XXVIII.6 November - December 2021
Page: 28
Digital Citation

What does it mean to do things together? Design’s conflicting relationships with democracy

Jaz Choi, Andrea Cabrera

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We are exhausted. The topic resonates with us. We work well together. We genuinely care about each other. Yet, entering the second half of 2021 in two opposite seasons, we still find ourselves unable to write this column with the kind of dynamism we anticipated.

The Covid pandemic covered our lives with a thick veil of uncertainty and restrictions, placing lives and livelihoods in unpredictable, uneven perils. It amplified the existing inequalities and subaltern sufferings caused by capitalist extractivism, which prioritizes private profit over the preservation of lives. For example, in Colombia political tumult and state violence have exploded, leaving young people with little sense of a future and countless social leaders dead. Intensifying manifestations of anti-Asian racism continue to force Asians around the world to bear the weight of people's rage, pain, and frustration inflicted by the social, economic, and health impact of the pandemic, while the wealthy are becoming wealthier [1].

As a Colombian-born person living in Finland and a Korean-born person living in Australia, we helplessly watched our kin surviving and dying from afar. At times, we metabolized the violence that we were being force-fed. We witnessed our voices being silenced, and stories being discounted and forgotten by most of the world, yet again. Instead of people recognizing the pervasiveness of crises, these crises have become exceptions and the crises of others. While some parts of the world, including where we are, celebrate the renewed sense of hope for reorganizing the existing power structures, these harrowing times obfuscate our sense of belonging, reminding us of and demanding us to reflect on who and where we are.

Jean-Paul Gagnon's 2018 study [2] identified 2,234 adjectives used to describe democracy in the English language, one of the many, tiny signals that democracy, like design, is a slippery term. Democratic ethos are central to progressive design practices, yet they are limited by the industrial, capitalistic, extractivist systems in which they operate and that continue to shape the contours of design as a professional practice, as well as democracies. Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves, then, is not what the terms mean, but rather how they can become conducive to imagining alternative futures. One place to start the questioning is to ask what we hope and intend to achieve with democracy. Representation? Equality? Participation? Dignity? A good life? What else? Immediately the issue of who/whom becomes apparent, urging us to engage with the concepts' alternative histories, understandings, practices, and related structures that have remained largely invisible to date.

We could all benefit from a reminder that the histories and habits of people collectively governing their own affairs are varied, as are the sensibilities required to experiment with ways for everyone to have equal say in decisions that affect them. These are not prerogatives of a particular culture or their schools of thought (e.g., those of ancient Greek philosophy). We too started looking at some of these alternatives beyond the Western canon, starting with our own cultural roots and their surroundings—for example, Indigenous democracy practiced in Tlaxcala [3] and the concept of "dependent co-arising" central to Buddhist ethics [4]. But doing this work soon became challenging for the two of us in visceral ways. Our thinking and conversations often drifted toward the injustices upheld by the current democratic systems that are designed to do precisely that. Despite our efforts, we could not progress with the column. We know, however, that this kind of collective work would be an aptly timed and generative endeavor, especially if it can be sustained over time.

This is where you, the readers, enter. We have embarked on an open-ended, free-association exercise to come up with as many associations between design and democracy as we can. Instead of writing a tidy column, we are presenting the beginning of something: a mind map. The mind map is not meant to be an all-encompassing theory-development exercise or definitive statement on the relationship between design and democracy for any purposes—for example, articulating (un)livable futures. We hope you consider it an open space to help us, and whoever joins us, identify our blind spots, explore our conflicting relations with certain terms, concepts, and matters, and play with the ones we are unsure or uncomfortable about. We have peppered the space with references that we find intriguing or inspiring and feel are of value to design practice. We have also invited colleagues to join us (see the Acknowledgments). And now, we are humbly inviting you all to help us grow the mind map by visiting

ins01.gif Section of design democracy mind map, September 3, 2021.

We acknowledge that we have failed. Our ontological reorientation has involved reflecting on who and where we were, but not how we were. Despite our work being centered around care, we failed to care for ourselves with humility until we reached an impasse. We also acknowledge that this column is the result of our decision to refuse to occupy the space of production as expected of us as design researchers, practitioners, and educators. The expectation does not come from the editors of Interactions, but rather the many intertwined structures in which we exist but that continue to fail us, coercing the majority of people to firmly remain in the colonialist, productivist, patriarchal, and capitalist discourses.

Doing things together requires many other things. We believe that one of the most vital is recognizing the power of refusal to occupy the relational spaces of cruelty that define who, where, and how we ought to be. We are lucky that we had each other to help us realize this. But still, we are exhausted, and we want to express this frankly. It is because expressing our pain and vulnerabilities and our refusal to participate, and seeking help from others to regain hope for better worlds to which we can all belong—and the trust in our coming together to reorient our varied trajectories toward such worlds—are all needed, now more than ever.

back to top  Acknowledgments

We thank these colleagues who generously contributed to the initial mind map:

Melisa Duque, Laura Forlano, Ann Light, Sanna Marttila, Leonardo Parra-Agudelo, Nathaly Pinto, Giacomo Poderi, Rolando Ruiz, Joanna Saad-Sulonen, Mariana Salgado, Mariacristina Sciannamblo, Maurizio Teli, Brenda Vertiz, and more.

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2. Gagnon, J. 2,234 descriptions of democracy: An update to democracy's ontological pluralism. Democratic Theory 5, 1 (2018), 92–113.

3. Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D. Hiding in plain sight: Democracy's indigenous origins in the Americas. Lapham's Quarterly (Fall 2020);

4. Macy, J.R. Dependent co-arising: The distinctiveness of Buddhist ethics. The Journal of Religious Ethics 7, 1 (1979), 38–52.

back to top  Authors

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi is director of the Carefull Design Lab and Vice-Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow in design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Andrea Botero Cabrera is a Colombian-born, Finland-based designer and researcher. Her work engages with the possibilities and contradictions of participating in the creation of environments, tools, and media that afford more relational and caring interactions among and between people and their environments.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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