Put on by the Center for Complexity at RISD
Funded by Infosys
I teach criticism of technological design to students on and through software that collaborates with the police and the FBI to capture and surveil. Industrious teenagers with 3D-printers create masks for doctors working in PPE fashioned from trash bags as the U.S. military, in spectacular Marvel-worthy outfits, mobilized overnight, floods the feeds. Apps like Neighbor and Next Door have seen surges in use, as the impulse to use citizen surveillance by self-appointed renegade watchers expands. Cognitive laborers scan images of crowds, internalizing the logics of capture as they search individual faces for their lack of masks. At the same time, mutual aid and care networks organized around lateral, non-hierarchical exchange, unfold.
The demand of this moment is that all of the imaginable contradictions and conflicting imperatives one can conceive of, all exist at once, in the same place, at the same time. Online, and offline, we live and work through and within profound political and conceptual contradictions in which our professed values for how to live with others are in direct conflict with the design of infrastructure and systems we express our choices through.
In isolation, without physical communion and togetherness, without gathering, we’ve turned to communing largely through the seamless mediation of our digital identities and ambassadors — the usernames, profiles, addresses, and accounts that produce our presence, based on the faint memory of being near others. We are learning to watch and to not touch. To observe the world from a silent remove. In amplifying what is outside the frame and left unseen, what is invisible to others, algorithms bind, grid, repeat and amplify metrics of unseeing.
How has leveraging fear of the skin, the bodies of others, imagined and real, echoed historical and well-established political specters of imagined threats? The lexicon of pandemic — no contact, social distancing, contactless pickup — reifies social and class barriers. Who do we imagine ourselves in contact with? Who are we never in contact with, as is? Who do we never want to be in contact with? In the absence of community, what ethical violations are ushered in under the cover of social solutions, quick fixes for systemic breaks? How do institutional and corporate control concentrate through each solution? How has technological solutionism accelerated and entrenched unimaginable levels of surveillance through the loophole of crisis?
“Covid-19 is not a design challenge.” Deeply entrenched historical projects, like systemic racism, cannot be approached as design challenges. Across the instant-share progressive spectrum, where the dominant energy of activism today is taking form, debate over what designers and design thinking should and shouldn’t do is flourishing. Many look sidelong at one-off promises, encapsulated by the Atlantic headline, The Technology that Could Free America from Quarantine. What should designers be able to touch, have contact with, mediate, manage, intervene, and determine? The impulse to swiftly intervene in crisis with a tech-solutionist approach, with the magic key, app, or program, is increasingly met with rejection by activists, community organizers, and critics. Change is necessarily slow and demands collaboration across fields of seemingly incompatible expertise and knowledge.
Designing from Above
Writer; Critic, RISD, Digital+Media; Editor, Rhizome
The demand of this moment is that all of the imaginable contradictions
and conflicting imperatives one can conceive of, all exist at once, in the same place, at the same time.
In my RISD class on technological criticism, we analyze early on the world views of Buckminster Fuller, who, along with Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog Network, created a field of design thinking that embedded a deep remove, a kind of no-contact. The comprehensive designer was “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist,” who hovered above the globe, its activity and problems buzzing at his fingertips. He would use the material and information afforded by an emerging technocracy, but remain at a considered, comfortable remove in order to observe, consider, critique.
Central to this narrative is the designer’s distance from the earth, his single hand reaching down from the heavens to shape, move, and create pathways for us, the lab rats below. This is a kind of no-contact ethic — to nudge, to influence, to move without touching: to shape infrastructure, to build walls and highways, to create green spaces in areas of cities that, apparently, deserve them. This ethic also absolves the responsibility for the social and cultural impacts of one’s making.
For Fuller, Brand and their acolytes, technology was, without doubt, a tool for social transformation. Technology was the medium and intermediary that absolved the maker. Tracing how this optimistic, starry-eyed, view of the technological tool became fused with technocentrism, and slowly, surely, into technodeterminism, is beyond the scope of this piece. Let’s just say that we, collectively, live out the effects of this thinking-at-remove every second of our computationally-mediated lives.
Today, dual design (and technological) impulses face off, a showdown galvanized by crisis. The first impulse is to engineer and increase methods of influence, even without touch, by advancing critical awareness of our being tied, embedded in how one another lives, in a network. Your suffering is tied to mine. The second impulse is to bunker down, to leave, to self-isolate, to entrench oneself within one’s position, security, and ways of thinking, to continue to unsee the deeper systemic imperatives that exist for no touch, avoidance, at scale.
For the past three months, I have seen designers and serious students of design struggle with how to continue to work and think and make within profound uncertainty, large-scale trauma, and upheaval. The struggle in the arts, in making fields, will be as much with what to make for this moment as with the underlying, conceptual drive of a no-contact, techno-solutionist frame of churning out tools. There is very healthy suspicion felt towards the ideal of a singular genius who develops interventions — as air-drops, as drive-bys — glosses on complex, lived problems, that reify the social and class hierarchies that are killing us.
From Tracing to Capture
This spring was an attunement, at scale, towards an elusive, changing thing, towards invisible, asymptomatic carriers of the thing. We collectively modeled and simulated the thing’s effects. Being distant and at a remove from one another, meditating individually on this one unseen, has helped many to think and focus on all that goes unseen. Essential work is actively unseen. Mental health crises often go unseen. The racialized elements of this virus, disproportionally killing Black and brown peoples, go unseen. Many people are using their rhetorical powers and systems thinking to reframe, name, and gesture continually at these unseens.
Technology is one crucial home for this shift in perspectives. The pandemic has unfolded on a computational front, shaping our lives through surveilled interfaces, the politics of simulation, daily digital labor, and the economies of social networks. This profound algorithmic turn is both a site of possibility and a difficult double bind. For instance, after nine days of protests, the FBI tweeted, asking for “information and digital media depicting individuals inciting violence.” Beneath it, linked back to back, one can read a thread of hundreds of videos of traumatic police violence against “peaceful protestors” across the country. This was evidence of a widespread adoption of sousveillance, in which whe citizen watcher looks back at violence, names it, shares it, and shifts collective attention. Twitter and Instagram are havens of critical reading of the language of power, refusing gestures and shows of solidarity in favor of meaningful structural change, which requires redistribution of resources.
But our dominant technological frameworks over-determine the solutions — technological or otherwise — that we are open to adopting. Technological design is already geared towards encouraging a clean, contactless process in which there is as little friction as possible. Adoption is made instant. Within one and a half months, under the state of exception’s imperative to gather essential medical data, iPhones have been converted into local surveillance nodes. We have accepted the prospect of a measured surveillance in which we can still get to celebrate full connectivity through data-draining platforms.Journalists ask, which of our civic freedoms are we willing to trade for a simulation or false feeling of safety? They may also ask, what have we already been willing to trade in? We have accepted the prospect of a measured surveillance in which we can still get to celebrate full connectivity through data-draining platforms.
Any surveillance protocol for public health must account for the reality of contemporary technology as it is designed and is likely to be experienced in America, not how it is ideally used by an ideal user in an ideal civic society. Efforts are lauded when surveillance is done “right,” as in Finland or Taiwan, but ignore the contextual, lived, and historical effect of the language of tracing, tracking, hunting down, enrolling and exclusion in this country. The infrastructure and architecture of quarantine has been shown to establish nodes of acceptable temporary surveillance that are normalized and folded in as soon as introduced. The emergency’s state of exception allows a gathering of power that is hard to turn off. It can’t imagine any kind of technology not oriented around expanding surveillance and the logics of capture.
For instance: in May of 2020, protests erupted in dozens of cities across America in response to the viral filmed extrajudicial murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and three others. In late May, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington announced that protest arrestees would be “contact traced,” to determine their associations, political affiliation, levels of organization, platforms, to then build “an information network.” That contact tracing, a concept used for “passively” accounting for sickness, be used to then trace “unseen” sentiments, like anti-police, anti-fascism, or anti-racism, and criminalize them as sickness, is not even an ambiguous move. Think of how swiftly this conversion happened.
One can map, in three months, a story of a seamless transition from measures of necessity based on fear of viral infection, to a wave of necessary surveillance, based on fear of people protesting police violence and State fear of Black Americans as a political force, hidden beneath a stated fear of the specter of “antifa.”
At this moment, calls to redesign or redefine surveillance — in some cases, embracing it as a potential good, or advocating for more “trained” systems for deeper tracking of health, ignore how the current infrastructure of surveillance is working perfectly, just as designed. Surveillance depends on people in power identifying with the police, wanting to be safe, wanting to themselves be the police. Many of us are served by surveillance; many of us are eager agents of it, happy pets, ready to turn our neighbors in overnight for perceived infractions. Our comforts in quarantine have been predicated on being at home, on being healthy enough, yes, but most of all, on being part of the exact apparatus that captures and names and marks the potential for disease.
As contact tracing becomes an inevitability, it would seem we need a more nuanced, productive lexicon for typologies and approaches to biological surveillance, in the name of public health. And we should remember the eagerness our communities displayed this crisis to have more phone surveillance, more police, in exchange for civic freedoms. We should be hedging against the casually dangerous impulse to embrace tracking and tracing for being inside or outside, and instead move our energy and critique to governments being wholly unprepared. Can we name the widespread desire for techno-authoritarian oversight, the scolds hoping for more police, more photos, more tracing? How much space will we leave for a serious self-critique of the comforts afforded by our relative positions? How much space in cultural discourse do we make for assessing our role in continuing state surveillance, in expressing its logics?
As contact tracing becomes an inevitability, it would seem that a more nuanced, productive lexicon for typologies and approaches to biological surveillance, in the name of public health, are needed.
Some Fronts — Simulations & Interfaces
Our interventions can take place in precisely the spaces of no-contact that ultimately determine how we will be in contact in the future. I encourage designers to deploy a vigorous social critique of technology, to recalibrate the metrics of technological fronts that directly shape how we imagine contact and proximity, inclusion and exclusion.
The first front is interfaces, where we are reading now. Program interfaces become expressions of law, order, expressly stated values and virtues. Institutions that want to perfectly replicate their in-person settings online can only do so through the same logic of adopting contact tracing: in this case, forceful adoption of extractive interfaces and platforms that support and work with the police. Which institutions will change, given this information?
On platforms and interfaces, we have a valorization of difference, of highly expressed individual viewpoints atop symbolic interfaces. We might imagine interface design, which is driven by connectivity and individuated expression, in tension with underlying structural mechanics. This could include the aesthetics and politics of video conferencing platforms like Zoom — in which we perform endless digital labor, in which the material of our lives is visible to one another. As this becomes a dominant form of no-contact labor mediation, how will we carve out spaces of community and solidarity within them? How will we account for the psychological impact of such a flattening of social relations? Further, what other solutions to such flat engagement are there, that don’t ask for more design solutions?
One strategy is to engage and use these interfaces critically, close-reading them. See across and through interfaces — analyze every font, every shape, every skeuomorphic icon, their suggested workflow, the ideologies of white collar labor and extraction and class hierarchies, the ways of reading that they encourage, the ideas of a user they design, and assume, and select for. Practice seeing through algorithmic modes of capture — through to how we are named, sorted, parsed, and understood. Practice cutting through systems to the institutional or market imperatives that speak clearly through them.
And when gathered, we can practice seeing through the screen to others in this space — to their contexts, their experiences, and their lives, by extending our imaginative empathy to them and truly sitting close to their lives, rather than embracing and settling into the gaps and remove, the act of watching passively. Even as we are designing no-contact worlds through technology, we have to resist the hierarchies of cognitive labor they express, being aware of how our digital playgrounds of cognitive labor are predicated on their remove from other kinds of labor, and laborers, from data labeling to manual and care labor.
The second front is simulation, which can often fix in place that view from above, the modeler predicting the actions and desires of tiny human lives, on a chessboard far below.The power of simulation as an evolving statistical and computational tool cannot be overstated. The news is shaped by simulations of pandemic; our movements in relation to one another have been directly in response to “official” competing simulations of how people should move, could move, and might move, while distancing. As a way of predicting and imagining how people will move, act, and work, simulations are deep expressions of power, a scientific imagining of social movement that produces reality.
We have lived the outcomes of simulations that unfold according to bounded parameters of models (that can be adjusted, revised, and changed). The flaws in assumptions have been lived, as well: the concept there is a universal model of movement, regardless of culture, religious beliefs, ability, socioeconomic status and access, is an absurd, if statistically efficient assumption. As is the assumption that people will move in isolated units, will always be able to be totally self-sufficient, will be able to survive without the presence of others, without deep sociological crisis. The ‘unseen’ mental health crises, intimate partner violence and murders, have their own ongoing pandemic.
Simulations from March 19th and 20th now look quaint and naive. They carry the image and perception of truth, small bobbing dots with humble hills rendered in oranges and pinks. The simulations we have been watching and reading and thinking through, discussing, debating, reveal themselves as endlessly subject to revision.
In a number of collapsed and limited simulations, the predisposition to die becomes a reason to die, an inevitability. Any “pre-existing conditions” of health issues, genetic or environmental predisposition to diabetes, heart disease, outcomes frequently associated with race, are accelerated as expedited death sentences.
Just as we attempt to reform our social systems, our computational models can be reformed, as well, account for users moving differently, based on historical and economic factors. Predictive models of human movement are ideologically shaped, as computation depends on a statistically predictable user without too many "complicating" qualities. Critical intervention into a simulation could potentially produce policy and action that actually reflects how we all move in the world — how I move differently from you. Simulations might, and can, better account for how diverse groups of people across difference will move within their geographic, economic, and cultural context.
Critical simulation would account for having a stable, supported life, even within social distancing. They would account for the unseen.
For inspiration, we look at the groundbreaking models of radical cartography, like the Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute — DGEI — in which citizen mappers made maps of Detroit that described racial and spatial injustice according to different metrics of how people really move: where black children had spaces to play, how long it took to walk to hospitals, schools.
Maps and simulations are political expressions of power, determining where we can move, who we do see, who we imagine ourselves in contact with.
Simulation is a mental act, first — we think about a world beyond this one; we simulate ourselves moving and hugging, shaking hands, dancing, in the future, we imagine ourselves after today. We have the cognitively embedded capacity to imagine ourselves far into the future. In these digital spaces, we will need to practice such simulation of future systems, by thinking through systems with others, the same thinking one might practice when designing a game. Models are imported from each field to make hybrid, new ones. The virtual landscape can be viewed from infinitely more perspectives — traversed by shepherds and surveyors, geologists and anthropologists, writers, psychologists, social designers. An interface is designed based on collective bargaining over its workflow. A simulation becomes culturally-specific and historically-rooted. A model revises itself based on new information.
A system is constructed for artificial beings to move in ways that they can live: six feet apart, but still collaborating, still in relation.