The Challenge of Judging Adversarial Design

Because of its relationship to politics, there is a pressure for judgment about adversarial design. The effects of design for politics can be measured, so it seems as though it should be possible to measure the effects of political design. If not, then what are the purpose and consequence of adversarial design? These are fair enough points, but design for politics and political design are distinct affairs, and their differences affect the ways in which they can be judged. Design for politics is a comparatively simpler domain for judgment than political design because its goals are clearer and its metrics more obvious. A researcher interested in the effects of design applied to politics can conduct a range of observations and empirical analyses and thereby make claims concerning the efficacy of specific designs, which might even be able to be extended to design more generally. For example, AIGA Design for Democracy's ballot and election design project has conducted research that shows that changes in the design of ballots and polling place signage can help people understand and act on the ballot, as measured through methods of usability testing (Hewitt 2008). Design for politics—situations in which design is applied to improve the mechanisms and procedures of formal governance—can thus be held to claims of affecting specific mechanisms and processes of governance.

Political design, however, cannot be empirically evaluated in the same ways as design for politics. This book has outlined a set of tactics and themes by which we can better describe and analyze political design. These themes and tactics provide the grounds for judging political design. As stated in the beginning of this book, designed objects that do the work of agonism should be judged first and foremost on their contestational qualities. That is, the tactics and variations on the tactics—such as revealing hegemony and revealing in place, reconfiguring the remainder and agonistic reification, or articulating agonistic collectives and countercollec- tives—provide both qualities of contestation for description and analysis and also for judgment. So one basis for judgment is how and to what extent a given designed artifact or system achieves those tactics. For example, one can examine visualizations to determine their capacities to do the work of agonism. Do they assume identifiable political stances and communicate specificities of hegemonic structures? Do they produce representations or enactments, and if enactments, to what extent do these enactments involve the user in a reflective experience of their own place and role within these hegemonic structures? Or one can examine the ways in which ubicomp systems provide opportunities to participate in probing, challenging, resisting, or embracing issues. Do they leave open the space of contest, or do they project particular ethical codes and positions into the space of contest? Do they activate new spaces for political engagement and expression, transforming through articulation the political meaning and significance of objects, environments, and actions?

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