Design and Agonism

On a spring day in 2002, a half dozen or so toy robot dogs ambled awkwardly across an overgrown lot, the site of a former glass manufacturing plant in the Bronx, New York. Their translucent plastic bodies rolled back and forth on wheels that were attached in the sockets that once held their translucent plastic legs (figure 1.1). Several young people stood watching. These robot dogs had a purpose, and their movements were meaningful. They were on the hunt, released in a pack to sniff out toxic residue in the environment (figure 1.2).

When one thinks of using robots or other advanced technologies for environmental monitoring, most probably imagine trained professionals using sophisticated and expensive equipment. But these presumptions about the practices of science and engineering are being challenged by Natalie Jeremijenko (2002-present) in the Feral Robotic Dogs project. For this project, Jeremijenko hacks toy robot dogs, augmenting them with wheels and sensors so that they can be used as low-fidelity mobile pollution detectors.1 Working with others, she releases these hacked robot dogs to find exposure risks in selected areas, and each release becomes a media event that draws attention to the concerns of detecting and acting on toxicity in our everyday surroundings. Through the Feral Robotic Dogs project, Jeremijenko demonstrates the possibilities of creatively appropriating technology toward new ends and engaging the public in political issues through compelling technological things. In addition to being tools, these hacked robot dogs are also platforms through which to question, contest, and reframe notions of expertise in technology use and environmental monitoring.

The Feral Robotic Dogs project exemplifies a kind of cultural production that I call adversarial design. This work straddles the boundaries of design and art, engineering and computer science, agitprop and consumer products. It spans a range of audiences and potential users and falls under

Figure 1.1

A modified robot dog, Natalie Jeremijenko, Feral Robotic Dogs project (2002)

various labels, such as critical design and tactical media.2 But across the differences, there is a common characteristic. Through designerly means and forms, adversarial design evokes and engages political issues. Adversarial design is a type of political design.

It is easy to make claims about the political qualities and potentials of design, but those claims need a warrant and a means of extending those claims across multiple objects and practices. Specificity is needed regarding the kinds of politics at play and the ways that designerly means and forms do what they do. I use the phrase adversarial design to label works that express or enable a particular political perspective known as agonism. And I do not limit the term design to the profession of design but rather extend it across disciplinary boundaries to include a range of practices concerned with the construction of our visual and material environments, including objects, interfaces, networks, spaces, and events. Adversarial design is a kind of cultural production that does the work of agonism through the conceptualization and making of products and services and our experiences with them.

Figure 1.2

The Bronx, New York, release of dog robots, Natalie Jeremijenko, Feral Robotic Dogs project (2002)

But do we really need another way to talk about design and about what design can and could do? Regarding design, politics, and the political, I argue yes. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been an increased interest in how the practices and products of design shape and contribute to public discourse and civic life. Evidence of this can be found in a host of conferences and conference themes, trade publications, and reports promoting so-called social design, design for democracy, social innovation, and the like.3 Much of this work is oriented toward improving the mechanisms of governance and increasing participation in processes of governance: it is design for politics. And much of it works through familiar forms of civic engagement and of design. But not all contemporary design work fits neatly into such forms. Jeremijenko 's Feral Robotic Dogs is a case in point. It is certainly about participation but not through standard means. And its agenda and its politics are more about a subtle, playful contestation than about consensus. How do we make sense of such projects? How do they contribute to shaping society? This book attempts to provide an answer to these questions by exploring how political theory, design, and technology might be woven together to create unique opportunities for new forms of political expression and action. Agonism, as a political theory, provides a productive starting point for exploring this question because theories of agonism assert that there are important differences between politics and the political and that democratic civic life and public discourse are grounded in the kind of contestation that characterizes adversarial design.

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