Reading Response #1:
to Artful Design • Chapter 1: "Design Is ____"

Noah B.
Music 256A


I’d like to respond to the notion of “alignment”, as discussed on page 30 as part of Principle 1.1. The idea of design as an active, molding force is a powerful concept. What ideas or behaviors are encouraged by the objects we interact with daily? What philosophies, politics, and cultural hegemonies are reflected in the way we use tools, and embedded in those objects themselves? 

One of the most potent case studies of design must be the modern phone. I own an iPhone, so I’ll use that as my reference, although the analysis applies to most devices. At the surface, it’s a beautiful object. One can consider the proportions, the simplicity, the choice of materials. Function and form are tightly interwoven in subtle and sophisticated ways. The phone screen practically begs to be prodded at, the buttons are at your fingertips. The software strives for simplicity, coherence, and human-centricity. Interaction is crafted to be as natural as possible and clean shapes and minimalism are the aesthetic rule. Functionally, the device is a Swiss Army knife of problem solving – to catch a ride, get a meal, chat with friends, check social media, access the internet, get directions, etc., etc. – the phone can help. 

Taking a step back, however, to look at the politics, culture, and ideas packed into the device, we start to notice addiction-encouraging intermittent reinforcement design choices and vast amounts of data collection and ad targeting. With a slight perspective shift, these devices become elaborate means to hack attention, alter behavior, collect intimate data, all, at root, to generate profit for designers and corporations. The politics and philosophies baked into this object are those of extractive capitalism, consumption-oriented psychological manipulation, and relentless profit. 

Our devices encourage behaviors and habits that reinforce a hegemonic capitalist realism through good design. They bring the world into alignment with what one might claim the creators – large corporations – consider “…good and beautiful, or ‘the way things ought to be.’” (p.30) How seamlessly and powerfully design can be harnessed to bring massive power and wealth to very few, frankly, is terrifying.

I’ve recently been interested in efforts to “encode” ethics into design. People often respond to the claim that a technology causes some harm by arguing that technology is only a tool, without any intrinsic ethical bent. It is our politics and culture that we must focus on changing. Things like decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) attempt to make explicit the relationship between technological design and ethics/politics/behavior. They embed accountability and decentralized decision making in their design by enacting a set of algorithmically enforced rules and making all actions transparent on the blockchain. This pursuit seems more honest than the idea of technology as a totally neutral tool. DAOs take ownership of designing behavior and attempt to steer towards purported good. But of course, the idea of hard-encoding – instead of merely nudging, like phones – certain types of behaviors immediately suggests negative potential in the hands of bad actors.