependence in this developmental sense is to recognize the impact of and collectively seek to interpret causal chains, which as individuals and societies we frequently ignore, not least because the impact of these chains is difficult to anticipate, attribute, or control. And it is to celebrate the interaction of social, cultural, and environmental factors for constituting us and making life meaningful. If interconnectedness is a fact, then interdependence is a goal.

My reason for talking about these relations now is political; we are facing an environmental crisis precipitated by climate change and exacerbated by profligate use of resources. Humans could use a groundswell of joined-up thinking.

However my reasoning also draws on something particular to the applications we can now build using digital networks. Digital networks harness the processing power of computation and support new platforms for connecting. Two new kinds of connection are relevant here. The first is social, characterized by Web 2.0 tools. Anyone with the right access can now find and organize people with specified characteristics across time and space—be that globally or in our own locale—and engage in generating materials with them. The second kind involves combining information sources. This might mean attaching data to physical objects or using specialized sensors to collect new types of information. Searching and cross-referencing major data sets to gather inferences provides insights into physical, social, and economic challenges. For instance, inference is already used to combat fraud by monitoring spending patterns, to join patients with suitable organ donors within a viable distance, and to create advertising targeting particular characteristics and desires.

If we combine the potential of connected groups with that of connected data, the mix could make a powerful force for informed change.

However, networked media does more than connect, it highlights connection. We notice people and organizations that use digital networks because they pop up on Twitter or Facebook, we read about new business paradigms involving collaboration, and we mull over predictions about the Semantic Web. Networked media makes this connected way of life more visible, but it does not automatically make its own impact visible. Indeed, it easily masks this impact by allowing places and people without connectivity to fall off the map. So, in considering the power of networks, we must also consider the social geography of digital connections. The last reason to consider interdependence, then, is to consider how new forms of engagement supported by digital networks can disadvantage some while offering opportunity to others.

I was working on the Fair Tracing project (http://www.fairtracing.org) when I started to appreciate the importance of interdependence. Fair Tracing was conceived in response to the way product-tracking technologies supported by digital networks make it easier for large manufacturers and distributors to manage logistics and legal requirements for accountability to customers. They do this by joining up the commercial chain of production and allowing information to be labeled, searched, and sorted effectively. For instance, in Britain, the food and clothing chain Marks & Spencer has RFID-tagged products that, when scanned, will report on where they are to be placed in the shop and when they are sold [2]. These goods are part of an elaborate forecasting and management system that allows the merchandiser to control the passage of products through its hands—batching them, optimizing placement, and reducing costs associated with storage.

Fair Tracing received research-council funding under the Bridging the Global Digital Divide initiative of the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Science Research Council) to look at the potential for offering small producers across the world the same tracking benefit as big companies are realizing, with the added opportunity for marketing through tracing—showing provenance so that customers can judge production methods and their impact. Could the research team design a system that gave micro-enterprises the means of tracing their output through the necessary stages of production, eliminating unproductive stages and presenting their wares, with social, economic, and environmental production information, to interested consumers? Could we create an open-source tool that each player in the production chain (including the consumer) could use to share information? We spent three years testing the viability of four aspects: Web 2.0 tools for sharing video at each stage in production; auto-capture to collect more mundane product data from traders' computers; electronic authentication to endorse the information's provenance; and the Web to make new markets in buying directly from producers. Specifically, we followed two ethically grown products, Indian shade-grown coffee and Chilean fair-trade wine, from soil to supermarket [3].

The team discovered that most of the collaborating micro-enterprises were far from ready to make video or have their data snatched automatically by adding some code to their business systems. They were sending handwritten product information between stages in the production process, sometimes supplying no more than details to ensure that the right money could be paid to the right person. This was not a surprising result. But many micro-enterprises could see the value of tracking technologies to understand how to optimize the value chain to the customer from their end. Benefits could include more direct business, more profit, and more control over their product. Not only might there be benefits to being part of an open information system (tracing), but there were also drawbacks to being involved with a closed information loop (tracking) that did not extend as far as their business and was controlled by other interests. Micro-enterprises with paper-based accounting practices were unable to share in the commercial advantage of tracking, such as more efficient management of resources, or greater information about turnover and profit. Nonetheless, they were feeling the pressure of working in systems with those who could benefit: Operations were expected to become more streamlined, produce more data, and dovetail with scanning systems run by the distribution centers and stores they were supplying. And for the most part, no information and none of the profits of improved efficiency came back to them. Despite being in the midst of substantial quantities of rich product information, our producers were watching the tide leave them further adrift from the big players than ever before because they lacked the means needed to enter that information and process it [3]. It was a situation where the business world was getting harsher for the least powerful and least well equipped.

The ease with which new connections work for some and the impact on those left behind offer an ethical carrot and stick to thinking about interdependence. Fair Tracing research included evidence of the connection between use of tools in one part of the world and reduced self-determination and earning power in other parts. I was concerned as a consumer, and, further, I was implicated as a designer of technology [4].

Given the Fair Tracing tool was intended to support decisions using environmental, social, and economic production information; given the team found many moments when the three kinds of data conflicted, or were in other ways inadequate in choosing a path; and given the problems identified with capturing information and getting it into the system, it would be naive to pin our hopes on any simple process. But some policy initiatives are inviting accountability (see, for instance, San Francisco's 2005 policy to consider city procurement in terms of potential impact on human health and the environment and the availability of environmentally preferable alternatives, (http://www.sehn.org/sf3year.html). And some consumers are requesting a more informed way to make choices about lifestyle. We have this powerful networking tool at our fingertips—what is a designer to do?

I offer a disclaimer here. I am far from the first person to suggest joined-up design thinking. Further, network utopians abound. Some of their predictions are even beginning to play out, though class, race, location, education, beliefs, and values are significant in determining where and for whom. (For instance, about 40 percent of people in South Yorkshire, UK, where I work, do not use the Internet.)

I am not making predictions, but I have noticed that once a suggestion is in the public domain it becomes potentially self-fulfilling. So this article is meant as a provocation about practice. It is a call to design for the future, not the past. Much interaction design looks closely at existing user preferences, stakeholder needs, legacy systems, and incremental improvement, and less closely at impact information, long-term trends, or broad outcome-based targets about future quality of life. It is also a call to design for living with tools, not only the act of using them. This is the opposite of user experience, focusing on the moment and the equipment. It is to balance personal and immediate issues, such as usability, acceptability, and branding, with more social and enduring value.

So, what would design for interdependence using digital networks involve? Here are some thoughts...

Design resources and interfaces to resources. Show impacts that we couldn't aggregate and assimilate in earlier times. Provide the means to link cause and effect, establish provenance, and take apart and reconstitute the whole cost of production. Satisfy different levels of curiosity about data (and metadata giving provenance to data) for consumers, for people collaborating to collect group expertise, and for professionals responding to provenance-related legislation and driving corporate social responsibility (CSR). Make, show, and scale alliances [5]. Design to identify the sweet spot involved in successful trade-offs between activities. Design to manage and sustain limited sources of materials, time, and enthusiasm.

Design for connectivity and its absence. Online tools are often used to take attention away from situated concerns, but they can be made to direct focus anywhere. Use imaginative interfaces to connect the global, local, physical, and virtual and bring everyone together for collective activities, value creation, combined purchasing influence, etc. Design for deliberate and accidental non-users, for mediators, and those people who rely on mediation for their access. Include the world beyond those connected and design to make resources available without the need for specific equipment or skills.

Design for active membership of society. We are increasingly able to analyze and report on our social/physical environment and well-being. Use these insights to reach beyond judgments on others' behavior. Social norms theory suggests that individuals' actions can be moderated by contact with the actions of their social group, but this is a finite model for social transformation. Challenge persuasive tools that inspire shame, manage conformity, or discourage undesirable activity with those that work to fire up people's sense of agency, love of inquiry, and desire to solve problems. Harness local wisdom as well as data on local conditions. Design to make people forceful and responsible.

Design for sharing. Use terms that capture supportive relationships in the household ("cohabitants"), locale ("inhabitants," "neighbors") or wider world ("citizens"). Affirm that we are each a custodian, rather than "consumer," "audience," or "user" (suggesting dependence), "designer" or "creator" (suggesting independence). Look beyond community. Interdependence forces consideration of social justice and complex resource-sharing issues. In any given locale, support negotiation across different groups and the inevitability of shifts in the balance of power. Interdependence involves seeking temporary equilibrium and building societies that transform and innovate well. Design for learning and growing together, for responding to emergent trends and handling flux.

Design to engage the powerful and protect the vulnerable. There is public relations value in responsible design. Give those controlling money and audiences a reason to buy in. As more tools are developed for exploring CSR, as open data legislation impacts, and as information about practices circulates, big commercial interests have more incentive to sponsor this work. But design also for the people in conflict with the biggest players about what should exist in the public domain. Make communication tools that inspire trust by balancing integrity and anonymity. Design to shelter exposed roles and sensitive information, acknowledging how different sensibilities may be.

I propose these five themes to spark debate. A lot is being written about new forms of consumption with many practical examples, such as Botsman and Rogers [6]. However many business writers are taking only a consumption perspective and offer limited analysis.

As designers and design researchers, we are not only observing change; we are also invested in making it. This has always called for a detailed understanding of materials, tools, and purpose. I've suggested here that the socio-technical systems around digital networks are particularly lively materials, and it is these systems rather than any particular application that should be our fabric. That way our practice can encourage timely reflection and offer the inspiration to act on it. We can cooperate to make tools that investigate our impact on the world and promote a sense of agency in those adopting them. We can resist the short-termism of design that generates financial profit at a cost to every other measure. We can understand interaction design as a means of promoting interdependence digitally, through discovering unstated links and making new connections in people's lives and minds. Designing for interdependence is yet more difficult than designing software. However, it has never been more important to look past our tools to the relations engendered by them, and there has never been so much information on impact to help us try.

back to top  References

1. The term "interdependence" is drawn from my cultural perspective and throws attention on negotiated relations, however, it has similar commitments to Ubuntu in Sub-Saharan African life. See Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Bidwell, N.J., Blake, E. Kapuire, G. and Rehm, M. Being participated: A community approach. Proc. of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference, (Sydney, Australia, Nov. 29 – Dec. 3). ACM, New York, 2010, 1–10.

2. Light, A. Bridging Global divides with tracking and tracing technology. IEEE Pervasive 9, 2 (2010), 28–36.

3. Marks & Spencer is used here as an example of cutting-edge practice in retail management. It was not involved in our research. This article does not suggest that any company deliberately undermines small producers.

4. Fair Tracing did not produce a blueprint for a tool, but defined a socio-technical opportunity space and passed its findings to the Karnataka state government, India, which set up a working group. See Light, A. and Anderson, T. Research project as boundary object: Negotiating the conceptual design of a tool for international development. Proc. of the 2009 11th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (Vienna, Austria Sept. 7–11) 2009.

5. Dourish, P. HCI and environmental sustainability: The politics of design and the design of politics, Proc. of the Eighth ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (Aarhus, Denmark, Aug. 18–20) ACM, New York, 2010, 1–10.

6. Botsman, R. and Rogers, R. What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, HarperBusiness, New York, 2010.

back to top  Author

Ann Light is a reader in interaction, media and communication at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. With Makerere University, Uganda, she set up a mobile phone innovation incubator and uses ICT to run a cultural exchange charity between Ghana and Europe.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1925820.1925829

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. An RFID label on a wine bottle, when set on the accompanying RFID coaster, can provide various kinds of tracking information.

back to top  Sidebar: Stories of Interconnectedness

  • On a street in the UK, an art collaboration posts bold demographic stereotypes on billboards and other public advertising locations so people can see what officially typifies their area. Residents are invited to make short reflective videos about the detail of their lived experience in the locale to counter these broad-brush statements drawn from census data. The stories are assembled on an interactive map available at local centers and on the Web so that others too can contrast market-research narratives with those of everyday life. The project invites citizens to think about who they are, how they are, and how they would like their communities to be, making way for a new understanding of the places people share (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007657.html).
  • In regions of Congo, rebels clash over which faction controls the mines in which rare coltan (or columbite-tantalite) is found. It is used in the manufacture of cell phones and other digital artifacts. Warlords routinely use child workers and slave labor to extract minerals; the money from sales fuels war. Conflicts worsen when there is a surge in worldwide production and the value rises. Some governments have now acted to require consumer electronics manufacturers to declare the source of their coltan and/or ensure that none of it comes from Congolese rebel mines—with the further effect that companies are avoiding all Congolese coltan. (http://www.globalwitness.org/library/do-no-harm-guide-companies-sourcing-drc).
  • At a conference on DIY citizenship (http://diycitizenship.com/) in Canada, a researcher shows a website recording the breadth of activity in the gas and oil fields of the U.S., collecting together the incidents—such as explosions and leaks—from the 34 active gas and oil exploration states to give a picture of the environmental and social threat bad practices cause on a daily basis. With the help of a specialist in neurological diseases, she explains that same website may offer the first chance of finding a link between public health and drilling energy reserves as people post reports on the strange health symptoms afflicting them in the areas where obscure chemicals are used to extract gas and oil when it is distributed finely through rock. (ExtrAct, eg: http://www.landmanreportcard.com/)

* Related reading...

On joined-up design thinking:

  • Brand, S. The Whole Earth Catalog.
  • Buckmaster Fuller, R. Operating manual for spaceship earth. 1969.
  • Papanek, V.J. Design for the real world: human ecology and social change. 1985

On new social media, social change and new trading models:

  • Benkler, Y. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. 2007.
  • Gorenflo, N. Social media isn't changing the world, it's creating a new one, 2010.

Two inspiring network utopians:

  • Rheingold, H. The Virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. 1993.
  • Kelly, K. Out of control: The new biology of machines, social systems, and the economic world. 1994.

On mediated access:

  • Blythe, M., Monk, A. Net neighbours: Adapting HCI methods to cross the digital divide. 2005.
  • Sambasivan, N., Cutrell, E., Toyama, K. and Nardi, B.A. Intermediated technology use in developing communities. 2010.

On tackling complex resource sharing issues:

  • Blevis, E. Sustainable interaction design: Invention and disposal, renewal and reuse. 2007.
  • Hirsch, T. Water wars: Designing a civic game about water scarcity. 2010.
  • DiSalvo, C., Brynjarsdóttir, H. and Sengers, P. Mapping the landscape of sustainable HCI. 2010.

On using sensors with publics:

  • DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Coupland, J. and Steiner, M Local issues, local uses: Tools for robotics and sensing in community contexts. 2009.
  • Kuznetsov, S. and Paulos, E. Participatory sensing in public spaces: Activating urban surfaces with sensor probes. 2010.

...and another key social participation initiative:

  • Preece, J. and Shneiderman, B. The reader-to-leader framework: Motivating technology-mediated social participation. 2009.

On social norms theory:

  • Berkowitz, A.D. Applications of social norms theory to other health and social justice issues. 2003.

UF1-2Figure. Landscape/Portrait, a collaborative effort between media artist Kevin Carter and artists throughout the UK, critiqued the role demographics play in defining a portrait of an area and its community.

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