Design Mediated Difference

Remaking the City  Fall ’19, Cornell Tech

Society members are differentiated by many factors such as age, gender, class, ethnicity, dis/ability, and religion. As such, each societal group holds a different claim for what it means to have a good life. These claims can be conflictual, leaving certain needs and interests unfulfilled by the hegemony ordering a society. The problem is that such hegemonic order is often unmarked, implicitly inscribed in daily practices, and well entrenched into our systems. It is hard to articulate, contest, or expand with differentiated practices. It does not help that our contemporary designed worlds are built on seamless and user-friendly experience, which erodes the patience and cognitive capacity necessary for sitting with what is fractious or “unfriendly” such as difference.

My doctoral work, spanning three years of research collaborations with various groups on Roosevelt Island, has probed how we surface and deal with difference using art, participatory design, and design pedagogy. My explorations around difference are informed by three stances from political philosophy:

  1. The first stance sees a resolution to difference in deliberations during which diverse groups could find moments of commonality as they work towards a shared goal.
  2. The second stance advocates opening up our minds, hearts, and institutions to deep pluralism through introspections, ethical curiosity, and “gritted-teeth” tolerance.
  3. The third stance concedes to the antagonism inherent to human relations. It envisions a distributive power model where diverse voices carry out contestational labor, constantly transforming hegemonic values, and devising an agonistic set of ethos as the common ground among a differentiated populace.

In my dissertation, I am currently writing on how design has worked to activate these stances. I am also working on a design framework for explorative agonism as a meeting point between deep pluralism and agonism. This framework puts participants in a hypothetical position of power not possible in real life, affording them opportunities to propose ruptures in the hegemonic order, test these ruptures through agonistic encounters, and retreat back to a protected enclave for healing and reflection.