Should designers support or subvert users’ culture?

In the first wave of digital invention it was a rallying cry to proclaim that “information wants to be free.”  Of course what this really meant was that a certain subculture of educated people, mostly in universities, wanted  to access and share information without having to pay for it. This cultural attitude has produced useful online resources like Wikipedia and it has also produced high visibility arrests for media piracy and endless litigation against the Google Book Project.  We now know whatever “information” may want, rights holders often want to be paid.

Princeton researcher Janet Vertesi studies the cultural context of scientific investigation at NASA.

I was reminded of this change in perspective recently by Janet Vertesi, who was at Georgia Tech speaking about her illuminating research on knowledge cultures at NASA. Vertesi studied two projects which collected very different configurations of knowledge, mirroring the very different social organization of the investigating teams. One team which divided up the ownership of individual instruments and had a highly politicized decision making process collected data with great breadth but little coherence; a second team that shared a common instrument set and made decisions by consensus collected data that was highly integrated and detailed but narrow in scope. Vertesi’s presentation made it clear that there was no such thing as objective data, and that knowledge reflected cultural organization.  It was Vertesi’s very sensible position that designers must heed such differences in  cultural configuration or risk creating tools that do not fit the user group.

I don’t dispute the validity of Vertesi’s meticulous observations  nor the wisdom of the theoretical framework she suggests for it (involving Durkheim’s distinctions between mechanical/organic and  tribal/industrial cultures). But  I resist any approach that assumes that knowledge configurations have to remain the same as a result of digital design interventions.

I think that introducing digital formats is inherently disruptive, and I agree with Tim Berners-Lee that  standardization in knowledge-representation can lead to a richer understanding of the world. So I asked her if she thought that designers could encourage knowledge structures that combined breadth and depth  by looking for opportunities to create standardized knowledge representations in the kinds of structured  document formats and ontologies  proposed by Berners-Lee. But to Vertesi, Berners-Lee belonged to another culture altogether, one that was alien to the NASA scientists who should not be expected to adopt the values of computer scientists.

“But doesn’t information want to be standardized? Doesn’t knowledge want to be complete?” I pressed her.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I  haven’t met ‘Information’ or ‘Knowledge.'”

Point well taken.  There is no absolute “knowledge” with its own wants. We are indeed all members of our own subcultures, with different practices and values around knowledge-making.  All too often technologists impose solutions based on an abstract sense of a domain, leading to a disastrous lack of fitness for the user community of actual human beings. So I agree with Vertesi that designers very much need to understand local cultural values. And I am grateful to anthropological observers who can help us to see culture in everyday practices we might otherwise take for granted.

But I believe that our loyalties as designers have to be to something larger than the client’s current practices. In the field of  academic research, for example, there are  many examples of strong cultural rituals — like publishing in prestigious print-on-paper journals —  that no longer serve the fundamental interests of the community.  As designers we are obliged to notice when a particular cultural practice  reflects older media constraints  that limit the long-range usefulness of an application.

Scientific practices in particular have to be judged by how well they serve the larger purpose of advancing human knowledge, and we cannot assume that the goal is necessarily well served by the conventional practices of scientists. A new medium of representation — which is a rare event in human culture — offers the chance to reconsider and reinvent professional practices in order to take advantage of new possibilities for understanding the world and organizing our relationships.  It is the responsibility of the designer to offer stakeholders the change to engage in this kind of radical rethinking.

Sometimes you have to propose solutions that  subvert the existing culture in order to serve its deeper purposes.

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