I’m usually fairly wary of calls to apply design thinking to politics and to fields like education – it frequently leads to problematic calls to ‘flip the classroom‘, learn to code and de-politicised yet heavily ideological political movements at best. Design thinkers often try to apply domain-specific knowledge to other areas without addressing the existing knowledge of that domain – political process and pedagogy being two of the areas that frequently get ignored. Designers can be pretty unaware of their class privilege and design thinking can lead to some amazingly offensive solutions to political problems. The technocratic authoritarianism of China is another example of applying design / engineering process to political process. There’s a lot of work to be done in understanding underlying ideologies in the design / engineering process and what happens when they apply to politics, whether they be democracies or technocracies or non-state actors.
However, Ben Hoh’s thoughtful piece about progressive enhancement within web design as a frame for political change is intriguing. I find it particularly interesting as I tend to think of politics in a discursive frame rather than a problem-solving frame, which tends to separate design-as-problem-solving from politics-as-discourse in my head. Of course, there’s more than problem solving to design, and problem solving is a core part of politics.
My particular field – UX design – tends towards more democratic engagement with users, often to the point of argument with creative designers. I’m excited to see projects that advocate a sense of political engagement from designers, that reject technocratic approaches, and seek to empower users.
So, if our degraded attempts at Utopia remind me of design’s graceful degradation, design should return the favour: what might progressive enhancement suggest in the world of culture and politics? As a designer who hungers for progressive political change, this question intrigues me. At the very least: rather than groping for a Lost Symbol of freedom, which would leave plenty of us with a “graceful”, less-than-ideal experience as a fallback position from a fetishised Utopia, progressive enhancement suggests instead that a well-designed experience of freedom can be built outwards from a core structure of meaning, in multiple ways, and in uneven terrain.
Ben’s only just started thinking about this, so I’m not going to engage too critically with this idea just yet. I think there’s a lot of value in it. It also interests me particularly as Ben has worked in fields outside of design and has written about design, media, politics and science fiction. He also wrote my favourite analysis of the conspiracy theory mindset.
My initial thoughts are:
The move from the frame of ‘degradation from the canonical design’ to ‘designing outwards from the core content of the page’ is certainly feels more emergent. However, progressive enhancement designs are still designed. Even the best computer with the largest display and the latest browser will still only display what has been designed to display there. You may be able to incorporate some generative animation to make use of the extra space and functionality, but that’s still not emergent in any true sense. I feel any frame that’s applied to politics must allow for emergence or it runs the risk of being overdetermined and technocratic.
I imagine user-generated content and iterative co-design practices may fit into this project somewhere, as parallels to the public engagement aspect of politics. That said, UGC and co-design aren’t exclusive to progressive enhancement.
Accessibility is another aspect of web design that has its own explicit political project. Accessibility and web standards in a sense analogise the welfare state, insofar as they provide a base level of access to those with limited resources and ability. This political project will need to be addressed within this frame of progressive enhancement.
The idea of using breakpoints to display content rather than simple mobile / desktop versions might nicely analogise a move away from reductive class analysis to a move granular view of class politics.
And lastly, we need to think about political analogies will work with progressive enhancement. Ben makes the point that the language of degradation parallels the discussion of Stalinism:
Meanwhile, you can find graceful degradation’s ambition — assuming a maximum specification, and then making do in less than ideal circumstances — in the experience of Stalinism, and that really wasn’t so graceful, was it? In the absence of a worldwide socialist revolution in the wake of World War I, Stalin’s defensive pragmatism of “socialism in one country” was clearly the wrong kind of pragmatism. (It’s no accident that orthodox Trotskyists, who utterly opposed Stalinism, still defended the Soviet Union as a “deformed workers’ state”, i.e. a degradation of a canonical design.)
I’m wondering then what progressive enhancement might align with. Design that provides more content to those with greater (browser) capacity might end up paralleling meritocratic capitalism as much as it parallels social democracy. Then again, design that provides more capability to those with greater capacity-for-engagement might nicely parallel a participatory democracy. There’s a lot of think about here, and I’m happy to see design thinking engaging with politics in a nuanced way.