Decolonizing Circles Design
Work on the Berlin pilot as product designer is not an easy task, and that is mostly by choice. Building an alternative economic system separate from the state and based on community building is intricate. This article means to explain a bit why my working process might be sometimes irritating for the outside, as I do not follow the “normal way” but processes that attempt a change from private property towards the commons, and therefore break rules (of thumb). I could make this job just one more easy design task, go the hegemonic way. Instead, I choose to align our product design to Circles idea:
“A basic income system for communities. The value and the use of the Circles universal basic income depend on the community which uses it. For it to work, it requires strong community ties and a proactive commitment to creating value in the system by providing products and services in exchange for CRC”
We cannot separate from the state without breaking rules. We cannot change the capitalist economic system without breaking rules. I know what you are thinking, breaking rules is easy, but what for? The main position I follow for designing for Circles.Cooperative and Circles.Garden is: I want to enable fertile ground for the creation of other rules. Rules that every community can choose, define, modify and destroy for their autonomy not to be overtaken by any state nor any dominant alternative to it.
Such a design approach does not only come after working for Circles, but from my life experience, and my positionality as a decolonial designer, who strives for autonomy-based and feminist technology.
Anecdote 2_ 2012, 2013 of occidental calendar. In the territory called Uruguay: I was visiting my parents, and as usual, I was helping them with their computer, running updates, cleaning their disk, installing some new software and so on… Crazy causality, by the time I finished with it, Facebook had launched an interface up-date. Sadly for me, Facebook was the first thing my father opened when I told him the computer was now ready to be used. He was angry with me, disoriented in front of the machine just repeating “you broke my computer, you broke my computer!”. It took me some time to realize what he meant, as I was there checking all functions, everything was just fine, and Facebook, an unfamiliar platform for me already at that time, looked like a normal Social Media interface.
(!)The first mistake I made: I didn’t encourage the frustration about some omniscience structure to change his account from one day to the other without his consent.
(!)The second mistake I made: I did not take the chance to talk about technology politics.
Anecdote 1_2020 of the occidental calendar. In unified (!) Germany: The mother of a very good friend, who was overwhelmed by the Covid pandemic, had a panic episode of “having lost google ‘’. For those familiar with German society, the pandemic shaped itself inside of these historically controversial borders in very individualistic ways, and people were mostly fearing for their individual privileges. We were having a coffee in the middle of the pandemic with my friend and his mother called him explaining that the totalitarian regime had reached a level she never expected. Google was just being shut down by the government: “First Corona, now Google”. All this sadness was created by a terms of services update on Google, from which the interface demanded their users to scroll down to find the “I Agree” button. Big surprise, one of the most used UX functions for Mobile devices, scrolling-down, does not follow all people(s) intuitions in the world. But demands for most of them to get indoctrinated on an alienated habitus.
(!)The first mistake we made: We explain google was just as fucked up fine as always. She was only seeing half of the screen, and showed her the path towards google again, and missed the chance to introduce her to Duck Duck Go.
(!)The second mistake we made: We didn’t have the time to talk to her and understand why she was putting Google at the same level as the Pandemic. And what dependency towards this software multinational, were actually provoking her such feeling of fear.
Back-end dependencies, the problematics of a “one protocol” solution.
The idea that we can develop one protocol that fits everyone’s needs, is not new. We have seen this before. It used to be called nation-state or representative democracy. The worst thing, these ideas were the result of one of the most prominent revolutions of occidental history. I know, this hurts!
Just as the nation-states did not turn into a true alternative to the paradigms of monarchy, unified protocols do not look to me as a proper path if we seek to facilitate a basic income system for communities that can properly attend to each community’s needs and wills.
Design is power, it was thought of as a power tool, and even if I strive hard not to use it this way, in a world divided by those who ideate and those who implement. I cannot think of any application of design that does not involve domination. With this very sad truth in my hands and mind, is that I constantly build on my positionality as Decolonial Designer, from which inclusion is a key aspect.
Inclusive Design has a long tradition of struggle. The notion of inclusion, was one of the most significant radical positions that confronted my stereotyped thinking, while I was still a Design Student, and it is today one of the most practical approaches I know for confronting technocracy.
I do not think I can define my work as Inclusive Design — because I do not follow the demand of this struggle and I’m not an active part of the movement. I want to be very transparent on this because I do not intend to appropriate anybody’s fight. On the contrary, I owe the Inclusive Design Movement, the fact that since I first got in contact with such an approach, my entire dimensions of what Design means has been on constant re-shaping.
I work since then on defining what my position towards Inclusion is, and today it is much shaped by Decolonial and Radical Feminist thinking.
For me there is no product, service or even life situation that does not exclude people. Inclusion is for me a position towards understanding the exclusion process I provoke and being transparent about them. Every decision I make in product design involves prioritization. And this process is strictly aligned to the political positions I follow. Therefore transparency in my/our decisions is essential to avoid frustration, both in the communities using what I design, like you, and in all people involved in the design process.
Inclusion means to me on the one hand the acceptance of differences to break hegemonies and capitalist ‘normalities’, to allow different ontologies to be represented on technology. This means that I work to take into account cultural experiences, class realities, gender identities, people with disabilities, people without disabilities, in short different life experiences. Inclusion stands for me as a way to acknowledge differences and work towards constellations in which they can co-exist.
In this line, I commit towards relinquishing positions of power and control over what I do. Recognizing my limitations not to turn into arrogant approaches thinking of myself as omniscient being, is a must!
I do not seek to include everyone in what I design, because I do not believe I can understand everyone’s needs and much less come up with solutions for everyone. I actively refuse to be considered a Universal Expert and don’t think anyone can be such a thing.
Rather, I seek an Autonomy-based design. Meaning creating the necessary bridges for our technology to be decoded by people(s), for taking it over and modifying it for their communities. In terms of our product design for the Berlin Pilot, Autonomy-based design demands from us transparent decision making with all decisions concerning privacy vulnerability, habits modifications, community rules (AKA. Smart Contracts). I strongly believe people want to make autonomous decisions, people want to be engaged in decision making, and people are capable of depicting complexity, it is just a matter of regaining confidence and freedom.
Un-learn technology anxiety and open up for acknowledging differences.
Electronic technology has come to life inside of capitalism, and not only this but driven by its intentions. Fast delivering and constantly changing are necessities of capitalism for maintaining its hegemony. While constantly changing is actually based on the principle of ‘updating’ a same solution or product. Fast delivering is the strategic aspect, for people to compete among each other, in order to be the next ‘first ones’, to deliver something, and get the credits for it. This cuts off the possibility of choosing to work in different ways towards different approaches to technology. Currently when people do not agree on an Agile working-process, they are considered lazy or slow, but this is mostly because they are not being productive to the capitalist interest. This idea of laziness is deeply rooted in the modern/colonial history that attempts to discredit any other way of doing stuff in order to maintain an hegemony based on status-quos clichés.
It is incredible that in 2022 we still need to confront people who hold huge power in technology but argue on it as an objective solution. Objectivity does not exist for me — and therefore I do not want to contribute to the idea of it. I understand that objectivity has been in this colonized world an excuse of the white, middle class, occidental, cis-men to push his interest as a universal solution. And it is because of this, that we (still) live in a world dominated by the mythos of easy Google and easy Facebook. But the reality is that people invest a lot of time in learning these tools, because for many people, this is not an option but an obligation. Google, Facebook, Instagram, MS-Office, Medium, or nowadays even WhatsApp- profit from class domination. People around the world(s) are obliged to learn these platforms, to be even considered as applicants to a job. So of course, if we have to already invested part of our ‘personal time’ to learn one technology, to fulfill the profile for getting a job, learning a second or third technology starts competing with visiting friends, going for dinner with our families, taking a walk in the park, or playing with our dog.
This is perhaps the biggest critic I still have of our team at the Circles.Cooperative. As much as we work hard for pursuing a design development that aligns with our values, we internally still use software like google drive. Just because this is easy -for some. For some of us, Google is a highly complex platform and non-intuitive at all. Personally, it’s been 1 year of using it and I still don’t understand it. Because these tools are for me only mandatory in my work, I actively refuse to invest any second of my free time to learn how to use Google’s tools. And I’m very conscious this is a privilege, but for all of those holding this privilege like me, it’s also a decision. I wish every day more and more people will just refuse to invest their time in learning google or any other software they do not autonomously choose to learn. Every time a company drops off google services, autonomy can be created.
So this is not just public gossip but aims to show you that the problems I point out for the outside, are also still very present in my own community. Changing habits is difficult, changing hegemonic habits, in hegemonic people, is a constant struggle.
Decolonizing our Design-language.
When designing for Circles.Cooperative and Circles.Garden I pursue a decolonial design approach. This includes hard work on questioning all things that the capitalist system gives for granted. Confronting our dominance, even when this implies much more work for me, as well for all my colleagues. In other words, with a decolonial design approach, I pursue the dismantling of all capitalist dependencies by positioning against these and demystifying the methodological solutions that often turn into lying to ourselves. I do not want to force people to use any software, and I do not seek to indoctrinate anybody on any habit, so aligning ourselves to the aims of Google’s technology, by replicating their values and methods, is for sure not an alternative. Even when this means a bit more effort from all of us. As said at the beginning of this article, to make my work a complex task is a choice, a political one.
I’ll make this clear with one example. One of the biggest tools of domination the capitalist system used is the existence of private property. So for us, Free Design and open source code are musts, but this does not mean we are making our work available for all. Because this alone does not shrink the class dependency of those who cannot take over the technology due to a lack of knowledge on it. Nor does it solve the plurality of cultural needs, that occidental and rational technology does not take into account. And this can be seen in one of the less-discussed aspects of technology: the fact that the majority of the code in the world -also open-source and free software code- is only available in English. This is not at all related to a technical necessity nor any technical aspect of the technology used for coding, but it is related to the notion of English as modern lingua franca. English has made its way to become the universal — universal in here as neutral- language as a consequence of modern/colonial policies that emerged from the cold war on. Policies that still rule the current technological landscape and from which I want to actively and consciously distance myself.
Prioritizing life experiences that have not been considered yet, is a particular aspect of my design practice. Free design is for me not only about what license is assigned to my work. But what I’m offering people to get, and mostly how open this is to modifications I never considered, simply because these apply to life experiences I was not in contact with. This involves a re-thinking of the skeleton of what I do.
Just as coding languages, the product we ideate and perform, has also languages and we choose these languages to be: participatory-design and radical feminism.
“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. (…) But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences” Audre Lorde
Technology (just as capitalist economy) is based on rationalist and individualist paradigms that are afraid of differences and therefore work hard to erase these. Luckily many of us choose to understand technology only when collectively thought. As aforementioned, I do not consider technology a universal solution, but one option among others, people can decide to choose or not.
A radical feminist design approach means to me, the acceptance of differences, and the caring of these. Care work is a central aspect of design. For taking decisions I need to invest time to evaluate the situation responsibly. Designing for differences in a world ruled by universal thinking means sometimes designing ideas from scratch, and even rejecting the possibility of using solutions available -even when this would be the essay way. Because sometimes, all solutions available correspond to the same one-life experience, and the decision on which to implement, is only a question of technical skills but not really a question on a product level. When designing in a decolonial way, designers have to put their comfort aside, and constantly push their boundaries further.
Another central aspect is maintenance. We know that the majority of people today still have a maintenance dependency when it comes to technology. For example, every time we launch a new version of our technology, we have to give people the chance to freely migrate with us or not. Freedom can only exist in systems based on mutual care. Otherwise, the line between freedom and imposition turns blurry.
When the promise of community and belonging disappears, following the herd looks like the only option left. In such a scenario, the idea that people are freely choosing to migrate with us does not look so free anymore.
An alternative is that people who are holding knowledge on specific areas of our project (like me on product design), should be made responsible for communalizing this knowledge. Instead of controlling peoples decisions, through skill dependency, we can apply decision-making processes that are not led by these people holding this so-called deep knowledge on specific areas. Then we can contribute with power finding its way to redistribution, by putting the necessities of others before our particular interest, great ideas or curiosity. Furthermore, this helps us to accept that our community knows stuff we do not know. So we learn things about our work from the community. This breaks the idea that because we are designing and implementing a product we are the ones who know the most.
In line, the Berlin Pilot will play a significant role in 2022, as we will be putting into practice our Participatory-Design approach. Seeking to understand and make differences, speak to each other and find their common way. Turn design into a collective process.
Based on my life experience, illustrate in here with the two anecdotes, I choose to care about habits and human relations, and I know there is no standard or method that can meet the needs and experiences of all the people who will be affected by such changes. As much as I try to anticipate the impact of what I do, I know I cannot anticipate every scenario. For this reason, one of the key changes in our design process for this year is to build up a constant dialogue with our community, by implementing feedback sessions with our active community in Berlin as well as to introduce feedback flows in all our platforms. This will be accompanied by the publishing of an open design repository making all our design material available in several formats.
In other words, design is to be integrated into the field. Shortening intermediaries between Circles communities and all people involved in our design process will help us avoid interpretations. Moreover, this will help us understand that our community is the one ideating our design, and therefore they should be involved in the testing, and research of the product. Otherwise, the design turns into a distant ‘scale model’, of what real-life necessities are.
To put it shortly, I want to contribute to decolonize circles technology, because this is the only way I see for this technology to be liberated. The dismantling of capitalist and state dependencies cannot be done by one single group of people, so I encourage you to Join Circles pluriverse: used, study, shared, improve, modify and please if you consider it necessary as well destroy!
Written by Circles.Coop’s Product Designer
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