Is it possible to design emancipatory technology?
Why design and technology are constrained in the kinds of options they can present.
You’re reading DisAssemble, a biweeklyish philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products.
“If you could do anything, what would it be?”
The well-meaning but naive words of the school guidance counsellor. In my secondary school’s ‘Career and Personal Planning’ class these words were presented to me with a certain reverence; they were a talisman that would guide me to success and fulfilment.
….But how could I know what possibilities were contained in that word ‘anything’? I was 15. I didn’t have the experience to understand what it was that was out there. I couldn’t formulate value in very meaningful ways either - what was worth it for me to do?
My established sense of purpose and value was vague to nonexistent. I was formed by video games, the then burgeoning internet, and whatever hormones gum up your brain at that age.
But never mind all that - if I could’ve done anything what would it’ve been?
Probably anything other than think about my future.
But I have sympathy for myself. Thinking about what you should do with your life is tough. Because the future - your future - is not actualised through individual action. Envisioning possibility, valuing possibility and achieving possibility have little to do with us as individuals, and are instead articulated through the institutional, cultural, technological, economic and linguistic arrangements that form around us (we can call this a ‘system of relations’).
In other words:
‘The freedom to lead our own lives is itself a social-historical achievement, which requires that we are formed as free subjects by the practices through which we come to understand ourselves and our inclinations in the first place.’
This is a quote from philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Emancipation can only be achieved through the networks of relation that facilitate the realisition of not only what we could do, but what might be something we should or ought to do. It’s not enough to be presented with possibilities, we must investigate them for their aptness to our life.
Hägglund calls this ‘spiritual freedom’ - the question of ‘what should I do with my time?’ He spends much of the book arguing that what we do with our finite time is our most important choice, as it is the most precious commodity we have.
If I ask myself, ‘what should I do with my life?’, I am in essence, asking myself what are the possibilities I can envision as plausible. The ‘plausible’ bit also implies a system that supports possibilities.
We create the system of relations that can support exploring plausibility of possibilities and whether we ought to engage in them - whether we realise it or not.
In Ontological Designing the design philosopher Anne-Marie Willis suggests it is design that fundamentally alters the conditions that allow for particular possibilities in the world.
In other words:
“Design doesn’t just perform certain functions — a car transports you from A to B, a poster displays information, etc. — the interrelated totality of designs construct the world through which humans are brought into being and come to be defined through.”
Design and designed technology then, contribute to the collectively structured conditions that can allow us to explore what we can and ought to do with our time.
I hope it’s fairly evident when I say that design and technology normally does not do this in meaningful ways.
Most design and technology is directed toward not the exploration of plausibility and desirability of possibilities, but the narrowing of possibilities to those within particular windows:
choices of what we should buy, and
what we should do to best maximise profit/wealth.
In the former sense, design works to manipulate demand through advertising, product fetishisation, market stimulation and optics manipulation.
In the latter sense, design works to make profit more efficient and maximal through technological innovation.
Design works towards these goals because these are aligned with the values of capitalism - and capitalism dominates our system of relations, and our ontological commitments. Design theorist Cameron Tonkwise says of designers:
‘They are only ever designing within wider ontological settings and everything they design reinforces that ontology if it is not an explicit struggle to re-direct it.’
So the values of capitalism are embedded into the intent behind designs and into how they are utilised by end users. Allowing humans to explore what they could and ought to do is not a primary motivating and sustaining force behind designed technology.
Still, even if design is truly and explicitly aimed at reinforcing capitalism, can designed technologies help us understand what we can do with our lives, and what we ought to do with our lives? Can it be emancipatory, as it were?
Well, it can be difficult to truly understand the breadth of ‘oughts’ if you are being manipulated into wanting something. Are you truly able to explore options if you are being convinced that your opportunities in life are defined by your ability to choose from selection of products? If design works hand in hand with commercial entities to make products and services desirable and a goal in and of themselves, is it not also correspondingly limiting or making undesirable possible alternative ways of being?
And with regards to design making profit extraction more efficient - this is not the same as giving us free time. Profit extraction creates wealth, not free time.
Yet it may be argued that profit, that the gains of capitalism vis-à-vis supposedly emancipatory technology, engenders free time in that if you have wealth you don’t have to work. But because we don’t treat this as a primary operating value (we aren’t paid in free time), it’s a secondary result - at best - of our activities, including design, which are motivated and sustained through the primary operating values of our society: capital growth.
Capital growth cannot lead to free time for everyone, nor can it let technology provide this. If technology made it so that most people didn’t need to work and instead gave them unfettered free time, we would be in a crisis.
This is because we are required to produce goods and services - this is a requirement of capitalism. Under capitalism, a worker has to sell her labour to produce and get paid for it.
And this is because the worker must work and receive money so she can purchase products that are created - annual growth as defined under capitalism requires not only the production of ever more commodities but also the consumption of these commodities - not only selling but also buying.
As Hägglund puts it:
‘We not only sell our labor-power but also buy the products of labor for more than it cost to produce them. The resulting profit for capitalist employers is the source of capital growth.’
Even if there is no reason for us to work - even if no one needs a particular product, we must produce and we must consume. Private enterprise has little interest in what is actually desired or needed in terms of supply and demand, but rather creating a system where supply and demand can be artificially manipulated for maximal gain.
As anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out, most jobs are variations on bullshit; each of us very likely could work far less and still be able to have sustenance and comfort (see Keynes famously predicting the 15 hour work week nearly a century ago) - albeit with a smaller range of products and services. But when we don’t produce there is no value that can extracted from our labour and thus less wealth generated for distribution. And because capital generation is our measure of wealth (it doesn’t have to be!), we would have societal stagnation. (Oh, and redistribution of wealth is not an answer either as it wouldn’t change the value-orientation - we would still need to produce and consume.)
It certainly isn’t just me suggesting or hypothesising this. Just look at this EU report on the effect of new technologies. There’s a palpable fear that these technologies may - *gasp* - create unemployment. Policy response recommendations, of course, do not suggest investigating how this could possibly be a good thing - rather they are focussed on tech education, technology regulation and entrepreneurship.
So. Capitalism has no interest in increasing people’s free time via technology in a way that a ‘freed up’ human can be free to do whatever they choose. Any technologically replaced human must continue to produce services or products that are marketable.
These are disturbing conclusions: our choices of what we can and ought to do are determined by the systems of relation that present and support such possibilities, but under capitalism technology is not interested in giving us free time to help us decide what we want to do with our lives, or a true unbounded range of what we could and ought to do. Instead design and designed technology are aimed at manipulating our options and desires toward consumption and maximising wealth generation. And this is something that is seemingly intrinsic to the nature of design under capitalism.
So, if I was asked the question again:
“If you could do anything, what would it be?”
I might answer by saying: I’d like to create technologies - and use specific methods of creating these technologies - that question the values of wealth generation as a primary value. How? That’s for next time.