Accounting for Social Change in Design

Posted on: 12:11 PM by Rachel Goddard

Design. Design thinking. Design processes. Design with a capital D. These are the concepts that will shape our future. These are the tools that will change the world. Or so the story goes. While creative work such as Bruce Sterling’s book Shaping Things or Gary Hustwit’s film Objectified may lie near the periphery of popular culture, the messages that they convey are becoming increasingly prevalent parts of the modern collective consciousness. The theory goes that through appropriate, considered design, we can bring about environmental sustainability, eradicate poverty, feed all of humanity, cure cancer, end war, and bring harmony to the cosmos. While a slightly glib paraphrase, this is essentially the mission we undertake when we set about designing for social change.

There is, however, a slightly different way of thinking about designing for social change. Rather than viewing designing for social change as design intended to cause social change, an alternative interpretation is that designing for social change means design that accounts for social change. That is, the question is not “How can our design be used to bring about major societal changes?”, but rather, “How can we take into account the social changes that our designs will necessarily bring about?” All design effects some social change, no matter how small. In this article, I focus on technology design, because that is the area with which I am most familiar, but the argument can be applied more broadly. Designing for social change means being aware, and reflective of, the complex connections between society and design.

Wnt 2 tlk?

Consider cellular text messaging. When the original SMS specification was designed in the 1980s, it was intended as a side note, a means of notifying a mobile phone customer that she had received a new voicemail, or perhaps a fax. The length limit, originally 160 characters, was based on sending a single sentence (I discuss length limit further below). It was never conceived of as a primary communication channel. Now, many mobile phone users have no voice plan, using only SMS and a data plan to communicate. This is not merely a case of inaccurately predicting the popularity of a feature. Use of texting has precipitated major shifts in how we interact with one another.

For example, Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, edited by Mimi Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda, contains a variety of studies examining how technologies such as SMS reshape, and are reshaped by, the social encounters they mediate. At the risk of over-simplifying, punctuality, for example, is quite important in many parts of Japan, and being late is considered incredibly rude. However, at the appointed meeting time, a businessman who is running late who sends a text message indicating his tardiness, is not considered to be late. Instead, the text message actually serves to signify attendance at the meeting, even if the sender is not physically present. Such practices create the possibility of hybrid physical-digital gatherings, suggesting changes in how we think about social presence and connectedness. Other research by Bekki Grinter has explored teen use of text messaging. Instead of being hampered by the T9 pad of older cell phones, and the length restrictions of text messaging, she found that teens had foregone traditional conversational conventions and developed their own linguistic shorthands. (Many readers will certainly be familiar with txt spk, such as that used in the title of this section.)

Had the designers of SMS ever envisioned using text messages for social interaction? Did they anticipate that sending a text message might serve as a proxy that could create hybrid social spaces? Might they have suspected that the length limits would lead to entirely new linguistic shorthand conventions? It is possible, but it does not seem likely. Text messages originally took advantage of cellular carrier down times. In order to fit into these down times, messages needed to be short. But how short could they be? One of the designers for the SMS specification, Friedhelm Hillebrand, actually sat down at his typewriter and typed out a series of random sentences, counting the number of characters used in each sentence. It turned out that most of Hillebrand’s sentences were under 160 characters. Deciding that this length seemed “perfectly sufficient,” the original SMS specification allowed for 160 ASCII characters. Since then, some carriers have allowed for longer, larger text messages, but the original standard still had significant influence. For example, the message length on Twitter was shaped by this constraint: the original Twitter architects reserved 20 characters for a user’s unique identifier and allowed 140 characters to be used for message content. (Indeed, Twitter could serve as another interesting case study in designing for social change, but I will leave that topic for another time.) The point here is that the 160 character length limit, which was in many ways an artifact of the technology on which SMS was based, ultimately played a major role in shaping social expectations of what a text message could or could not do.

A New World Order

A slightly less pedestrian example of SMS’s far-reaching impact comes from Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Rheingold describes a number of different cases in which mobile communication technology, especially SMS, was an integral tool in coordinating social uprisings and political revolutions. At the 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, thousands of protesters demonstrated against the globalization the WTO represented. In addition to detailed plans and tactics, the protesters also used mobile phones and SMS to organize their efforts. (There is a certain sort of irony that some of the multinational corporations against which the protesters were demonstrating were the same corporations responsible for manufacturing the cell phones protesters used and for the operation of the networks on which those phones functioned.) In another example, during late 2000 and early 2001, massive demonstrations in the Philippines were organized via text messages. These demonstrations ultimately led to the overthrow of then-president Joseph Estrada. Dozens of news stories in the past decade have described similar use of SMS and other mobile technologies as tools used by the persecuted to overthrow their oppressors.

Why is text messaging so useful in organizing such political uprisings? The individual reasons may seem unimpressive, but it is their combination that nearly makes them so potent. SMS provides for nearly instant communication. It is often difficult to track. It can be shared without physical contact. It can be used surreptitiously, such as under a table. When shared, it is multiplied (if I forward you a message, I still have a copy of the message). The technology required to send and receive text messages is common place (unlike the technology required to print flyers or pamphlets en masse), and sending one message is only trivially less difficult than sending one hundred. All these attributes combine to make SMS a prime tool for social organizing. However, these attributes are also mostly peripheral side effects of the original design.

Did the engineers who designed the original SMS specification have such uses in mind? If you had asked, “How else could SMS be used other than for notification of new voicemails?” would they have envisioned such proximate futures as these? In the 1980s, would you?

Predictions and Interventions

“He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass.” —Edgar R. Fiedler

Considering SMS’s historical trajectory and multiple uses provides an opportunity to rethink what we mean when we talk about designing for social change. In this case, a technology that was never intended to support social interaction wound up facilitating major changes in the everyday lives of billions of people. Now that is social change. But is it designing for social change? Did SMS cause social change?

In his recent article “Can Technology End Poverty?” (Boston Review, Nov/Dec 2010), Kentaro Toyama argues that “a technology’s effects [are] wholly dependent on the intention and capacity of the people handling it.” Technology alone does not, and cannot, bring about social change. Tools such as SMS are single components of many diverse and vastly complex socio-technical systems. Technology design provides a point of entry, a means of intervening in those systems, but by no means does it allow for manipulating or controlling them.

Designing for social change, then, does not mean using design to change society. It means design that takes into account the fact that it will change society. In this article, I have focused primarily on technology design. Can the same argument be applied to design in general? Since the very definition of the term “design” remains so elusive and slippery, hesitation seems wise before making any sort of claim about design in general. However, the point here does have implications for those desiring to design for social change. Rather than envisioning design that brings about radical changes in our society, perhaps we should consider the ways in which mundane, seemingly inconsequential design may ultimately be an agent for broad, deep, and perhaps even radical social change