Design for Implications: Karl Marx comes for HCI

As Marx famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” When we as HCI researchers seek to change the world, design is one of the key material practices that we are trying to impact. We impact material design practice in a number of ways. We create newly designed objects and techniques that can inspire and assist other designers in making new derivative or compound objects. We research new methodologies that can help designers navigate the knowledge gathering, relationship building and iterative development required for building principled and desirable end products. We raise moral, philosophical and ethical questions that can influence both design and policy, the development of which, in some circles, is also considered as a design problem.

This is why Dourish’s argument about “Implications for Design” is so dangerous and wrong. If one takes a broad view of design in HCI and its multiple relationships to practice (and practitioners!), I simply do not understand how the lack of direct implication can be perceived positively in terms of research contribution. Surely, not all design implications are about directly influencing the final material product. Some influence methodology, others influence our political and moral choices, and others may open our minds about new places and contexts where HCI is or should or shouldn’t be happening, and by whom! But all of these are still implications! After all, when the very field that you hope to be influencing is called design, what is the point of proselytizing that one should not be overly concerned about implications for it?!?!?

In reflecting on this piece almost fifteen years later, one must acknowledge the time and context of his argument. Given the unreflective discussion in HCI at the time, and the pace of technological development, it was certainly reasonable to put on the brakes and ask what the purpose of it all was. My concern is with the impact that it has on the field, and how it equips us for the surely more radical steps that are needed ahead.

For most of his paper, Dourish is actually arguing against implications for designers — trained experts who are professionally employed to produce mass market designs for consumption. Why the distinction between elite, professional designers, and the many other people who do design as part of their everyday lives? Why do designers so often exist outside of these contexts, so that everything they see is “out there”? Maybe the right question to ask is why designers are in here? And, even more fundamentally, why is there this continual focus on the “user” in the first place? After all, isn’t the “user interface” just like the “market”, in that it is actually an interface between production and consumption?

When Dourish rightly asks what is the source of our legitimacy as HCI practitioners, he ignores the fact that our status is a direct result of our relationship to the entire capitalist hegemonic project. After all, as HCI researchers or practitioners, our large salaries and teams and all the usual perks have to come from somewhere. The most important question that we must always ask ourselves is “for whom do we really work?”. When Dourish says that “our discussion emphasizes that HCI (or user-centered design) is not a space apart”, methinks that the lady doth protest too much! Who are we really fooling when we ignore that the entire HCI, Design, UX, etc. industries are subservient to the professional-managerial class that is the very instrument of worker control by capital? We are the tools of the tools!

By ignoring class in his analysis, Dourish misses the entire reason why consumer design exists as a professional material practice in the first place. Design is about sublimating the desires of the masses, and it trades in commodifying these to reform the masses as consumers, with differentiated needs that must be met by an equivalent number of “innovative” products. Class is why design exists! Fundamentally, if there was no class, there would be no design, at least not how we now know it.

In a Marxist system, design would focus on the worker, and not just of the office/PMC variety. The proletariat themselves might take over the design process (sometimes with hilarious outcomes). In a more anarchist version, we might focus on small groups engaged in mutual aid and cooperative production. Regardless of the alternative political economy, one would assume though that if the working class was in charge of design, we would focus on production and not consumption. If we centered workers (and other marginalized populations) in the design process, we might find that most inquiries, ethnographic or otherwise, do have implications, just not ones that are commodifiable for mass consumption.

In fact, many of Dourish’s examples focus on some form of consumption, whether in Trinidad, Australia, or elsewhere. Workers are absent from his analysis. Capitalism is assumed as a tacit background, and to his paper’s implications as well! This is why we need ethnographers to mediate between the world and the interest of corporations — because their needs and values are not aligned, nor will they ever be. By denying the need for implications, all Dourish is doing is introducing ethnography and ethnographers — two elite and closely guarded titles, as yet more barriers that regular people have to overcome before they can engage with the processes of technological production.

Regardless of Dourish’s intent, the impact is clear. By devaluing the notion of Implications for Design, Dourish’s paper has helped to create a generation of HCI researchers (especially of the critical variety) who believe that there is little value in doing work that has direct design implications. While certainly there is room in the academy for such things, is HCI, at least as a part of the Computing and Information Science discipline within which it so often resides, really the right place for this kind of ambiguous work? If the value framework of our field is not oriented around having impact on material technical practice, what exactly is it oriented around?

Every field needs a coherent framework of value within which to operate. Value allows us to assign importance to different kinds of work and their results. This kind of value coherence is actually much more important to interdisciplinary inquiry than agreement at the level of method, epistemology or domain of inquiry. Without agreeing on what is important, there is very little way of making collective progress (as our current political / epidemiological situation so aptly demonstrates).

As a field grows, it is very easy to lose this value coherence (if we ever had it in the first place). Computer and Information Science is certainly one field that has faced such growing pains. Ideals of mathematical purity, operational efficiency and the robustness and elegance of novel systems and interfaces have all at various times and for various people been the criteria for research excellence. In the face of this kind of value confusion, and with the increased commercialization of our field, it is easy to adopt the criteria of the market (entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, consumer adoption, etc.), especially when there isn’t a coherent alternative. This is a path that many business and engineering schools have taken.

I believe that this is what Dourish is actually arguing against — the commodification of ethnographic research and insights towards narrowly consumerist aims. But by framing his critique as one of implications, I believe he effectively disempowers exactly those who need to be encouraged, and denies what could and should make Computer and Information Science and related areas unique as a disciplinary thrust. There are many other disciplines that try to study and influence human society and behavior. As the use of computing technologies increases in society, one can expect more people in these fields to study computational phenomena and practices. The unique differentiating factor that HCI affords is this connection to material practice — through our institutional position on campus, the students we educate and the kind of research projects that we engage in.

What if we took Dourish’s assertion that the true purpose of HCI was to “nurture and sustain human dignity and flourishing” seriously? Shouldn’t making cool new technologies and infrastructure and helping others to do so be at the very top of it? With all of Dourish’s focus on methodology, why does he ignore the one that has always been central to HCI’s particular approach to design — prototyping? Of course it is a pragmatic question to ask why protest and reform movements are always playing “defense” in this way, but as academic researchers I think we have a broader palette of potential stances we can take in our relation to the dominant power structures and their retrograde movements.

Regardless of how you position yourself, making things always comes with risks. I have learned that it is easy for your work to be co-opted by ideologies and institutions that do not align with your values and beliefs. There are many efforts, educational, policy and otherwise, to help technologists and technology students better understand these and other kinds of risks, and to develop practices and dispositions that can counteract some of the negative pressures created by these institutions, and the capitalist, racist, patriarchal and exclusionary systems they represent.

For several years, I have taught a class called Revolutionary Technologies (or RevTech) to CS, IS, MBA and OR graduate students at Cornell Tech. RevTech connects political economy and critical theory to design and technology, to help students understand the broader context within which these processes operate. In this class, we read a range of deeply theoretical texts — including Marx and Engels, but also Adam Smith, Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Catherine Mackinnon, Lucy Suchman, and a range of others. This class is important because it asks students to critique not only particular methods or technologies, but the entire system of political economy within which those ideas exist.

The first half of the course is based on an introductory sociology sequence taught by Michael Burawoy at UC Berkeley. What is different about my version is the deep connection to technical practice, drawing from my own disciplinary knowledge and experience as a Computer Scientist. It turns out that many of the very best social theorists also wrote about technology and its relation to social change, often with direct implications ! Applying their insights has been revolutionary for me and my students in terms of understanding the world and our position within it. Implications (including actual designs and prototypes) are the most concrete ways for these students to manifest their nascent theoretical ideas. I regularly come across former students (including MBAs!) who tell me that they found this kind of reflection relevant across a number of real world design situations and contexts. It has also been helpful in my life for me in making sense of some of my own failures, as well as in directing my future efforts.

Implications for design have been key to this learning, including my own. For one thing, this is how RevTech is differentiated from anything else they can get on campus (frankly, at Cornell Tech, that’s not that hard anyway). But even more importantly, without implications, how do you enact the fundamental methodology of iterative improvement? Implications are a concrete reification of a design idea that makes it easier for others (perhaps with less academic knowledge) to respond — this is the whole basis for the practice of prototyping within HCI. My own theoretical and empirical knowledge has been increased dramatically from moving around in the world and actually trying things out — whether or not those things worked as intended (spoiler alert: often they haven’t). In fact, if I hadn’t done and tried all the things that I have, there would be no RevTech at all. As Marx and the STS tradition that he partially inspired demonstrates, the evolution of academic disciplines is itself a discursive realm.

Seen in this way, the drive for implications has been key to making my teaching and research impactful, as well as that of others in our field. Our students are often pragmatic and solution-oriented. They need concrete domains within which to operate. Design and engineering is the medium through which they manifest their ideas in material form. When you give them theory and data without application, you lose a large fraction of their interest, not because either of you are wrong, but because you lose an opportunity to meet them where they are. There is a deeper (and, in my opinion, more profound) question about how to sustain this motivation and interest when the entire political and economic system is driven by values that are antithetical to the ones that you believe in, but that is a different question with a different set of implications (including those of the design variety!)

In conclusion, I believe there is little room in HCI for theorization (ethnographically-based or otherwise) that has little to no direct implication for technical practice. I have seen design faculty candidates in HCI shot down time and again, because while they may be popular among critical design researchers, they did not meet the criteria for impact that is core to at least our adjacent (and often, dominating) disciplinary environments. I think it would actually be easier for an anarchist or marxist who built an actual system to get a tenure track job in a mainstream CS department, than someone who does the kind of work Dourish recommends doing in this paper (its an interesting thought experiment at least!). As critical researchers, we do our students a disservice by downplaying the importance of design implications, which are the currency of the realm in CS and also for some IS HCI faculty positions.

For me, this is a feature, and not a bug. Being critical doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to an impotent line of inquiry — in fact, as Marx reminds us, it demands the very opposite. If artifacts have politics, then politics must also concern itself with the design of those artifacts. As Dourish’s own students have so aptly demonstrated, the best kind of critical work not only has implications, but often direct impact as well. By divorcing the methods and domain of our study from our intended field of application, we do a disservice to ourselves, to our students, and to our potential role, both within the academy, as well as within the broader society. As we work towards imagining a more radical and critical HCI, we must also recognize that design is fundamentally about its implications, and that is why there should always be implications for design.

(Thanks to James Landay and my students Ian Arawjo and Samar Sabie for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay.)