Adversarial Design as Practice

So far, I have emphasized the use of adversarial design as a way to engage in an interpretation of objects and as a kind of inquiry into the political condition. In both of these activities, the crucial task for the design scholar is to discover and explain the political qualities and potentials of the objects of design. But one could also consider that agonism might be useful as a generative frame for design as a way of shaping a proactive political practice. In such a practice, doing the work of agonism would be an explicit intent of the design.

Considering agonism as a generative frame shifts us to considering adversarial design as a process. In this process, the tactics of adversarial design—revealing hegemony, reconfiguring the remainder, and articulating agonistic collectives—become places along a continuum of a practice.1 Although I have not treated them as such in this book, each of the tactics could be viewed as informing and leading to the next. The first tactic, revealing hegemony, would consist of identifying and documenting structures and patterns of power and influence in contemporary society. Insights gleaned from this could then be used as part of an assessment of the agendas and desires that are being either privileged or excluded, thereby informing the tactic of reconfiguring the remainder. This remainder could be folded into the third tactic of articulating an agonistic collective— designing a participatory space of contest in which those structures and exclusions might be experientially encountered and challenged and alternatives offered. At each stage, the conceiving and making of artifacts and systems would play a role in providing demonstrations of political issues and conditions, making them known and actionable, providing fodder for the next course of action.

Adversarial design as an intentional practice of inquiry into the political condition moves political design beyond awareness raising and critique. Both awareness raising and critique are important aspects of political dialog, but design can offer something more. Design can produce a shift toward action that models alternative presents and possible futures in material and experiential form. This provides a foundation for examining and reconstructing political conditions as they are and also for imagining the political conditions that might be. Mark Shepard's Sentient City Survival Kit (2009c) hints at this kind of design that results in a literal reconstruction of a political condition. Projects such as the CCD-Me Not Umbrella (2009b) and the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug (2009a) do more than raise awareness and critique. They instantiate a possibility for another ordering of sociotechnical structures that allows us to act in the world in a different way. These projects make possible, at least in model form, ways to work around surveillance while remaining within a networked culture. Here, the value of an engagement with the medium returns. Shepard' s projects include working prototypes. Their technical implementation demonstrates that such devices and such alternatives of action are possible. These prototypes are things in the world that instantiate ideas, and they cannot be denied on the grounds of being implausible. Particularly in our contemporary culture that highly valorizes technology, they command attention because they work. It is unlikely that the CCD-Me Not Umbrella and the Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mug will ever become commercial products. But this does not diminish their potential capacity as demonstrations of what could be. Just as engineering and computer science demos pave the way for future product features and capabilities, we could imagine adversarial design as a class of demos that sets a course for future political actions and conditions that are experienced and enacted through products and services.

The value of designerly form also becomes apparent in this notion of providing believable models for future actions and conditions. The importance of leveraging aesthetics and expressing product-like qualities is amplified in artifacts and systems such as robotics or ubicomp, where the opportunity for most people to engage in their use is limited. Often, in the domain of technology research, design, and development, what is publicly presented and experienced is documentation of the artifact or system—not the artifact or system itself. In some cases, this is documentation of the prototype products in action. For example, documentation of Shepard' s countersurveillance CCD-Me Not Umbrella includes video footage taken from a staged (but real and working) CCD camera, which demonstrates the artifact's capacity to disrupt a computational vision system that is attempting to track a fictional user. But even in this case, the documentation is partial, suggestive, and built on narrative. With this project and other projects that rely on documentation as their primary public form, conventional design skills and strategies take on special importance.

Without the opportunity to engage in actual use, the user is an audience to the presentation of the design. A vital factor in the success or failure of a given design is the capacity of the documentation to draw the audience into a compelling consideration of use. The design challenge is to provide viewers with a persuasive suggestion of what the use of the artifact or system might be like, so as to enable the viewers to experience the documentation as if they were using the artifact or system. This is a challenge that the conventional methods and forms of design are particularly suited for because much of design is precisely the endeavor of communicating the potential experience of use. Even within the realm of consumer products, the purchase of a product often follows some form of staged demonstration of its capabilities that suggests what it would be like to use it.

Perhaps one reason that critical design has garnered attention is that those engaged in critical design tend to be expert product designers. They understand how technologies become goods and services and possess the skills to portray plausible and often tempting expressions of possible products. For example, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's project Is This Your Future? (2004), developed for the Science Museum in London, explores near-future scenarios in which people personally produce biopower. One concept presented includes raising and then sacrificing rats as sources of energy for home appliances. To explore and express this concept, Dunne and Raby produced a series of product models, photographs, and even a manual that instructs future users how to avoid becoming emotionally attached to these sacrificial pets. Despite the outrageousness of the idea and the abject nature of the content, Dunne and Raby produced concepts that were believable as products and aesthetically alluring. Such combined use of visual representations and physical prototypes to communicate the potential of use is one example of the ways that the conventional methods and forms of design practice are employed to do the work of agonism.

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