There was no place for him to go. No place he could hide. No place where his enemy didn't exist. No escape from unconscious wakefulness. There was no rest. And so he just lay there with the nauseous pain of exhaustion…. Yet it was this constant and all-pervading pain that seemed to allow him to survive for without it the overwhelming anguish and terror of his mind would have destroyed him.
— Hubert Selby Jr. (The Room, 1971)
The above excerpt describes a peculiar aspect of paranoia: a constant and all-pervading fear that seems to allow one to survive when perceiving overwhelming anguish and terror. Paranoia is typically characterized as a pathology of an individual's psyche. In this column, I formulate paranoia as a matrix of sociotechnical interactions that arise in reaction to a collapse in the ecology of meaning and expected order. Thus, paranoia is a form of knowing that arises when what is known can become undone. Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that "paranoia refuses to be only either a way of knowing or a thing known" . Queering the subject/object binary, my approach to paranoia straddles between an objective diagnostic analysis (what is known) and a subjective prognostic rationale (what ought to be done) with respect to technologically mediated social interactions. In recent years, there has been an increased push in HCI toward engaging with social-justice-related issues across problem domains. Social-justice-informed design epistemophilia—an invested drive for knowledge—has a proclivity to position researchers and designers as valiant protectors of the vulnerable against pervasive oppressive structures. While social responsibility and ethical considerations are indispensable for design practice, it is vital to acknowledge the limits and limitations of "doing good through design" narratives. In this context, I will explore paranoia as a sociotechnical matrix of interactions with concomitant desires that bear implications for the design of technology.
The above Tamil adage roughly translates to "Every shadow is a ghost to the eyes that hold fear!" To dismiss someone's fear as paranoia is a contention for power about what can be admitted as "reasonable" while persuading others. Therefore, an ethical consideration of paranoia behooves us to ask who benefits from dismissing others' fears and how such reasoning is enmeshed within design discourses. Expanding beyond a pathologizing conceptualization, I explore paranoia as a sociotechnical episteme—a way of knowing and making sense—that can offer a multitude of competing explanations and speculative expressions that arise out of suspicion. John Farrell offers a genealogy of suspicion in modern Western thought and characterizes paranoia as "a psychological tendency in which the intellectual powers of the sufferer are neither entirely undermined nor completely cut off from reality, but rather deployed with a particular distortion" . Paranoid thinking deserves careful consideration because it cannot be readily dismissed as persecutory delusions of an individual. Farrell argues that "modern people identify with the paranoid character [because they] feel the need to account for their individual and collective failures, to set their own lives meaningfully in the context of their moral relations with others" . Paranoia then can be characterized as an Other-oriented episteme that is inherently relational.
What happens when we acknowledge that we do not merely perceive design problems as they are but perceive them as we are?
Made manifest and mediated through a sociotechnical matrix of interactions, paranoid thinking becomes a form of "group thinking" that involves an orienting belief about "possessing a special insight into the epistemologies of enmity" . Ieva Jusionyte and Daniel M. Goldstein illustrate "the multiple and shifting intersections of in/visibility and in/security in today's security-minded world" . They assert that "paranoid concealment and creative camouflage are the modi operandi of contemporary security regimes, and the ability to manipulate visibility and to penetrate the opaque are key techno-discursive components of ongoing state projects of security" . Wendy Hui Kyong Chun provocatively states, "To be paranoid is to think like a machine" . Thus, to leave no stone unturned is a machine-logic response to perceived threat. We use digital vaccine passports that determine how human bodies can move across human-made borders and involve legal, state, medical, policy, and policing experts. In my opinion, what seems to be lacking is a caring sensitivity toward those for whom paranoia is experienced as a necessity for survival, specifically groups of people who carry multigenerational trauma in their bodies and experience it repeatedly playing out in the group's psyche. Groups that have been and are systematically exploited continue to survive despite the dangerous and alienating interactions because of their paranoid thinking. Whether it be state-level public health measures or teaching small children not to accept food from strangers without asking an adult in the family, paranoid thinking is an adaptive response to perceived threat to survival.
Anyone not paranoid in this world must be crazy…Speaking of paranoia, it's true that I do not know exactly who my enemies are. But that of course is exactly why I'm paranoid.
— Edward Abbey (Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast, 2007)
When designing technologies that mediate our relationships with others across contexts, how might we design to balance the impulse to detect threats from others while also learning to cultivate trust with others? Design thinking is often entrusted with the task of innovating our way out of complex issues such as climate change at the global level, social inequities at a the communal level, and intimacy at an interpersonal level. Are we to expect designers to repent about their role in and atone for making a mess to begin with while also acrobatically kowtowing to the demands of the market to make a living? Design theorist Donald Schön approaches designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. He points out that designing involves: 1) tacit knowing that cannot always be fully articulated; 2) establishing patterns, relationships, relevance, and meaning; 3) values, norms, and beliefs that inform appreciation criteria and decision making processes; and 4) understanding that the problem and solution space are not given but constructed and coevolve over time . How might Schön's characterization of design as reflective practice intersect and interact with the politics of "doing good through design" narratives in HCI? And what does paranoid thinking have to do with design thinking?
Paranoid reasoning is constructed and offered as an alternative rationale to the status quo but tends to deny or at least distrust alternatives to itself. Timothy Melley insists that paranoid reasoning "is a reductive, but still useful, form of political representation [that] develops from the refusal to accept someone else's definition of a universal social good or an officially sanctioned truth" . Thus, critical impulses within HCI and design discourses that are developed from the refusal to accept someone else's definitions and values are necessary to meaningfully engage with complex issues that have sociopolitical implications. Sedgwick observes that "paranoia is drawn toward and tends to construct symmetrical relations, in particular, symmetrical epistemologies" thereby propagating "a mode of selective scanning and amplification" . For example, while moderating content in online group discussion forums, the act of censoring might be necessary sometimes but it can also trigger the belief that the act of censorship itself is a confirmation of our worst-held fears. Sticking to everything with which it comes in contact, paranoia tends to be hermetically sealed by "blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand" . Thus, censoring is a necessary but not sufficient mechanism of harm reduction. Censoring alone is not enough as a harm-reduction practice while designing interactive technologies, such as online discussion forums, that have the potential for the expression of toxic opinions and problematic group behaviors. Reaffirming the opinion that retributive, justice-oriented technologies alone are not enough, designers and HCI researchers must engage with the design of technological interactions through the ethics of reparative justice.
Moving away from a pathologizing perspective of paranoid thinking, we might begin by asking what could possibly be the value of paranoia? From an evolutionary perspective, Nichola Raihani and Vaughan Bell "argue that the presence of coalitions and coordination between groups in competitive situations could favour psychological mechanisms that detect, anticipate and avoid social threats" . Therefore, they "suggest that paranoia should not solely be viewed as a pathological symptom of a mental disorder but also as a part of a normally functioning human psychology" . If we are to agree that paranoid reasoning warrants critical engagement despite its problems, what is its relevance for designing technology? American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote concisely of the dilemma that paranoia brings: "Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared." The messy entanglements between paranoid thinking and design thinking intensifies when we realize that design: 1) is often entrusted with recognizing and protecting us from potential threats (through concerns such as privacy, security, risks, etc.); but also 2) helps us explore and cultivate healthy relationships with others across contexts (through concerns such as care, intimacy, trust, etc.).
Oh, de kodak fiend, he's sly an' mean, An' you can't go out near his machine, Or he'll take you down wid yo' kinked-up hair, An' yo' dirty clothes, and yo' feet all bare.
— Joel Benton ("The Kodak Fiend," 1894)
The above poem warns readers about an amateur photographer using his Kodak camera to take unflattering pictures of strangers. Fear of what might become possible with new technological changes continues to engender paranoid responses in numerous ways. In relation to paranoia, what happens when we acknowledge that we do not merely perceive design problems as they are but rather perceive them as we are? Regarding the pain of others, queer activist Susan Sontag wrote that to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. Design involves framing in the form of establishing patterns, relationships, relevance, and meaning that are operationalized through appreciation criteria and decision-making processes informed by the values, norms, and beliefs of a group of people. Does framing always necessarily mean excluding? If yes, then how might we work toward meaningful inclusive design practices? Casting others as victims without accounting for their strengths and resilience provides discursive cushioning for authoring designer-as-savior narratives. If designing means "doing something" about perceived problems, we might be stumped when faced with a situation that requires us to do nothing, or where nothing can be done. In relation to a culture of conspiracies, Melley uses the term agency panic to describe the "intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control" . When confronted with our worst fears, how might designers and HCI researchers compassionately navigate our agency panic?
Generating HCI research is an act of deliberate causality (thanks to Jofish Kaye for introducing this framing to me). HCI researchers and design theorists attempt to push reality toward a specific vision of the future among competing prospects and create a space of possibility for technologically mediated social interactions. Ideally, designers are interested in changing the world for the better. Design theorists must convince others about what is worth pursuing among competing prospects for what our shared future ought to be. The ritualized production of design research knowledge involves objectively constructed information, subjective expertise based on specialized training, relational sensemaking of multiple disciplinary practices, and material processes. HCI and design researchers are required to build coalitions among different stakeholders and coordinate between groups with the goal of deliberately manifesting their vision among several competing alternatives for the collective, technologically mediated future. My intention here is not to imply that design research and paranoid reasoning are the same but rather to spark communal discussion about how these two bear implications for each other.
HCI is primarily an interventionist discipline, since our work is not to merely study and describe the problems around us but to intentionally change the world, hopefully toward the better. When HCI research is framed as fighting unjust systems and empowering those who are marginalized through technology design, the discourse can tip toward "trace and expose" projects. Shedding the guise of the disinterested impartial observer describing reality, HCI researchers and design theorists must make impassioned arguments by appealing to other people's sensibilities, ethics, and morals, along with a convincing rationale and material evidence to legitimize their agenda for pushing reality in a certain direction. Design theorizing and paranoid reasoning about technological changes uncomfortably share a common terrain: Both offer a multitude of competing explanations and speculative expressions that might arise out of suspicion and distrust. While training designers and HCI researchers, how might we account for and accommodate lived experiences of paranoid reasoning in an emotionally reparative and socially responsible manner?
1. Sedgwick, E.K. Paranoid reading and reparative reading; or, you're so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you. In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 123–152; https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822384786
3. Jusionyte, I. and Goldstein, D.M. In/visible—In/secure: Optics of regulation and control. Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 2016, 75 (2016), 3–13; https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/focaal/2016/75/fcl750101.xml
4. Chun, W.H.K. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. The MIT Press, 2008; https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/2150.001.0001
5. Schön, D. Designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. Knowledge-Based Systems, Vol. 5, Issue 1 (1992). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/0950-7051(92)90020-G
7. Raihani, N.J. and Bell, V. An evolutionary perspective on paranoia. Nature Human Behaviour 3 (2019), 114–121. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0495-0
Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, yoga instructor, and sexual rights activist. [email protected]
Copyright held by author
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2023 ACM, Inc.