Limits to a Practice of Adversarial Design

Some might differ with my claim that an entanglement with the professional practices of making products and the formal aesthetics of design can be of value to doing the work of agonism. It is fair to ask if trading on aesthetics is a problem because it flirts with an exploitative aestheticization of the political. As cultural critic Thomas Frank elaborates in his essay "Why Johnny Can 't Dissent" (2004), conflict and difference, particularly in the pop material and visual trappings of clothes, music, and literature, are not the sparks of a revolution but the seeds for harvesting "the next big thing." Perhaps the same could be said for adversarial design. Adversarial design does trade on the appeal of aesthetics. But does this negate or diminish its political potential? My answer to that question is no. However, it challenges design scholarship to adopt a more fluid notion of the political that does not hinge on unduly romantic ideas of radicalness, revolution, and oppositionality.

Doing the work of agonism through design is not a practice that is oppositional to design or technology as general domains. The visualizations are not antivisualization, the robots not antirobots, the ubicomp products and systems not anti-ubicomp. Many of the designers, artists, and engineers who are involved in the conceptualization and making of adversarial products and services are entrenched within and often deeply committed to these technological domains and their development. In a manner that echoes the basis of agonism as a political theory, these artifacts and systems may be adversarial toward the discourses of these fields and the ways in which those discourses are materially instantiated, but adversarial products and services do not work to destroy their fields. For example, it is not that robots such as Dobson 's Omo or Blendie or Bohlen's Amy and Klara make assertions that there is something essentially inappropriate or otherwise wrong with robotics as technical or sociocultural pursuit, but rather that robotics could and perhaps should be differently ordered and pursued and its assumptions, perspectives, and trajectories shifted.

Moreover, those objects characterized as adversarial are not radical or revolutionary in the commonsense notions of those words. Too often, terms such as adversary and contestation are associated with the radical and revolutionary. And too often, things that are labeled radical or revolutionary are tied to romanticized notions of struggle or of social structures and processes that assume unified and solid positions of left and right or pro and con rather than the dynamic forces and structures that more aptly characterize the contemporary political condition. To speak of these designed objects as revolutionary or radical in the historical sense would be a gross overstatement and flawed. Adversarial design is a theme and set of tactics, and it is inherently pluralistic and can be applied across the political spectrum and issues. But it makes no promises of upheaval. It would be a mistake to universally characterize adversarial design as revolutionary or radical because that would set expectations beyond the scope of these projects.

 
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