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Decolonizing design through the perspectives of cosmological others: Arguing for an ontological turn in design research and practice

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Abstract

A closer attention to cultural and cosmological difference as the basis for thinking about how we redesign our own modern technological infrastructures may be the way to decolonize design research.
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A closer attention to cultural and cosmological difference as the basis
for thinking about how we redesign our own modern technological
infrastructures may be the way to decolonize design research.
By Ahmed Ansari
DOI: 10.1145/3368048
Decolonizing Design
Through the
Perspectives of
Cosmological Others:
Arguing for an ontological turn
in design research and practice
The design educator Viktor Papanek, in his seminal and very polemical 1971
text Design for the Real World, started his critique of design practice by bringing
into focus the stark divide between a normative idea of the human, which most
industrial and communication designers worked from, and the scope and scale of
their actual interventions, serving humans of all backgrounds and identities. His words are a
necessary indictment: “design is discriminatory against major sections of the population…in
spite of the clients’ differing age, occupa-
tion, sex, schooling, etc., most designers
seem to design for an exclusively sexist,
male chauvinist audience. The ideal con-
sumer is between eighteen and twenty-
five, male, white, middle-income, and if
we look at ergonomic data published by
designers themselves, exactly 6 feet tall,
weighing e xactly 185 pounds…de signers
know very little about what people really
need or want” [1].
Forty-eight years later, little seems
to have changed. If anything, Papa-
nek’s observations about how poorly
the infrastructure designed by design-
ers (and technologists such as archi-
tects, and engineers, etc.) serves the
vast majority of the U.S. population—
women, people of color and other
marginalized minority groups, im-
migrants, the very young and very old,
the ill, the disabled, the working class,
the unemployed, and the homeless—
seem even more disproportionate
against the grandiloquent proclama-
tions of large technology monopolies,
like Google and Facebook, to serve the
“next billion users” in Asia, Africa, and
Latin America.
This observation seems even more
justified if we reflect on who the major-
ity of designers and technologists are,
where they come from, and the condi-
tions under which they work. “Design is
a luxury enjoyed by a small clique who
form the technological, moneyed, and
cultural ‘elite’ of each nation. The 90
percent native Indian population which
lives ‘up-country’ has neither tools nor
beds nor shelter nor schools nor hospi-
tals that have ever been within breath-
ing distance of designer’s board or
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XRDS • WIN TER 20 19 • VOL .26 • N O.2
workbench…if I suggest that this holds
equally true of most of Africa, Southeast
Asia, and the Middle East, there will be
little disagreement, ” Papanek wrote [1].
In short, he raises an extremely im-
portant political and ethical question
that all technologists should think
deeply about when they next sit down
inside air-conditioned offices, at well cu-
rated and equipped desk spaces, to de-
sign for people whose lives they not only
know nothing about but cannot compre-
hend given the privileges of their own
lived experiences. Should an extremely
privileged minority be designing for the
needs of an underprivileged majority?
My own thoughts around this began
to materialize while working and teach-
ing for several years as a designer in
my home country of Pakistan, specifi-
cally Karachi. There, the fit between the
needs and wants of the pa noply of differ-
ent people who form Karachi’s extreme-
ly diverse and cosmopolitan population
and the poorly designed infrastructure
(the built env ironment, product s, servic-
es, platforms, etc.) was even more stark.
It was obvious—and this was shared by
many colleagues a nd students—the vast
majority of people made do with these
designed technological, material infra-
structures. In fact, much of their lives
were spent navigating through, around,
and in spite of the constant constraints
and roadblocks that these infrastruc-
tures and their associated social sys-
tems imposed.
One can argue about what, in this
case, the role of technologist should be.
Yet, at least in design discourse, there
has been a long history of discussion in
the Western hemisphere on this issue.
We can follow this in the long tradition
of discourse on participatory design or
co-design, beginning with designing
interfaces at the outset of the computer
revolution to scaffold upskilling the
working-class in Work-Oriented Design
of Computer Artifacts by Pelle Ehn [2],
as well as the formulation of designing
for social innovation where designers-
as-experts aid in the everyday designing
done by ordinary people as discussed in
Ezio Manzini’s Design When Everybody
Designs [3] .
However, I would like to bring atten-
tion to a more specific, and more recent,
development in design discourse: The
decolonization of design practice and
theory. The decolonial turn in design is
a relatively recent one, and has unfolded
with the specific aims of bringing the
voices and concerns of hitherto mar-
ginalized designers and design schol-
ars to bear. In essence, a decolonial ap-
proach to design tackles precisely the
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XRDS • WIN TER 20 19 • VOL .26 • N O.2
succession of states nor lived duration.
It is social, interior to the life of the com-
munity rather than exterior to it. This
conceptualization of time as measured
through the lifeworld of the community
is also something particular to the Nuer
in relation to how they live and survive.
What it shows us, as do countless other
examples of pre-modern communities
in the annals of anthropological docu-
mentation, is other ways of seeing, act-
ing, and being in the world can, have,
and do exist.
Cosmo-ontologies and cosmolog ical
perspectivism, as Vivieros de Castros
calls other cosmologies and worldviews,
raise particularly poignant and impor-
tant points for researchers working in
tech to reflect upon [5]. Strathern, in
her text Relation, argues we reflect on
the fact that whenever we construct
knowledge around an unfamilia r Other,
we make what is local and familiar to
them familiar to us through a process
of reduction by passing what is observed
through our own concepts of the world,
in what amounts to a “globalization” of
knowledge [6]. This reduction is what
makes what would other wise be strange
and irrational, impossible for us to in-
ternalize, something that we can under-
stand and internalize.
Michael Taussig comes to a similar
conclusion over the course of his stud-
ies on Bolivian miners in The Devil &
Commodity Fetishism in South America.
The perspectives that the working class
from the Global South hold on social,
economic, and political shifts that have
happened v ia moderniz ation and indus-
trialization in the form of local beliefs
is tainted. Looking at how money is ac-
quired through wage labor rather than
more traditional bar ter or gift exchange,
Taussing writes: “on receiving his wage,
the miner must, by law, forfeit all con-
trol of and claim to the ore. Alienability
and profitability take over, and the com-
modity rises transcendent, freed from
the strictures that in a use-value econ-
omy bind goods to people, ritual, and
cosmology” [7].
Taussig thus argues other cosmolo-
gies, belief systems, and value systems
can therefore act as mirrors to compare
and contrast with our own modern un-
questioned habits, practices, beliefs,
and values. They do this by making it
clear to us how strangely irrational the
kind of problem that Papanek raised,
but with the additional observation that
most of the knowledge, perspectives,
and approaches that designers bring to
bear come from an Anglo-Eurocentric
perspective, given that colonialism dis-
placed indigenous knowledge systems
and replaced them with A nglo-European
ones. This is as true of designers practic-
ing in non-Anglo or European contexts.
One of the enduring legacies of colonial-
ism lies in how design is taught largely a s
a practice that orig inates in Europe, with
the consequent implications of design
students being interpellated into Ameri-
can or European ideas on aesthetics,
use, desirabilit y, etc.
One of the key questions that a deco-
lonial approach to design would there-
fore raise is: What does it mean to design
for people who are not like us, even be-
fore we ask whether we should design for
people who are not like us? What does it
mean to design for people who have dif-
ferent histories, different backgrounds,
and different commitments from us?
What does it mean to design for people
who might relate to the world differently
from the way we do?
Thus I would argue the decoloni-
zation of the knowledge systems that
designers rely upon must start from a
proper appraisal of difference. Not just
difference in a shallow sense, where we
assume people around the world simply
use different words and lang uages to de-
scribe the same concepts and the same
realities. Instead, I would argue we
must think of difference as something
deeper and much more fundamental—
something indicative of the incredibly
different realities that people inhabit
and relate to. Difference—and I would
arg ue, especially the difference be tween
different cultures, civilizations, com-
munities, and collectives of people who
have developed along their own trajec-
tories through time—is ontological. It is
deeply tied to the ways, the categories,
through which we make sense of our-
selves and our identities.
The idea of difference as ontolog i-
cal is not a new one. Despite a history
of being dominated by Anglo-Europea n
perspectives, the field of cultural an-
thropology has nevertheless also seen
intense debate and critique on the is-
sue of how they construct knowledge
of humans and the worlds they inhabit.
The “ontological turn” in anthropol-
ogy—best represented in the work of
Marily n Strathern, Eduardo Viveiros de
Castro, Philippe Descola, and Martin
Holbraad—challenges long-held Euro-
centric assumptions dating back to the
Enlightenment that cultural “Others”
hold the same ways of defining real-
ity as the Europeans did. For example,
the idea that fundamental concepts,
categories, and binaries like “nature”
and “culture” exist across all cultures,
or concepts that are commonly taken
for granted in constructing modern
ident it ies (“race,” “gender,” “clas s,”
etc.) are universal. In fact, the onto-
logical turn in anthropolog y shows us
precisely that these taken-for-granted
categories and definitions, i.e. ontolo-
gies, are local and specific to commu-
nities and time periods. They are often
fluid and protean, subject to change,
often through political contestation
and struggle. And they are often multi-
valent, having different inflections and
senses depending on how and why they
are being used.
Ontologies are, in short, cosmo-
logically specific—and here I use the
word cosmology instead of culture to
denote that what we are talking about
are large constellations of ontologies
that structure the ways in which hu-
man communities make sense of the
cosmos they exist in. They are cosmo-
ontologies. This was true even in early
studies of cultural anthropology, as
far back as when the anthropologist
Evans-Pritchard described how the
Nuer of Sudan construct their concept
of something as fundamental as time:
“In the middle of September Nuer turn,
as it were, towards the life of fishing and
cattle camps and feel that village resi-
dence and horticulture lie behind them.
They begin to speak of camps as though
they were already in being, and long to
be on the move. This restlessness is even
more marked towards the end of the
drought when, noting cloudy skies, peo-
ple turn towards the life of villages and
make preparations for striking camp…
the concept of seasons is derived from
social activities rather than from the cli-
matic changes which determine them,
and a ‘year’ is to Nuer a period of village
residence (cieng) and a period of camp
residence (wec)” [4].
Time, for the Nuer, is not a discrete
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XRDS • WIN TER 20 19 • VOL .26 • N O.2
ten on the parallels between the theory
of mind and consciousness developed
in Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu
philosophy, and virtual reality [8].
What does the ontological turn
mean for design research? There are,
broadly speaking, three takeaways that
we can glean from anthropological dis-
courses on cosmo-ontologies.
First, we must try and cultivate an
epistemic humility in studying people
not like us. This means we do not take
our own fundamental notions about
the world and our own definitions for
granted. It means opening up to the
idea that our own concepts are not uni-
versal and makes for a strong argument
for paying closer attention to the kinds
of concepts that suggest themselves
through the perspectives of cosmologi-
cal or cultural Others.
Second, an overturning of perspec-
tive is possible. It comes from seeing our
own knowledge and perspective as local
in its own sense, and therefore, open to
globalization within another’s world-
view. This means we should be aware
that the concepts we hold to be very fa-
miliar and “natural” can themselves
be subject to other interpretations and
consequently, reductions, when viewed
from the perspective of a cosmologi-
cal or cultural Other. The cosmological
Other should expose us to the contin-
gency of our own worldviews, and, as
both Strathern and Taussig argue, get
us to see the inconsistencies between
the myth of rationality and orderliness
of life under modern capitalism and its
very irrational and inconsistent founda-
tions.
This ties to the importance of my
third observation, which is by show-
ing us concrete examples of how things
could be otherwise, other cosmologies
open up the space by which we not only
question existing cultural, economic,
political, and social structures, but can
actively work to restruct ure them. Recre-
ating the cosmology, or transitioning to
the cosmology, of another community is
ethically and politically problematic, if
not outright impossible, as cosmologies
develop in relation to many variables
(the environment and climate, political
struggle, external communal influenc-
es, etc.) over long periods of time. How-
ever, given the designed is prefigura-
tive and shapes and conditions human
practices and beliefs we take for g ranted
are in the face of other ways of being and
doing such as modern fetishizations of
productivity, expediency, and efficiency.
Taussig’s observations of the beliefs of
Latin American laborers holds a mirror
up to our own obsession with acquiring
individual wealth by trading our physi-
cal, mental, and emotional f reedom and
wellbeing to imaginary nonhuman enti-
ties, i.e. corporations.
Over the course of my own fieldwork
in Karachi, I entered into conversations
with working-class service laborers on
issues of how the city had changed and
what changes they perceived in local
natural environments. I was also in con-
versation with facult y and design profes-
sionals in local art schools on how they
perceived and made sense of concepts
central to design and art practice such
as the nature of creati vity, craft, and pro-
cess. I found the tenets of the ontologi-
cal turn held true: Once they began to
articulate at length why they held some
of their fundamental assumptions
about things, Karachi locals had very
different ways of making sense of the
world compared to their counterpar ts in
the United States.
Discussions with the working class
surfaced their beliefs regarding the out-
comes of local government campaigns
to plant more trees on key highways in
the city. The trees, which were imported
from abroad (presumably to cater to the
aesthetic sensibilities of visiting diplo-
mats), were treated as projects doomed
to failure, because “foreign” trees lacked
the “language” to communicate with
“local” trees and wouldn’t take to local
soil. Discussions with local faculty on
design practice revealed there were
strong beliefs in the idea that creativity,
and more importantly, the decisive
“aha” moment that designers and art-
ists often claimed they experienced
were tied to a form of sudden disclosure
that was divine in nature. This, I later
found, was historically consistent with
both Vedic (pratibha, ) and Indo-
Islamic (amad, ) conceptions of the
source of creativity as flowing from the
realm of the divine to the mundane
through an individual. As another ex-
ample of interesting work done in the
domain of computing technologies and
local knowledge systems, the philoso-
pher Akhandadhi Das has recently writ-
beings as much as it is shaped by them,
this opens up the space for us to rethink
how we could redesign technologies to
promote the transition of everyday prac-
tices and the behaviors and beliefs that
accompany them that we deem to be un-
sustainable and oppressive.
To sum, I would argue if we are to
think of redesigning systems not only to
be more materially sustainable, but, as
design theorists like Cameron Tonkin-
wise [9] and Tony Fry [10] have argued,
for people to be more sustainable in
the way they live, a shift in how we do
design research to uncover how soci-
eties that have lived more sustainably
through their own everyday lives would
be invaluable. Moreover, if we consider
cultural diversity to be as important as
ecological and biodiversity in realizing
a world that is more just and equitable,
where people from all cultures and life-
worlds can co-exi st, then the ontological
turn g ives us a way to foster the sensitivi-
ty to dif ference that design research and
practice need, in order to move toward
making that kind of world possible.
References
[1] Papa nek, V. Desi gn for the Real W orld. Tham es and
Hudson, London,1972 .
[2] Ehn, P. Work-oriented Design of Computer Artifacts.
Doct oral dis serta tion, Ar betsli vscent rum. Sw eden.
1988.
[3] Manz ini, E. Des ign, When Eve rybody De signs: An
Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. MIT
Press, Cambridge, 2015 .
[4] Evan s-Prit chard, E . E. The Nuer : A descript ion of
the mod es of livelih ood and poli tical insti tutions of
a Nilotic people. Oxford University Press, Oxford,
1940, 95–96.
[5] De Cas tro, E. V. Cannibal Metaphysics. University of
Minne sota Pr ess, Minn eapolis, 2 015.
[6] Str athern , M. Relation. Prickly Pear Pamphlets
(North America), 1995.
[7] Taussi g, M. T. The Dev il and Commod ity Fetish ism in
South America. Univer sity o f North Ca rolina Pr ess,
Chap el Hill, 20 10.
[8] Das, A . Modern t echnolo gy is akin t o the meta physics
of Ved anta. Aeo n (Jan. 2, 20 19); ht tps://aeo n.
co/ideas/modern-technology-is-akin-to-the-
metaphysics- of-vedanta.
[9] Tonkin wise, C. O nly a god can s ave us–o r at least a
good s tory: I s ustain ability ( because n ecessi ty no
longer has agency). Design Philosophy Papers 9, 2
(2011), 69-80.
[10] Fry, T. Design as Politics. Be rg, 201 0
Biography
Ahme d Ansari h as a Ph.D. in d esign st udies fro m Carnegi e
Mello n Univer sity and i s an assist ant pro fessor a t New
York Un iversi ty, wher e he teache s course s on design ,
decoloniality, syst ems theory, and sustainability.
© 2019 Copyright ACM 1528-4972/19/12 $15.00
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Applications of artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) in health care are dynamic and rapidly growing. One strategy for anticipating and addressing ethical challenges related to AI/ML for health care is patient and public involvement in the design of those technologies – often referred to as ‘co-design’. Co-design has a diverse intellectual and practical history, however, and has been conceptualized in many different ways. Moreover, AI/ML introduces challenges to co-design that are often underappreciated. Informed by perspectives from critical data studies and critical digital health studies, we review the research literature on involvement in health care, and involvement in design, and examine the extent to which co-design as commonly conceptualized is capable of addressing the range of normative issues raised by AI/ML for health care. We suggest that AI/ML technologies have amplified and modified existing challenges related to patient and public involvement, and created entirely new challenges. We outline three pitfalls associated with co-design for ethical AI/ML for health care and conclude with suggestions for addressing these practical and conceptual challenges.
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