Participatory discord

A recent piece from Consumer Reports lauds Obama’s recently unveiled  “bill of rights for online privacy“, claiming that the administration “took a cue from Occupy Wall Street” by posing the initative as an “open, transparent, multi-stakeholder process.”  Let’s leave aside for a moment the absurdity of the claim that the process for decisions used by Occupy is the same as the process used by the IETF and W3C, and focus on the core observation:  the visibility and popularity of participatory deliberative processes is on the rise (and with it, uncritical conflation of disparate approaches to participation). To the extent that Occupy, the IETF, and Obama’s privacy initiative share a common ground, it lies in their deliberative orientation; an orientation which participatory design also shares.  This is the foundational stuff of “deliberative democracy”, which is based on the principle that given enough time, good will, and deliberation, any difference between stakeholders can be resolved in a solution that everyone can live with.

Not everyone agrees with this principle.  In “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism”, Chantal Mouffe argues that the basic premise of deliberative democracy — that democracy is best construed as diverse groups working together to arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise — is flawed.  Sometimes, different stakeholders will have fundamental premises that are mutually exclusive; if so, it becomes inevitable that some participants will be left dissatisfied with any outcome.  Consequently, an uncritical adherence to a purely deliberative frame may result in poor results — at best inaction, or at worst a process that pays lipservice to claims of participation and inclusion, but which ultimately alienates some stakeholders.   The Economist has raised this criticism with respect to Occupy Wall Street:

Because the participatory democracy of OWS is an ideological endeavour, it can avoid the hard problem of liberal society: the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus. Consensus-based communes composed of individuals who opt in specifically because they already agree with the commune’s founding values can work precisely because the people who would make consensus impossible—people with very different opinions and values—stay away.

Mouffe argues that the solution to this is to model democracy not in terms of consensus, but in terms of ‘agonistic pluralism’: diverse interests engaged in oppositional struggle to win.  Rather than seeking kinder aspirations such as understanding and dialog en route to consensus, agonistic actors seek to advance their interests to the potential detriment of others’.  It’s immediately obvious that even Occupy Wall Street adheres to this strategy, when interests diverge enough: activists participate in civil disobedience, advocate political positions in opposition to Wall Street and corporate interests, and structurally exclude participation from those who disagree with basic principles of equity and direct democracy.  The “big tent” is not so big as to include those who oppose change.

This observation can help inform our participatory design practice.  When the design community in a participatory process is sufficiently small and both designers and community participants are sufficiently like-minded, a model of participatory deliberation can be successful.  But if the stakeholders in a design area become diverse enough, consensus may become impossible, and the participants may have to draw circles to identify which stakeholders are included, and which are excluded, from the design process.

In his dissertation Contestational Design, Tad Hirsch advocates exactly this position. Drawing on Mouffe’s democratic theory, Hirsch describes an agonistic design process where activists design in direct opposition to the interests of some stakeholders in a domain, not as client- or market-driven hired guns, but as partisans.  Hirsch’s analysis helps to make explicit an implicit undercurrent present in literature which advocates the social-justice potential of participatory design: conditions of injustice and oppression don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather because of oppressive interests which must be opposed.  Thus, a participatory design process oriented towards social justice will likely be operating in direct opposition to the interests of some stakeholders in the design domain.  Hirsch never explicitly says so, but despite the contestational orientation of his design work, it operates using a participatory and deliberative model at a smaller scale.  Agonism doesn’t cut all the way through.  Participants who share contestational goals are chosen for an inclusive participatory design process; but designs are ultimately oriented in opposition to the interests of stakeholders who don’t share the same goals.

So is Obama’s multi-stakeholder approach to online privacy policy design likely to succeed?  If one considers the contrasting interests of multi-national corporations that monetize private data, political activists engaged in direct action opposing government power, and governments interested in controlling and acquiring information, it seems hard to imagine that a consensus will emerge.  An advantage that groups like IETF and W3C have is that within the domain of standards design, it is practical to be anarchic: if one stakeholder disagrees with a technology standard or specification, they can implement their own alternative.  No coercive force commands them to implement a standard, other than its utility or ubiquity.  Regulation, by contrast, can compel conformance to a standard; and thus stakeholders have more invested — if they don’t get their way, they lose.

Another take on this same topic is this blog post from The Office of Urban Computing and Human Ecology, which contrasts Bjarke Ingels inclusive design theory with Tad Hirsch’s contestational design.

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