Interaction Design as Mattering

The Syllabus (without assessment tasks) for the Grad Seminar I’m teaching to CMU School of Design Masters degree programs. Less thing-oriented, more relations-between-things this year compared to last.

This course examines philosophies and cultural theories underlying interaction design. Design is understood as the practice of enabling new kinds of human activity through the creation of useful things – and those things include communications and environments. The course begins by asking, why do we have so many things? By mapping networks of things, the course begins to uncover how things afford interaction. How things do what they do is tied closely to why we make things at all, and how we make them. The focus of the course is an examination of the philosophies deployed by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in their Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Underlying the course is the development of the habits of being a reflective practitioner, which involve collecting patterns of interaction and evaluating their value and consequences.

learning objectives
Successful completion of all aspects of this course should mean that you have:
1. A practical understanding of a range of philosophies and cultural theories of interaction design, including:

    a. Affordances (Gibson)
    b. Scripts (Latour & Akrich)
    c. Patterns (Alexander)
    d. Loosely-coupled Systems (Maturana & Varela)
    e. Performatives (Austin)
    f. Ready-to-Handedness (Heidegger)
    g. Focal Things (Borgmann)

2. A capacity to map networks of things, including their pasts and futures
3. An ability to articulate what (lifeworlds) a design designs
4. The habit of collecting and critically reflecting on patterns of human-thing interactions

Fernando Flores & Terry Winograd Understanding Computers and Cognition Addison-Wesley, 1987


  • Dvora Yanow & Tsoukas, Haridimos ”What is Reflection-In-Action? A Phenomenological Account” Journal of Management Studies Vol.46, No.8 (2009)
  • Bruce Sterling Shaping Things MIT Press, 2006
  • Kristin Leismann, Martina Schmitt, Holger Rohn & Carolin Baedeker “Collaborative Consumption: Towards a Resource-Saving Consumption Culture”Resources Vol.2 No.3 (2013)
  • Erik Stolterman, Heekyoung Jung, Will Ryan, Martin A. Siegel “Device Landscapes: A New Challenge to Interaction Design and HCI Research” Archives of Design Research Vol.26 No.2 (2013)
  • Alan Warde “Consumption and the Theory of Practice” Journal of Consumer Culture Vol.5 No.2 (2005)
  • Peter-Paul Verbeek & Peter Kockelkoren “The Things that Matter” Design Studies v14 n3 (1998)
  • Bruno Latour “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts” in Weibe Bijker and John Law eds. Shaping Technology/Building Society MIT Press, 1992
  • Brian Bloomfield, Yvonne Latham and Theo Vurdubakis “Bodies, Technologies and Action Possibilities: When is an Affordance?” Sociology Vol.44 No.3 (2010)
  • Bryan Lawson “Schemata, Gambits and Precedent: Some Factors in Design Expertise” Design Studies Vol.25 No.5 (2004)
  • Molly Steenson “Problems before Patterns: a Different Look at Christopher Alexander and Pattern Languages” Interactions Magazine Vol.16 No.2 (2009)
  • Lucy Suchman “Do Categories Have Politics? The language/action perspective reconsidered” Proceedings of the Third European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work 13–17 September 1993, Milan, Italy ECSCW ’93


Filed under Uncategorized

A Post Normal Design PhD

Laurene Vaughan organized a session at the recent DRS/Cumulus Conference on “Design PhDs” to which I contributed this very schematic position paper.

A Design PhD is a Neoliberal PhD

Design is a relatively recent profession compared to others – architecture, medicine, law. It is therefore, also, one of the most recent disciplines. In the Anglo-Australian context, design entered the university when technical colleges and polytechnics doing atelier-derived design education were merged with universities in the late ’80s / early ’90s. At that same time, countries with government-funded university systems, such as the Anglo-Australian system, were adopting neoliberal policies that demanded quality assurance performance improvements for tax dollar spending. This translated to the requirement that all disciplines, including new entrants, have certified research training, such as PhDs. So creative industry disciplines like design begin to have PhD programs primarily as an outcome of neoliberal higher education policies.

The Homeopathic Practice-Based PhD

What is interesting, and possibly significant, is that rather than simply conform to a traditional model of a PhD, creative industry disciplines like design responded to the neoliberal imperative for formalized research capacities by insisting on the need for new epistemologies more compatible with the processes and dispositions of their creative practices. It is in this context that the discourse of practice-based research in fields like design arises.

On the one hand, this discourse has a pragmatic motivation. Design educators should be practicing designers according to the studio-based system; but if neoliberal higher education demands that those same educator-practitioners should also be researchers, then that research must be designerly in nature, lest those design educators lose their practitioner quality as they complete their PhDs.

On the other hand, when pressed, defenders of practice-based research offer justifications appropriate to how recently design has become a profession and a discipline. As a relatively immature profession, the primary purpose of disciplinary design research is to substantiate and advance design practice. This requires a practical understanding of designing to conduct such research, but even more importantly, a conversance with design practitioners to ensure that that knowledge is disseminatable to the professionals whose design practice stands to benefit from that research. As with homeopathy, the profession can be disciplined only with more of itself, as opposed to allopathic attempts by techno-rationality to correct design (as was attempted by the Design Methods movement).

Post-Modern Performance

I want to argue that practice-based design research is more significant than these rather centripetal perspectives can indicate. The neoliberal restructuring of higher education that made the design PhD possible was obviously not a neutral force. The disruption that allowed design and other creative disciplines to innovate practice-based design research, was actually followed by a redoubling of calculative reason, or what has been called ‘audit culture.’

In fact, to some extent, this may explain why practice-based research was at least initially acceptable to the neoliberal university. With its primary precedent being Donald Schön’s ‘Reflective Practictioner,’ practice-based research appears to be in line with what Jean-Francois Lyotard identified as the focus on ‘performativity’ in the postmodern university; in other words, practice-based PhDs look like certifiable forms of Foucauldian self-disciplining, enhancing the performance metrics of professionals like designers.

Post-Post-Modern Validity

However, along with this homeopathic self-monitoring was the assertion of a different epistemology, one that I believe remains quite resistant to the neoliberal university’s quantifications. The simplest version of this has been Roger Martin’s claim that whilst business focuses on reliability – meaning the predictable and replicable, i.e., that which can assure stably bankable returns on investment – design has always proceeded by a much more qualitative validity – an interconnected set of pattern recognitions and rapid experiments that can creatively abduct to promising solution fields (see The Design of Business [Harvard Business Review, 2009]). Martin is standing here on a long tradition of people trying to identify how designing is more phronesic judgement than computational technique, more bounded satisficing than rational method – and yet in each case, not nevertheless just an a- or ir-rational art.

In this context, the practice-based design research, especially when certified in the form of an examined PhD, has managed to retain the validity of a sociomaterial craft in the midst of a neoliberal demand for only commoditizable reliability. That non-quantitative validity can be easily recoded as a kind of performance indicator, or worse rendered a merely useful aesthetic distraction. But it can also be reasserted as a force that runs counter to all that seems to be succeeding in removing critique from the university.

Negotiating Risk

This more phronesic form of validity is not just a generally good thing to be preserved in an increasingly reductive university. And it is not just good for design education remaining designerly. It is in fact crucial to our survival no less.

Consider for instance, the emerging discourse of Post Normal Science. Given that ecological phenomenon are inherently wicked, in Rittel’s sense – they are complexes of interdependent relations, including changing social agents, with only ever probabilistic outcomes – ecological science, especially in relation to the politics of sustainability, is forced into being more participatory. Whist maintaining a commitment to the epistemology of scientific method, Post Normal Science acknowledges that these more publicly agonistic processes mean that ecological scientists must negotiate less reliable forms of validity, ones that are more heuristic and argumentative rather than universally factual.

Practice-based design, with its more qualitative forms of validity, is an exemplar of such Post Normal ways making decisions about the future. Design PhDs, especially when externally examined, show the university engaged in the kind of wicked-problem-based knowledge production that is not merely instrumentally performative or calculatively constative.

Reasserting Practice-based Co-creation of Knowledge

Practice-based design research should therefore move beyond self-serving assertions of its significance to the discipline and profession of design. Instead, design, as a mature discipline and profession, must now take its place in the university taking responsibility for wider societal problems. Practice-based research must be, and must be seen to be, playing a central role in larger scale problems like developing more sustainable futures.

To this end:
• no more reflexive PhDs, on the nature of design research
• more practice-based sustainability-oriented PhDs
• only external examination
• make publication and interaction with a non-academic audience (what Post Normal Science calls ‘lay or extended peer review’) part of a practice-based PhD.


Filed under Uncategorized

Status of Design Research

Am heading to a Design Research Roundtable hosted by the Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts. To brief participants, the organizers sent round a useful set of questions. My responses follow.

In all of the following, I am assuming that PhD Design Research is aimed at either:
• creating new knowledge that is significant to the professional practice of design
• creating new knowledge about the human condition in relation to interactions with designs

I am assuming that academic design research is different (even if related) from the research involved in research-based professional (or speculative) design practice.

And I am assuming that practice-based design research involves not merely that:
• it is done by an experienced, studio-trained practitioner, with critical evaluation by other experienced, studio-trained practitioners (practitioner research)
• it generates findings that are relevant to, if not transform, the practice of other desigers (practice-oriented research)
but also, sine qua non,
• completing a design to some resolution is part of the researching (research by practice)

1. Between Text and Object
PhD-projects in Design Research often (if not always) move in between textual and thingly forms. What is your attitude on this hybrid identity of scholarly artifacts in design? What sorts of text-artifact relationships do you consider appropriate, possible, useful in PhD-level research? If possible, please exemplify your thoughts through a concrete example.

It is important to differentiate between

  • i) researching,
  • ii) communicating that research to (academic) peers, and
  • iii) disseminating that research (to non-academic audiences)

    re: i)
    Design is often characterized as a non-verbal activity, a kind of mute material making in the craft tradition. However, this is a caricature if not a nostalgic fantasy. Whilst there are clearly non-verbal forms of visual thinking and material thinking involved in design, Making is Connecting (the title of book by David Gauntlett, Polity, 2011 – though see instead Madeleine Akrich, Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, And Adrian Monaghan “The Key To Success In Innovation Part I: The Art Of Interessement & Part II: The Art of Choosing Good Spokespersons” International Journal of Innovation Management Vol.06 No.02, 2006). To make requires conversing with others (clients, customers, collaborators, manufacturers, accountants, lawyers, etc). But as Donald Schön identified, it also involves conversing with the materials and the design situation. This is not only metaphoric. Design is always a kind of languaging, receiving briefs that name the kind of thing to be designed, and then, hopefully, developing new kinds of things distinct enough to deserve new names.

  • An essential aspect of academic design research is causing all that tacit conversing and languaging to be articulated. So text is necessary (but not sufficient) for a design PhD.

    re: ii)
    Interacting with designed artifacts can involve experiences that might be part of new knowledge, but that, as experiences, are not well communicated verbally. However, a designed artifact does not speak for itself, despite the traditions of how designers present their work. There are two aspects of any designed artifact that demand supplements. Firstly, Good design withdraws into its use. Or as Chris Alexander characterized the situation: design is about fit, but you can only ever perceive misfit. That means that whatever is significant about the experience of designed artifact may not be apparent, precisely because the designed artifact works. Secondly, the experience of designed artifacts is by definition multi-dimensional. As only certain aspects of those experiences will be significant for what the research concerns, researchers must find ways of isolating those experiences. For both reasons then, if the experience of artifacts is a part of the research’s findings, then that experience needs to be curated (with comparative experiences) and framed (with textual instructions).

    re: iii)
    Being mostly research by and through practice, the outcomes are invariably if not necessarily relevant to practitioners. Contrary to popular caricatures, designers do read, but not normally academic dissertations. To have an impact on the profession, it is important that practice-based research be designed after evaluation into forms that make its findings more likely to inform practice. In some cases, this can and should occur for textual materials submitted for evaluation. Communications of research designed for practitioner (or related stakeholder) audiences are in these cases hybrids of text and artifact: i.e., text as artifact.

    2. Between Theory and Practice
    Practise-based Research, Artistic Research, Research-through-Design: We are happily dancing along the borderline of design and research practice. Or is there a borderline? Please share your thoughts on this discussion.

    Design is: planning the making of useful things. This is ontologically different to art, which aims to create things whose value derives from things other than use, and even from deliberate uselessness. There are clearly overlaps in the design art space, but when it comes to the epistemology of research, the practices of art and design are radically distinct.

  • There is dangerous tendency to claim that the difference between research-based designing and design-based research parallels that between applied and basic research. In other words, if the designing is speculative or critical, then, qua not being instrumental, it is considered to be research, that is, inquiry-based. This is not the case; curiosity is only ever a part of the research process, but research is more; it involves more extensively framed research questions and considered methods and pre-specified evaluation criteria.

    There is also an important difference between design-based research, research-through-design and practice-based design research.

    3. Negotiations
    Like in any other community, some things are discussed quite heavily. At the same time, design research is as much a discipline as it shares similar problems and issues with all research disciplines. What are the pain points/the most discussion-worthy points of Design Research out of your perspective that we do NOT share with other disciplines? What are the sides, and which one is yours, if any?

    Literature Review
    Design-based academic research must engage in literature reviews to identify existing knowledge and gaps in relevant fields. However, designers must also engage in precedent reviews. Bryan Lawson amongst others, especially in the area of knowledge management in design firms, has made clear the extent to which design problem-solving involves pattern matching a current situation with a precedent – though this matching can be creatively analogical. There are few models for what critical reviews of precedents should look like: how many, of what sort, conceptualized in what ways, critiqued to what extent.

    There is some discussion of the relation between (social) science models of abductive hypothesis formation followed by experimental testing, and design’s experimental interventionism. The latter differs from the former by
    a) often involving experiments prior to the formulation of a hypothesis; an intervention is made to learn about the situation in the first place
    b) abduction of a design concept is a more creative process, often analogical
    c) experiments are far from variable controlled
    d) evaluation criteria for experimental success are rarely articulated and often personal (though, on science as personal knowledge, see Karl Polanyi). Donald Schön’s account of design experimentation as a type of action research cycle might be phenomenological accurate – hence its popularity – but it does not explain how a successful design experiment takes place.

    As just mentioned, much practice-based research claims Donald Schön’s theory of professional expertise as reflection-in-action as its framework. However, that ‘creative practice via micro-reflections on creative moves’ is often blurred with a more general self-reflexive perspective. Whilst design is inherently subjective, practice-based research qua new knowledge generation and dissemination, must attain intersubjectivity. There are many approaches in social research that could help design research shift from the reflexively subjective to intersubjective critical reflection: auto-enthnography, reflexive sociology, critical theory (arising from discourses of ‘the personal is political’).

    Peer Review
    Designing is a process subject to constant critical evaluation by peers in the studio. Whilst (social) science project usually occur within teams deciding collectively on the problem-statement, data analysis and even write-up, a design project usually moves beyond these types of collaborations to formal sessions of critical review, often by outsiders. Can the ‘crit’ be considered a type of process peer reviewing?

    Most design projects conclude with a presentation/exhibition of the design propositions that are then subject to feedback by a formal jury, community stakeholders or a client. If these responses are made durable, do they compare to peer review?

    What would be needed of design criticism (in terms of form and criteria) for a review of an exhibition to count as peer review?

    Materialist Disposition
    The most central aspect to design – that it creates material forms that can influence users to interact in particular ways – remains poorly understood by other disciplines. The concept of affordance remains marginal in perceptual psychology; use value is under represented in economics; the properties of designed artifacts are of interest to only few in philosophy; and until recently, products and technologies were practically absent from sociology (see Bruno Latour’s complaints).

    As a result, a discourse around what constitutes knowledge in the realm of the interface between material forms and everyday human dispositions remains inchoate.

    4. Friends and Relatives
    Design Research adapts and transforms theories and methods from other research areas. We would love to map out the most useful theoretical and conceptual influences of some of the most important influencers in the Design Research landscape. What are yours? Why are they useful, how have they been adapted?

    Grounded Theory
    The (interview and observation) content analysis process of Grounded Theory is very like the ways in which designers make sense of their social research data. Card sorting the results of a brainstorm or target group parallels iterative thematic coding in Grounded Theory.

    An attentiveness to the way everyday activities are done and spoken about lies at the heart of design research. Design prototypes and cultural probes are direct heirs to Garfinkel’s breaching experiments.

    Practice Theory
    The emerging practice turn in anthropology and sociology, which takes inspiration from Heidegger, Bourdieu and Giddens, adding the sociomaterial perspectives of Latour and STS, is how the social sciences seem to be finally arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of the significance of design. The descriptivism of actor network theory, and the attentiveness to sociotechnical constellations as constituting distinct timespaces (Schatzki) are all important for design research.

    Ecosystems Theory
    Understandings of the interdependencies between species, and between species and their environments, whether symbiotic, parasitic or competitive, provide rich models for understanding designed artifacts as never-isolated-entities. How design innovations happen and diffuse and can lead to radical transitions in these artificial ecosystems can all be informed by ecosystems research techniques and models.

    5. Merits and perspectives
    Design Research has achieved a lot, but can still do better. Here you have some room for strong statements. Please complete the following sentences:

    Design Research has accomplished …

    significantly increasing the quantity of publications not only on designs, but on designing, and by designers. This has given design a capacity to be recognized as a discipline distinct from its profession, even when those publications are practice-based and so connected to the profession. There seems to be an emerging feedback loop between this research and the teaching of design; though less through formal uptake of research findings and more through the fact that educators increasingly have PhDs and so have encountered the research. There is not however yet a substantial enough feedback loop developing between this research and the profession.

    Design Research completely lacks …

    a capacity to engage forcefully in debate with other disciplines. Design researchers collaborate with other disciplines, but are yet to turn their research into critiques of what other disciplines lack – materiality, making, intervention, etc. This is perhaps because design research has been to date emergent, and so centripetal in focus. It is now time that design research move beyond its emergent status and became more assertive about the knowledge it generates; it is not only valid, but invalidates approaches to similar concerns by other disciplines.

    in 10 years Design Research will be …

    a true third to the natural and social sciences. Or more ambitious, design will have displaced the calculative thinking of hegemonic STEM, with more materialistically phronesic approaches to research such as exemplified by design.

    Design Research would be better off if …

    paid more attention to the substantial body of ‘research of design(ing/ers)’ when doing research by design. The work of the Design Thinking Research Symposium over the last two decades, and the research published in Design Studies are rarely cited in more practice-based design research, especially by those undertaking more ‘creative’ research by design projects. Yet, a better account of what is distinctive about the way designers approach situations, is crucial when undertaking research by design, and even more so when trying to account for how significant new insights are generated by research by design. And of course, this body of work should be central in ‘reflective practice’ based work, though it rarely is.

    Design Research is/could/should be a role model for …

    sustainability. The incapacity of our societies, and especially our households (though less so in Germany) to undertake, by design, transformations toward more sustainable ways of living and working, seems to derive from approaches that have ignored or underplayed the role of sociotechnical systems that lie at the heart of design. Attempts to inform or persuade populations to undertake change in their habits, in the absence of technofixes, have not succeeded. Design research, with its proactive epistemology and focus on the material ecologies of our built environments are crucial if progress is to be made.

    Design Research could learn a lot from …

    distinguishing its sub-disciplines:

    > contra architecture
    the difference between the design of meso-scale artifacts and the design of building and urban environments; a key difference being the extent of interactions possible and necessary

    > contra HCI
    what has been adopted from design by digital artifact user experience design is more than has been appropriated by design thinking, but less than all that is entailed in the material practice of crafting plans for the mass production of meso-scale products; there is a literalism to HCI based interaction design that seems to occlude analogue body-thing relations

    > product vs fashion
    though fashion is considered a kind of designing, the practice of fashion design has many aspects that distinguish it from other meso-level artifact designing; different relations to end-users and manufacturers; pace; focus on outside-in meaning over inside-out use; etc

  • Leave a comment

    Filed under Uncategorized

    Defending the Value of the Sharing Economy

    I was trying to write something about the Avis buyout of Zipcar when John Kolko alerted me to this post critical of some of the collaborative consumption startups as they negotiate regulatory resistance. The post made interesting points but in what felt like an excessive baby with bathwater way. It seemed to get at exactly what must now be sorted out. But I got carried away with a stupid conceit in the form of what I wrote, and it is in the end pretty incoherent. I’m putting it here to be done with it as I try to prepare for semester and finish all that I failed to finish over the Winter break:

    Dear Dean,

    I write to report on the academic progress of Tom Slee, and in particular provide an evaluation of a recent piece of work that he submitted – to the public domain – one that he himself claims to be most proud of.

    I must first try to bracket personal loathing for the ‘open letter’ format. The pretense that you are writing directly to someone but in fact writing about them to a different audience has always struck me as hypocritical. Interestingly, in this case, Tom’s letter concerned some issues of regulating innovations in the emerging sharing economy. What is at issue there is of course the power of property rights. Questions of what is private and what is public and where government regualtions vs free market opportunities overlap with those domains are exactly what is at issue. So it is doubly strange, or else quite appropriate given Tom’s conservative views, that he is in fact seeking to gain profile advantage from a purportedly private communiqué to a fellow investor. Of course all readers are aware that this is not really a private communication and can make the interpretive adjustments necessary without government stipulations for example – though perhaps if Tom was consistent in his argument he would recommend that all such ‘open letters’ come with regulatory warnings about their non-private-domain-ness despite appearances. Rest assured, I will not be ‘mistakenly’ posting this letter to some under-utilized blog. I am only a bumbling academic after all, actually forbidden by the not-for-profit nature of my university to make private capital gains from my work.

    Tom’s ‘letter’ is a response to a short NYTimes opinion piece by Tim Wu about the need for regulation of emerging digital-platform-enabled resource-sharing activities, such as ride-sharing or short-term room leasing. Note that Tim’s piece was indeed calling for regulation of these innovative practices in the name of consumer protection. His proposal – though admittedly somewhat buried in the conclusion – was for what he called data-driven regulation. The piece seemed to be arguing that only such a novel way of regulating would be able to pick up the fine-grained activity that is these peer-to-peer economies. An added advantage is that such regulation could be agile enough to not squash these innovations and preserve the less resource productive incumbents.

    Given the tone of Tim’s opinion piece, Tom’s response strikes you at first as excessively forceful. You immediately suspect that there is something to this topic that is strongly affecting him, something bigger than what Tim Wu has written about. Tom is not just suggesting that Tim’s analysis is incorrect, but that it is dangerous, something that demands a personal letter of appeal for Tim to prevent “a disaster waiting to happen” by “retracting [his] support for AirBnB and Uber.”

    At one point Tom does seem to make explicit his real wider target:

    “And I hope that, if you reflect, you’ll agree that the new peer-to-peer companies are a blight on the landscape of egalitarian thinking.”

    So why does Tom think this?

    It can’t be that he thinks that this peer-to-peer world will be an unregulated state of war. On the one hand, he admits that incidents of consumer harm will always be infrequent, or no more frequent than those occurring within currently well-regulated markets. They happen more often than the “anecdotal” descriptor Tim uses; and they will happen in greater number (though not proportion) as these ‘collaborative consumption’ ventures scale up to a wider market. But they will remain “rare,” by his own admission – though, to his credit he does note that this rarity does not mitigate the “severe consequences” of each incident.

    (There is a fair bit of sleight of hand in this ‘letter’ by the way. For instance, AirBnB’s two widely reported incidents – the trashing of one apartment and the use of another as a brothel are not listed side-by-side in Tom’s letter as the total number of [to date reported major] wrong-doings by ‘guests’, but rather used at different points in the ‘letter’ as hyperlinked asides to make it seem like they are just one amongst many such examples the author could have chosen. Perhaps a more significant argumentative sleight of hand is the argument used at one point that the damage users can do to each other through Wikipedia, eBay or Yelp is less than is possible through AirBnB and Uber. Whilst it is true that the latter involves physical proximity between users, it is still the case that one’s whole livelihood can be undermined through the former. We will see shortly that Tom’s prejudice against what he categorizes as peer-to-peer companies (because Wikipedia, eBay and even Yelp count as sharing economy peer-to-peer companies in some people’s reckoning), blind him to the fact that all these companies are on a continuum, a continuum that extends ‘upwards’ to Kinkos and Starbucks and ‘downwards’ to me borrowing my neighbors ladder.)

    On the other hand, Tom also knows that we are not at risk of peer-to-peer civil war because, thanks to supporters like him, government regulation is not going to be thrown overboard by a modern day Tea Party any time soon. Tom is no neoliberal. He likes his regulatory regimes. And so do I. (When academia is made redundant by MOOCs, I’m starting a service design company called “I [heart] Government.”) But perhaps Tom is too much of a government fan-boy. He totally discounts that regulations might be, if not created by inertial self-protecting incumbents, then at least exploited by them. Again, the argument uses hyperbole in ways that we constantly criticize in our students:

    “why is it that every town and city I’ve ever been to has licensing requirements for people offering taxi services or overnight accommodations? Is there a global taxi cartel or a multinational bed-and-breakfast conglomerate enforcing its will on municipalities from Aberystwyth to Yellowknife? …of course there isn’t, because taxi and B&B operations are usually local and small-scale operations…”

    Yes, there is no global taxi cartel. But that does not mean that there is not a New York or London or Nairobi taxi cartel. And there may be no global B&B cartel, but there is a formidable global hotel industry. Perhaps B&Bs are just the smaller (and so in fact very difficult to regulate without a team of field officers) freeloaders off the lobbying efforts (and propagandistic film-funding projects) of monopolistic multinationals.

    The important point here is that regulation is always over-determined – you know, that academic term we use for when something requires multiple rationale to exist, and having been brought into existence, becomes the rationale for many others. The whole political machine does not construct and police regulations that have only one good reason to exist – we know that from how many very reasonable regulations never make it through the system. So regulations might exist to protect consumers, but they also exist because they are implementable, because they fit with the laws of other countries, and match current technologies and everyday lifestyles, and so on; and they exist because they organize a market in ways that allow certain kinds of organizations to profitable service. Unfortunately, this same over-determination also makes regulations very hard to change: multiple stakeholders have to be convinced that it is worth changing how things are done. We also know this from how many really stupid regulations remain on the books.

    By the way, I am very sympathetic to Tom’s critique of the founders of and investors in these companies who seem to be very late in coming to think about regulatory change in their entrepreneurship. These companies are very at risk of replacing the Segway as the case study about the importance of regulation in Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation. (If you remember, the Segway was going change the world, except that it proved illegal to ride on both the road and the sidewalk, so has been relegated to ‘private roads,’ moving security personnel around large complexes like airports and corporate parks.) Entrepreneurship is an alliance-building process as both Fernando Flores and Bruno Latour have taught us. Non-commercial Sharing Economy people knew this from the start. The leadership being shown by Janelle Orsi and her Sustainable Economies Law Center is exemplary. The Collaborative Consumption outfits are typically forming a lobby group – too little too late.

    It is just that I don’t think that the ineptitude of certain #collcons CEOs and/or their backers warrants unqualified endorsement of current regulatory regimes and wholesale trashing of peer-to-peer companies.

    So what behind Tom’s aggressive ‘open letter?’ If the world is not going to deregulate into tooth-and-claw peer-to-peer transactions, then what does Tom fear?

    At times, he seems to be an impassioned defender of communitarianism.

    “While they invoke the communitarian traditions of the informal economy, these new peer-to-peer companies are more likely to erode that economy than enhance it.”

    In a moment that made me chuckle remembering the “not that there’s anything wrong with that” Seinfeld episode, Tom tells us

    “We all know the informal economy. I used to hitchhike to university, my neighbours have yard sales, friends help each other move house.”

    But Tom has a confused sense of when these communitarian activities formalize. At first he implies that it is money that makes the difference, even though his second example of the ‘good’ type of informal economy, is money-making. So instead he says that it is when an activity stops being “at the most minimally commercial… for little or no money is OK.” His line in fact has more to do with frequency: it is when you do these activities often, “every weekend,” that “a level of accountability is needed.”

    So now we are at last getting somewhere. Though Tom says he supports these activities, he doesn’t actually seem to want these communitarian activities to become regular. When they are regular, regular enough to make a living from for example, then they must be regulated, and being regulated means being “commercial… play[ing] by different rules.” You see, Tom has very clear lines in his head about the world: there is the social and there is the economy; as Polanyi argued all those years ago, the latter only exists by disembedding itself from the former; heaven forbid the two should be contaminated.

    Now this is where things get tricky, which is in fact the real reason for my writing to you about my evaluation of Tom. I need some help nuancing this.

    Because you see, in one way, I wholeheartedly agree with Tom. His primary annoyance is with the mixed-messages AirBnB uses in its marketing, and which Tom implies it is now using to promote deregulation (though again, this is the deceitful coupling in his article of Chesky with Kalanick – I’ve not seen evidence that Chesky is seeking a Randian “I don’t need permission” free market). I also am on record for being appalled at the way AirBnB and most #collcons startups inmix rhetoric about ‘sharing’ with rhetoric about ‘profiting.’ Apart from anything else, it is poor Lakoffian framing.

    But the reason I am interested in the sharing economy is because it can be an ‘economy.’ It can scale in breadth, without, I utopianly believe, allowing itself to be commoditized in delocalizing ways. Whilst it is a source of more sustainably efficient resource usage, it is socially inefficient: it has the frictionfulness of people dealing with people as people (as opposed to customers dealing with employees following McDonaldized service scripts).

    Of course there is something unethical about hoping that peer-to-peer platforms can be as commoditizable as spam. But in fact these interactions are uncommoditizable which is why they must be encouraged to scale, and must be made to confront the regulations that make only commoditized offerings scalable. Regulations in turn might just be innovated to be less commoditized as well – wasn’t that Tim’s argument?

    Anyway, it is very much a point of emphasis. I am just very worried that this student is using poor critical thinking skills to foreclose on one of the more interesting opportunities around at the moment, using absurd oppositions (“callous selfishness [masquerading] as community-mindedness”) to reinstate absurd oppositions (the communitarian and the commercial). Things are always more complex, just as they are more dangerous.

    There is a fair amount of Capital from nasty sources washing around in this domain. But there are also large numbers of people playing new kinds of roles in these systems – far from employees, not quite members, all those people opening their homes and cars to strangers, using a mixture of platform-based reputation indicators, community-based everyday intuitions and managed risk escalation. All those ‘users’ are participating for a wide variety of reasons, some ecoleft, some fiscal, every now and then one evil. That to me is very interesting, something where Big Corporate investors seems to be biting off more than they can chew.

    Do please let me know how I should proceed with this student.

    1 Comment

    Filed under Uncategorized

    Bethinging Usefulness

    Here is the syllabus for the Grad Seminar I am teaching at CMU’s School of Design to the Interaction Design and Communication Planning and Information Design Masters freshman. The course attempts to move from an account of design as concerned with things – physical products – to an account of design as a form of thinging – making interventions into ecosystems of things to make new kinds of things (ways of living and working) possible.

    Leave a comment

    Filed under Uncategorized

    Designing as Decisioning

    I am frequently referencing this account of the Arabic word for design – as the process of turning situations into decidables – by Samer Akkach in “Design and the Question of Eurocentricity”, Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 6, 2003/4:

    Although the discourse of design remains predominantly “Eurocentric,” its adaptations and assimilations into the Arab world seem to raise no noticeable intellectual, moral or practical concerns. Interestingly, Arab scholars have invented a modern term for “design,”  tasmīm, that has been used — uncontested — in the contemporary Arabic discourse. Its appearance goes back to the nineteenth century, however, its institutionalised usage has a much shorter history concurrent with the establishment of architecture schools mostly in the second half of the twentieth century.  Modern lexicographers render the new term, together with its derivations, sammama (to design) and musammim (designer), as the only equivalents to the English terms, although they were not used in this sense in pre-modern Arab-Islamic literature. In fact it is not easy to single out one term in pre-modern literature that has the same comprehensive scope and applicability in various contexts, except perhaps for the term san‘a, which denotes the idea of  “making” rather than  “designing”.  The Arabic root of tasmīm (design), samam, literally means “deafness,”  whose various shades convey the meanings of  “solidity” (asamm), “innermost” (samīm) and  “a very sharp sword” (samsām). The current usage, however, seems to be based on tasmīm as “determining”,  “making up one’s mind”  and  “resolve”  to follow up a matter. Thus in linguistic terms “design” is an act of determination, of sorting out possibilities, and of projecting a choice. It has little to do with problem-solving, the prevailing paradigm, as the designer (musammim) seems to encounter choices, not problems, and to engage in judging merits, not solving problems. But whatever the linguistic parameters or demands of the new terms were, the conceptual terrains were already prefigured in the Western conceptualisation and institutionalisation of  “design” and acts of  “designing” that were to be adopted. Modern Arab lexicographers, scholars and designers have hardly exercised any critical assessment of the overlap or match between their lexical and conceptual choices. The lack of historical and philosophical depths of the new terms seems to have assisted in their appropriation and the perpetuation of their uncritical usage throughout the Arab world.


    Leave a comment

    Filed under Uncategorized

    Incomplete Design Thinking

    Design Thinking, far from being dead, is at last being given the kind of scholarship that will allow it to make a real difference to the profession and discipline of design, rather than just being a rebranding of business-as-usual. Lucy Kimbell’s excellent historical account in Design and Culture, to be followed in the next issue by a Part II with a rich analysis of the place of design practice in design thinking work, appropriately locates design thinking within decades of research about design processes. Lucy’s scholarly and professional work, and PhDs in this area such as the one underway by Stefanie Di Russo should mean that schematic commercial 5-dot-point-versions of design thinking are dead.

    In the middle of last year, I was asked to give presentations on the state of ‘design thinking’ at RMIT and UTAS in Australia as both institutions began to institute ‘design thinking’ as general education requirements of all their respective divisions. I argued that if Australian higher education was to adopt design thinking, it was important that it be a 2.0 version, one based on research of design and not just anecdotes. I argued that because Australia had forced research activity out of design when it was incorporated into the university system (with the amalgamations of polytechnics into universities in the late 80s / early 90s) it was in fact perfectly placed to develop that 2.0 version, allowing it quickly surpass the mere rhetoric of design thinking in the US.

    For the last year, I’ve been trying to squeeze out some time to write up those presentations. This draft of “The Grammar of Design Thinking” is not yet finished and without any references. But I recently assigned it to an MFA Transdisciplinary Design Seminar, so I thought I’d put it out there for critique – I’m also looking for a communication designer of the completed version…

    The first section has been made redundant by Lucy’s literature survey in her “Part I” Design and Culture piece. The second section attempts to ask critically what it is about the contemporary state of capitalism that might be causing design thinking to receive so much attention, but the argument is very underdeveloped. The third section attempts to sketch out what I think design thinking should be considered to be; in other words, it is an attempt to sketch out what it is about designing-at-its-best that might represent a real disruption to how we make and value product-service-systems. A fourth section still-to-come would review the argument of the third section in terms of the title of the piece – understanding design as the capacity to view the world in terms of gerundives, middle-voiced ‘-ables.’

    Leave a comment

    Filed under Uncategorized