Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 149, Nov 2016

Social Design: Between Interests and Values

In politics, as in design, values and interests often mix behind smoke and mirrors. Design is about engaging with the difficult processes of negotiating these two, often conflicting, realms.

In the everyday chain of events, designers approach interests through the design brief, which is usually a blueprint of what the designer is asked to do. The client wants to make a new product or service, make money and claim market shares. The equation is quite simple: interest is about money, and it masquerades as a “good” for the user. Interests first, values second.

When design gets social, values often take front seat. “Social” often becomes a value in itself, directly related to the “good” of design. When designers start to be pro-active, and supposed to find social problems to solve and opportunities to disrupt, values become the leading principles, and social interests with their direct political relations are often obscured.

If we look back, values were primarily defined by customs and religion, which formed the backbone of rule, law and moral. Most often, the bundles of values we call “culture,” in some way mitigated egotism and balanced powers against each other.

But with the rise of modernism, and with it political liberalism and parliamentary democracy, the public perspective on politics changed. Values moved from religion and culture into the realm of politics. Power and interests started masquerading as the pursuit of public virtue. The interest of some appeared as if it was to the benefit of all. Selfish processes veiled claims to power under the varnish of common ideals. In this process of modernization, design started to materialize interests, disguising them as virtues.

As design now gets more and more “social”, an educated elite once again starts to formulate values in correspondence with those in power, often merely replicating their own biases while protecting their own interests. The “social” is again not a realm of interests and power, but of vague values. “Social” usually means general participation, equal recognition, emancipation of the oppressed, public health, pacifism, justice, and wider accessibility: the public goods most agree with. In its worst form, design with explicit interests, often connected to silenced or oppositional groups, then becomes highly controversial and “unsocial.” Designing for pest control, prison populations, policing, or for war, breaks with these ideals, yet it highlights how real and messy interests are often effectively hidden under liberal ideals. No cities would be pleasant to live in (for humans at least) without pest control, most borders are upheld with force, and almost all social relations have to deal with some form of policing, explicit or implicit. Yet such force is not often included into the virtue of the “social.”

Indeed, interests are often “unsocial.” They are real, raise claims to scarce resources, and are connected to directly to the question of who has power over whom. Interests concern the contest between those who have and those who have-not. It is a struggle of property, toil, and influence, and over the division of prosperity. It becomes even more a concern in the face of finite resources and declining prosperity, as real interests start eating into the varnish of values.

If health, peace and justice are not pure ideals, but values defined by interests, we must ask ourselves in whose interest is our concept of justice? What forces and mechanisms of oppression uphold the illusion of peace? In whose interest is our ideal of health, or who is a person or user and who is not, and who benefits on our distinctions? Which pests are exterminated for whose benefit under the surface of the “social?”

The tricky part of separating values and interests is that we often see liberal values as matters of education and virtue, which makes critique of such values often appear as uneducated, corrosive, destabilizing, or even hateful. It is fine to criticize excessive pollution or tax-fraud, as these are exploitations of interests that affect everyone. But in whose interests is this new “social” process or service? What interests masquerade as public goods?

Separate social values from social interests. Ask yourself: Who benefits? Who loses? Whose agenda comes at the price of somebody else’s? What interests masquerade as social virtues?

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