The CLL community, a vital center of creative work in HCI, games, and other kinds of learning technologies for nearly twenty years, has consistently countered illusory promises of the democratizing influence of technology with a real commitment to equity. As CLL Director Dr. Mimi Ito and co-author Dr. Justin Reich write, “apps, software, and devices are put in the service of existing structures and systems, rather than rearranging them.” In other words, technologies do not disrupt the ubiquitous, powerful social hierarchies that structure everyday life; they are part of them. But the CLL community has also held that the design of digital technologies, when rooted in authentic community partnership, can highlight, rearrange, or critique power. As Dr. Lyndsay Grant wrote in this space over ten years ago, design practices “provide a good way for thinking about the process of change necessary in a movement towards social justice.”
How might educators, researchers, technologists, and the public connect work in design to contemporary struggles for justice without engaging in saviorism or, worse, ignoring our own contributions to the multiple, interlocking structural oppressions that shape public life ?1 The risks here are acute, especially given the way the design workforce and the institutions of education that feed it are marked by many intersecting forms of privilege and exclusion.2 For example, my own research shows how an interest in providing working-class Black and Latinx students access to learning technologies in the name of social justice leads to invasive surveillance and extractive data capture.3
Some recent work in HCI questions the relationship between structural oppression (chiefly in the context of the United States) and design work. While these works do not claim to correct, cure, or solve structural oppression, they do offer ways to (re)connect the work of design to conversations among activists and critical scholars who call for the dismantling of race-, gender-, class-, caste-, and disability-based hierarchies, especially with respect to the design of digital technologies.
What follows is meant to briefly sketch some of the connections between a commitment to equity in the design of learning tools, platforms, and games, and the broader interest of researchers and activists engaged in the “constant struggle” of naming and resisting oppression in all areas of public life.4 As Dr. Sheena Erete5 writes, for many researchers, especially those who come from minoritized communities or work in Black and/or feminist intellectual traditions, such resistance is a central, motivating part of research and design. However, she also characterizes design as bound up with “intersecting systems of power that attend to and center whiteness, capitalism, individualism, and innovation.” Design is important and valuable work, but it is not innocent.
Equity Is Not Justice
While justice can be an ambiguous concept, one tacked on to a seemingly endless succession of projects (e.g., social justice, data justice, research justice, et al.), design justice is an emerging framework that centers “the ways that design reproduces, is reproduced by, and/or challenges the matrix of domination (white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism).”6 As Sasha Costanza-Chock is quick to remind readers, design justice draws entirely from the work of organizers and activists as articulated by the Principles of Design Justice and cannot be used as a clinical term for classification or diagnosis. Simply put, the moment we flatten the work of activists, researchers, and vulnerable Others into “implications for design,” we risk appropriating the struggle of those harmed by overlapping systems of oppression7 and misunderstanding important descriptive and theoretical insight.8 Costanza-Chock’s work insists that the design of digital technologies neither causes nor solves structural inequality, but is itself deeply embedded in power dynamics that benefit dominant classes at the expense of everyone else. The starting point of design justice is the partial, negotiated, tentative steps that designers and their intended beneficiaries take to acknowledge and work through these troublesome relations.
Scholars in fields including education, journalism, social work, law, medicine, and librarianship (to name but a few) have developed a robust literature on professional reflexivity, the way that practitioners whose work touches the public sector must attend to their ethical imperatives as a matter of everyday work life. As Kelvin White and Anne Gilliland argue, such reflexivity—“identifying, critiquing, and addressing the shifting social, cultural, philosophical, and political” conditions where professional practice unfolds—links professional life to social change. This explicit call to question how our work embodies, upholds, and potentially challenges structural oppression also means that superficial commitments to general principles cannot take the place of deliberate, situated consideration of the power dynamics that suffuse professional life. For example, design projects with an explicit interest in equity frequently rely on participatory research and design methods. Harrington et al. show how participatory design methods, when deployed without sufficient reflexivity, can themselves tax and burden the putative beneficiaries of even the most equity-minded projects.9 A commitment to reflexivity demands that we scrutinize our own position in the social hierarchy and allow those who we wish to help to do likewise, always recognizing that professional practice, like technology itself, tends to support the status quo.
Finally, researchers, practitioners, educators, citizens, students, and the general public must recognize the truism that individual action is a limited form of fostering social change, one that cannot substitute for organized, collective action. Social movements succeed, when they succeed, over a period of years or even decades.10 This success depends on everyday people deciding that structural oppression is real and that a movement’s goals are actionable: this is what inspires people to join, donate, support, sabotage, or pressure powerful authorities to produce more just conditions of public life. As Dean Spade writes, the current moment calls for “supporting survival, building new infrastructure, and mobilizing large numbers of people to work and fight for a new world.”11 A more lasting form of equity then might be found in design that nurtures these capacities, and in so doing, counters the oppression that produces inequity in the first place. Design can certainly contribute to more just futures, especially when it helps us to imagine other ways of life or to make visible the structural oppression that frequently passes unnoticed, but design can never take the place of coordinated action and meaningful solidarity.
- The Combahee River Collective. (1977, 2014). A Black feminist statement. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 42(3/4), 271–280.
- McGee, E. O. (2020). Interrogating Structural racism in STEM higher education. Educational Researcher, 49(9), 633–644. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20972718
- Crooks, R. (2019). Cat-and-mouse games: Dataveillance and performativity in urban schools. Surveillance & Society, 17(3/4), 484–498. https://doi.org/10.24908/ss.v17i3/4.7098
- Davis, A. Y., & Barat, F. (2016). Freedom is a constant struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement. Haymarket Books.
- Erete, S. (2021). Using black feminist epistemologies and activist frameworks to counter structural racism in design. ACM Interactions, 28(5), 56–59. https://doi.org/10.1145/3479981
- Costanza-Chock, S. (2018, June 28). Design Justice: Towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.679
- Crooks, R. (2020, October). Between communication and violence. ACM Interactions, 27(5), 60–65.
- Dourish, P. (2006). Implications for design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 541–550. https://doi.org/10.1145/1124772.1124855
- Harrington, C., Erete, S., & Piper, A. M. (2019). Deconstructing community-based collaborative design: Towards more equitable participatory design engagements. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 3(CSCW), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359318
- Meyer, D. S. (2021). How social movements (sometimes) matter. Polity.
- Spade, D. (2020). Solidarity not charity. Social Text, 38(1), 131–151. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7971139
Blog post by Roderic Crooks, Assistant Professor of Informatics, UCI