From Design to Advocacy: Learning to Do More

For many of us home is where the most personal and precious everyday activities take place. We tuck our kids into bed there, we relax after a long day in our favorite chair there, we trim our toenails there. As more and more of the objects in our homes become connected to the internet, and therefore more of the internet becomes embodied in the material makeup of our homes it is important to understand how internet connectivity changes our relationships to everyday objects and activities in our homes.

This is the basic question I came to OpenDoTT with. My way of framing this research topic is through design and design research, as is my training and passion. That same background taught me to use critical design to open up conversations on important issues, to use speculative design to imagine preferable alternatives, design ethics to consider issues of diversity, inclusion, and access, and design research to explore theoretical aspects of everyday life. However rigorous that pedagogy, focusing on technological interactions without also understanding, designing, and fighting for how these relationships fold and re-fold into the fabric of larger assemblages and sociotechnical landscapes left me asking: how in the world do we actually make these ideas a reality today, not just in some utopian future?

I have retained my sceptical and theoretical approach when trying to understand what values, normalized agendas, and privileges get reified in those objects, and how that translates through to our senses of home. But after being in Dundee surrounded by this band of radicals, makers, fabricators, artists, activists, academics, and technologists I have developed a new commitment to critical optimism—to finding a way to make these ideas and values actionable.

While these technological changes come with potentially devastating implications in the face of surveillance capitalism, for example, I see design opportunities and interesting directions for my research. Anthropologist Anna Tsing (2015) writes: “[Capitalism] translates across living arrangements, turning worlds into assets. Alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets”. The worlds of domestic IoT and those humans who share a home are entangled in ways not easily separated. When one gets coopted and monetized, so too does the other.

However, I believe we are capable of designing for other translations. When considering the liveliness of humans and non-humans how might we instead translate authority, agency, and empowerment for all? How might we live with domestic IoT as allies not assets, collaborators not consumables, and as team members rather than tools? In other words, what other models of living with things might be possible when our worlds are not alienated and are allowed to live and grow cooperatively towards better futures? What I cannot (yet) see as clearly are advocacy opportunities or ways of pointing my research in that direction. What do we need to fight for in order to make a place for these values today and in the future? And how do we successfully do that? These are the questions that loom in the back of my mind as I begin meeting and working with real people who are affected by these paradigms.

I believe that in order to have a healthier internet (increasingly embodied by everyday objects) we need a different relationship to the internet (and its things) not just a different internet. This task is what is often referred to as a ‘wicked problem’, one which requires a coalition of interdisciplinary agitators to appreciate, advocate alongside, share knowledge with, and develop ways of imbedding action into design and design into action. This is a central goal of my PhD and motivation for choosing OpenDoTT and I am excited to see where we can go together.

Anna Tsing. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.