Distances have always been a challenge to successful communication, whether they are technological, linguistic, semiotic or cultural factors.
The current most challenging distance between people, political polarization, has been exposed and expanded by a technology that was supposed to connect, and pull people closer together. Social media has, contrary to its intentions, had negative implications for its users and for democratic societies as a whole. Reports range from addiction, privacy issues, spreading of fake news, manipulation of democratic elections to an increase in political polarization that has been caused by social media. While the social and connecting intentions might have been noble, its monetizing business model of social media has rendered this technology hostile and inhumane. The 2020 U.S. presidential election is just the latest example of how distant and divided people's realities can become within one and the same society.
Since this business model is designed to be invisible to the individual using social media, the master project Polarised Reality uncovers these divisive mechanisms and invites the public to experience how their realities are constructed and polarized for profit. As design plays a major role in building these technologies and making them more intriguing, the project also criticises design's role within (surveillance) capitalism and proposes a shift in design to serve people and democratic societies instead.
Social media and political polarisation
Reports about detrimental effects of excessive social media use, privacy issues, persuasion, manipulation of democratic elections and fake news dominate the media coverage today. A convergence of information and constant connectivity, i.e. social media as distributor of news, has recently had further negative implications for its users and democratic societies as a whole.
On one hand there seems to be a general sense of information overload. As information once was scarce and exclusive, it is now limitless and ubiquitous (Burkeman, 2019). In this endless stream of information more people seem to struggle to navigate towards the bits of information that actually matter to them (Davies, 2019). McCullough (2012) says that when looking for information today, it is likely that one takes in too much of what is actually needed. He calls this a form of information obesity where consumers feed on information equivalent to empty calories. Marketers and media outlets have long identified this as a profitable opportunity – feeding readers with information to harvest their attention, thus creating a whole new market place, the Attention Economy.
While early social media were mainly used for online communication, a convergence of these engaging platforms and news outlets has occurred over the past decade. According to Vorderer and his colleagues (2016), adolescents and young adults in particular are increasingly using social media as their primary source of information. This convergence has given social media users the impression that they can actively participate in the news (Burkeman, 2019). By sharing or commenting on articles users are able to voice their opinions and are in turn getting input from other people that do the same, essentially establishing a new kind of interactive audience. The content that these audiences are reading is based on the principle of virality. A message or news item goes viral if it is liked and shared to such an extent that its distribution across the internet and social media platforms becomes almost automatic and unstoppable (Guadagno et al., 2013). The algorithms behind the Facebook newsfeed, Google or Twitter, that decide which items are most visible to the viewers, are not concerned about the quality of the content of each item, but simply about the attention that it generates. The problem is that virality favors certain types of content over others. People tend to click on stories that make them feel angry or frightened or that validate their opinions (Borenstein, 2019). This has created an emotional audience vulnerable to manipulation (Amer & Noujaim, 2019; Cadwalladr, 2019).
On the other hand, recent research on US media usage shows an increasingly divided population when it comes to choice of and trust towards news outlets. While the Democrat leaning population heavily relies on, and trusts sources such as CNN, the New York Times, PBS and NBC News, they distrust Fox News. The Republican leaning side of the population reports almost exactly the opposite. The same PEW Research Center study also suggests that these divides widen over time and that general distrust in news media in the US has increased over the past five years (Jurkowitz et al., 2020).
Events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its consequences for the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. have shown that this vulnerability can be exploited by third parties that use Facebook to capture people's attention. In order to become the most attractive platform for investors and advertisers Facebook has developed tools that allow their partners to target viewers individually and more efficiently, which in turn has led to privacy issues. Stanford Associate Professor, Michal Kosinski, was among those who discovered the scale of how people's privacy can be violated by these algorithms and technology. He and his colleague David Stillwell published a paper in which they argued that private personality traits and attributes can be accurately predicted by analysing digital records of human behaviour, such as Facebook likes (Kosinski & Stillwell, 2013). This knowledge, although it was not provided to the company by Kosinski and his colleagues, was later used by Cambridge Analytica in their attempt to alter voter behaviour in the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In both cases, individuals were targeted with false information that was either meant to mislead or prevent those individuals from voting altogether (Borenstein, 2019). Facebook was willingly or unwillingly unable to stop these messages from spreading. Governmental institutions have been struggling to hold Facebook accountable (Amer & Noujaim, 2019), either because Facebook denied its responsibility, or because the company simply lies out of the reach of governments outside of the US (Cadwalladr, 2019).
This leads towards a less equal and more hierarchical distribution of power. If a few solely economically driven companies have the power to influence the outcome of elections, then the basic premise of democracies – the government of the people, by the people, for the people – is undermined, and the power is given to the most resourceful investors and stakeholders of those companies. Political researchers and journalists are concerned about the possibility of fair and free elections in the future, if there are no regulations that can stop this technology from influencing elections (Cadwalladr, 2019). Likewise, the public seems to be increasingly alienated by systems that were meant to inform and bring people closer together, but have actually caused more confusion and divisions. These developments have led to general distrust and skepticism towards political actors and media institutions that are undermining basic functions of democracy (Burkeman, 2019). As William Davies from The Guardian argues – it has left deeply divided Western societies that struggle to agree on what is true and false (Davies, 2019).
Design not to solve problems (but to create awareness and reflection)
The intention to harvest people’s’ attention for profit stems from the current capitalist system, but we, designers, have to accept our responsibility as key enablers. Designers design services and messages to be most eye-catching, user-friendly, seamless, engaging and addictive. More recent disciplines within design, like user-experience design or participatory design, claim to put the user in the center of the process, involve them as co-creators, or to design on the user’s conditions alone (Sanders, 2002). The goal is, then, to understand the user’s needs, make their everyday easier, reduce barriers, and improve their overall experience while using a product or service. Offering the best possible experience to the user does not mean, however, that it is in their best interest to use the designed service or read the designed message in the first place. Instead, user-experience design often incentivises people to consume more of what they want instead of what they really need, benefitting the industry rather than acting in the user’s best interest (McCullough, 2012). In a time when digital and physical overconsumption threatens both our democratic societies (overconsumption of social media and information; false information) and the future of our planet (climate change) the questions designers have to ask themselves are: Are we designing for more clicks, likes, consumption and economic growth? Or are we designing for the sake of humanity to prosper in its environment and with each other in order to reach its highest potential? But these, admittedly idealistic, questions are not new in design discourse.
The First Things First Manifesto (Garland, 1999), which was published as early as in 1964, and revised in 2000 and signed by 33 visual communicators, called for a change in designers’ priorities a long time ago. The authors claimed that design professionals' skills, time and energy have been misused to serve marketing, as it has been presented to creatives as the most lucrative, effective, and desirable use of their talents. At the time of writing the first version of the manifesto they identified design’s responsibility and the harm that its misuse can have on the way “citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact (Garland, 1999).“ Collectively they issued the following proposition: “We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.” (Garland, 1999)
Five years later, design theorist and philosopher Tony Fry discussed the lack of critical thinking in design and the need to recognise its social responsibility in his paper The Scenario of Design. He points out how design in the public eye has been degraded to simply being about style and functioning as an „embellisher“ for hyped technology. He criticises that designers have become “compliant service providers obsessed with the delivery of ‘sexy things’ to the market place.” (Fry, 2005, p. 20) Outside of a small critical community, Fry (2005) finds the overall voice of design to be uncritical and simply concerned about extending or rebooting the outdated and unsustainable. He calls for designers to rather use their skills to mobilise knowledge and create awareness. Warning that the purpose of „design is on the line“, Fry echoes the First Things First Manifesto’s call for a change in priorities: “It [design] can either continue to be deeply and directly implicated in, mostly unwittingly, ‘sustaining the unsustainable’, or it can confront the challenge of bringing sustainment into being.” (Fry, 2005, p. 24) In order to achieve that, design leadership would have to dramatically change the designer-client relationship and dialogue, liberate the user’s relation to the designed from functionalism to “a culture of responsibility“ and introduce a new, independent design practice, that would open up to uses of design skills that are not product-oriented, but critical and exploratory in its essence. (Fry, 2005)
In a recent interview with Form magazine (Sieverding & Zemljanskij, 2019), Pedro Inoue, designer, activist, and creative director of Adbusters magazine, calls for a third First Things First Manifesto that includes the realm of social media. A new manifesto would need to acknowledge a much more complex world and the intertwined web of interests and plead for a “more useful, consistent and democratic form of communication.” (Sieverding & Zemljanskij, 2019) He argues that because of social media, the influence of design goes much wider and that it impacts the core of how information flows in our contemporary consumerist society. What has changed, he believes, is that designers today do not have a choice as to whether to be political or not. Their work either reinforces the status quo and enables the current capitalistic system, or challenges it. Rather than telling “lies for brands to make people buy more shit they don’t need” (Sieverding & Zemljanskij, 2019, p. 40), Inoue argues that designers should challenge this old world of consumerism through the use of emotional narratives and storytelling. As an example he states that Trump in the U.S. and Bolsonaro in Brazil got themselves elected through the use of badly crafted ads and memes which gave people a sense of realness and authenticity. The Hillary campaign, on the other hand, with its rigid identity system and H-logo, was designed by Pentagram, who call themselves “the world's largest independent design consultancy.“ According to Inoue, Pentagram, as well as the Hillary identity they crafted, represent a certain “we know better“ elite, the status quo, the one percent that was essentially rejected by the people in both the 2016 U.S. and similarly in the 2018 Brazilian elections (Sieverding & Zemljanskij, 2019). These examples fit into the bigger picture of people getting increasingly alienated and confused by the systems, campaigns, and communication platforms that have been designed for and around them. It seems as though people do not want these elites to design solutions for their problems anymore. The public want to feel a sense of agency (need for competence), free will and autonomy, and to be able to decide and solve their problems themselves (need for autonomy) while being part of a greater social collective (need for relatedness). Inoue supports this notion by saying that everybody should be their own creator, as creativity could spark new ways to protest and challenge the status quo and in that way benefit society. (Sieverding & Zemljanskij, 2019)
The question then becomes: How do people decide for themselves and become their own creators, facing such an infinitely complex world with endless information and technologies that are manipulating their behavior and capturing their attention for profit? As a response, I am proposing a shift in design. Instead of using design as a tool to solve problems for other people, designers should use their skills to inform the public, create awareness and reflection through emotional narratives and storytelling, and thus encourage people to deal with their own problems and change negative habits. Designers have to acknowledge that the agenda, and the way their solutions are used once released to the market, can change over time and are often out of their control. This possibility of transformation can be embraced, giving the users the flexibility to alter the design according to their needs. A good example is the recently launched visual identity for the city of Oslo designed by Creuna. (Wilson, 2019) Instead of providing municipal employees with a rigid visual identity which they have to use in a certain way, Creuna provided them with a toolkit to alter the identity according to the needs of the different branches of the organisation. So in this case, the design agency willingly gave away (some of) the control of their design and placed trust in the user. Bad examples are often characterised by distrust in the user as well as manipulation of their emotions and behaviour, reinforcing certain (bad) habits that align with a company’s interests. (Wilson, 2019) According to Groopman (2019), the best way to eliminate bad habits is to create “friction“ and make those habits more inconvenient. Friction has, for example, caused a decline in smoking in the U.S. (and many other countries), as laws have removed tobacco ads from tv and radio, and prohibited smokers from smoking in restaurants, bars, on airplanes and trains, and taxes have tripled the price of tobacco. The design industry, including user-experience design, is mostly concerned about reducing friction to improve the experience of a product or service. In order to be real agents for the users, we designers must create friction if needed, to help the users change their habits, rather than reinforce or install bad habits in them. In order to create awareness and critical reflection through emotional storytelling, I apply the tradition of critical and speculative design in my MA project.
To summarise this essential change of priorities within design I want to quote Pedro Inoue once more, in his own blunt, but emphatic words: “Remember: It’s just a matter of time before we all find ourselves fighting the mother of all fucking battles – climate change – and when you look back at your life and professional work done through the years, what do you want to remember? The launch of a slick sock commercial or the creation of and participation in a social and environmental movement? Up to you.” (Sieverding & Zemljanskij, 2019, p. 45)
The Polarised Reality Network
The final outcome of my MA project is a response to this proposed shift in design and offers a human centered design approach, based on emotional narratives and storytelling, to deal with the current problems of attention theft and political polarization.
The Polarised Reality Network is a multi-sensory news outlet that presents polarised interpretations of news items to its audience. In an enclosed room, the audience is viewing the news via an over-dimensional news feed that is projected against the walls around them. Depending on an algorithm, each visitor views the newsfeed through either a red or blue filter glass, which determines their experience. While roaming the room, visitors may listen to one of two politically polarised radio programs, depending on their position in the room. Upon leaving the exhibition, visitors are confronted with facts. Their experience is put into a context and a connection is made to the real world outside. Visitors might reflect on their experience in light of these facts, and draw conclusions about their own behavior and the world they experience outside of the exhibition. The aim of this exhibition is that visitors are leaving with a critical view towards news media and how their own reality is constructed.
My aim with this project was not to find a solution for the problem of polarisation and loss of autonomy in today's digital society. I believe that general solutions proposed from the often misinterpreted position of designers as enablers, embellishers or accelerators of the current capitalist system have often caused more harm than good. Instead, I want to use visual communication to create an immersive experience that raises awareness about the problem, makes visible, and conveys knowledge to an audience that in turn can initiate change through their own professional fields or by implying pressure on legislators. I aim to enhance people's perception of the world instead of providing them with a new tool that claims to solve their problems.
Polarised Reality Network is a room for reflection; on one's own consumption of the news as well as the general nature of today's news, which is embedded in a competitive market for our attention. I want to invite the audience to reflect that there are different view points to one news story, and that each individual might themselves be stuck in a certain filter or news bubble. Derived from that, I want the audience to realise that the content they engage with online might in fact be increasingly personalised and not congruent with the content others are reading about the same issue.
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