Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 164, April 2018

Participatory design and the authoritarian drift

These days it seems the debates around participation and design are gaining intensity once again. The paradox emerges from a clash of rhetoric; as politicians and designers seem to agree that more and wider participation is something worth striving for, everybody can witness a continuous concentration of wealth, agency and power across society. Seemingly every designer, especially of new technologies, sell their new device as an “empowering” design, yet everywhere around us the centripetal aggregation of money and data intensifies, if it is in the treasure chests of the so called 1% or the big data platform monopolies. As the political spectrum simultaneously is drawn towards more authoritarian leaders, the very idea of participation seems betrayed from the very forces that once claimed to work in the name of the people. People participate to give away their power.

Since Sharry Arnstein’s influential essay “the ladder of participation” from 1969, the questions concerning political participation have centred on how the processes could avoid being reduced to mere therapy or tokenism in the hands of larger interests. For example, in urban planning, participation is often allowed to happen in the small space where decision makers have left a bit of vacuum for citizens to play. -“You people can help decide on the parks and playgrounds, while the investors do the real design.” In such settings, a participatory process is a technique of deception in order to legitimize the status quo. Getting people to participate gives an aura of disseminated power while simultaneously undermining room for overall critique. The logic is as old as it is simple: you cannot complain if you were part in making the decision, even if your influence only concerned some miniscule detail.

Today, this process has intensified, not least with the proliferation of design as both material culture as well as ideology (as in “design thinking”). User engagement and participation is no longer reserved to big public projects in urban planning, but happens in almost all design. Not engaging users and stakeholders is generally seen as a flaw in the design process. We can see it from users being part in beta-testing new apps, hardware or services, to large-scale “living labs” where private-public partnerships integrate participation into the very social fabrics of everyday reality in municipality services and public policies. Every new design is continually developed, tested and redesigned, and all users are now participating in feedback and development. With the emergence of each and every gadget becoming “smart” all our data is collected for continuous cybernetic improvements, even when we don’t know it.

But not only that, today participation makes every user also a potential manipulator and disseminator of modulated data; reproducing the news, memes and information, and this has quickly turned into user-generated disinformation and the viral contagion of lies and cynicism. Much current participation is designed in order to undermine decisions being made and to instead increase the level of noise. The process is designed to isolate and fragment people, disconnecting them from conducting virtuous forms of civic deliberation and reach shared forms of empowerment. Participation is today a technique to make shared decisions and mobilization impossible amongst users. Dragging stakeholders into contested participatory processes has become an orchestrated technique to overwhelm the participant with contradictory information making sure no coordinated or informed decision can be made amongst the public. Participation becomes a way for invested interests to mobilize active resistance to any decision and progress except their own, while simultaneously administering the feedback processes to further their agenda. Participation fractures any real civic assembly to make sure people gets so disempowered and cynical they ask for authoritarian decisions to be made for them.

While this political manoeuvring is an old Machiavellian technique, design is today a central component in the authoritarian drift. Thus civic designers need to rethink how they use participation. We must start to unpack how we utilize the means and ends of user engagement. There are some central issues we must rethink concerning how agency distributed to participants and stakeholders;

  • If participation is used for facilitating deliberation and making decisions, be careful the “transparency” of the design process does not opens a community for data harvesting and orchestrated disintegration from outside.
  • If participation is used for education and development, be sure to ask who ultimately gains: who serves whom?
  • If participation is used for estrangement, dissent and the unmasking of power: how can stakeholder reassemble and convene back into a constructive mode after disruption and the staging of conflict?
  • If participation is used for empowerment and the cultivation of empowering capabilities, how does these abilities challenge power, how forceful are they, and how do we avoid making such abilities a new norm and source of ableism?

At its best, participation is about self-governance, and such empowerment gains strength from informed decisions, compromises and alliances through humility, reflection, and civil courage. Otherwise we risk making the promise of inclusive participation just another constituent part of the authoritarian drift.

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