Does this need redesigning?
I seem to have heard a lot recently about how design can be used to increase democratic engagement. This is often a feature of election years – but the angst of this particular political moment seems to have upped the stakes. It came up at the last Design Culture Salon on citizenship and consumerism, at the ProtoPublics sprint workshop last week, and in the Design Commission’s recent essay collection, to name a few instances. The idea is expressed in varying terms, and could mean anything from making political parties more approachable or creative, to enabling new kinds of democratic participation through digital means, or even devolving power to new political and democratic forms (top of Nicola Sturgeon’s to do list in Scotland apparently). What it often boils down to, though, is making the process of registering to vote, and voting itself, less awkward. There are indeed probably hundreds of ways we could use design to make engaging with the electoral system more user friendly. But should we?
Well of course on the face of it this sounds sensible. This year I was one of the millions who glided seamlessly through the new online registration process (thank you, GDS). But in the back of my mind a little voice is playing devil’s advocate. Is this one of those spaces where design should think before it treads – or at least be very self-conscious about which values it leaves at the door? While I here risk sounding like a privileged white person failing to appreciate the barriers to democratic engagement for other demographics, this gut feeling was corroborated this week by something I heard from two philosophers (also, admittedly, privileged white people), Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett, discussing Crawford’s new book.
‘The World Beyond Your Head’ revolves around a feature of the contemporary condition I’m sure we all recognise – the problems of constant distraction and fragmented attention. He proposes the idea of attention as a resource (collectively we share an ‘attentional commons’), which is in the 21st century being ‘aggressively appropriated by private interests’. Public spaces, spare moments in our lives, and spare corners of our screens are filling up with advertising, often targeted. This is pitched to us in the language of freedom – those offering us choice are only trying to increase our individual liberty. Possibly, but constant bombardment can also leave us feeling that we have little control. He argues that we should much more actively demand and protect our right ‘not to be addressed’, our right to silence, and space – prerequisites for the ability to think.
In his talk he then made a little conceptual leap to the development of skilled practice (harking back to his first craft-oriented book) as a mode of engaging with things meaningfully, of generating agency, creating moments of sustained attention, of joining the world (not fleeing it) by investing in something difficult. However for the purposes of this discussion I want to stick with the idea of how we choose to ‘spend’ our attention.
Both Sennett and Crawford referenced a theory of attention being commanded by ‘difficult’ things, and positioned ‘user friendliness’ as against cultivating attention. The language of ‘user friendly’ comes philosophically from an individualistic view of the world in which we all have unfettered choice, and are free agents whose attention has to be captured and monetised. Making something user friendly means removing all the barriers, reducing the required investment of time or thinking on the part of the individual, and making it as likely as possible for someone to do what it is you want them to do. The perma-culture of user friendly tells us that we don’t need to know how to engage skilfully with the world, as someone else will smooth out the creases and hand us the packaged version.
So perhaps we should resist the concept of ‘user friendly’ when it comes to politics, democracy – and voting. Democracy has been hard won, politics (by which I mean the constantly unfolding act of negotiating how we live together) is serious, complex and difficult, and citizenship is a privilege. Why should it all be made to seem unproblematic, or rightfully ours, or handed to us on a plate? And on what basis do we think making voting user-friendly would increase meaningful political engagement anyway? This proposition seems to be addressing the issue from the wrong direction. Instead of using design to smooth the edges of a single interaction between citizen and state, perhaps, if political apathy is a problem, we ought to be thinking about how people can become more skilled in the practice of citizenship. Rather than asking how we can just get people to vote, we should be asking rather how we generate sustained attentiveness to the question of being a citizen.