Since I started riding the bus to work, I’ve gained about 80 minutes of reading time a day, and lately I’ve been reading recent issues of interactions.  I’ve found many of them quite interesting, probably because they’re rather far afield from my usual concerns. They’re mostly by and for HCI (broadly construed) practitioners, rather than for researchers. One particular article got my attention: Learning from Activists: Lessons for Designers, by Tad Hirsch.

Hirsch talks about how activists have been technology innovators, touches on some examples, and talks about what the design process is like under these conditions. For example, the “immediacy of activist projects, coupled with a perpetual lack of funding, forces a kind of rough-and-tumble innovation”. Sounds right.

Things get more interesting later, as Hirsch says that “Activists willingness to engage in extra-legal activity also enables unique design opportunities”. He hastens to add that he doesn’t mean violence or vandalism, but the “exploit[ation] [of] excess acpacity”, like squatting in abandoned buildings or using wireless networks without their owners’ permission.

Finally, he talks about how “contestational designers” [i.e., those who design for activists] are “openly partisan practitioners who take sides in pressing issues of the day. They are neither objective technicians nor hired guns — images that continue to dominate the technical development community”.

It was this final point that I found most provocative. On the one hand, I too feel that it is imperative for all educated people — and I hope that includes not just designers, but also software professionals, academics, and students — to “take sides in pressing issues of the day”. However, if we do that in our roles as professionals — as designers, as researchers, as academics, etc. — do we lose our professional community? Note that Hirsch isn’t proposing this [that all designers, let alone all HCI researchers, should become “contestational designers”] — I’m just tracing out the implications of his advice.

For example, it’s obvious that the HCI community is heavily liberal and leftist. “Everyone” at CHI 2009 was ecstatic about Obama’s election, but this fact was mostly “informal”. That is, the conference program per se did not reflect it. But what if this changes? What if activist papers play a larger and larger role in our professional community? Would they all be liberal-activist papers? Would that drive out non-liberals? Or would conservative activists, Chinese nationalist activists, anti-abortion activists, gun-rights activists all be represented? Would you be happy about papers about providing technology support for radical environmentalists to shut down a coal plant, or for radical anti-abortion activists to shut down a family planning clinic?

I don’t know… However, as I get older, I am more and more interested in reconciling my personal beliefs and my professional practice. Hirsch’s article made this topic more urgent for me.

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