Why a Focus on Computation?

Three factors in contemporary design motivate a focus on the medium of computation. First, although design extends the realm of technology, there is a defining affinity between design and technology; second, computation is a lively contemporary technological domain that spans practices and forms; and third, the artifacts and systems produced via computation have particular characteristics and deserve close readings. Each of these is addressed briefly here, leaving for the following chapters the full discussion of these factors and the ways that they combine together and intersect with the political.

In large part, the focus on computation is a continuation of a historical trajectory within design to explore technological possibilities in the making of products and services and the experiences they provide. Although technology is not the only site of design, throughout the history of design there has been a defining affinity between design and technology. The practices of design and varieties of designed form often develop in concert with the prevailing technologies of an era. This relationship between design and technology is reciprocal: design is a way of experimenting with and domesticating technology, and the capabilities and limitations of technology often set the scope and challenges of design activity. This defining affinity between design and technology can be traced back to the origins of what we know today as contemporary design in the beginnings of the twentieth century. For the Constructivists and those at the Bauhaus, the mechanical automated machine that enabled mass production was the defining technology of the time and set the character of then contemporary design. 13 To do design was to work with and reflect an informed consideration of the mechanical automated machine. Attention was paid to the machine as a device for the generation of forms and to the machine as an organizing principle for then modern culture.

The pattern of treating technology as simultaneously an instrument and subject of design continues today. At the turn of the twentieth century, the mechanical machine or mechanization constituted the dominant technology of concern for design, but today the computer or more accurately the medium of computation is the dominant technology. At this historical moment, the medium of computation is salient to design studies because it shapes design practice and constitutes a distinctive site of design invention. The medium of computation encompasses a multiplicity of components, including algorithms, languages, protocols, hardware, software, platforms, and products. To understand computation as a medium requires exploring the ways those components can be used to endow artifacts and systems with distinctive qualities. One fundamental task for contemporary design studies is to understand what it means to do design with computation as a medium that, like any medium, has particular characteristics. The Bauhaus designers strove to understand the automated machine as providing distinctive expressive capacities and limitations, and today designers, artists, and scholars attempt to understand computation as a medium.

As informatics scholar Paul Dourish (2001, 163) notes, when engaging computation as a medium rather than just a tool, "Meaning is conveyed not simply though digital encodings, but through the way that computation enlivens those encodings with semantic and effective power." Examining computation as a medium thus requires an understanding and elucidation of how this "enlivening" occurs—that is, how designers employ and exploit the capacities and limitations of the components of computation (such as algorithms, languages, protocols, hardware, and software) to make certain distinctive expressions and experiences come about. For adversarial design, the task is to identify and describe how the qualities of computation are used for political ends and what political issues they bring forth. The questions to be asked are "What modes of political exchange, expression, and argument are particularly enabled or enacted by the medium of computation?" and "What does it mean to do political design with computational technology?"

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