Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 141, Feb 2016

Design and the Locus of Control

We are surrounded by design that is said to “empower” us in various ways, and the idea of “do-it-yourself” (DIY) is that the individual takes control over their direct everyday interaction with products. But I think a central question of what this “doing” means is often left out: who does what, and who controls what?

Since we are still at a level of the individual, the “yourself” that is doing, we may turn to personality studies where the term “locus of control” refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them. Here, the personal conception of "locus" (Latin "location") can be either internal or external. In the first case, the person experiences being in control of his or her life. In the second case, on the other hand, the person experiences life is controlled from the outside, by systemic, environmental or political factors which cannot be influence or changed, be they fate or chance, or by secular power such as state, market or culture.

With an internal locus of control the individual can judge and take on critique and change the personal efforts and capabilities in order to improve and cultivate abilities to raise their performance, and also to take on and change the context of their lived experience. With an external locus of control both praise and blame is externalized, leaving the individual immune, but also unable to change: it is always someone else fault, it is the will of fate, or the system is against everything, no matter what the individual does.

This also effects how we experience the cultures of change around us: do things change around us because we make an effort to do so, or do things change only because of systemic or supernatural causes? If I am stuck in a place where the culture of change is external, my whole social surrounding may be waiting for change to happen and make no effort in mobilizing and challenge power. If our place and capabilities to effect the world around me are coming down on me “from above” or “by chance”, there is nothing much we can do, and even if we do and it does not turn out the way we want it, we loose our self-esteem and locus of control.

However, blending of internal and external locus of control can make the individual better sort between what can be changed and what cannot, and cultivate a wisdom to differentiate between the two. Such individuals can take control over their personal responsibilities, while also working within the frameworks given them, but use rules and limits to their advantage, thus moving within the external systems yet with a sense of internal control.

So, lets come back to a central question of design: does “do-it-yourself” actually mean “control-it-yourself?” And what does consumerism teach me about my possibilities to change the world.

A highly practical example may be IKEA furniture. As I build the furniture, I put effort in it, but the system does not allow for much improvisation, and to much frustration, the assembly often puts me at the mercy of IKEA components and instructions. The parameters of control are very limited for me, and even if I put my best efforts in construction, the locus of control is still kept externally. Similarly, almost all proprietary platforms online are fostering a sense of external locus of control: the limits are firm of what I can do and not, the drop-down menus are pre-configured with my possible answers. I can “do” a lot within the system, but the locus of control is still held externally, and I end up disempowered.

Fashion may be the prime example of externalization of the locus of control. As a social phenomenon, fashion is always “out there,” always in the magazines, in the fashion capitals, and in the judgment and affirmation of others. I am always at the mercy of external forces, no matter how much effort I put into it my looks.

My sense of control in consumer society also fosters me as a citizen in a democracy. I may actually come to believe I can “vote with my dollars” and think the world can be changed by individual choices funnelled through the market. Soon we may even have a generation of consumers who think we can abolish sweatshops by shopping “ethically” and with a slight historical revision perhaps also think slavery was abolished in the US by consumers shopping “slave-free” cotton.

Doing is not the same as controlling. If the market offers you to “do” something, you can certainly be sure it is actually leading you to a disempowered activity. We should not expect anyone, neither state nor market, to give up power wilfully.

Do-it-yourself is an empty gesture. We must strive for control-it-yourself.

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