Archives For policy

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.

From degradation to enhancement: redesigning society

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.

Mel Gregg has a great post up about the difficulties of publishing as an Australian academic interested in Australian politics. It’s piqued my interest in academic publishing, particularly as the publishing and newspaper business is changing at the moment.

I’ve long been a fan of open-access academic journals such as M/C and initiatives such as ePrints and arXiv, and even more so now that my university enrollment has lapsed, taking my database login with it.

I’m fascinated by the economics of academic publishing, because it seems to work in a remarkably different way to most other forms of publishing. It’s quite rare to make any money out of academic publishing, unless your work gets assigned as a course text.

Anecdotally I’ve heard of a few senior scholars making money from reprints in course readers and popular textbooks, but certainly not enough to warrant much more than a few nights on the town. (And we’ve all had that one lecturer who insists the students buy the latest update to his textbook each year – sometimes warranted, sometimes not.)

Paper publication is also quite strange. Some journals charge exorbitant fees for access via databases. There’s also the odd phenomenon of universities paying journals for publication. I’m not condemning closed access journals – they have to figure out a way to pay their workers in an environment of cut budgets, lowered endowments and hedge fund blowout.

What interests me is where the value lies in publishing a book in your field. There’s little to no monetary gain outside of university promotion – so I’m guessing the value lies in reputation? Is publishing a book much better than publishing papers?

I’m also curious as to how much value is placed on different academic imprints and why, and what an Australian academic e-book publishing house might look like. The ebook and POD market is getting more respect each year, and the Kindle is being promoted as a possible option for textbook distribution. I’m wondering if a canny publisher with an eye to serving Australian academia and politics, rigorous quality standards and an army of peer reviewers, and a simple, low cost distribution process might be something to look at creating.


The CPD has just launched a new publication called Thinking Points: talking points for thinking people, providing rapid-fire responses to the debates of the day with an eye to the big picture and the decades to come.

I have a short policy piece up here.

Senator John Faulkner’s announcement of changes to Australia’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws is long overdue, and his approach promises to address a number of concerns about FOI in Australia.

First, addressing the egregious abuse of the ‘cabinet in confidence’ provision, exemplified by the wheeling of trolleys of documents in and out of the cabinet room, is a major step forward, as is the removal of conclusive certificates. However, simply reducing the legal loopholes available for abuse by government and the public service is only part of the solution.

Just a quick note to say I’ve been made Research Coordinator in Democratic Renewal at the Centre for Policy Development. I’ll be working on government transparency, e-democracy, media reform and public sector information (and citizen journalism no doubt!) in research and development roles.

The CPD is a progressive policy institute, check it out here.