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Stories & Projects

Towards a Digital Democracy

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In their latest course, Fluid Assemblages, the second-year students of the Master's Programme in Interaction Design were challenged to "look under the hood" of the tech apps and gadgets of our time.

Text: Jens Persson

What unites Facebook and Google, Apple and Microsoft, Uber and Airbnb? They are all companies that can perhaps best be described as mega-platforms, providing the hardware and software foundation for others to operate on, and plug in to. The internet-of-things (IoT) revolution has also allowed these global actors to market and sell physical devices that "speak to each other" while collecting data in peoples' homes and on peoples' bodies. Networked products such as smart homes, smart phones and digital wearables are now part of the everyday lives of billions of people around the world. Altogether, these are all products and business models that have created enormous wealth for their founders and shareholders.

Apart from the obvious services that these companies offer, they also represent complex digital infrastructures that are specifically designed to produce data about what we do, to influence user behaviour and to keep us on their platforms for as long as possible. Most of these activities are typically part of carefully designed dark patterns, hidden away from the user.

Has design lost its ways? 

People within the design community will likely say that interaction design should be about the interaction between product and user. It seems, however, that the rapid rise of global tech platforms has challenged the relevance of traditional design principles, such as user-centred design and transparency for the user. How can we make sure that user advocacy and openness once again become part of the design process, as these inter-connected digital things become even more complex?

Heather Wiltse, associate professor at UID and co-responsible for the course, explains.

"If today, human experience is the resource that is mined as a data-fied resource and used to produce audiences, behavioural futures markets, and means of influencing behaviour as products, then it is data science and analytics that is mediating these new basic relations of production and consumption. Interaction design now designs only the mining tools. This is a shift that has profound consequences for design, as significant as the shift from craft to industrial production."

Me At UAC Kopia Heather Wiltse, associate professor at UID and co-responsible for the course 'Fluid Assemblages'.

The IxD2 course, Fluid Assemblages, challenges students to deal with these multifaceted issues. The brief was to design a thing that is a fluid assemblage, meaning an interconnected product that plugs into an existing platform. Students chose to confront the challenge from a range of different viewpoints.

A different streaming experience

Maja Björkqvist and Selvi Olgac decided to tackle the online video streaming industry, responsible for 80 percent of the carbon emissions produced through internet usage. After a comprehensive research process and an intensive ideation phase they presented a service that aims to generate awareness and reflection around online video consumption.

- The service we created, YouTube Reflect, is geared towards people becoming more aware of their patterns when it comes to streaming on the internet. We've added certain filters that you need to set before you start a YouTube session. The parameters you choose relate to the topics of your videos, the length of your session as well as image quality and sound quality. YouTube Reflect acts as a counterweight to the current auto-play function that merely serves to keep users on the platform for as long as possible. Also, simply by making these choices you're starting to reflect on what you're watching and why, says Maja Björkqvist. 

 DSF8868 Kopia 2 Photo: Peder Fällefors. Selvi Olgac (left) and Maja Björkqvist presenting their YouTube Reflect prototype.

- This course has been about going deep into what's happening in the background of these systems, rather than designing a pretty interface. If we want to change things, this course has forced us to figure out ways to build services that are for the user rather than taking advantage of the user, says Maja Björkqvist. 

Vote for YOUR Facebook representative  

Another student aims at reforming a different tech giant, Facebook. Connie Jehu sketched a scenario in which Facebook becomes a democratic digital space where users are part of the decision-making process. Through her service, "Facebook citizens" get to elect their own representatives.

- My project explores how we can democratize online platforms. You can actually draw parallels between Facebook and a nation. For example, they govern a community were millions of people come together. Recently, there has been talk about Facebook launching their own currency. To a certain extent we live our lives in these digital spaces and I wanted to explore what it would look like if Facebook were to engage users in its governance systems, says Connie Jehu. 

- The service allows users to get elected to certain committees that aim to represent the broader user base, rather than the individual. These committees would deal with, for example, content moderation. I believe that a shift towards user agency should be on the minds of decision makers at Facebook, not in the least considering the amount of scrutiny they've come under in the past few years. 

 DSF8889 Kopia Photo: Peder Fällefors. Connie Jehu presenting her project 'Facelect' during the 'Fluid Assemblages' exhibition.

- As designers, our products go out into the world and plug into different systems. They're not stand-alone products anymore. I think it's important for us to connect with and understand what drives our society; and that includes politics, governance and business. This course encouraged us to engage with these complex issues which was really freeing in a way, says Connie Jehu.

Different problem, different strategy

Clearly, design seems to be playing catch-up when it comes to defining and shaping the interconnected products of the modern era. It's a new playing field. The industrial designer of the past was more in control of the process and the final output. They dealt with, for example, the ergonomics and durability of a physical product, with the needs of the user always being a clear priority. There has been a seismic shift from the way industrial design worked under industrial capitalism and the systems of mass production. 

How digital products are designed going forward will influence the political and economic landscape for decades to come. The ability to make money off users without them knowing it, by harvesting personal data, has led to something of an identity crisis within the design community. Who are we really designing for? If traditional core values such as transparency and user-centred design are to once more become guiding principles, new design practices need to be developed.

"These design practices must be able to describe how these digital products show up in the world, what roles they play and most importantly - how they could be different", says Heather Wiltse.

Find out more about all the student projects from the 'Fluid Assmablagew' course