Design, Values, and Democracy

Nassim JafariNaimi

I grew up in a closed and tense social and political atmosphere where censorship was an inseparable part of everyday experience. Since early childhood, I knew that I should not talk about certain books, music, or lifestyles outside of the close circle of family and friends. This experience made me deeply aware of the problematic nature of values in their ability to turn to dogmatic criteria for judgment.

Later, working as a design professional on multiple design and media initiatives, I observed the inseparability of values from what is said, done, or made. These initiatives were all, broadly speaking, human-centered, seeking to support people in their freely chosen activities. Yet each carried a subtly different vision of what it meant to be human-centered with important implications for design. For example, projects that were set in the disciplinary context of Human-Computer Interaction emphasized efficiency in fulfilling everyday tasks. In contrast, expression, creative exploration, and aesthetics were held paramount in projects that were set in the disciplinary context of Design.

The words of the eminent literary critic, Wayne Booth, were particularly resonant as I embarked on my doctoral research, and they still drive my research and teaching today:

Each work of art or artifice, even the simplest wordless melody, determines to some degree how at least this one moment will be lived. The quality of life in the moment of our “listening” is not what it would have been if we had not listened. We can even say that the proffered work shows us how our moments should be lived. If the maker of the artwork did not believe that simply experiencing it constitutes a superior form of life, why was the work created and presented to us in the first place? (The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, 1988, p. 17)

Set in the background of my personal and professional experience, my research is grounded on the premise that values are inseparable from what we say, do, or make; and driven by a deep awareness that dogmatic attachment to any set of values undermines free inquiry, conversation, and community. However, how might one make sense of and thoughtfully design for the many actions and experiences that digital media could bring about and support? My thesis is that we can draw on the patterns of experience around digital and social media to inquire into values that drive their design; and that our understanding of both products and values is developed through the processes of making, use, and criticism. I am particularly interested in values of participation, democracy, and diversity that are dominant in popular and scholarly discourse around digital media.

In 2013, I established the Design and Social Interaction Studio, a design studio that brings together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students. In the studio we examine the experiential and participatory dimensions of digital media and their relationship to supporting participatory and democratic forms of social interaction. We design and investigate a variety of products such as locative media; interactive visualizations and mapping; awareness campaigns; social and civic media. These design projects enable us to investigate the plural interpretations of values such as ‘participation’ and ‘democracy’ understood as hypotheses that form and inform the design and criticism of digital media.

For example, students and faculty in the studio are engaged in an interdisciplinary research project entitled Sweet Auburn Digital Media Initiative. Among the aims of this project is to establish theoretical and practice-based evidence for how community engagement is initiated, supported, and developed through the mediation of locative participatory media. Set in the Sweet Auburn Historic District in Atlanta, we are designing media experiences to raise awareness about the area’s important cultural heritage and invite engagement with issues of local concern and interest. Through these applications we seek to highlight and preserve the important history of the neighborhood as a vital center of community, innovation, and commerce among African Americans and the center of the Civil Rights Movement during the era of segregation. We bring together and share stories of individuals and collectives that highlight the complex and multiple histories of the people and places in the district and connect it to the current preservation and revitalization efforts in the neighborhood. One of the key characteristics of this research is an innovative integration of ethnographic and collaborative methodologies to involve a diversity of individuals and groups in the design process, leading to the design of an inclusive and engaging digital environment for storytelling, civic discourse, and grassroots social change.

I left my country for the US in the early 2000s. Those were the early days of satellite TV and the Internet there, giving access to information and opening up the society in important and promising ways. I was enthusiastic about becoming an active contributor to the design of information technologies. I am still optimistic that we can design human-centered technologies that contribute to the development of inclusive and pluralistic societies. However, my enthusiasm is accompanied with great caution that in the absence of critical and humanistic perspectives, our technologies will enslave us, becoming tools for propaganda and oppression as opposed to democracy and positive social change.  This is why I am excited to be a part of the LMC family educating future designers and scholars that bring a humanistic perspective to our increasingly technological world!

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