Four years ago, I was invited to give a talk at the Scholar & Feminist conference sponsored by Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women (BCRW). The focus of the event was utopian visions. In the spirit of feminist plurality, activists, artists, performers, academics, and the general public spent two days together brainstorming how utopia can be leveraged as a catalyst for ongoing work in social change, from affordable housing to public education to environmental protection.
I’ve been hooked ever since! Although utopias are often seen as impossible by definition, people have been drawn to utopian thinking for millennia. Perhaps it is because utopias give us hopeful visions of how we might live otherwise. They can motivate and orient a certain kind of labor: the collective labor of working toward meaningful change. As IT agendas (such as IoT, bottom-up innovation, and “smart” environments) intermingle with policy initiatives and social movements, odd glimmers of utopian hope flicker in and out of reach. Can design help bring our eager hands closer to the hidden worlds that cast those lights, before they recede again into the shadows of obscurity?
I don’t know how to grasp the utopian any better than you do, but I am winding my way through a number of books in hopes of catching those glimpses. They cover a wide range of domains: architecture, history of science and technology, anthropology, urban studies, feminism, and literature. They imagine alternative ways of being and doing, including those of radically better futures, and they challenge their readers to do the same.
In Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, anthropologist Athena Athanasiou joins feminist theorist Judith Butler in a series of conversations on topics such as “passionate attachments,” “vulnerability,” “being disowned and abjected by normative and normalizing powers,” “personal rights and mode of governance,” “being vs. becoming/being made dispossessed,” “performatives in political space,” and “subjectivity,” among others. Their purpose is not to pin down these ideas by analyzing them to death; instead, their conversation is more peripatetic. Walking with them for a while has encouraged me to follow some of their unfinished pathways in my own way.
James Holston’s Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil is a great book to read alongside of Dispossession. Grounded in the study of insurgent citizenship among the urban working class in Brazil, Holston explores the entanglements between government policies, (misuse of) law, (global) urbanization, and historical formulations of citizenship, on the one hand, and the emergent new kinds of citizens, on the other. It examines new forms of collective civic engagement, showing how democratic possibilities are discovered, tried out, shut down, and reenacted again and again. The messy and precarious democracy in Brazil is akin to the emergent democratic movement in my home country of Taiwan, and I identify as both citizen and academic. I can’t help but compare Brazil’s experiences with Taiwan’s, including the Sunflower Student Demonstration in 2014, which led to (among other things) the “vTaiwan” experiment—the development of an integrated set of methods and tools to reimagine democratic participation and support it in tangible ways. Democratic precarity is hardly utopian, but the many and diverse actions taken in its face are inspiring.
In recent years, I have begun to look beyond the West as the center of liberal democracy and forms of life closely associated with it. AnnaLee Saxenian’s The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy traces the journeys of Taiwan-born, U.S.-educated tech entrepreneurs who returned to Taiwan in the 1990s to start new companies, and in the process, created a distinctive Taiwanese innovation ecosystem. This ecosystem simultaneously leverages the home country’s engineering and manufacturing capabilities and these skilled tech entrepreneurs’ connections to Silicon Valley and related tech centers in the U.S. The narrative of the talented computer scientist who leaves Taiwan (or China, India, etc.) for a Western education and then stays in Silicon Valley is well worn—but it highlights how one-way the flows are, as well as who disproportionately benefits. The New Argonauts reveals an alternative narrative, where global flows of talent and innovation, though hardly free of exploitation and inequality, are at least complicated—a glimmer of a less dysfunctional globalism.
Another well worn narrative is the idea that technology is disruptive, that it has transformative potential in society. This is reflected not only in the marketing of California startups but even in the sincerely held beliefs of IT researchers and designers. In the words of Victor Papanek, designers are responsible for “transforming man’s environment and tools and, by extension, man himself” . My own sympathies for utopianism are part of this as well. Yet there are pitfalls to this type of thinking. In Technological Utopianism in American Culture, Howard P. Segal analyzes the work of 25 writers between 1883 and 1933 who envisioned the U.S. as a utopian society brought about through technological progress. Segal makes a compelling argument that techno-utopians who are naive about how social change unfolds fail—or even worse. Toward the end of the book, he answers his own call by offering intelligent strategies for pursuing utopian goals in a way that is grounded in a serious understanding of social change.
Focusing on social theories, literary histories, and political movements has helped me understand utopia in relation to social change. I find myself turning to Nathaniel Coleman’s Utopias and Architecture for making utopia concrete in a different way, one that speaks more directly to design: utopian built environments. Coleman examines architectural works like Le Corbusier’s Convent of Sainte-Marie-de-la Tourette, Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and Aldo van Eyck’s Municipal Orphanage, among others, through the lens of utopian literature and architectural history and theory. His analysis motivates a productive dialogue between architecture and utopia that refines, clarifies, and further develops their impacts in the physical spaces our bodies inhabit.
While I thoroughly enjoy these books for design research purposes, I always like to read for pleasure. I was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, and have been living in the U.S. for two decades. I have started to miss my native land and culture—a kind of longing that expats often start to feel after years have stretched into decades. This was intensified by the sense that I was losing mastery of my own native language—a kind of anguish that is hard to explain unless one has experienced it. I started to read novels in Chinese at the end of each day, before bed. Through them, I experience and inhabit the diction, syntax, turns of phrase, and unique quality of my native Chinese language, even as I experience the visual beauty of its characters. While I have read some literary classics as well as some favorites from my youth, I confess in recent years I have been reading a lot of Japanese novels in Chinese translation, specifically the noir novels of Miyabe Miyuki and Keigo Higashino. Both novelists treat their work as social commentaries of contemporary Japanese society. Like most noir fiction, their storylines are bleak, desperate, and heartbreaking, as in the case of Miyuki’s Rakuen ( in Chinese and Paradise in English) and Higashino’s Inori no Maku ga Oriru Toki ( in Chinese and When the Curtain of Prayer is Drawn in English). And yet they serve a utopian purpose: to cultivate the public’s awareness of, and to create an intolerance for, the injustices that society allows and normally turns away from. The ability of novels to generate public action—Western examples include Sinclair Lewis, Charles Dickens, and Alice Walker—also helps our eyes to see, and our hands to reach for, the utopian.
Shaowen Bardzell is an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing. Her research explores the contributions of design, feminism, and social science to support technology’s role in social change. She is the co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, in press). email@example.com
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