Batman vs. Superman (well, actually, just PDC vs. DIS)

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Tue, October 28, 2014 - 10:48:54

The Participatory Design Conference (PDC), which just had its 13th meeting in Windhoek, Namibia, is a close cousin to DIS, the Design of Interactive Systems conference. Both are small, exquisite conferences that lead with design and emphasize interaction over bare functionality; however, like all cousins (except on the ancient Patty Duke show in which Patty Duke played herself and her “British” cousin), there are some important differences. Unlike DIS, PDC is explicitly concerned with the distribution of power in projects; furthermore, the direction of distribution is valenced: more power to those below is good. 

In a way, it is odd for designers to think about distributing power downward—how much power do designers actually have?—and yet the PD conference is an extremely satisfactory place to be. Even if designers do not, in fact, have much power, we are concerned with it. The very act of designing is an assertion of power. Why design, if not to change behavior? And what is changing behavior if not the exertion of power? And if we are engaged in a power-changing enterprise, how much finer it is to, within the limitations of our means, take steps that move power in the right direction rather than ourselves accepting powerlessness? To contemplate what is right is energizing! 

DIS has been held in South Africa, but PDC one-upped it by being held in Namibia and by attracting a very significant black African cadre of attendants. Consequently, a key question after the initial round of papers featured the fears of the formerly colonized. The question was whether the practices of participatory design are not in some sense a form of softening up the participating populace for later, more substantial exploitation. Of course, one hopes not, but how lovely to be at a conference that does not sweep that important issue under the rug. 

As this question points out, we do not always know what is right. Ironically, acknowledging this allows the conference to feel celebratory. Perhaps it was the incredible percussive music, the art show, or Lucy Suchman’s “artful integration” awards, received this year by Ineke Buskers, representing GRACE (Gender Research in Africa into ICTs for Empowerment), and by Brent Williams, representing Rlabs, which supports education and innovation in townships in South Africa and impoverished communities around the world. Both organizations are local, bottom-up, and community-driven appropriations of technology. Or perhaps it was the fact that so many papers focused on the discovery of the particulars that people care about in their lives and the creation of technologies that influence their lives. 

I went to the conference because I have been hoping to jump-start more thought about power in the DIS, CHI, and especially the CSCW communities. I know that many people in these communities have become increasingly concerned about power in the last few years. I hear whispering in the corridors, the same way Steve Harrison, Phoebe Sengers, and I heard whispering before we wrote our “Three Paradigms” paper (the one that tried to clarify basic schools of thought within CHI and how they go together as bundles of meaning). Now the whispering is different. It is about how the study of human-computer interaction needs to be more than the happy face on fundamentally exploitative systems. 

In any case, I knew that PDC would be ahead of me and that the people who would have the most sophistication would very likely not be American. As wonderful as Thomas Jefferson is, he—and therefore we in America—are too much about social contract theory and what Amartya Sen calls “transcendental institutionalism” to adjust easily to certain kinds of problems of unfairness, especially unfairness that requires perception of manifest injustice. As Amartya Sen points out, Americans draw very heavily on the idea that if we have perfect institutions, then the actual justice or fairness in particular decisions or matters of policy does not matter. Transcendental institutionalism is a belief that makes it very difficult to effectively protest fundamentally destructive decisions such as treating corporations as people. In HCI and UX, we tend to think that if users seem happy in the moment, or we improve one aspect of user experience, the larger issues of the society that is created by our design decisions are unimportant. Transcendental institutionalism, again. 

These issues are explored more at PDC. I attended a one-day workshop on Politics and Power in Decision Making in Participatory Design, led by Tone Bratteteig and Ina Wagner from the University of Oslo. Brattetieg and Wagner would have it, in their new book (Disentangling Participation: Power and Decision-making in Participatory Design, ISBN 978-3-319-06162-7) as well as at the conference, that the key issue in the just distribution of power is choice in decision making. The ideal is to involve the user in all phases of decision making: in creating choices, in selection between choices, in implementation choices (when possible) and in many choices that surround the evaluation of results. Furthermore, a participatory project should, they feel, have a participatory result: it should increase the user’s power to. “Power to” arises from a feminist notion of power in which dominion is not paramount. Instead, it is closer to Amartya Sen’s notion of capability. Freedom, from Sen’s perspective, consists of the palpable possibilities that people have in their lives. 

Pelle Ehn, who gave the keynote and is making a farewell round of extra-US conferences before retiring (he will be the keynote speaker at OzCHI shortly), put this view in a larger context by reminding us of Bruno Latour’s notions of “parliaments” and “laboratories.” In this way of thinking, the social qualities of facts are paramount. Though Latour appears to have pulled back from this view later in his life, it has the great advantage of helping us perceive issues of power in design. Power is hard to see. The waves of utopian projects (one even called Utopia) that Ehn has shepherded during his long career each reveal more about the shifting and growing power of technology and the institutions that profit from it. The implicit question raised is “what now?” 

A portion of this concern might seem similar to what we say all the time in human-computer interaction. After all, what is the desirable user experience if not the experience of power to? However, in fact, the normal conduct of HCI and PD only resemble one another at a very high level of abstraction. They differ in the particulars. My t-shirt from the 2006 PDC conference reads, “Question Technology,” but I would say that the persistent theme is not precisely questioning technology as much as questioning how we are constructing technology. PDC does not ask whether technology serves, but who, precisely, now and later. PDC asks “what is right?” 

PDC is the still-living child of CPSR (Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility), an organization that, after a long life, sadly went defunct just this year. I have not been involved with it in recent years, and I am not sure what to write on the death certificate, but it seems to me that the rise of untrammeled global corporate capitalism fueled by information technology has created new problems, that something like CPSR is much needed, and that PDC stands for many questions that need better answers than we currently have. 

I did not get to hear Shaowen Bardzell’s closing plenary, because I had to journey over 30 hours to get home and be in shape to lecture immediately thereafter, but rumor has it that she energized the community. I am optimistic that her insider-outsider status as a naturalized American, raised in Tapei, gives her the perspective to address issues at the edge between, as it were, power over and power to.

Returning to the question of Batman vs. Superman, DIS is also a very delightful place to be. But the freedom of spirit that has characterized it since Jack Carroll resuscitated it in 2006 exists in uneasy implicit tension with the concerns and measurements of its corporate patrons.

Posted in: on Tue, October 28, 2014 - 10:48:54

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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@Jonathan Grudin (2014 10 29)

Nice essay, thanks Deborah.

@Ineke Buskens (2014 10 31)

Delightful piece Deborah, thank you! Much love from South Africa!