Thoughts on the Pluriverse

Reactions to a section of Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse

What does Escobar mean by describing design as a situated and interactive practice? Do you agree with this approach to design?

Escobar argues that interaction design adds a sense of place or situated-ness to technology. I took situated to mean an awareness and attention to the relationship between people and the physical world, this could mean an attention to local culture, local ecologies, local economies, ect. Much like how an architectural practice can produce buildings that are sensitive to their surroundings and the contextual circumstances in which they exist, Escobar argues that design can play the same role for technology.

The situated quality of design work is a corrective force to the decontextualization of technology. For Escobar technology is often embraced unconditionally, and treated as though it operates outside of any context or set of values. To be this corrective force, designers need to craft products that are sensitive to their surroundings and do not purport to be completely neutral forces on society.

This section of Escobar’s argument rang true to me. The digital technologies that have come to dominate our lives are often completely decontextualized from the places where they operate and the people and communities they operate on. Maybe even worse, we’ve understood technology as operating without any value system, or being value-neutral. This understanding of technology as a neutral force, acting equally on all users, has helped to create the technology-enabled problems we struggle with today. More specifically, this blind faith in technology has helped to create the misinformation crisis on tech platforms and the US government’s reactive and ineffectual response to it. I think that the designer’s role in contextualizing technology is limited, but nonetheless important. On many issues, we need a societal level rethinking of the values that modern technology instantiates and the context it operates within. On a smaller scale, designers need a play a role in creating technology that is sensitive to the context it operates with and transparent about the value system it includes.

Escobar’s argument about the interactive quality of design began by pointing to the rise of “design thinking” as a discrete, popular, and highly marketed idea. He made the case well that design thinking has abstracted the design process into a problem solving methodology practiced by trained designers and nondesigners alike. This process re-organizes design to be less of a functional practice and more focused on questions of experience and meaning. This, from my perspective, is an accurate depiction of the design process. The design thinking process emphasizes interpersonal interaction at many stages, particularly the Empathize and Test phases of the d.school’s design thinking methodology.

Explain why do you think/feel that your daily life is affected by any of these four beliefs described by Escobar?

My life is deeply affected by all four of the beliefs that Escobar outlined. In fact, I feel confident that everyone’s life is affected by all four of these beliefs. These beliefs — belief in the individual, belief in the real, belief in science, and belief in the economy — are the water we swim in, they are so deeply instantiated in the world that we live in that we all operate within them without even considering them. I can’t in good faith choose one that touched me the most because they are all essential to the way we view the world.

The discussion of these four beliefs was interesting as an exploration of the ideas and perceptions that are embedded in our understanding of the world. Escobar’s criticism on these beliefs was, however, poorly argued. Any serious attack on beliefs such as the perception of the individual as an autonomous being, for example, needs to confront the remarkable benefits that this belief has created for humankind. The belief in the individual, for example, is the basis for human rights, representative government, and social justice, among other ideas critical for human flourishing.

Humankind only began to understand ethical behavior toward other humans once we understand each human life as individual worthy of respect and autonomy. This idea of the individual has reduced human suffering the death exponentially. The same can be said of the scientific process. As COVID-19 rages, we’re all be acutely aware of how knowledge developed through scientific inquiry — all the way from basic hygiene practices to mRNA vaccines — has saved innumerable lives. Any serious criticism of these beliefs needs to consider the remarkable benefits they have brought to human society. Instead, Escobar runs through a series of criticisms of each belief that seem more like thought experiments than serious arguments.

Masters candidate in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University