Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 118, October 2013

Collaborators, Partisans and the Management of Consent

Collaboration, or the great “co-“, as in co-design or co-authorship, has been the great news in design over the last decades and is now seeping into design educations globally. Designers are encouraged to work with others in transdisciplinary teams and to do ethnographic studies and collaborate with users in a multitude of ways.

Yet, “collaboration” may not be as smooth and easy as often portrayed in the manuals of design methods. Collaboration can be, just like participation, a contagious issue, lined by ethical traps and asymmetric relationships that evolve over time as the design process proceeds. Seldom do designers acknowledge that “collaborator” is not only a positive concept, but also means someone who is in cooperation with enemy forces against one's own community or country. A “collaborator” is someone who is in traitorous cooperation with the enemy, as the French called the community members who worked with the Nazis during World War II. Also today every conflict has its collaborators, from the leading figures, the Quislings of domination, to the silent everyman who obeys commands without thinking, in order to maintain “law and order”, even in the face of great injustices.

But collaborators seldom see themselves as traitors. Instead they often see themselves either as the keepers of tradition, or the opposite, as the vanguard, the avantgarde, and the ones who pave the way to the future. From their perspective they work for how things should be. Yet they become tools for powers beyond their control, their consent with the dominant forces and their collaboration makes them puppets of oppression.

As designers we want to do good, yet we cannot escape the decrees and values of our time. In the 1930s Bauhaus-inspired functionalist designers thought their social engineering was the optimal way to manage design, and found ways to legitimize their collaboration with both fascism and communism. Probably the dream of a better society obscured the consequences of their own actions. Today designers are the avantgarde of consumer society, we all want to make everything accessible to the masses, as cheap as possible, for as many as possible. In our eyes, this cannot be wrong, yet this utopian aim often seems to blind us to the consequences of our actions. Conveniently, consumer society also shields us from our deeds, as people only buy our stuff if they want. We are thus not to blame, the market wants it, and the market cannot be wrong. The market puts the blame on the consumer: they buy stuff in an unsustainable way, while we, as designers, cannot be blamed for their consumption habits. The market displaces the ethical problems. Following this logic, design can never be the real problem.

Design “collaboration” works in a similar way, as the design method displaces the substantial issues of collaboration beyond the control of the participants. When we collaborate, a lot of issues are already taken for granted. Most often the design brief is already set; the company starting the collaboration must control the process, the outcome should become a sellable product, etc.

In a similar way, the dominant role of the designer is also worked into the constitution of the collaboration. We designers have power, and the participants should be grateful for being here. Participants may come with valuable information, but we designers are the avantgarde, we understand the future best, and as we do “good” design, we would never do anything evil.

So how could we as designers critically examine our relationships to power, domination and our collaborative part in the management of consent?

Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that we as designers most often per definition dominate, we are leading a question and a situation, even if only “facilitating” it towards user “empowerment”. Perhaps the first question we should ask is, what is in the interest of our contractors? What is in the interest of our professional culture? (Hint: to sell stuff, make money, and be famous) If we are serious, we should better avoid turning the “empowerment” we strive to cultivate into a mere reproduction of our own uncritical submission to consumer society.

If we as designers must dominate the social situation we engage in, how could we do so in an ethical way that may also reveal and dismantle the worst asymmetries of power, as well as highlight the forces at play? Collaboration is a problem of ethics, of rewards, commitment and solidarity. Collaboration may for example mean that one part accepts domination for short or long-term benefit, or a rise in prestige at the cost of solidarity. It is almost always an asymmetry, and as designers we usually have the upper hand, and with our authority comes great responsibility. We must be careful, be reflective, think and train a lot. The risk is otherwise that our collaboration only becomes a blurring of authorship and responsibility: we want to have the credit, but we simultaneously hide from responsibility. (-“I am not responsible, it is a collaboration, I only obey orders!”)

It may be easy to see oneself, a socially engaged designer, as a rebel of sort. That one is opposing the consumer “system”. But also this position is treacherous. A “partisan” is a freedom fighter, a guerrilla warrior, fighting for justice in occupied territory. But a partisan is also a blind supporter of a cause, a fanatic, someone who denounces compromise, reconciliation or consensus. The partisan is the opposite of the collaborator. The partisan is a “drop-out”, a person who never listens to others, makes no concessions, no exceptions. In this way the partisan position is the safe artistic way of approaching others. It is a solitary mode with no connections, no obligations to the surrounding world, no compromises. For the partisan, to cooperate may convey work with other drop-outs on the outside of the system, but never with the inside. For the partisan, to cooperate with those inside the system is a considered a “sell-out”, that one has lost the true and authentic position, that one has become a collaborator in its worst meaning, working with the enemy.

In today’s design world, collaboration seems exciting to many, not only within the hyped innovation studios. It has become a general way to break the designer bubble and encounter “the others” (often meaning the ones who are not designers). But this happens at a price: acting from isolation and a “drop-out” position is quite easy, as everyone is kept at a distance. But collaboration means to engage in practical ethics and to start asking troubling questions: who gains what at what price? Is the exchange fair? Is it just? Can our exchange be more symmetric? Are we honest to each other?

On a societal level, we are all complicit in being governed. We are all cowards. We are scared of failure, punishment, shame, or prison. This makes us all collaborators in some sense. When we ask users to be our design collaborators we ask them to accept and legitimize the power relations we bring into the design negotiations or scenario. We ask them to be complicit in being governed in the way we are governed. We manage their consent.

We must be careful design collaborations do not make things worse.

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