Medium Particularity

Although the focus on computation is motivated in part by computation's place in contemporary design, it is also motivated by a desire to develop a medium particularity in scholarly accounts of design. Since the late twentieth century, there has been a turn toward objects across many scholarly fields, and along with this, an interest in practices and products of design. Politics and political issues are often present, sometimes at the forefront of this turn. This suggests an opportunity for more exacting analyses of designed objects to reflect how a given medium figures into the political qualities and affects that designed objects express or are endowed with.

The works of Langdon Winner and Bruno Latour in science and technology studies and of Jane Bennett in political theory outline a series of issues and opportunities for an interdisciplinary approach to investigating the political qualities of objects and design. In his influential essay "Do Artifacts Have Politics?," the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner (1980) sparked a course of inquiry concerning the relations between design, power, and the built environment. In this essay, Winner suggests that highway overpass bridges designed by New York urban planner Robert Moses enforced a racist doctrine. According to Winner, the bridges were designed with a height that would not permit buses to pass underneath, thereby barring people of color (who depended on public transportation) from accessing beaches near the city. Since the essay' s first publication, scholars have debated Winner 's claims and position on multiple grounds, questioning the empirical validity of Winner 's claim by noting that the bridges did not block all of the public transportation routes to the city beaches. And they have resisted Winner 's theoretical position as one of technological determinism (Joerges 1999). These fundamental debates about the relationship between design, power, and the built environment continue today, extending beyond the question of bridges to all manner of designed artifacts and systems. The essence of these debates tends to be about where power is located—in the intention of the designer, in the object itself, or across a network of material and social relations.

More recently, science studies scholar Bruno Latour (2005) has proffered the notion of an "object-oriented democracy" as a way to describe and analyze the contemporary political condition. In such a democracy, objects become a means and medium through which politics and the political are enacted. As Latour (2005, 15) states, "Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. Each object triggers new occasions to passionately differ and dispute." For Latour, objects are one way to engage in and experience politics and the political. This may sound similar to Winner 's position, but Latour extends Winner 's assertion in a simple but important way: artifacts may have politics, but these politics change. The politics of artifacts are determined relationally by their engagement with other objects and discourses, all of which are subject to variation over time and across contexts. Thus, unlike Winner 's position, which requires recourse to the intention of the designer, Latour's position expresses a more distributed notion of agency and effects as the forces and capacities of objects are dynamic and contingent. Objects and design still have political significance and effect, but that significance and effect are always shifting.

In her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, political theorist Jane Bennett (2010) draws together Latour and Gilles Deleuze to investigate the agency of assemblages, both human and nonhuman. Like Winner and Latour, Bennett draws objects in a discussion of politics, noting that objects have been too long absent from political theory. She examines the capacities and effects of a range of assemblages, from the power grid to potato chips, discussing the ways that such assemblages figure in the exertion and experience of power, influence, and consequence. For Bennett, such a move toward objects and materiality is necessary to change how we critically make sense of and respond to the contemporary political condition. As she states, "a politics devoted too exclusively to condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good" (Bennett 2010, 8). In a sense, this inquiry into adversarial design complements Bennett' s: this inquiry is motivated by a desire to bring political theory into the discourses of design more fully and to develop a design criticism characterized by a "cultivated discernment" of the political qualities of artifacts and systems.

The work of scholars such as Winner, Latour, and Bennett provides a theoretical backdrop for a turn toward objects and their political qualities and potentials. But these authors do not directly engage the medium of computation. To investigate how design does the work of agonism through the medium of computation requires drawing from the field of digital media studies. This scholarship examines software and hardware and provides inroads to investigating what it means to do design with the medium of computation. For example, canonical texts such as Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) and Lev Manovich 's The Language of New Media (2001) identify distinctive qualities of computation and computational objects that define the medium. These texts lay the foundation for the development of software studies, which take computer code and applications themselves as subject of inquiry. Moving beyond software, in Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (2009), Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost advance a notion of platform studies as a way of getting even closer to understanding computational machines and how the qualities and affordances of circuits and hardware affect the design of computational cultural artifacts. For example, they explore the ways that the hardware of the Atari 2600 gaming platform managed sprites in memory and how that particular configuration of capacities and limitations affected game design and players' subsequent experiences and expectations of video-game play.

These diverse yet complementary discourses signal a renewed attention to the significance of objects and mediums and their relations to understanding politics and the political. But more work needs to be done in synthesizing and extending these discourses. To call for an object-oriented democracy is the right first step, but it simply sets the trajectory for a course of inquiry. There is a need to attend more closely to the designed qualities of artifacts and systems and the varieties of political expression and enactment. Adversarial design, both as a way of doing the work of agonism through artifacts and systems and also as a way of interpreting artifacts and systems in terms of their agonistic qualities, is an attempt to do just that.

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