Salon 7 — Reflections on Transparent Design

How we think about the information that is embedded into design or that accompanies it in its processes and products is inextricably linked to the larger contexts of political economy. The misinformation or, at least, misapprehensions that have surrounded the workings of financial institutions running up to the economic crisis has created one vector of influence on the debate. Activist attempts to open up restricted governmental information has opened up another.

How designs are constructed and interacted with, how their meaning is formed is brought out when we use computers. Working with digital information encompasses skimming and coding. You surf its information or you can dive deep into its informational architecture. Each of these notions, and these working together, have wider implications for how design culture is constituted and can constitute itself.

An overarching question of the differences between transparency and openness emerged that quickly brought in political and ethical questions. This salon moved through this and many other questions.

Left to right:  Gillian Youngs, Jessi Baker, Alison Powell, Martin Dittus, Kevin Walker

Left to right: Gillian Youngs, Jessi Baker, Alison Powell, Martin Dittus, Kevin Walker

Martin Dittus described his organisation, London Hackspace, in terms of the benefits that it accrues through being open. This means open in the sharing of knowledge within it but also in its own governance. Openness can consistently run through an organisation so that, for example, playful and more applied practices can co-exist.

With the visual and material aid of an electric toaster, Alison Powell described two approaches to the object, deriving her observations from the work of Martin Heidegger. One was to view the object as ‘closed’, as a means to an end. The other is open and observable, where the processes to make toast are laid bare. But there is a separation. Even if the means of production can be seen, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can engage directly with them. In the former, it is, in Heideggerian terms, ‘ready-to-hand’; it can be used. In the latter, with the toaster taken apart and broken, we have a different engagement with our technologies. It is a way into their politics. And this is where all of the politics of hacking is located. How do you bring the these two levels of the object together? This is an interesting design problem.

Jessi Baker spoke of her company, Provenance, that helps companies and organisations understand and communicate where the materials they use come from. Jessi made a distinction between transparency and openness. The former is really an ability to convey facts. This can be manifested actually in products:  so, for example, antiques carry the story of their life-use through chips and scratches. Self-referentiality can also achieve this, as in, former V&A Artist in Residence, Julia Lohmann’s Antonia Cowbench which is made of leather and is in the form of a cow. The origins of its material are clearly expressed in the form. In terms of quantities Jessi Baker has been thinking about ‘quantified stuff’ – things that, for instance, declare their own embodied energy. By extension, for her, design is about fate – how you shape the outcome and experience of things.

Political economist Gillian Youngs began by declaring that she had been studying the internet since its inception. As a scholar of globalization beforehand, she has been interested in the macro-forces that information technology are bound up in. She emphasized that the so-called digital revolution is quite distinct from other technological revolutions. Our relationship to it is embodied and intellectual and it engages with every aspect of our lives. Pivotal in this is that it connects us as individuals to a whole and this is how she came to it from a globalization perspective. Following on from this, her own generation has been raised thinking that politics, economics, culture and the social are segmented, whereas ‘digital natives’ experience these as enmeshed with one another. Even so, digital culture has grown out of the former world and institutionalised policy arenas continue to dominate with this paradigm of segmentation. Hence, Gillian opines, governmental notions of ‘innovation’ still haven’t got beyond the industrial revolution in their conception of it. For them, the digital revolution is just another stage on from the industrial revolution rather than a radically restructuring process. In the meantime, too little attention has been paid to NGOs as innovators in information society. This brings the argument back to small-scale groups, like Martin Dittus’s London Hackspace. But the institutional predominance of other models means that the idea of innovation is still being distorted.

Our chair, Kevin Walker, asked why transparency should matter? Martin Dittus replied that this needn’t have to be there all the time, but from a political standpoint there should be a right to it if required or requested. Alison Powell reversed the argument to posit that there is no democratic accountability to the transparency to which we are being subjected. In short, data on us that is held by government and corporations or how it is used is not accessible or, at best, very difficult to uncover. We leave data trails that we can not track back on. Meanwhile, by leaving a trace we are verifying that we are busy doing all those things that contemporary capitalism expects of us. You have more to fear if you are not displaying all the time, she argued. Jessi Baker suggested that when signing up on the internet to a service such as Facebook, you should go through some kind of check-out process to demonstrate to both parties that there was some kind of value exchange going on. Gillian Youngs came back to the problem of the distinction between material and informational exchange, or the lack of distinction that institutional forces make between these. Thus, big data is treated too much as just another material resource or object, rather than deep regard being paid to its differences, subtleties and complexities as ‘information’. She went to talk about ‘automaticity’ where we engage with information (for example through our smartphones) unconsciously, unaware of the politics of the systems that we are engaging with. How often do we read ‘Terms and Conditions’?

Design is where some of these trade-offs can be made evident and, indeed, the politics of design itself. Martin Dittus reminded us that notions of transparency are culturally specific and that there are different locations and standards applied in different locations.

The next question is, who is pushing transparency? Kevin Walker asked how is hacking then corporatized in a way that creates conflicts between individuals and institutions? Martin Dittus pointed out that hacking is predominantly the preserve mid-20s, white, middle-class males and this needs to be addressed, perhaps as a way of breaking this constant defection from individual creative practice to corporate interests. Perhaps another demographic will open onto other pathways. Gillian Youngs agreed that greater inclusion of women in the discursive field of innovation may lead to new forms and processes in business and elsewhere.

Much of the rest of the salon went on to discuss information asymmetry. Where and for whom is it most beneficial to provide data? An example that was cited was the Fairphone which, at the time of this salon, was going through self-declared difficulties in its supply-chain. This start-up is dedicated to complete transparency in its operations, a risky activity in the world of smartphones which tends toward the other extreme (witness Apple’s secrecy in its operations). In which so ever case, the internet allows smokescreens to be eroded, argued Jessi Baker, as information is revealed through hacking or hacking-like activities in any case. Meanwhile, Alison Powell adds that political agency and disruption should not just come through hacking but through a range of practices.

It seems that transparency is a challenging and compelling concept for design. It places up front a series of questions as to how we design, its timeframes, publics, priorities and outcomes. If the institutional apparatus of governance is so far behind what the information revolution affords and implies, then it might be some while before mainstream notions of innovation catch up and the possibilities for transparency become truly appreciated. Meanwhile, the salon made clear that it immediately engages deep questions around the politics of design.

Finally, a salon attendee has kindly emailed with a suggestion for further reading. Rosie Wanek recommends Marek Bienczyk’s book Transparency (2012) that, she says, offers useful further historical context to the discussion. I give this information out in the interests of openness and participation that we hope the salons reflect.

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One Response to Salon 7 — Reflections on Transparent Design

  1. Pingback: Politics, Technology and Design – My busy January | Alison Powell

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