Adversarial Design as Inquiry

Inquiry, like design, is a familiar term but generally a hazy endeavor. American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey provides insight into the purpose of inquiry, which helps explain adversarial design as a kind of inquiry into the political condition. For Dewey, inquiry is a process directed toward situations that are vague and lack a clear sense of meaning and effect. Dewey (2008, 105) uses the terms "uncertain, unsettled, disturbed" to characterize these situations. As Dewey states (2008, 104), "Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole." Simply put, the process of inquiry provides clarity to muddled situations. And the purpose of providing clarity is to enable action. The outcome of inquiry should be an understanding of the significance and consequences of a situation so that one can better make decisions about or otherwise act on that situation.

With an eye toward describing adversarial design as a kind of inquiry into the political condition, I build on Dewey's work and offer the following: inquiry is a process of skilled examination and reconstruction that renders problematic situations sense-able. The terms skilled and sense-able are both important here. Inquiry is a skilled process because to engage in analysis and synthesis requires competencies of thought and action. By sense-able, I mean that the process of inquiry makes problematic situations able to be perceived and experienced. So the process of inquiry makes what Dewey (1954, 126) calls the "expanded, multiplied, intensified, and complicated" aspects of a problematic situation apparent and known and thereby better able to be addressed and acted on.

Another way to describe this, using more designerly terms, is to say that the process of inquiry gives form to problematic situations. Through the process of inquiry, the elements of a situation are discovered, analyzed, and synthesized into a new whole—a coherent object or event that has a perceivable structure and significance. To say that the process of inquiry gives form to problematic situations is meant literally. The process of inquiry produces a distinguishing shape and substance to something that is otherwise vague.

Through the process of making contestational objects, adversarial design is a kind of inquiry into the political condition. Political conditions are quintessential problematic situations. They are comprised of a diversity of actors and objects, each with multiple agendas and effects, which often seem incongruent. Adversarial design as inquiry provides a way to express and experience an otherwise confusing situation. Consider again the domain of social robots. As discussed, social robots bring together a wide range of technologies, actual and imagined functionalities, engineering practices, beliefs about what constitutes sociableness (some of which are informed by science), and over a century of cultural history and expression. To use Dewey's terminology, the situation of social robotics is uncertain. Evidence of this uncertainty is found within the discourses of robotics itself and in the multiplicity of conflicting claims about what social robots are, could, or should be. The political issue of social robotics— What will be the character of human-robot relations?—seems vague. Moreover, the associations and connections between the constituent elements of robotics—those technologies, functionalities, practices, beliefs, and expressions—are disjointed. It is difficult at first glance to comprehend, much less comment or act on, their meanings or implications.

As a kind of inquiry into the political condition, adversarial design provides order to this mess of factors. Adversarial design draws out and instantiates the political issues of social robots in material form. And through a process of synthesis, it produces a sense-able organization to them. For example, the tactic of reconfiguring the remainder identifies what is included and excluded in the design of an artifact or system and then communicates the implications of those decisions by designing objects that invert assumptions and exaggerate the excluded qualities. Through the design of robots such as Kelly Dobson 's Blendie and Omo (2007a) or Marc Bohlen's Amy and Klara (2006a), those inclusions and exclusions and their implications are made sense-able. The design of each of these robots gathers various factors of social robot design and synthesizes them into lucid forms, which make it possible for those who encounter them or who consider their use to recognize and appreciate the issues and implications of social robots.

So adversarial design gives form to political conditions. This means that designed objects can provide something literally to point at with regard to the political condition: they can be manifestations—expressive encapsulations—of some aspect of the political condition. This manifestation could be a robot, a visualization, a ubicomp system, or any other designed thing. More important than any specific format is that there be a form at all and that there be an object to consider. When working with computational technologies, this object is often more than a representation.

By leveraging computational capacities, these designed things can be objects that enact a political issue and that allow people interact with them in ways that are politically meaningful. The Web browser extensions MAIC- gregator (Knouf 2009) and Oil Standard (Mandiberg 2006) exemplify this notion of enacting an issue through use, performing the issues of hegemony in military research funding and oil as users surf the Web. Usman Haque's Natural Fuse (2009) is another pertinent example. It binds together a network of dependencies and effects and allows us to engage in a model of the political issues and consequences at play with regard to energy consumption and resource management. Each project can be seen as providing substance to political issues. As a kind of inquiry in the political condition, these projects transform the messy elements of a situation into an object and an experience that allow one to sense it and make sense of it.

 
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