XXXI.2 March - April 2024
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Pro-Labor Design Under Capitalism

Christine T. Wolf, Lynn S. Dombrowski

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Designing is useful—not only in finding simple, elegant solutions to practical problems but also in the higher potential it holds for emancipation and relief from the status quo [1]. But good design is hard. Human-computer interaction is a field settling into middle age, yet many of us still work in organizations or interact with products as consumers where the basics of human-centered design are (re)discovered, (re)tread, and (re)lost with each new launch, release, and hype cycle. While these recursive loops continue to play out, many social computing projects fall short of their higher potential to do good in the world and instead further monetary goals like chasing increased quarterly earnings at all costs. Great minds tinker with questions of A/B testing, placement of buttons, or features on screens, or whether machines can be intelligent (a perennial question that has engrossed and distracted during previous AI hype cycles, too).

back to top  Insights

Design practices take place within a situated, socioeconomic context—capitalism—and we need to better account for the harms of capitalism by adopting a pro-labor design praxis.
Pro-labor design praxis confronts—and fights against—capitalism's dehumanizing impulses by centering workers, individual people whose dignity is to be held in higher esteem than the accumulation of material wealth.

Meanwhile, our lives become more unlivable as Earth continues to warm, our workplaces become sites of profound surveillance, and we are faced with increasingly more intimate infringements and erasures of our fundamental human rights. We are living in an era of extended crisis, where many people across the political spectrum feel a sense of tumult in various arenas of the human experience; for example, global pandemics that lead to bad health outcomes and death, rising housing markets that make housing unaffordable, volatile economic markets and waning labor protections that make working conditions precarious and exploitation more pronounced, and the list goes on.

Of course, we do interact with those simple, elegant designs every day—designs that delight and dazzle, entertain us and sell us things, assist and enable us. In the tech world, an aesthetics of elegance has overtaken many of the stories we tell around social computing: the "just so" narratives that neatly fill PowerPoint decks and the use cases that assemble pitches, audiences, and users [2]. But we do not live in the rectangles of PowerPoint slides, nor are our broken worlds contained within tidy use cases. Trying to grapple with wicked problems like social inequality feels impossible, but our era of extended crisis demands a reckoning with the broader conditions that shape our design work. Design practices take place within a situated, socioeconomic context—capitalism—and we need to account for that in our design praxis.

In our paper "Designing within Capitalism" [3], we introduce an analytical framework to guide those who want to closely interrogate how capitalism influences design work. Focusing on the case of workplace inequality in the U.S., we look particularly at low-wage service work in, for example, retail, food, and hospitality sectors. Due to decades of anti-labor efforts in the U.S., the employer-worker relationship is sharply imbalanced, with workers having little ability to negotiate or protect themselves from employers' behaviors. Low-wage workers are especially vulnerable to wage theft, which is any illegal activity by employers or managers that denies benefits or wages. Wage theft is a pervasive problem among U.S. workers, amounting to nearly $50 billion stolen from workers yearly by, for example, violating minimum wage and overtime laws, denying breaks, taking illegal pay deductions, or stealing tips [4].

We interviewed 25 pro-labor advocates to better understand their efforts building social computing projects to address wage theft. The interviewees included designers, technologists, lawyers, and worker advocates. When we began this project, we anticipated learning complex stories about both the challenges and successes of pro-labor, wage-theft computing projects. We hoped to identify best practices as well as areas to improve. During our interviews, though, informants shared their experiences, describing outcomes that never met their initial goals. None of their projects were considered successful. In our informants' own words, these projects "failed."


Why did these pro-labor, wage-theft computing projects fail? Issues contributing to project failures included low worker adoption, tense relationship dynamics, poor education and outreach around labor and wages, and the lack of monetary or institutional support (e.g., legal protection) for workers to pursue wage claims. Individually, each issue is unfortunate, yet seems plausible given the difficulties of applied, social justice—oriented computing projects. Taken together, though, these various failings point to the larger structural issues that shape and constrain contemporary social computing projects—that is, capitalism's manifestations in the U.S. play a significant, and at times harsh, role in shaping design work.

back to top  Defining Capitalism

What do we mean when we talk about capitalism? This is a big word with a fraught history. We are social computing researchers, not economists. We use capitalism in a broad, commonsense way to refer to our shared economic language about the relationships between workers, employers, money, and markets in a system where private property ownership and wealth accumulation are considered the highest ideals. Critiques of capitalism call out the unfettered pursuit of capital because of its negative impacts on society, such as extreme wealth inequality, labor destabilization, environmental unsustainability, and racism [5]. But even when the pursuit of capitalism is not unfettered and the wealth inequality is not extreme, capitalism's central logic is organized around the premise of extraction and alienation of labor. Human-centered design efforts aimed at unsettling this status quo must confront the intrinsic dehumanizing logic at the core of our dominant economic system. A pro-labor design praxis confronts—and fights against—capitalism's dehumanizing forces by centering workers, individual people whose dignity, care, self-determination, and flourishing are ambitions to be held in higher esteem than the accumulation of material goods.

Capitalism's manifestations in the U.S. play a significant, and at times harsh, role in shaping design work.

back to top  Two Logics within Capitalism

To begin picking apart the relationship of capitalism and design praxis, we first set out two core logics that underpin contemporary capitalism. One logic of capitalism is unduly extractive relationships. If we want to analyze capitalism as a social system, we need to consider its structures, especially the corporation as a social form. Under capitalism, private companies are institutions that work unrelentingly to outearn their competitors and gather wealth for shareholders by more efficiently extracting labor, and in turn, increasing the firm's profits. The overly extractive nature at the heart of capitalism is at odds with the convivial, cooperative worldviews that have underlined much of social computing design work since the early days of computer-supported cooperative work. How and what do we design in projects where one stakeholder structurally benefits by exploiting the other?

Another logic of capitalism that we must consider is neoliberalism, a sociopolitical framework that favors strong private property rights and unregulated or free markets and trade. One of neoliberalism's central harms is that it conceives of all human actions within the realm of the economic. Market logics take over every aspect of our social worlds—even the most personal, sacred, or sublime. Neoliberalism glorifies deregulation and privatization; in the face of any problem, it says: Let markets sort it out. In effect, this means that when public goods do not neatly fit into mercurial, money-driven "business goals," they become personal burdens that individuals must figure out how to meet. How do we make a "business case" for fundamental social goods such as anti-racism, anti-sexism, disability rights, or poverty reduction within a market-based logic? Social justice issues are too important to be left to the cruel and uninspired logics of economic markets.

back to top  Social Computing to Combat Wage Theft

Let's go back to our empirical work dealing with social computing projects aimed at addressing wage theft among low-wage service workers. Already, the twin logics of capitalism become helpful for us in understanding why the need for these types of projects comes up. One, the unduly extractive nature of employer-worker relationships means employers will work to drive down wages (even, in the case of wage theft, through illegal behavior). Two, neoliberalism means that the burden of wage enforcement (taking action against the employers' illegal behavior of wage theft) falls increasingly on individual workers, since unions are weakened and there is a lack of strong pro-worker legislation in a sociopolitical environment where collective public goods are devalued, and deregulation and the pursuit of private property rights are esteemed above all else.

As our empirical research unfolded, an inductive theme of failure emerged. When we use the language of "failure," this is language coming from our informants; that is, failure is an emic label. Each of our informants was dissatisfied with their project's outcomes and would use language directly indicating failure, or more obliquely, indicating the project did not meet initial expectations.

Why did our informants' design efforts to confront the problem of wage theft fail? In analyzing their accounts, we identified three key levels or scales where these pro-labor projects experienced problems: 1) individual adoption issues, 2) key social relationships within design collaborations, and 3) pervading large-scale institutions.

back to top  Framework for Pro-Labor Design under Capitalism

These three levels—individual adoption, relationships, and institutions—provide us with an analytic grip to think through the relationship between capitalism and social computing design projects.

Social justice issues are too important to be left to the cruel and uninspired logics of economic markets.

Individual adoption. Workers need time, energy, capacity, and training to protect their own interests vis-à-vis their employers. Many of the apps tried to create individually enforced worker protections by having each worker track and document their own work hours. But this is not realistic at a work practice level, meaning the user flows designed within the apps didn't align with the workers' typical work routines. These user flows were also not realistic to the working conditions of many low-wage workers today, who often hold multiple part-time jobs, work many shifts/hours, and experience occupational precarity. Pro-labor design praxis needs to consider individual work practices, burdens, and working conditions of workers and how these affect user experience and adoption.

Relationships. Social computing project funding comes from somewhere, whether that is a government grant, private venture capital backing, or "self-funded" by the unpaid labor of community organizers. All of these configure different sets of relationships and create tangles of responsibilities and power dynamics that shape how design decisions get made and ultimately how a project progresses and is maintained. Projects built on unpaid labor can only last so long; VC-backed projects might have key performance indicators that are difficult to meet or be required to collect data that goes against pro-labor values. These all affect a project's trajectory. Pro-labor design needs to consider the broader sets of relationships invested in a project and how these configurations articulate possible action, efficacy, and sustainability.

Institutions. The institutional scale also came up in our study, with informants pointing to broad, macro-level problems creating barriers to success. Institutional here means the many bureaucratic political, legal, economic, and regulatory systems that reinforce key aspects of capitalism such as taxation, immigration, regulation, and legislation. For example, how state-level tax schemes entice companies to move shop to "right-to-work" states (further weakening unions), how certain companies lobby to keep many service jobs exempt from minimum wage laws because they may earn tips, or how management can use the threat of ICE raids to suppress workers from speaking up about workplace problems. These types of activities create a broader anti-labor climate that shaped the (im)possibility for effective computing interventions around wage theft for our informants. Pro-labor design needs to consider the role institutions play in creating a broader anti-labor climate and how this can create barriers to project success.

back to top  Making Alternatives Possible

We take note that capitalism is not a monolith; there are many capitalisms, not just one [5]. It is our mythologizing and aggrandizement of capitalism that makes it feel natural and inevitable. Capitalism so effectively snuffs out our collective imagination, it creates a social reality where capitalism is so taken for granted that it feels impossible to even imagine an alternative. But design praxis can make alternatives possible, by creating visibility and awareness into the many, situated capitalisms that workers face in their everyday lives and by configuring design spaces where alternative futures can be configured. How might we design a new economic system that isn't so harshly extractive? How might we imagine a new type of worker-employer relationship? Design can trigger these conversations, prefiguring spaces needed to create new working conditions and to make alternative institutions possible. By opening up these speculative spaces, different labor futures can be thought about, worked out, and worked on.

back to top  Going Forward

Even though these pro-labor technologies failed due to multiple capitalism-related reasons, this does not mean hope is lost. We can build different worlds. "The Great Resignation" has shown us: Workers can make big, macro-level impacts on labor conditions. The pandemic was a breaking point for many workers. For those in service jobs, the pandemic meant hazardous work conditions during an infectious disease outbreak, often delivering food and products and providing customer services to the public without proper protection and for low wages. The Great Resignation was a macrotrend, where labor statistics boldly told us that workers had had enough and would leave bad jobs to go find something better. We cannot let this pro-labor momentum slow or the urgency for change wane. Empowering and emboldening workers is a catalyst for justice, not only in ensuring the dignity of work for all (including our own quotidian HCI practice in industry) but also in taking collective action to make this planet more livable as we survive in this era of extended crisis. As researchers and designers, we can help identify how and where the many manifestations of capitalism grip the everyday life of workers; then, together with workers, we can take action in configuring spaces needed to prefigure and mobilize toward pro-labor futures where liberation and relief from our unbearable status quo is possible.

back to top  References

1. Dombrowski, L., Harmon, E., and Fox, S. Social justice-oriented interaction design: Outlining key design strategies and commitments. Proc. the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, New York, 2016, 656–671;

2. Wolf, C.T. Narrative Assembly: Technological Framing, Storytelling, and the Situating of "Data Analytics" in Organizational Life. Ph.D. dissertation. Univ. of California Irvine. Irvine, CA. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017, 10683289.

3. Wolf, C.T., Asad, M., and Dombrowski, L.S. Designing within capitalism. Proc. of the 2022 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2022, 439–453;

4. Sainato, M. 'I have not seen one cent': Billions stolen in wage theft from US workers. The Guardian. Jun. 15, 2023;

5. Gibson-Graham, J.K. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006.

back to top  Authors

Christine T. Wolf is an independent scholar interested in questions of power and technology in society. [email protected]

Lynn S. Dombrowski is an associate professor in the human-centered computing department in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University–Purdue University in Indianapolis. She runs the Sociotechnical Design Justice lab, where she studies, designs, and evaluates computational systems focused on social inequity issues with her students. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

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