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5 Things with Caroline Sinders, machine-learning-design researcher and artist

Published onDec 19, 2020
5 Things with Caroline Sinders, machine-learning-design researcher and artist

Since late 2019, I’ve been working on a project with Natalie Cadranel on creating a human rights and privacy focused design framework and curriculum for designers who are working with vulnerable groups (i.e. EVERYONE! every company is working with vulnerable groups and should design for their needs) and human rights defenders making tech products for their communities (which is a lot of human rights groups! They are filling the gaps created by Silicon Valley technology). Natalie and I are a part of a growing community in the human rights space creating working methodologies called ‘human rights centered design.’ Human rights centered design works with communities first, to create with communities, to make sure technology and design follow the principles of human rights in software spaces, and to lessen harm faced by those communities. It’s in this space where Natalie and I see our design framework and curriculum sitting. Which brings us to my 5 Things, which are related to unpacking the drawbacks of participatory design. Here is a tweet with a long list of recommendations on drawbacks and criticism of participatory design.

1: "Participation-washing could be the next dangerous fad in machine learning" by Mona Sloane in the MIT Technology Review

While this isn’t really about participatory research methods or its shortcomings, it does focus on the idea of participation within work. Adjacent to our initial topic of participatory design, participation is still key to focus on—especially when focusing on more ethical work procedures. For example, framing participation as work within a system (such as mechanical turkers or ghost work within machine learning) is not exactly equity-based work: it’s more performative, but not substantial for building systems to work with vulnerable and marginalized workers. The article recommends some concrete steps forward: that is recognizing machine learning work as real work and having appropriate compensation for participation, supporting content moderators more, making participation context specific (to domain, tasks, and specific kinds of work), and learning from past mistakes by creating a way to map failures within the field. The article’s author, Mona Sloane, highlights, “rather than trying to use a one-size-fits-all approach, technologists must be aware of the specific contexts in which they operate.

2: Design Justice (MIT Press), Nothing About Us Without Us” chapter by Sasha Costanza-Chock

Sasha Costanza-Chock’s fantastic book Design Justice unpacks the methodology and some case studies from the Design Justice network, and they wrote a chapter on the draw backs from participatory design. Participatory design isn’t a panacea, and does create some gaps that have to be acknowledged in order for participatory design to create equity. Costanza-Chock notes that communities often already have created design solutions to problems; that participatory design needs to be non-extractive; that groups build with and not for; and that some of the guidelines on inclusivity are being created by companies like Airbnb or Google, but often participatory design is given a kind of utopian gleaning that doesn’t necessarily reflect back on itself. Meaning, participatory design doesn’t naturally bring in self criticism. For participatory design to work it should acknowledge power asymmetries between the communities and the practitioners guiding the design process. It’s important to note that designers or organizers who are using participatory design can accidentally make decisions that weaken or take the teeth out of social justice. After considering who gets listened to, who feels comfortable making statements, and balancing feedback by a dominant group at odds with a vulnerable group: does meeting in the middle really solve for social justice? 

3: "Deconstructing community-based collaborative design: Towards more equitable participatory design engagements" by Christina N. Harrington, Sheena Erete, Anne Marie Piper

This paper presents an argument on the failures of participatory design in some design cases, which is that the activity of engaging in a design workshop is a privileged activity—and then the activities within the workshops ignore challenges faced by underserved populations. The researchers behind this paper spent a significant amount of time building relationships with the communities they were running workshops with. It’s hard to summarize this paper properly since it’s so good; the researchers outline how they ran two workshops, the drawbacks or hardships they encountered, how the participants viewed the workshop, and the amount and quality of time spent building relationships with the communities they were running workshops with first. This emphasis on long-lasting relationships within a community is key in making truly equitable participatory design, and this specific focus on designing with communities, and building relationships with those communities, is a key part of human rights centered design.

4: "Post It Note City" by Shannon Mattern

I may be biased because I am so in awe of Shannon Mattern’s writing, but this article is a beautiful analysis of different histories of making cities more ‘participatory’ or how people, institutions and activists have ‘redesigned’ cities. Mattern recounts work in turn-of-the-20th-century Scotland, social surveys from the 1930s and 1940s, Jane Jacob’s work against top-down planning in the 1960s, the 1980s that brought the the Brazilian Worker’s Party creation of participatory budgeting, and others. Mattern’s article focuses on the debacle of Google’s Sidewalk Lab’s proposal in Toronto, and provides clear-sighted analysis, pulling from digital privacy work, on the drawbacks of how Google used participatory design as a form of ethics washing in civic technology.

There is a history of making city design participatory, and even using open source methods, like open data, to make the city more understandable or interactable to citizens. But those methods can be co-opted by private corporations who will engage with cities how they want to, and ‘participatory wash’ their effort. With Google creating areas for citizens to come in and leave post it notes and thoughts, those thoughts were still really constrained within very narrow pre-prompts created by Google. From the article, Mattern points out that “today, it’s common for government agencies and private firms to use maps, models, games, and other playful methods to solicit and validate public spatial knowledge, which supposedly informs their designs. Meanwhile, communities use homegrown methods — radical cartography projects, rogue planning departments, squatters’ collectives, and so on — to counter official plans and create their own designs for spaces that are not official priorities.” But, drawing back to the main point of the article, which was highlighting how Google used the idea of participatory design, but not actually creation participation. Sometimes ideas that are shown, even if they are ‘open to feedback’ create the illusion of participatory design, because the designer’s agenda is being pushed.

5: "We Will Not Be Pacified Through Participation" by Alex Ahmed 

While this is another article on the notions of participatory AI, but less participatory design, it is still worth a read because it gives such fantastic background on what can be learned about the history of labor. It addresses the idea that ‘participation’ often does not lead to confronting injustice. Ahmed explains “under this system, workers in a factory would choose representatives to speak on their behalf, who would join with management representatives in equal numbers to collaborate on problems facing the workplace. But this corporate benevolence, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not lead to improved conditions for workers. The councils would tie on votes concerning raises for workers (with management opposed and workers in favor, of course); however, ties would be broken by the company president.” The article highlights how self-regulation of different bodies—be it companies, institutions or police departments, for example—often suggest a solution such as ‘listening’ to communities to then come up with and implement their own solutions. In this case, the example is a false notion of participation, where participation is presented as a passive state, with suggestions given but no enforcement of those suggestions to actually be considered. This kind participation isn’t one at all, and it is not addressing the actual structural inequality that is being critiqued. 

—Caroline Sinders
learn more about Caroline

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