Just futures

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 76
Digital Citation

Designs on solidarity

Nicole Rosner, Daniela Rosner

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If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

—Lilla Watson

These days we find ourselves pausing before signing off on emails. We used to include a habitual "How are you?" or "I hope this email finds you well." But such sentiments carry new weight and urgency. As academics with the privilege to find this moment and its precarity novel, we feel those words of care break from their former function as social conventions: They might be the only words that matter. We feel compelled to acknowledge what we do not know about the situation of the person we contact, to reach out with concern. Might they have fallen ill? Lost a loved one? Been fired from a job? Sometimes the thought occurs to us that they might not be there at all. Independent of the image, we seek words of strength. After coming across a Twitter thread started on the subject [1], I (Daniela) sometimes use the phrase "in solidarity."

Solidarity has a short but potent history in the fields of design and HCI. Some who use the term invoke its feminist affiliations (e.g., [2]). Some speak to the work of becoming an academic accomplice, scholars committed to mobilizing power to address inequities and unjust hierarchies of difference (e.g., [3]). Alongside scholarly work, a striking variety of mutual aid efforts have taken root over the past several months—mask making, housing aid, meal delivery. Many collective-action campaigns haven't ceased, but have moved online (e.g., [4]). Even amid a pervasive sense of doom, solidarity suggests that we can work through it together [5]. Rather than hide behind our own individual problems, we can reckon with ongoing social upheaval through expressions and acts of mutual support.

ins01.gif Sign at the "March of Silence," Seattle, Washington, June 12, 2020.

In our current moment, solidarity gains heightened currency as Covid-19 attacks people along existing lines of inequality. As Ruha Benjamin stresses in a recent talk, "The virus is not simply a biological entity, but a biopolitical reality which travels along well-worn patterns of inequity...It may not set out [to] discriminate, but the structures in which it circulates certainly do" [6]. The same entrenched injustices that maintain institutionalized forms of racism such as incarceration, policing, and housing policy, as well as disparities in income, education, and life expectancy, are exacerbated during the pandemic. Some of the highest rates of Covid-19 have emerged in prisons, where people—disproportionately people of color—are trapped in dehumanizing conditions that overwhelmingly conflict with nearly every health and safety guideline. For many, that amounts to a death sentence [7]. Across the world, poor, disabled, and racialized groups are more likely to suffer severe effects on their lives and livelihoods due to the virus. Yet such struggles are also increasingly hidden from sight as many people continue to shelter in place.

Speaking of such violences as academic blindspots, Veena Das says, "The only question is how we might learn to see what is happening before our eyes" [8]. This pandemic has pushed us to see and understand what urban scholars have long critiqued: the tendency for spatial interventions into social life to perpetuate rather than ameliorate existing inequalities, creating new excuses for dispossession and forms of segregation. Today those processes are increasingly taking place online, where designers—those of us who develop technology—imagine virtual spaces to solve evolving social problems. A sense of togetherness, a feeling that our lives are tied up in one another's, may feel increasingly impossible. But this connectedness is also increasingly vital to our individual and collective survival.

Bringing these concerns to technology design, we see that technology such as apps developed to track Covid-19 perpetuate the very same inequalities (see Ali Alkhatib's article on page 84). Take the example of developing new tools for contact tracing. To scope the challenge and inform a design process, we might choose to run a remote study with as many people as we can find to participate. The more people reached the better, we might think. Yet, as we know from prior work [9,10], prioritizing those most likely to be reachable (as in, with flexible schedules and reliable Internet, email, and videoconferencing access) tends to benefit well-educated white people who have already long benefited from the healthcare system. Correspondingly, ignoring people less reachable or treating reachability as a universal good will tend to deny basic rights, such as rights to privacy, and erase the lived experience of continually disadvantaged groups, such as communities of color, those living in poverty, and those with prior health conditions. Unless those researchers and designers take seriously the conditions that produce systemic inequalities, such as the danger of surveillance among particular populations, this early work will effectively contribute to reinforcing disparities. The same could be said of design projects in a wide range of areas, whether aimed at virtual learning or religious life.

With solidarity in mind, perhaps we have been thinking in the wrong direction. When it comes to Covid-19, maybe it matters less what we in HCI have to offer those affected [11]. Instead, maybe it's how the virus is affecting what we should have been doing already. The inequalities we see and experience are often socio-spatial—segregation, confinement, lack of services or resources. Today, those socio-spatial inequalities that urban interventions continually reinscribe are playing out in digital tools that we design. We need to avoid the pitfalls of urban designers. We need to learn from their mistakes as well as our own. We need to bring new habits of being to our worlds of design. Concerns for elegance or novelty cannot override basic needs, equal access, and participatory channels for users to take part in making these worlds work for them and their rights.

This then presents us with a problem when talking about being in solidarity. While our designs may address in-equality, many of us have not suffered its consequences. We work on promoting equity, yet we also understand that existing inequalities perversely benefit our careers. We're experiencing upheaval as radical and uneven. We're experimenting with ways of working, coping, and maintaining a sense of responsibility in partial response. We're trying to grapple with the momentousness of the situation. We're also trying to survive as individuals in order to aid the survival of our families, friends, colleagues, and communities. It takes much more than a word or two—it takes rethinking what we do from the start.

Returning to the email sign-offs that began our reflection, the novel coronavirus has taught us that the need for solidarity has no bounds. Within our professional worlds, email is not usually the realm where we encounter suffering. But it has become another space where we reach out with gestures of care. How can this new sense of uncertainty in realms we imagined as stable and secure push us to be more conscious designers, developers, academics, citizens, neighbors, friends, and family members? How can phrases such as in solidarity truly activate an ethics of care in all aspects of our lives?

We need to do better. To pay more attention. To engage more deeply. To grapple with our own entanglement in everyday inequalities in order to stymie their reproduction and actively promote equity. Inspired by ongoing calls for mutual aid [4], we need to ask with greater urgency: Where does responsibility lie? As Edna Bonhomme warns: "This is a time for solidarity and to fight back—to figure out a cure for this and to avoid the scape-goating of migrants or ethnic minorities" [12]. Engaging a legacy of solidarity within UX and HCI does not "solve" the range of challenges presented by and within our current moment. Instead, it offers one of several sites for opening a conversation across dynamic and uneven geographies of difference. What it means to do ethical design now involves reassessing our collective accountabilities. It means rethinking the worlds we should have been building all along.

back to top  References

1. Hamraei, A. Twitter. Apr. 3, 2020; https://twitter.com/AimiHamraie/status/1245859303820365826

2. Dye, M. et al. Solidarity across borders: Navigating intersections towards equity and inclusion. Companion of the 2018 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. 2018, 487–494.

3. Asad, M., Dombrowski, L., Costanza-Chock, S., Erete, S., and Harrington, C. Academic accomplices: Practical strategies for research justice. Companion Publication of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference. 2019, 353–356.

4. See, for example: https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8nnys8G2Qc; https://www.raicestexas.org/ways-to-give/donate/; https://secure.actblue.com/donate/freeblackmamas; https://detroitwaterproject.org/

5. See https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/clarissaredwine/solidarity-onboarding; https://twitter.com/blkwomenradical/status/1253338783153418247

6. Benjamin, R. Black skin, white Masks: Racism, vulnerability, and refuting black pathology. Talk given Apr. 15, 2020; https://aas.princeton.edu/news/black-skin-white-masks-racism-vulnerability-refuting-black-pathology

7. Taylor, K-Y. The black plague. The New Yorker. Apr. 16, 2020; https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-black-plague

8. Das, V. Facing Covid-19: My land of neither hope nor despair. American Ethnologist. May 1, 2020; https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/covid-19-and-student-focused-concerns-threats-and-possibilities/facing-covid-19-my-land-of-neither-hope-nor-despair

9. Costanza-Chock, S. Design justice: Towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice. Proc. of the Design Research Society. 2018.

10. Hoffmann, A.L. Data violence and how bad engineering choices can damage society. Medium. Apr. 30, 2018; https://medium.com/s/story/data-violence-and-how-bad-engineering-choices-can-damage-society-39e44150e1d4

11. Bourdeaux, M., Gray, M.L., and Grosz, B. How human-centered tech can beat COVID-19 through contact tracing. The Hill. Apr. 21, 2020; https://thehill.com/opinion/technology/493648-how-human-centered-technology-can-beat-covid-19-through-contact-tracing

12. Bonhomme, E. Covid-19 denialism and xenophobia. Spectre Journal. Apr. 20, 2020; https://spectrejournal.com/covid-19-denialism-and-xenophobia/

back to top  Authors

Nicole Rosner is a postdoctoral fellow in the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation and a post-doctoral scholar affiliated with the UChicago Department of Anthropology. Her research concerns the everyday politics of city making and the violent reproduction of social, spatial, and racial inequality. Her regional interests lie in Latin America, particularly Brazil. She is currently working on a book project tentatively titled: Remaking the City, Unmaking Democracy: The Afterlives of Urban Renewal in Rio de Janeiro. [email protected]

Daniela Rosner is an associate professor in human centered design & engineering (HCDE) at the University of Washington and co-director of the Tactile and Tactical Design (TAT) Lab. Her research critically investigates the ethical and participatory dimensions of design methods, particularly within sites historically marginalized within engineering cultures such as electronics maintenance and needlecraft. She is the author of Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design (MIT Press). [email protected]

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