Surveillance capitalism, by design

What is going on with things?

This is a question that has been animating my research for the past few years. It has led to identifying some basic shifts underway in how things are made, when, where, and by whom, and what they are made of. Due to networked connectivity, things can be active and responsive, dynamically configuring themselves to particular users and contexts and pulling together networked resources to assemble themselves on the fly. Because of these characteristics, Johan Redström and I have termed these things fluid assemblages (in our book Changing Things) in order to conceptualize them in a way that can help us come to grips with how things are changing and what this means for design and use. This is a shift that we argue has profound consequences for design, as significant as the shift from craft to industrial production.

And what do these things do?

This is another fundamental question that also leads to recognition of massive shifts underway in the roles that everyday things play. This question is often addressed from a perspective of focusing on human experience, even as experience can be seen as co-constituted through (technologically-mediated) relations (as in postphenomenological theory and analysis).

Surveillance capitalism (missing: design)

Darker patterns

There are at least beginning to be discussions of machine learning and AI as design materials; and interaction designers also work more with data scientists as design work is increasingly done through data-driven progressive optimization rather than crafting of complete and final products in the way that industrial design worked under industrial capitalism and systems of mass production. But rather than being central to industrial production, as it was under industrial capitalism, design seems to be on the sidelines in relation to where much of the action currently is.

Production and consumption, take two

Design has been here before — still is in fact. Under industrial capitalism, industrial design facilitated the production of consumer goods to fuel the endless appetite for consumption in wealthy parts of the world that was the foundation of economic growth (and cause of unevenly distributed benefits and damages). Recognizing this now in the context of (designed) unsustainabilities, there are now serious efforts to turn the capacity of design toward envisioning and transitioning toward sustainable futures. And yet, these efforts exist in parallel (and with far fewer resources than) business as usual in industry — or at least, more as usual than is even remotely desirable given the magnitude of the problems and required changes. While design has rich capacities to grapple with complexity and design for ecology, it has been mostly tethered to responding instead to the demands of the capitalist economic system rather than the larger ecological system in which it is embedded and on which it actually depends (as Joanna Boehnert has incisively articulated).

In search of design, in search of possibilities

Things that are artificial could by definition be otherwise. As design theorist Clive Dilnot beautifully writes in concluding his chapter in the book Design as Future-Making:

Digital technology and design theorist, writer, teacher. Currently working at Umeå Institute of Design on developing design philosophy for things that change.

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