Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 130, November 2014

Empowered and addicted by design

As humans we seek pleasure and avoid pain. This also reflects into the basic paradigm of design: we design for pleasurable functions. Few products and services that cause pain or suffering will be bestsellers. But as we aim to lower the friction of life and produce the commodities and services of happiness, we are also at risk of producing the pitfall of pleasure: addiction.

Addiction is an enslavement or compulsive craving for pleasure. It is the obsessive engagement in rewarding behaviour, despite its adverse consequences. And design is good at producing addiction, and as it amplifies pleasure it also increases the cravings for pleasure. This can be evident in our relationship to consumerism.

It would be worthwhile for us to study the proliferation of addiction by design, as we are part of producing it. Unlike the production of the necessities of life, much design is a superfluous endeavour, the sugar of evolution. Even as some of us are bettering the world, we usually produce surplus rituals and values which fuel addiction. The paradox is: we need people to need us. We must make the world dysfunctional, as content people hardly need designers.

One way to make ourselves useful is the current “gamification” of the everyday, especially in the realm of new media or social applications. With small challenges and rewards, designers try to turn our daily habits into games, with their situations of winning and losing. Not only on apps do we compete in cross-words or how long we have run today, but we also do it in everything from paying our children if they eat their food or do their homework to academic citation indexes or work-performance games of the new economy. Real life mixes nicely with betting, gambling machines and poker. The games seem to add a little spice to our labour in the attention economy.

What the “gamification” tendency also reveals is how design has come to totally embrace the competitive ideology of our economy and made our services an entry drug into addiction to the values of consumerism.

Take for example our everyday use of social media. It is easy to start valuing one’s presence online in the number of “likes” and “retweets” one gets, and value experiences and importance in a world based on this digital footprint. Especially in a time where the individual voice in capital-controlled media is all the more ignored and marginalized. The main avenue to get recognized or heard is through the designated channels/values, so we cultivate the abilities that give us pleasurable feedback, such as “likes.”

Addiction is a feedback-loop of motivations gone awry, a pleasure mechanism that has gone out of control. What was supposed to be helpful for survival, joy or recognition, is getting back with vengeance and starts to kill us. We take the drugs of design for emotional relief and finally we can’t get to do without them. We love the feedback loop, the acknowledgement, the sensation of attention and self-worth. Yet the gamification of these loops means that the rewards are controlled by the platform itself, and mainly distributed to winners.

As designers, most of our creative endeavour is fed into the hedonism and selfishness called consumerism, and most of us are addicted to it. Of course we need stuff to be human in the world, but consumption is also the game platform that feeds us with self-realization and therapy, and designers are complicit in sustaining this ideology. We help rationalize it with all kind of principles or philosophies: ergonomics, services, social innovation—it most often leads to amplifying the platforms of the game itself. We may try to make our addiction more sustainable, but the game must go on.

One of the main mechanisms behind our addiction is the widely held belief in meritocracy, that our merits are valued highest when deciding our social standing. This is a noble cause, as it limits inherited power and corruption. But in its gamified form, it also presupposes that any positional “worth” a person has can be translated into the points of the game. The gamification of meritocracy means an unquestioned loyalty to the platform which distributes the rewards. In the realm of facebook, worth is measured in “likes”. In the realm of twitter, worth is measured in “retweets.” In the realm of capitalism, worth is measure in money.

Of course one could argue that social media and also capitalism can be very empowering. A user can escape petrified hierarchies and cultural values, make oneself heard and make things happen beyond the cultural boundaries of agency, what one is allowed to do or not in certain places. But also empowerment can be addictive if not used right.

Take for example the small empowerment one can experience in marginal fields, such as Do-It-Yourself activities, or crafts. I feel empowered as I can rebuild my own kitchen or knit a scarf. My small empowerment can mobilize values that are marginalized in the economy, such as gifts of honesty, sincerity or affection. I can invest my time into something very personal. But what feels empowering can also be addictive as it reproduces even more dependence on the platform that actualizes the feeling of empowerment in the first place. For example can DIY or craft activities amplify our dependence on gamified values: we buy more tools and hardware, or sweatshop-produced cheap craft-accessories, or we get addicted to the blog comments about our knitting, or the cool comments about our new home made veranda. Also our empowerment can become gamified and make us addicted to build more things, or sew new clothes in order to feel attractive.

Also the tools of empowerment may produce addiction to platforms. Micro-credits could be an example. If used carelessly, micro-credits can produce addiction to the platforms of market values and monetary appreciation, which may draw the users deeper into a game that is already rigged by the bigger banks. If I buy advanced machines for my micro-credits I may also become addicted to service, spare parts and indeed, designers. Micro-credits, advertised as an empowering tools for the poor, still runs its game on the platform of capitalism, where the bigger fishes make people spend their credits on appliances that in turn need more money to be sustained.

If we as designers try to design for empowerment and social justice we must be better at knowing how to NOT create even more addiction to designers an social engagement. We must also avoid making empowerment into yet another gamified competition. How do we instead design to produce systemic skills, and social assets that can challenge power and the platforms that rule the social reward systems? How do we design platforms that are true commons: not only open for everyone, but also controlled by everyone.

Even as we say we design for empowerment, we must be careful it is not an empowerment that in turn produces more addiction. We need to design for liberation from addiction, not fuelling the fire.

And perhaps most importantly: we must dare to design for a world where we as designers are no longer needed.

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