Late January Check In

January 31, 2021

These check-in posts usually have the same theme: what am I (even) doing? More than in previous months, that's the question that's been on my mind the past few weeks. Looking at my output, the main story of this month has been the practitioner journey series.

In a previous post, I elaborated on what I mean by practitioner vs. non-practitioner:

A practitioner, to me, is someone who wants the detailed and contextual answer to whatever question they have. A non-practitioner is someone who wants to get an immediately-useful answer quickly and move on with their day.

Another way of expressing the same idea is to say that you are a practitioner of whatever you are mindfully practicing. If you're an aspiring social media influencer who thinks carefully about how to interact with your followers, then you are practicing influencer-ness. If you keep finding ways to improve your baking, you are practicing baking. In this way of thinking, skill and attainment aren't required--practitioner-ness is about which path your feet are on, not how far you've traveled. The important result of practice is not a specific artifact or recognition; instead, it's the way a part of the world activates, speaks to you, and listens to you. You plant things and they grow, then you give them your attention and they tell you what it was like to be grown under your care.

The practitioner journey series is for anyone who wants to practice making social systems. It's not about learning to code. In fact, it's focused to some extent on not learning to code, or at least, not accepting the programmer's perspective as the only legitimate source of ideas about system design. In their essay Principles of Anti-Discriminatory Design, D.E. Wittkower discusses the traps that wait for us when we try to be one type of person (such as "programmers") but design for another type of person (such as "users"):

When we try to imagine the experience of others, we tend to imagine someone else as 'ourself + [variation]'. The constancy of what we perceive as the ‘core’ or ‘true self’ fails to consider and account for the determination of values and goals related to varying life experiences in ways we fail to appreciate. These limitations are displayed clearly in the discredited practice of “disability simulation,” where, for example, a nondisabled person is asked to navigate an environment in a wheelchair in order, supposedly, to gain a better understanding of the experiences of disabled persons. These “simulations” produce an unrealistic understanding of the life experience of disability for a number of reasons: the nondisabled person does not have the alternate skill sets developed by disabled persons, and thus overestimates the loss of function which disability presents, and is furthermore likely to think of able-normative solutions rather than solutions more attuned to a disabled person's life experience. Similarly, even when they proactively try to imagine and accommodate architectural engagements of disabled persons, nondisabled designers tend to enforce a bipedal-normative ablist agenda in accomodation design, while by contrast, as Shew points out, conversations with wheelchair users may reveal less interest in finding technologies which allow bipedal navigation of able-normative architectures and more interest in altering architectures to accommodate non-normative embodiments which better represent disabled persons' preferred modes of mobility and interaction.

Nondisabled people aren't disabled people plus ability. Privileged people aren't unprivileged people plus privilege. I can say from experience that disability is a wholeness of experience that is not accessible to nondisabled people; I believe that lack of privilege is similarly a wholeness of experience that is not accessible to privileged people like me. My belief in these things doesn't have an escape hatch; there's no "but seriously--" postscript that validates my best effort to accomodate difference as sufficient. Accomodation is "the process of adapting or adjusting to someone or something"[1]--it presumes the existence of a legitimate default goal or arrangement to which it is possible to extend access.

This stands as a challenge to the aspirations of design in the context of mass production. The designer of a mass-produced artifact is the person who says "my concept of normalcy is legitimate with regard to what this thing is supposed to be." In their essay, Wittkower notes some of the complexities of applying this view in different contexts:

The exclusion of some users seems inevitable in many design contexts, and in many of these cases user exclusion is not discriminatory. A clothing designer, for the most part, designs an article of clothing as conforming with male or female gendered norms for self-presentation, and it would clearly be a misconstrual of an appropriate understanding of discriminatory design to fault a woman’s dress or blouse for failing to afford men’s gender-typical self-presentation.


Clothing, however, can be obtained from a great variety of designers without significantly compromising its functionality for the user, and there are designers enough to provide reasonable access to the ability to clothe oneself to the variety of kinds of user embodiment, with the possible exception of those persons whose bodies are at the upper limits of humanly possible size.

So for a designer, one of the ethical questions to ask is: am I working in a domain that is well-enough understood, and well-enough served by practitioners with a variety of identities, that I can make my normative assertions narrowly, without significant risk that they will implicitly delegitimize other identities as abnormal? For instance, if you are making blankets, you can probably assume that if you get it wrong for some people, someone else will step in to fill that gap. Social media, on the other hand, is not well served by practitioners with a variety of identities[2]. I can see that very clearly. Most of the practitioners of social media systems are people whose wholeness of experience is similar to mine. Not only that, but most of the paths to becoming a practicing maker of social media systems are lined with dysaffordances[3] for anyone who feels uncomfortable expressing loyalty to the currently-dominant political and economic systems.

If I ask myself that question--can I make normative assertions about social media without an unacceptable risk of delegitimizing someone--the only answer I can make is "no." I can't make those kinds of assertions. I can't trust the history of the internet as a source of those assertions. I can't trust the benign and aspirationally-inclusive arc of privileged humanist thought, which moves at its own pace and forgives itself for all its transgressions, as a source of those assertions. I simply shouldn't make assertions.

This project as a whole, and the practitioner journey series in particular, is not primarily about building one social media system or learning how to code. Instead, it's about building just enough of a social media system, and learning just enough about software-writing, to understand and defend one's own choices and identity against oppression and abuse. It's about practicing, trying things out, getting used to failure and success, planting things and watching them grow.

  1. The root of accomodation is accomodare--"fit one thing to another" ↩︎

  2. I'm tempted to say that social media is also not well-understood, but I don't feel confident in that assertion. I think there are some very sophisticated understandings of social media within different contexts, some of them commercial / capitalist and others humanitarian / philosophical. The thing that seems true to me and is specific enough to be maybe-useful, is: the currently-deployed systems that get the most human attention do not seem to embody or aspire to virtuous understandings of human-ness. ↩︎

  3. Wittkower defines this term the following way:

    let “dysaffordance” refer to an object which not only fails to recognize relevant aspects of relevant users, but which also requires users to misidentify themselves in order to gain access to an object’s functions or products. The Latin prefix “dis” usually names a lack or a separation; by contrast, the Greek prefix “dys” usually names a malfunction or problem—here, “disaffordance” refers to a design-based separation from an object’s functionality based on user identity, while “dysaffordance” refers to a design-based requirement of certain users to misidentify themselves in order to gain access to an object’s functionality

    Dr. Sasha Costanza-Chock devotes a chapter of their book Design Justice to discussion of affordances, disaffordances, and dysaffordances. ↩︎