XXXI.3 May - June 2024
Page: 19
Digital Citation

Dirty Interactions

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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Designers must strive to improve the lives of Others—a seemingly innocuous and noble goal. Specifically, social justice—related design discourses tend to assume that a power-with mode of relationships with Others is necessary, possible, and beneficial for all. In this column, I aim to challenge the limits of this narrative. To this effect, I introduce the concept of dirty interactions that may potentiate dis-ease and arouse dis-comfort in the posited noble relationship between designers and Others. I repeatedly draw attention to the prefix dis to emphasize how interactions with Others might unintentionally fall apart or be intentionally torn asunder. But what do I mean by dirty interactions? Anthropologist Mary Douglas succinctly defined dirt as matter out of place. Building upon Douglas, Bill Countryman observes, "A system that divides clean from dirty is a way of understanding and defining what it is to be human—or, more precisely, what it is to belong to a particular human group that defines purity in this particular way" [1]. My conceptualization of dirty interactions is grounded in my lived reality as a body that is:

  • Immigrant and queer with dirt-colored skin
  • Disrupted by and disturbs disciplinary regimens by crossing geopolitical borders, blurring sociocultural boundaries, and inhabiting in-between places
  • Inscribed upon and sanctioned by specific systemic affordances, designed constraints, navigation strategies, organizational architectures, institutionalized procedures, material processes, communal practices, and value-laden rhetorical devices.

Bodily experiences that may potentiate dis-ease and arouse dis-comfort can both challenge and refine our existing ways of understanding and relating to Others. Focusing on dirty interactions challenges assumptions about power-with as a panacea for social justice—related design engagements. Such engagements are often eager to position designers as striving to improve the lives of Others. Dirty interactions necessitate reexamining topics that are often attributed as the bedrock of relationships between designers and Others (e.g., empathy, communication, care, cooperation, community, etc.) and push for going beyond the power-over versus power-with binary rhetoric. Exploring different kinds of power, James Hillman observes that the "notion that pure activity is the essence of divinity gives spiritual impetus to the Western worship of productivity, and also to Western machismo, racism, and paranoia" [2]. Dirty interactions problematize equating empowerment with agency and defining Others in terms of their ability to act within existing ecologies. As a critical provocation, dirty interactions foreground technology-mediated relationships with Others that are:

Focusing on dirty interactions challenges assumptions about power-with as a panacea for social justice-related design engagements.

  • Experienced as precarious, parsed as illegible, and registered as illegitimate
  • Sensed as traces of dis-identifications (sight), dis-sonances (sound), dis-gusts (taste and smell), dis-associations (touch), and dis-placements (body-in-motion forced out of place)
  • Sanctioned upon certain, but not all, border-crossing, boundary-blurring, discipline-disrupting, in-between-inhabiting bodies.

back to top  Other (Please Specify)

[W]e are also more than one and…not all the selves we are make you important. Some of them are quite independent of you. Being central, being a being in the foreground, is important to your being integrated as one responsible decision maker. And you are very keen on seeing yourself as a decision maker, a responsible being: It gives you substance.
    — Maria Lugones (Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions, 2003)

Different philosophical paradigms allow different modes of conceptualizing and navigating relationships with Others, each with its own strengths and limitations. In the above quote, philosopher Maria Lugones explains the logic of pluralist feminism that can be valuable for critically interrogating the relationships between designers and Others. Lugones articulates the plurality of Others as "more than one" with some being "quite independent of you," prompting us to think about scenarios where power-with designers might not be needed. In another example, Corey Beals expounds the existential philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that necessitates acknowledging plurality of Others: "If there is only I and the Other, then I am infinitely responsible for the Other, but when the third appears on the scene, there is the need for comparing the third and the Other in order to judge how to divide my responsibility between them" [3]. Though Lugones and Levinas build upon different philosophical traditions, they both persuade us to pay attention to how responsibilities are negotiated when encountering a multiplicity of Others. If we are to admit that designers cultivating power-with Others might not always be necessary or possible, then we must also critically examine assumptions about power-with as an inherently better and therefore desirable mode of relating with Others.

From a decolonization perspective, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang push back on reconciliatory approaches and underscore the need for an ethic of incommensurability, "which guides moves that unsettle innocence, [and] stands in contrast to aims of reconciliation" [4]. Grounding perspectives in the geopolitical lived reality of colonized land, "the answers will not emerge from friendly understanding, and indeed require a dangerous understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics—moves that may feel very unfriendly" [4]. If we are to practice decolonization as more than symbolic metaphors, then critical exploration generating "dangerous understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics" is necessary in design discourses. Dirty interactions is one such exploration that strives to interrogate design efforts that attribute inherent benevolence to an ethos of power-with as the desirable mode of relating with Others (and by contrast, characterize power-over relationships as inherently oppressive and exploitative).

There is a discursive need for conceptually and pragmatically dividing responsibilities of designers when encountering a multiplicity of Others that necessarily involve the hierarchical division of labor. In the context of social computing, technology researchers such as Dipto Das and colleagues have underscored the need for thoughtful engagement with a multiplicity of Others in relation to indigeneity: "Indigeneity is not a monolith, and we need to move beyond this universalism to better conceptualize indigeneity relative to the various geographies and histories of indigeneity" [5]. As an exploratory response, I position dirty interactions as a concept that is sensitized toward an ethic of incommensurability and strategically ambivalent about whether power-with Others is always possible or desirable. In addressing the need for accommodating an ethos of incommensurability, it is vital to acknowledge that "dirt also represents the individual's liberation from the sometimes oppressive control of society" [1]. Taken together, I argue that acknowledging emergent dis-continuities between designers and Others through concepts like dirty interactions is necessary for critically engaging with complex ecological issues.

back to top  Few Bad Apples

As queers, we grow up in a world that denies our gender, sexual, and social identities, suppresses our desires, and seeks to destroy our hopes. As survivors, we face families who magnify the horrors of the outside world instead of protecting us—dangerous families who betray and scar us instead of nurturing our trust and safety. Queer survivors of childhood abuse struggle daily with the cracks abuse renders in our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.
    — Matt Bernstein Sycamore (Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving, 2012)

Home and homeland are not a sanctuary for every-body. Queer survivors of abuse living amid ongoing violent queerphobia are deemed dirty and therefore denied belonging to the collective body (family and nation). Certain queer bodies are deemed dirty in the parental home while also being denied full constitutional human rights as citizens in their homeland. Such bodies carry the burden of internal and external alienation wherever they move for survival in search of a place to call home. Certain, but not all, immigrant bodies cross geopolitical borders, blur sociocultural boundaries, and inhabit in-between places but do not, and often cannot, belong to any place fully. Characterizing something as dirty has at least two broad interrelated sociopolitical implications. The qualifier dirty can be, and historically has been, used to performatively evoke a diagnosis of the present and prognosis for a future involving Others. As Countryman writes, "Everything that touches us carries with it the potential of rendering us dirty, and all human societies are concerned, albeit in varying degrees, to keep dirt at bay" [1]. Bodies that are deemed dirty can be marked as 1) out-of-place bodies that do not belong in the collective present, and 2) potentially contagious and therefore justifying of efforts to keep such bodies contained and curbed, if not eliminated, for the sake of a better collective future. Dirty interactions is a design framing attendant to the burdens of certain bodies that: 1) are met with a public call for righteous cleansing of the soiled collective body (family and nation), and 2) struggle with unfair and life-alienating conditions imposed upon them by oppressive control of society.


I conclude this column by raising design concerns for further discussion based on the 2022 World Migration Report. Marie McAuliffe and colleagues observe that "availability of migration options is partly related to the lottery of birth and in particular the national passport of the potential migrant…[and] visa and mobility policy settings are one (albeit important) factor in explaining who migrates and where people migrate over time" [6]. Apart from technologies such as passports and visas, multiple countries use points-based migration systems to assess and mark which bodies belong where. Immigrant bodies that demonstrate the ability to speak without a "thick" accent and attune their ears to comprehend "native" speakers are assigned more points in such systems, reinforcing linguistic imperialism geared toward assimilation. Is it always desirable to define Others in terms of use value for and productivity within existing systems made demonstrable through their ability to act, speak, listen, and assimilate? We must critically interrogate design efforts that evangelize an ethos of cultivating power-with Others. On a global scale, "AI technologies could cement the leading position of those AI-capable States, which would be placed at the forefront of the global efforts to manage migration in the years to come" [6]. In relation to climate change—related migration, this "could simultaneously contribute to deepening the already asymmetrical relationships between North–South States, while shifting the focus slightly toward what could come to be the 'AI-capable States and the Others' split in international migration management." In this context, what are the ecological responsibilities of designers toward those that are marked as dirty, out-of-place bodies that don't belong, by such technologies?

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Ian Hoyt, John Lauermann, and Philip Garip for their thoughtful feedback.

back to top  References

1. Countryman, L.W. Chapter 1: What is purity? In Dirt, Greed, & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Fortress Press, 2007, 9–16.

2. Hillman, J. The Language of Power. In Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses. Currency Doubleday, 1995, 95–108.

3. Beals, C. Levinas and the Wisdom of Love: The Question of Invisibility. Baylor Univ. Press, 2007.

4. Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. Decolonization is not a metaphor. In Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, 1 (2012);

5. Das, D. et al. Conceptualizing indigeneity in social computing. Companion Publication of the 2023 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. ACM, New York, 2023;

6. McAuliffe, M. and Triandafyllidou, A., eds. World Migration Report 2022. International Organization for Migration, 2021;

back to top  Author

Gopinaath Kannabiran is an HCI researcher, design educator, sexual rights activist, and yoga instructor. He is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Pratt Institute in New York City. [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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