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SciFly NYC // 88 // Speculations on Dark Design

Weekly Events 8/5 - 8/11

Image from Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation by Chris Nodder | 

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to talk a little bit about a recently released documentary, "The Great Hack" that I watched on Netflix this week. This prescient and insightful documentary starred one of my professors at Parsons MFA D+T David Carroll, who was probably one of the most insightful and passionate humans I ever had a chance to study under, so I highly recommend you check it out. Also, he is teaching a "Dark Data" class this year with another amazing professor and thinker, Melanie Crean!!! So jealous I'm not in school..Also, you should absolutely check out his Twitter feed which continually examines the interplay of big data, privacy, social platforms, and political updates!!!

Anyway...for those of you who are unfamiliar, "The Great Hack" covers one of the biggest recent controversies in the tech world, the series of revelations that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica secretly collected 87 million Facebook user's data which it leveraged to create targeted micro-ads to sway their feelings on elections, specifically the US 2016 Presidential election, and the BREXIT referendum.  It follows two main protagonists, David Carroll, who sued Cambridge Analytica to try go get a profile of the data they had on him and where it came from, and Brittany Kaiser, a senior Cambridge Analytica employee who defected early in the scandal and later worked to revel information about the company.

For some fun background, Cambridge Analytica was a well-known big data analysis company funded by conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, boasting employees such as Steve Bannon. A former employee revealed the the company had gotten data from several million Facebook users in 2014, causing a scandal that raised huge concerns our rights to data privacy and our growing ability to be manipulated by targeted advertising, especially during elections.

While none of this is particularly surprising to me, nor is it upsetting in a shock-value type of way - I mean, I read enough dystopian Science Fiction to have heard this plot before - what I am more concerned about is the role that the Design industry, design-thinking, creative technology, and designers play in the subtle and unwitting manipulation of almost everyone through digital platforms.

I think this is an especially important conversation to have now, as design thinking is hailed as a revolutionary application of critical thinking across more and more practices and industries. Within 5 minutes of looking at most company's websites today, you can see clearly how many of it's essential ideas: rapid-iteration, experimentation, value-testing etc. have permeated the language and strategy of organizations from tech-giants to small nonprofits. Whether aspirational or in practice is a matter of scale and experience. As I have mentioned several times over the last few weeks, the book I am reading right now, Lean Impact, spends thousands of pages talking about how one can wield Design Thinking and 'Lean" iteration as a revolutionary tool for social impact, the only real way to figure out how to sustainably tackle 'Wicked' problems take apart and handle 'Wicked' problems in a VUCA world. 

Now, please understand, I DO NOT want to trash design. I am not here to say designers are bad, evil, manipulative or anything like that.  I DO believe that design-thinking is an excellent pattern for critical-thinking (one of many) that helps people to break out of their inclination to solve things from a myopic world-view, and try to 'understand' and 'empathize' with their customers or constituents when finding ways to solve their problems, either for profit or for charity.

However, upon watching "The Great Hack" I kept asking myself, who are the people designing these super-polished fake news advertisements? Who are the people searching for patterns and insights among the data retrieved about people from Facebook? Are they using HEXACO-60 like I did last week? Did they make colorful personas, journey maps of how someone should experience the content and be influenced to react after seeing an emotionally-triggering ad? Were there service and system maps of different right and left wing groups and organizations to understood who paid who, who gave news to who, and how that network could be leveraged to disseminate information?

The film never explicitly addresses the identify of these myth-makers, the group of designers who could churn out hundreds, nay, thousands of targeted ads that looked authentic enough to pass people's initial skepticism about the veracity of online news and enticed them to share it (NPS anyone?) But you can better believe they were there and pretty damn creative. Most likely, they were using the same suite of design thinking methods, project management tools, and design software/websites that I do every single day. What. The. Fuck.

As I watched the people from Cambridge Analytica describe their operations and strategy, I couldn't help but admire their rapid and iterative testing of their value hypothesis, choosing small markets in developing countries to test their MVP, the sheer amount of advertising experiments they ran, all to collect data and better refine their model. This is stuff straight out of Lean Impact, I kept thinking, reviewing the list of prototypes I had read about for testing impact just yesterday. These people were honestly to god Social Impact mavens. Masters of the Lean Impact model. 

Now now. I know you are probably shaking your heads. Did they say Social Impact? Yes, I said SOCIAL IMPACT. While I may not agree with Cambridge Analytica's agenda, means, nor methods, while I could never call the social impact and results they helped bring about 'good' (firmly planted in my own cultural biases, my own baggage, my own notions of right and wrong, and most importantly, my own idea of what a preferable future should look like) I can't deny that they certainly made an IMPACT on SOCIETY, thus a social impact.

Yes Cambridge Analytica was a profit-driven organization, but they certainly did not seem to be pushing the agenda forward of very many liberal, socialist, communal, or diverse parties or organizations - or maybe those people didn't pay as well. They were a group of people who desperately wanted to have an impact on society, to help push forward a conservative political ideology and agenda, and to help organizations and individuals with that agenda succeed on the political stage. All through rapid, iterative, design thinking applied to how to influence people to do things online. Yes, they certainly wanted to make an impact. 

But don't we all?

Don't we all want to use the creativity and tools at our disposal to champion our worldview and share stories and ideas with others about why it's right? Don't many of us often confabulate or hyperbolize in the service of proving why we are right and they are wrong? Yes, Designers like to pat ourselves on the back when our research and creative thinking can push increasingly big levers in society. Especially if we feel our cause is 'just', 'noble', 'honest', and especially 'good'. Designers love Good, and many times it is our job to research, understand, and respond how we can spread that social good by examining the desires of constituents and donors, seeking to help great mission-driven organizations create change in the world for the better (or the funders/foundations who pay those organizations to do the work if you want to argue about who is really pulling the levers...)

This is the formula Cambridge Analytica followed, and this is how they achieved impact. It just wasn't very good in my book.

Remember that everyone's 'utopia' is another person's 'dystopia when you thin about this issues.I'm sure there are lot's of people out there who think the work that Cambridge Analytica did was amazing. They were able to leverage vast amounts of big data, analyze it, and leverage design and storytelling to nudge vulnerable voters to do their bidding, the means as diverse as their OCEAN personality scores of the people they engaged. And they certainly did advance an agenda, the impact they helped to achieve is undeniable, written upon the world for god knows how long.

Now I'm not justifying or saying it is okay what they did in any sense. What I'm struggling to understand after watching the film is how guilty is Design, and Design Thinking in all of this?

We increasingly live in a designed world, and technology is increasingly used to inform, create, and deliver those designs widely. As such, designers wield more and more power over others, creating experiences and interfaces that are designed to both delight and entice them into following whatever path the designer (or their boss/company) wants them to. When done in the service of 'social good' this type of power can be very very seductive, and a bit self-righteous. To actually know your creative work, your design has helped to move the needle on some  important issue, to hear/see a meme, story, future you imagine repeated and shared is the ultimate high. A rush of adrenaline akin to getting a like or share on Social Media. Now imagine that feeling x1000 when you realize you have influenced an entire country to do what you and your tribe wants. 

Immediately upon finishing the film, my first gut-response was to  send out a call to action to find liberal and socially-progressive designers, creators, and writers to fight back the best we can. We know the levers and tricks, we have the tools, and collectively I'm sure we could find some pretty good data to inform our work (or trick people into revealing it through some astrology-cat-old-face mirror app with bewildering terms & conditions.) After all, it's not evil if we usurp the tools of the wrong-doers and use them against them, little brother style, right? It's not evil if I find and form a coalition of designers to produce content, as long as we don't use actual fake news/lies (there is plenty of true material without even going there) but create beautiful truths and biting satire to punch up against the the fat cats who funded all that hatred, hiding in their shadowy castle way above sea level, right?

The answer is... I don't know. I can't help but question if that would make me, us, just as evil. Stories can open up or close down futures in peoples minds within the snap of a finger. Design can enable or disable choices, feedback mechanisms, or even the understanding of possibilities that aren't readily apparent. So whether it is right or not to wield big data, technology, and design at scale seems to boil down to whether or not it advances what you believe is right, what your friends, your tribe believe is right.

As one of the interviewees, Roger McNamee, Facebook investor said during the film:

"There is now 2.1 billion people, each with their own reality. Once everybody has their own reality, it is relatively easy to manipulate them."

Why are they in their own realities? Technology. How are they easily manipulated? Teams of designers know when, where, why, and how to get them to push a button on their screen.

So, if designers can literally shape people's personal realities, then are they complicit in mass-manipulation, not matter the reason or whether it is 'good' or 'bad' in your mind? Is the influence that designers wield problematic, or the way we venerate design thinking as the best way to do anything from build an iPhone to solve hunger and water shortages?

Is design, no matter the cause, really the velvet lined glove of the iron fist of global-scale Psyops among warring factors in a culture war?

IDK. You tell me...

As a follow-up to my long ramble here, I highly recommend you also read this eye-opening reflections and critical perspective on Design and Science and Technology Studies (STS) by Lilly Irani, "Design Thinking": Defending Silicon Valley at the Apex of Global Labor Hierarchies which examines how what counts as 'technological creativity' is shaped by histories of race, colonialism and gender.

A couple of questions for moving forward:
  • How might we use design to inform and support choice and freedom, whenever possible, rather than leading a user to our desired interface outcome?
  • Who designed these ads for Cambridge Analytica and why haven't we heard from them yet?
  • How do we honestly and constantly reflect on what messages we are helping to send out into the world, who might disagree with those ideas/messages, and how much we care that they disagree?
  • How might we use design to connect world-views rather than further exacerbate them through micro-targeting?
  • Who hates me? What individuals and organizations wouldn't be able to stand what I'm putting out into the world and what message do they think I'm sending that are immoral, irresponsible, or dangerous?
  • How do you (especially if you work at a big tech company or as a designer on front-end/marketing apps or in a related design/tech field) feel about your role in this? How do you rectify the cognitive dissonance between the joy of making impactful designs that influence people, and wondering if it is fair that you are influencing them at all?
Would be happy to discuss this topic further with any takers! Thanks for listening, and read on to see this week's awesome events!

"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 8/5

Tuesday | 8/6

Wednesday | 8/7

Thursday | 8/8

Friday | 8/9

Saturday | 8/10

Sunday | 8/11

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers

The Critical Utility of Science Fiction in a Military Context
by Cormorants Nest

‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower
by Carole Cadwalladr

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