Design as participation by Kevin Slavin is one of those rare readings whose ideas are so powerful that you know it will hang around in your head for quite some time. I cannot actually imagine to find myself thinking about the theory and practice of design in the future, without confronting with this short essay; and in fact, in some sort of backward domino effect, I’m already questioning and revising old ideas, through this new perspective.

I didn’t remember the name of Kevin Slavin whet I first saw his publication listed in the first issue of MIT Media Lab Journal of Design and Science, but as I googled his name I realized that he was the speaker in one of my the most cherished TED talk, How algorithms shape our world. If my snobby attitude towards the whole TED enterprise that stopped me to explore Slavin’s work after that then, I’m all in catching up mode now.

Going back to the essay in question, Design as Participation discusses about fundamental principles of modern practice of the discipline: user-centered design.

There was a time in which designers were allowed (and allowed themselves) to favour the system-level result of their practice even if that meant to go against their users (and this is where I drolled at Slavin’s example of van der Rohe, which in his stark modernist stubborness avoided to put window sills in its Seagram Building, as people would start putting ornamental things on them, therefore mess with the appearence of the tower). Since then, is now wildly agreed that a clear and deep understanding of the user’s needs and desires is what makes a difference between a product which succeed and one which doesn’t, and over the years human-centered design have been adopted by businesses of any kind and field. But, and this is the core point of Slavin’s article, a user first perspective doesn’t come without drawbacks.

When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.

Before reading Design as participation I’ve been thinking on and off about how interactions in society increasingly happen though a software-based medium, with a particular interest on one of the consequences of this phenomenon. The nature of a software layer requires a number of rules, of options to be set in place. For its nature it constraints the the quality of the interactions to a particularly designed interface or experience. This encapsulation (to borrow a term from computer programming - wikipedia) is in place to serve our needs in the best way possible. But if this has no consequences when interactions are limited between us and the machine, things take a whole other meaning when behind the interface there are other people.

In that case those humans are flattened down to what the interface represent of them. And especially in the case of software managing the so called gig economy jobs, humans might as well be replaced by more efficient modules. Here’s just some examples of how this “refactoring” is already in place:

  • Uber is investing in self-driving cars link
  • Fembots are used to lure men into spending money in “live” chats for hookup systems link
  • Amazon “fulfillment” centers are increasingly automated link

If this is not necessarily bad by itself, what worries me is the growing disconnection between ourselves and anything else, to the extent that we are not able to tell what or who is beyond the interface we are interacting with. And that’s when Slavin’s essay come into play. Could we instead design technological systems in which we “take part” together with both other people and technological tools? I don’t even know what that would mean, but I’d sure there is something in there. I’ll think about it more.