Paisaje Zapatista by Diego Rivera

[The Ethics of Data Curation is the first in a two-part series of AY 2021-22 workshops organized through a Rutgers Global and NEH-supported collaboration between Critical AI@Rutgers and the Australian National University. Below is the fifth in a series of blogs about each workshop meeting. Click here for the workshop video and the discussion that followed]

By Jonathan Calzada, Doctoral student in Information Studies, UCLA

What does design justice look like and who gets to decide?

Designers typically enjoy a privileged position in the order of things. These professionals represent a global minority yet they get to decide how the most impactful technologies we use today are created. Therefore, the question of who gets to design alludes to a justice system. These inextricable dimensions of power form part of the design and production of technology. Much of what critical scholars produce includes principles, frameworks, and methods that speak of social justice and cultural values. Unfortunately, this scholarly work has seeped too slowly into professional design practice, particularly in software design. How, then, can we situate such knowledge in the life and practice of designers to effect meaningful change? How are all types of design, especially non-human interface design, interconnected with human lives? How can we derive a cohesive sense of justice in design practice given a plurality of principles, ideologies, and belief systems?

These provocative questions were at the fore of an interview with Dr. Sasha Costanza-Chock—the fifth meeting of the Ethics of Data Curation workshop. As a communication scholar, media-maker, and designer, Costanza-Chock is uniquely positioned to translate, situate, and spur meaningful change to a practice that has been predominantly dominated by what they aptly identify as “white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism ableism, settler colonialism and other forms of structural inequality.” This incisive critique on a professional practice reflects much of my experience as a Mexican-American UX designer who has worked in Silicon Valley for many years. Straddling academia and professional practice requires a special type of intralingual translation in addition to forms of situated knowledge that are only gained through experience: Costanza-Chock lives at this intersection from which they strive to effect unapologetic change.

In their award-winning book, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, Costanza-Chock draws from a deep knowledge of critical social theory. Building on Patricia Hill Collins’ influential Black Feminist Thought, Costanza-Chock describes how designers can emancipate themselves from the matrix of domination—a concept defined as the interlocking social systems of oppression that intersect along race, gender, and social class. Within the matrix of domination, some individuals reap benefits while others endure inevitable penalties. Costanza-Chock provides many examples of how the matrix of domination operates to subjugate, humiliate, exclude, and/or erase the individuals and their identities that do not conform to its universalist dogma.

In the book’s opening chapter, which we read for the workshop, Costanza-Chock provides a poignant example of how the matrix of domination exacts penalties. They discuss the experience of being unjustly flagged and patted down at the Detroit Metro Airport security. As a non-binary trans fem, Costanza-Chock does not conform to a binary so that the airport millimeter wave scanner, outfitted with a user interface that requires selection of male or female, flags their body as anomalous and in effect “risky.”

Unjust experiences like these resonate with the vast majority of individuals who do not conform to reductionist dichotomies and must live betwixt the liminal spaces of socially constructed borders and delineations. As interviewer Kate Henne noted, this is what is most compelling about Costanza-Chock’s work. Design Justice translates between theory and practice as Costanza-Chock draws from their “theoretical knowledge, lived experience, and practiced-based learning.” This conscious effort not only situates knowledge within a space, place, and identity but also validates and celebrates autochthonous knowledge and differentiated ways of knowing. Specifically, the laborious task of shifting registers between academic and plain language in addition to opening up citational practices in order to allow for a diversity of voices to be heard.

Costanza-Chock’s book is more than a culmination of years of dedication to building a growing network of individuals interested in dismantling the matrix of domination within their respective design fields (i.e. The Design Justice Network). It is a serious epistemological reflection on the knowledge we employ to design and build worlds. If everyone had equal access to design the worlds in which they live, then the practice of design would at once inspire hope of alternative forms of liberation. This is what Costanza-Chock aims to provide to their readers by reminding us that design is a “universal human activity” that we are all capable of performing. It is this basic tenet upon which the Design Justice Network Principles are built: allowing its application to reach the farthest extent of our human creativity. From guitar manufacturing, to inventive nurses, to chip designers—which as interviewer Anand Sarwate mentioned, have seemingly very little to do with human- or community-facing activities—design practice is always interconnected with real human lives. Hence, design always has an impact.

The impact rather than intention of design was a particularly important point of discussion that was brought up by another interviewer, Sabelo Mhlambi, who pointed out that there have been initiatives that claim to conduct business “for good” such as Google’s AI for Good or Meta/Facebook’s Data for Good. I cannot help but think of the aphorism, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The problem of course is that much of the time, we have zero access to the intentions of the designer. On this point, Costanza-Chock emphasized that thinking instead about the impact on the community is a meaningful way of getting to some form of accountability. This is especially the case since bad intentions can always be denied, justified, or obfuscated after the fact. The key point of this discussion, however, was that good intentions can often have detrimental impacts on individuals, communities, and society at large.

Through this holistic lens, we can better understand how, as Costanza-Chock discusses, the design of sociotechnical systems become inextricable from the bias and politics of their creators. Thus, design justice as a framework for the analysis of power in design praxis advocates for community-led practices and against normative forms of design that tend to privilege historically dominant identities within the matrix of domination. Moreover, through its principles the Design Justice Network practitioners work to include the diverse voices and creativity of the marginalized others who are typically left out of the design process.

One particularly provocative concept that I was drawn to, which was brought up by Mhlambi during the interview, was related to multi-world world building. This form of pluralistic universe reminded me of my father’s words growing up, “cada cabeza es un mundo,” which literally translates to “each head is a world.” The words speak to a plurality of humans each living full and complex lives with differentiated abilities, capabilities, and desires. If this is the case, how do we design sociotechnical systems, as Costanza-Chock suggests, in a “one size fits one” fashion as opposed to an inclusive pluralist approach to one size fits all?

Art by Shona Ganguly

This deep inquiry gets at a paradox of having many worlds exist within one (i.e. Arturo Escobar’s concept of pluriverse), a mode of superposition that is theorized to exist only in the realm of quantum systems. In other words, if “design justice challenges the underlying assumption that it is possible to design for all people,” how can it also push for a design approach that does not produce marginalized alterity? I would think that a design practice that articulates difference while attending to the specificity of alterity is impossible but necessary. According to Costanza-Chock, what this looks like in practice is an applied approach of design justice in both universalist design projects as well as inclusive ones, where “one size fits one.” Although this theorization lacks much needed discussion, it is a good point of departure for future thought.

Another inspired line of inquiry within the discussion of a pluriverse of design that I found fascinating was related to creativity itself. Mhlambi’s question also made me wonder if we can truly create worlds that are severed from their hegemonic structures, or as Costanza-Chock put it, “without reference, support, or the need to engage with dominant and hegemonic culture and institutions.” I feel that the emancipatory potentiality of design practice may be dependent on the answer. The mere fact that we are attempting to build alternative worlds references – and potentially reifies – the dominance (and predominance) of the status quo.

An attempt to produce difference without reference to the matrix of domination is akin to imagining a color that doesn’t exist. Creating tools of liberation may depend on our capability to produce fundamental difference not as a reaction or resemblance to existing structures or universalist solutions but as immanent production of truly differentiated thought. During the interview, Costanza-Chock did mention the Mexican Zapatista movement as one such example but, at the same time, mentioned the shortcomings of such projects, particularly as articulated by Arturo Escobar.

Design justice is necessarily an open and living framework with the potential for many diverse outcomes – all of which gravitate around a set of principles aimed at democratizing a practice that has historically been limited to a global minority of privileged “experts.” This design approach allows for a plurality of ideologies and belief systems while maintaining a sense of cohesion. Although we need to be careful not to devalue the expertise and lived knowledge of professional designers, Costanza-Chuck warns that we also need to be careful that our go-to design methods are not extractive, particularly when they involve members of marginalized communities.

The answer to who gets to decide what and how technology or other artifacts are built should include the voices, thoughts, and creativity of the communities that they are potentially going to impact. In a nutshell, that is what design justice looks like. But is this feasible in our neoliberal world?

I long for a world that doesn’t exist! What a sight it would be for the diverse peoples of the global majority to have access to the world-making ways that have for so long been in the hands of a relative few. What colorful multi-worlds may come?

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