Assumptions Embedded in Design(s) – Part 3: Societal Values

This is Part 3 of a series about assumptions embedded in design. This work was inspired by the recent Sketch Model workshop at Olin College and will be the basis for a future course at Swarthmore College. For additional context and the start of the series, check out Part 1 (Bodies) and Part 2 (Identities).

Societal Values

The last embedded category of assumptions embedded in design is societal values. What we create says a lot about what we consider important. This one can be the most challenging to appreciate because societal values are so deeply embedded into our culture and our minds.

An example of societal values embedded in technology is ankle monitoring devices. The creation of such technologies at all is predicated on a society that believes in incarceration and surveillance as important and acceptable. If our society didn’t believe in imprisonment there would be little needs for these devices. Assumptions based on societal values intersect and extend beyond both bodies (e.g. device sizing) and identities (e.g. who is wearing the device, more likely black and brown folks).

Technological interventions in the social realm are harder to consider as the creation of one technology cannot necessarily change all of society around it; because the assumptions are systemic, it can be hard for any one designer or technology to move the needle. In this case, critical design (especially through art), science and technology studies, and anti-oppressive design are some of the interventions available. These methods can challenge and critique existing societal structures, seek to invert hierarchies, or explore what the world might be like if our values were different.

Art in particular can be a powerful way of questioning “the way things are” (see e.g. Sara Hendren’s blog Abler). An example of critical design and art work is this video of Doreen Garner’s work (CW: simulated genital mutilation and surgery, thanks to Sara Hendren for the link). Doreen goes beyond describing the historical devaluation of black women’s bodies — she demonstrates it. Work like this can both provide catharsis and encourage others to think critically about the past, present, and future.