The importance of constraints

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 31
Digital Citation

FEATURELearning from activists

Tad Hirsch

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Over the past decade, a growing movement of politically engaged designers and engineers has been quietly building technical infrastructure for contemporary protest movements. The efforts of these "contestational designers" have largely gone unrecognized by the mainstream technology development community. A slew of articles and books in both the academic and popular press describe the impact of websites, blogs, mobile phones, and the like on political activism, but the dominant narrative assumes a nearly effortless transition between the appearance of new technologies and their adoption by activists. Technology use by activists is generally presented as simply another form of consumer behavior, analogous to other kinds of end-user adoption. Notably absent from this formulation is any accounting of the productive human labor involved in creating or adapting technologies to meet activist needs.

The technical community in general, and interaction designers and computer-human interaction specialists in particular, can learn from contestational designers. Protest movements involve users, communities, and needs that differ from those faced by mainstream designers. Activist technology development's unique context leads to innovative solutions that, in some instances, anticipate broader technical trends. Contestational designers also offer new models of engaging with technology, people, and social issues that challenge implicit assumptions about how design operates.

Activists have long been technology innovators, from the underground press to early experiments with neighborhood networking, low-power FM broadcast, and satellite television [1]. These efforts multiplied with the growth of Internet and mobile phone networks. There are now many examples of activist technology projects. was an early online collaborative calendar that continues to list protests and activist events around the world. and have offered free, anonymous email and message boards for activists for nearly a decade. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace have used GPS, aerial photography, and satellite imagery to document illegal logging and mining operations around the world. Tools like FrontlineSMS and Riottones enable groups to use text messaging and to create subversive mobile phone ringtones.

There is also a tradition of arts-based activist technology development [2]. The Electronic Disturbance Theater's FloodNet project explored distributed denial-of-service attacks as an activist strategy. Artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko built robotic dogs that sniff out environmental contamination. The Institute for Applied Autonomy created robots that hand out subversive literature and spray paint graffiti on the street, as well as mapping software that allows activists to catalog CCTV surveillance camera locations.

Projects like these contend with a unique set of design constraints. Activist technology projects often support immediate, short-lived campaigns and events. They are imbued with a sense of urgency stemming partly from the passion that motivates much political action, and partly from the highly contingent environment in which activist projects occur. Activists respond opportunistically to dynamic political, legal, and technical environments. Projects are undertaken in extremely compressed time frames, sometimes with no more than a few days or weeks between conception and realization.

The immediacy of activist projects, coupled with a perpetual lack of funding, forces a kind of rough-and-tumble innovation. Contestational designers adopt highly fluid processes. They learn to quickly identify and exploit short-lived opportunities. Tactics and technologies often develop in tandem: Plans evolve to embrace new technical capabilities, while changing campaign objectives in the midst of a project provoke new design directions.

Design iterations tend to be very public experiments. Contestational designers seldom have the time or resources to perform controlled trials. New ideas are developed and deployed very quickly. Evaluation is immediate and unsentimental. If an idea shows promise, it is refined and reused. If not, it is abandoned.

Contending with direct opposition by state, corporate, and nongovernmental actors also influences design decisions. Projects often, but not always, privilege quick deployment and replicability over long-term sustainability. Concerns about confiscation and subpoenas lead to minimal data-collection and retention policies, and highlight the importance of trust in determining end-user adoption. Activists' willingness to engage in extra-legal activity [3] also enables unique design opportunities—including the creation of socio-technical artifacts that maintain complicated, even parasitic relationships with existing infrastructure. For example, activist communications projects often rely on corporate or academic bandwidth and machines that are utilized without their owners' knowledge or permission.

Operating in the face of often overwhelming opposition also translates into a willingness to take risks and an acceptance of failure [4]. Activists generally expect their communications systems to fail, either through direct interference or technical snafu. Accordingly, designers place an emphasis on creating redundant systems. For example, activists will build websites, low-power FM stations, and SMS broadcast systems all to support a single protest to ensure that information continues to flow, even if one or more of those systems goes down.

Activist and mainstream design projects also structure relationships between designers, collaborators, and end users differently. Contestational designers consider their work to be a form of political activism that is motivated by personal commitment to an issue or cause. It is usually a volunteer activity, enabling designers to pick and choose their projects and collaborators at will. Accordingly, contestational designers enjoy a greater degree of autonomy than many of their commercial counterparts.

The personal autonomy exercised by contestational designers is tempered by commitments to the individuals, organizations, and movements with whom they work. The bonds they form with their collaborators may run deeper than those between traditional designers, clients, and users. Relationships in commercial design projects are always adversarial to some degree. Regardless of intent, all parties are seen at least in part as potential sources of litigation and intellectual property disputes and must be kept at arm's length. Relationships are formalized with contracts, nondisclosure agreements and so on. Activist relations, by contrast, tend to be predicated on notions of solidarity rather than structured by legal documents. Collaborators are fully engaged participants; intellectual property is meant to be widely disseminated, rather than locked up in patents. Relationships tend to outlast projects, with designers continuing to provide advice and technical expertise to activist groups long after a particular project is completed.

Most significantly, contestational design projects proceed from a set of assumptions that diverge from the usual logics of communications technology development. While mainstream design emphasizes workplace productivity and consumer experience, activist innovation is generally concerned with personal empowerment, collective action, and non-hierarchical organizational models. As it happens, activist technology has directly influenced broader technical trends. For example, the international network of Indymedia sites built in the late 1990s and early 2000s inform open publishing platforms and the "citizen journalism" movement. Similarly, an SMS broadcast service called TXTmob that was created for protestors at the 2004 U.S. Republican National Convention helped inspire the development of Twitter and micro-blogging.

That activist technology would differ from and in some cases anticipate broader trends shouldn't be surprising. By definition, activists are people for whom existing social structures are somehow unsatisfying or inadequate. It is in their nature to continuously experiment with social form, innovating new organizational structures and new social relations. Activist communities have always developed extensive social practices and technologies that support alternative forms of social organization, including consensus-based decision making, nonhierarchical organizations, and affinity-based social networks. That these ideas have in recent years found widespread appeal in corporate, academic, and mass culture and are at the heart of many so-called Web 2.0 technologies demonstrates activists' capacity for anticipating nascent but deeply felt social needs [5].

Finally, contestational designers challenge the way that design is positioned relative to the broader society in which it operates. Contestational designers are openly partisan practitioners who take sides in pressing issues of the day. They are neither objective technicians nor hired guns—images that continue to dominate the technical development community. Contestational designers are autonomous agents, striving to unleash the full potential of their powers to advance agendas to which they are personally committed. Their collaborators are neither clients nor consumers, but full partners committed to ongoing struggles for human rights and social justice. The work may be unpaid, but it is deeply rewarding. As such, it should be an inspiration to designers everywhere.

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1. Several early activist communications projects are described in Chandler, A. and Neumark, N. (eds), At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

2. Thompson N. and G. Sholette, eds., The Interventionists: User's Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004; offers a recent but by no means exhaustive catalog of artist-activist projects.

3. I refer here to exploiting excess capacity—whether squatting abandoned buildings or utilizing privately owned bandwidth—rather than, say, vandalism or violence.

4. Indeed, failure can sometimes enhance an activist's reputation; especially if it presents an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to the movement by, say, getting arrested.

5. It may also speak to some contestational designers' ability to leverage skills honed by working on activist projects into influential positions in mainstream R&D organizations.

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Tad Hirsch is a research scientist with the People and Practices Research group at Intel, where he works on emerging technologies for natural resource management, sustainable agriculture, and social movements. He previously developed mobile phone services for political activists at MIT's Media Lab, and taught in the digital media department at the Rhode Island School of Design. He has worked with Motorola's Advanced Concepts Group and the Interaction Design Studio at Carnegie Mellon University, and has several years' experience in the nonprofit sector. Hirsch is also a frequent collaborator with the Institute for Applied Autonomy. He holds a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences from MIT, and an M.Des. in interaction design from Carnegie Mellon University.

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