Whether many are aware or not, design practice has been enmeshed with the erosion of democratic principles for much of the last century. But conversely, design practice is also instrumental in development of democratic principles. ‘Democracy’ as a broad label is championed as a core value across many of the world’s countries. Espousing democratic principles in its simplest form is to enable all individuals to have equal rights to elect their leaders. But labels such as ‘democracy’ are dangerous, for they often conceal far more than they explain.
Democratic equal rights are never completely ‘equal’, but alarmingly in some countries, the gaps are increasing. The early 20th-century political theorist Walter Lippman believed that citizens were a ‘bewildered herd’, that would never be allowed to influence decisions without guidance. Lippman believed their views must be shaped to support hegemonic ideas. Lippman’s ‘good’ political decisions were those that would be beneficial to wealthy property and business owners of the early 1900s. This perspective of managing the public has been widely adopted globally and has created unfettered endorsement for consumerism, the mainstream media corporations and sports, as a way to distract the citizens from more systemic issues. What citizens desire has largely been chosen for them.
But there are alternatives. The pragmatist John Dewey firmly disagreed with Lippman; he said that citizens, through good education and openly democratic principles are essential in a stable society. Dewey believed that only when all of the institutions of society, government, corporations, and educational are direct democracy could humanity become truly democratic. ‘Democracy’, according to Dewey, was a fluid and evolutionary process of attempting to create an ideal manifestation of community life. For Dewey, it ‘democracy’ wasn’t just a category, ‘democratic’ was defined in relation to context.
This is an argument for designers to think more about the political implications of their design practices. Designers are complicit as shape the way people relate to one another through scripting the use of technologies and systems. Each design intervention either accelerates down the path to further problems or considers the rethink required better relate to one another and the world. I encourage designers to turn to thinkers like Dewey, and the hundreds of others who have seen this before. The problems aren’t new, but technology is creating a pervasive, all-encompassing system from which there is no way to imagine any alternatives.
The question may be as simple as ‘how can we live better together?’ But, in addressing this question, there is the necessity to consider far more systemic and longer temporal dimensions. ‘We’ is more plural than only corporate-customer relations, ‘live’ refers to all aspects of experience over time, and the judgement of ‘better’ is subjective to every actor affected, even those unmentioned. In the current age of reflexivity, all actions are all coming back to haunt us. Development is destroying the earth, technology is taking jobs, being ‘social’ makes us depressed, being networked is making people less free, and data management now produces more CO2 than the airline industry. Inequality is creating a highly unstable society. This inequality continues to be driven by design decisions of the past. Every design action has always had consequence, but only now is ignorance negligent.
University of New South Wales