Interview with Sarah T. Gold: Design for the Common Good
Using collective resources is part of our daily experience: problems can be solved better as a group than on one’s own, it is easier to transport boxes when moving house with a group of people than just a few, and buying a pricey birthday present for a friend is more palatable if several people make a small contribution. Ever since the Internet has connected people all over the world with one another, crowdsourcing has been used extensively in a vast range of social and economic sectors, with a major impact on the way in which we work, interact, and consume. Ever since its foundation in 2012, the Crowdsourcing Week (CSW) has held international conferences and summits with precisely this in mind, aimed at shedding light upon the potential of crowdsourcing for businesses and organisations. The next conference will take place in Brussels and will feature specialist from business, politics and the cultural sector speaking about topics such as sharing economy, smart cities, co-creation, cryptocurrency and new possibilities of political participation.
Sarah T. Gold, a London-based designer who examines the power of the Internet critically in her projects, is one of the speakers at the CSW event in Brussels. We talked to her about what motivates her and how design can change the way we interact with technology.
You are trained as an architect and an industrial designer. How did your interest in technology and its implications for society come about?
Too often in my architecture education the response to any brief had to be a building – which makes sense if you want a career designing and building buildings. But I didn’t. After a couple of years working after my bachelor degree, I realised I wanted to work in a design field that had broader applications. I took the plunge and applied to study industrial design.
I found the creative freedom of studying industrial design transformative: the response to a question or brief could be anything rather than one specific thing. Looking back, I relished the blank canvas of industrial design briefs, and over the two years of study became interested in speculative design as a process to think about emerging technologies and what they could mean for everyday life. Alongside my study, I co-founded Wikihouse Foundation for the open source hardware project Wikihouse, so I was also working a great deal with ideas around the third industrial revolution: digital fabrication, design commons and ownership.
I’ve always been conscious of how design can impact society, and I believe that derives from my architecture training where everything was taught on a big scale – design for whole communities or cities. Architecture gave me a strong sense of the importance of public space and design for the common good. It was through this lens of design for civic, with a sense of urgency following the Snowden revelations, that I developed and designed my final student project “Alternet” – a proposal for a civic network where individuals own their own data. It’s imagined as an autonomous network that runs alongside the Internet as its fair trade alternative. Since the Alternet, I’ve continued to seek work that consider technologies not just as commodities and us as consumers, but those projects to do with twenty-first century infrastructuresthat treat us as individuals with agency.
What is problematic about the current relationship between technology, economics, politics, and the users?
There are a plethora of complex, multilayered problems to do with the relationships between technology, economics, politics, and people. Rather than try to summarise them badly, I can tell you my top three issues:
1. The Information Economy
Most, if not all, connected products and services we use today rely on the information economy. Each time we use a connected product or service we generate a tsunami of personal data. It is difficult to grasp the scale of our data output because it is so vast; it’s something like each of us posting 27 million Tweets – every day. Companies aggressively collect our data, because it fuels their businesses. They make huge profits from processing our information and often selling it to advertisers and other companies.
The problem is that we have no control of our data: we have no say in who can collect it, what they can do with it or where they store it. We are all in a position now where we each have huge quantities of data fragmented across the Internet, stored in various third party data centres, out of our reach. Apparently, we gave consent for this when we agreed to the terms and conditions – but few of us read the terms and conditions let alone understand them. We are effectively signing away our rights to data, software, and hardware ownership for access. Is this trade-off acceptable?
2. Twenty-first Century Infrastructures
The information economy and its associated business models have even greater influence. There is a growing appreciation that new web technologies will transform our cities and industrial economies by producing new digital platforms that will be 21st century infrastructures. There is growing concern that these infrastructures are and will be owned by oligopolies, beyond the reach of citizens or government. We can see this in popular digital services, like Uber or Airbnb – centralised, data intensive, privately owned companies.
It’s not that these companies are inherently bad, but we do need to recognise their limitations. These companies operate solely in the interests of a narrow venture capital investment model; the products and services they support have nothing to do with citizens and everything to do with their business interests.
3. Widening Digital Divide
As articulated by Aaron Swartz, and recently reiterated by Martha Lane Fox in her Dimbleby Lecture, it is no longer OK for individuals to not understand the Internet. I believe the digital divide between those who understand the Internet and those who don’t is growing, and that’s not a good thing. We need better digital literacy, for everyone but perhaps particularly for those individuals in positions of authority who set standards – like civil servants or school governors.
Where can design intervene and what are the competencies designers have to contribute?
Design is uniquely positioned to explore and experiment with alternative ideas for products, services, systems, networks, and business models. Speculative design is a compelling process to use for this, because it removes any commercial constraint from the design process, allowing designers to think about the future and critique current practices. To do this well, it is critical for designers to understand the Internet and the web, and the differences between the two. Designers are in a unique position to shape our future digital landscape and produce products of social and economic value and impact. The Design Commission expresses this very well in theirDigital Economy report: “Designers are critical agents who are able to mediate between people, places and technology. They have the ability to ask bigger questions that put people at the centre of the Digital Economy, and not the technology itself.”
It’s important to remember that technology by itself will not save us and as such it would be a mistake to leave our future solely to developers to build. We need designers, anthropologists, and other professionals to bring user research, ethnography, and agile processes to craft the most meaningful devices and services from technology. The best devices and services will have been made by a range of professionals. Designers have an important role ensuring the development process has critically engaged with user needs and the many complexities of real life.
But it’s not just about building a great product or service. It’s also about the nuances of use – designers need to engage with and understand the politics their products and services suggest. Is their design focused on an information economy or civic commons and is it for citizens or consumers? Whilst we need more experimentation and diversity online to increase our opportunities to propose, share, make, debate and learn etc., we also need to have a greater understanding of how those experiments and ideas fit (or don’t fit) politically.
What does a better future look like?
At the moment we’re headed to a future where our digital infrastructures are centralised, vulnerable and deeply undemocratic. Whilst we may have automation, fewer of us will have a job and everything will be owned by one or two companies – it’s a pretty dystopic vision.
I believe we need to see the incumbent Internet giants tempered by government – by being broken down and made accountable for their actions. We must shape them before they shape us any more.
What I’m most excited about, however, is the opportunities we have to disrupt the status quo and make a different future – by designing digital tools that empower us as citizens so we set the rules of engagement. I believe the innovation will come from the edge, from the experiments with emerging technologies like blockchain. We will need apolitical institutions to be custodians of these digital tools and their associated structures like new commons or cloud servers – like the BBC, but for the Internet. Because these tools will change our relationship to technology and the state, and ultimately reinvent the powers, rights and capabilities we have as citizens.