XX.4 July + August 2013
Page: 44
Digital Citation

Can interaction design civilize the experience economy?

Mahnaz Yousefzadeh

back to top 

The civilization which we are accustomed to regard as a possession that comes to us apparently ready-made, without our asking how we actually came to possess it, is a process or part of a process in which we are ourselves involved. Every particular characteristic that we attribute to it—machinery, scientific discovery, forms of the state, or whatever else—bears witness to a particular structure of human relations, to a particular social structure, and to the corresponding forms of behavior.

—Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process

Two hundred years after the take-off of industrial modernity, the manufacturing and finance economies, together with their corresponding legal, social, and cultural practices, are being displaced by what is referred to as an experience economy: an economy led by designing and consuming products/services/activities that promote "experience." There is a perceptible push that areas of everyday life—work and after-work, relaxation and exercise, social interaction and the mere biological necessities of eating and walking—be framed as experience. This phenomenon, a feature of the "culture of new capitalism" [1], enjoys a generational dimension: Finding the work culture of the previous generation neither possible nor desirable, youth leads the search for an imagined work/life balance that includes more creative, rather than administered, work; and more life, understood paradoxically as designed activities and communicable experiences—in other words, lifestyles.

A telling difficulty lies at the heart of work/life formulation: Life, carved out as distinct from work, becomes ontologically defined by work, acquiring the characteristics of a project. Desired is the vitality and sanctity of exuberant life free from the compulsion of mechanical time; the result is reified activity in the form of aestheticized lifestyle. There is an inherent tension in the concept of designed experience. Experience is an internal process with an autonomous duration, outside the objective timeframe of social and economic reproduction. If authentic, experience is by definition free of design. The ensuing tension represents a practical challenge to interaction or experience design: how to design objects, products, and services that foster the desired social behavior and experiences, such as mindfulness, authentic interactions, and social harmony—or, to use the language proper to the endeavor, that engender civility.

In fact, interaction design and the word civility have their conceptual and etymological roots in a set of 16th-century treatises, instructional how-to manuals that address the topic of manners. The civilizing process, which may refer to the evolutionary changes in the longue durée of becoming human, going back to Paleolithic times and the invention of tools and the arts, gathers its modern connotations in the context of the rise of the nation state and civil society. A genealogy of the concept of civility, and its displacement by the materialist standard of Natural Law still operative today, is crucial for discerning the implications of new products and services that design social interaction.


Civility—civilité or civilta—refers to codes of conduct in the princely and royal courts of Italy and France. The codes concerned outward bodily behavior and appropriate social manners, proper to class, gender, and age. According to Erasmus, in his 1530 treatise "On Civility in Boys," civilité demands exact attention to the comportment of bodies in social interaction. It entails restraint of affect, privatization of natural bodily functions, and observance of differences within social roles and status. Simply, it requires mindfulness of one's body, gestures, and rhythm, and appropriate expressions in important situations of convivial life, such as at banquets or meetings in holy places. In public, the body ought to display the quality of mindfulness. Intense attention on the part of the individual was deemed uncivil, as was a distracted mind. "A wide-eyed look is a sign of stupidity, staring a sign of inertia..." writes Erasmus. "If your look shows a calm mind and a respectful amiability that is best."

The symbolic gestures cannot be subsumed by the strict algorithm of profitability; they are essential to the experience of being human.

As gestures and manners embody mental and emotional states, civility required designing comportment and movement. Yet it was imperative that the design hide itself so the behavior seemed spontaneous and natural. (Anyone who has walked up or seen another ascend Vasari's staircase at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence will understand the effortlessness that can be produced by design.) A contemporary of Erasmus, Baltassar Castiglione, coined a term that captures the essence of civility as an aesthetic code: sprezzatura. In The Book of the Courtier he defines sprezzatura as designed grace, an art that conceals itself and appears natural. The objective of this aesthetic code was to contain social conflict through civilized conviviality and forms of sociability.

The behavioral codes and convivial ideals of civilité were displaced by others based on Natural Law, for example, the one elaborated in the works of 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. When discussing "felicity" and "misery," Hobbes, disillusioned with traditional societies' incapacity to ensure civil peace, envisions a materialist, capitalist notion of happiness. Happiness is "commodious living," a progenitor of lifestyle rather than conviviality.

While the discussion of manners forms a crucial element in Hobbes's narrative of the formation of civil society within his famous Leviathan (which includes meditations on "the contrariety of men's opinions and manners in general"), the philosopher does not, by manners, mean social etiquette or discretion, which he mocks: "how one man should salute another, how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company." He refers rather to those "qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity." Hobbes fears that, given the natural qualities of man, such as the desire for power and vanity, mere adherence to custom will lead to the condition of "war of all against all." Conversely, "the passions that incline men to peace are ... desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and hope by their industry to obtain them." The edicts for a consumer culture are set in place.

In this moral philosophy, the great motivator toward peace is the assurance of a commodious life. An education in Natural Law is necessary to obtain this lifestyle. What are the laws? What kind of manners? Keeping promises, gratitude, equity, equal use of things common, and fairness in arbitration. The rules of civility are now redefined in a leveled social context, where tradition and social rank are liquidated, and rules of social discourse and interaction are prescribed based on a new code, the negative golden rule. This reads: "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you." In one swoop, Hobbes liquidates the most crucial element of the rule of civilité: the most exact observance of social comportment, based on custom and the aesthetics of sprezzatura.

The Hobbesian design would create a community based on social contracts and the rule of law. The civil liberties—as opposed to civility—of the individual within the community consist of those actions and behaviors that are not forbidden or licensed by law. There exists no measure of good or bad behavior but the law—not custom or tradition, not etiquette or good form. In Hobbes's world, where there are no absolute measures, good and bad form are subjective preferences. The sole binding criteria of judgment come from the law, on one side, and the logic of the market, on the other. The law ensures order, while the market serves to guide habits and manners. Individuals have the right to like or dislike each other's behavior: If you do not like certain comportment or actions, you can choose not to associate or participate. This code, while liberating individuals from the yoke of custom and social mores, also corrodes common sense and collective understanding of what is decent, human, and sacred. It dissolves a civility that humanizes the rule of law, and a common sense that in traditional societies serves to protect against the onslaught of the overwhelming forces of the market.

Hobbesian Natural Law, still underwriting our business models and social model today, was designed in the context of an emerging capitalism that promised to liberate individuals from traditional social bonds—and pleasures—so that they could freely enter a free market of goods and desired lifestyles, where all values, including dignity and honor, are measured by market mechanisms.

Since Hobbes's time, capitalism has undergone several transformations—mercantile, industrial, and financial—yet has always maintained the materialist code, continuously displacing civilité and other traditional forms of community founded on notions of a collective common sense, as well as sacred gestures that include sacrifice, gifts, expenditure, and excess. These forms of exchange are not profitable, and go beyond the calculations and logic of market exchange. The French sociologist George Bataille goes so far as to suggest that, in fact, no economy or community can survive and remain human if it strictly adheres to the logic of pure rational exchange. A "general economy" that systematically integrates work and pleasure, and that includes irrational excess in the form of generous hospitality, is crucial. The symbolic gestures cannot be subsumed by the strict algorithm of profitability; they are essential to the experience of being human. In fact, this type of excess is crucial to the very notion of authentic experience—the very service that contemporary social interaction products promise to provide.

Still, it is the Hobbesian code that is operative today, guiding the design for interaction designs that promise experience. One such design is set forth by Zokos. In the name of providing "stress free" and "collaborative" sociability, the company provides the tools for crowdsourcing hospitality and dinner parties. Guests are asked to RSVP for the home-cooked meal with the credit card that will pay for the cost of their dinner. While the possibilities of networking and connecting to more people more frequently might be a social value—this site and others like it are an emerging trend in lifestyle products—networking does not rise to the level of experience as such: It cannot create sustainable sociality, or meaningful life experience. The design of this "experience product," and others like it, may erase the very possibility of the experience: Generosity on the part of the host, gratitude and indebtedness on the part of the guest, and the future reciprocities that create the rhythm of the community are the essence of the experience of hospitality. From the 14th-century Persian Sufi poetry of Hafiz, to the anthropology of Marcel Mauss and George Bataille, humanity has celebrated and elaborated these relationships. What does this reduction by design of generosity and civility in hospitality mean for our times?

The emerging experience economy offers a possibility—yet only a possibility—for rethinking and designing new frameworks for social interaction and new forms of behavior more conducive to mindfulness, conviviality, good sociability, and civility. But such designing, or judgment of design in our contemporary world, can only be grounded upon and proceed from an understanding of the genealogies of interaction design. Interaction codes in civilité manuals and Natural Law are inherent in contemporary approaches to designing experience and interactive products and services. Any viable judgment of these can be possible only from a recognition, and then an elaboration, of the ethical and political implications of each of these codes. This is the task proper to the philosophical genealogy of forms in interaction design.

back to top  References

1. Sennet, R. The Culture of the New Capitalism. Yale University Press, 2006.

back to top  Author

Mahnaz Yousefzadeh teaches humanities at New York University. She is the author of City and Nation in Italian Unification (Palgrave, 2011) and Florence's Maiden Mediterranean Voyage (Olsckhi, forthcoming). She has worked extensively on developing a global liberal arts curriculum based on situated or experiential pedagogy: http://situatedpedagogy.wordpress.com/

back to top 

©2013 ACM  1072-5220/13/07  $15.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2013 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found