There are three ways in which my situation of concern is manifesting. The diagram below, shows an overview of my situation of concern and the three sub-areas, which I will articulate below.
This research is situated within the field of design and specifically the design of technology embedded within human activity systems. The aim is to explore the role of technology within societies, with specific emphasis on how these technologies affect human systems to evolve, grow and create solidarity. To do this, I will explore the fundamental ontological claims unacknowledged in traditional design methodologies and whether these assumptions still serve this role for technology today.
The major area of concern in the design of technological systems is that they are embedded within a complex world, of multiple ontological narratives. This means that there are multiple ways of approaching the world, multiple ways of knowing and being. It is the role of technology to bridge these multiple narratives, in a synthetic and integrative manner; such that new worlds, new ontologies are born which act as common ground, in the creation of solidarity and shared practices.
This research approach is distinctly Heideggerrian, in that it attempts to deconstruct the underlying ontological assumptions within technology design. In so doing, it attempts to reveal a more fundamental mode of design thinking; one found on what Heidegger called unconcealment. We will use Heidegger’s landmark paper, The Question Concerning Technology (1953) as the basic theoretical foundations of research. I aim to build on these concepts referencing two further works; Understanding Computers and Cognition (1987) and disclosing New Worlds (1997). These two texts build on the concepts of ontological design.
The majority of the design of technology, we experience today is due to an overemphasizing of the task and an underestimating of the practices, which can be realized through technology.
In Winograd and Flores’ (1988), interpretation, technology does not stop at the material object perceived as a tool, it is about the
“design of practices and possibilities to be realized through artifacts.” The possibilities and new spheres of practice, which technology reveal to us are what we need to accentuate (Flores & Winograd, 1988).
The Practical Problem
As explained above, technology is often built within a paradigm of instrumental rationality (Heidegger, 1977, pp 3–35), which means it takes an objective view of reality and most importantly places design as that process which manipulates resources to achieve its goals. The effect of such an instrumental technocracy leaves us separated from our role as disclosers of new worlds of being.
Design is meant to serve as a lens to imagine possibilities, to be the bridge between creativity and experience; or a way in which we disclose new experiences. We may say that the current focus in technology design sprouts from the wrong understanding; that which is a narrow objective viewpoint, which is tainted by business contracts, government policies and stakeholder needs. It is rare that the citizens or users come into account as the fundamental components. As Finelli (2001) articulates, we have:
“an extremely narrow philosophical anthropology which leads one to consider the user as a mere customer or, at best, as a human being framed by ergonomics and cognitive psychology; an outdated implicit epistemology of century; an overemphasis upon material shapes and qualities; a code of ethics originating in culture of business contracts and agreements; a cosmology restricted to the marketplace”.
These misunderstandings in design have stemmed from the effect of product engineering and marketing on design, i.e. the determinism of instrumental reason and central role of the economic factor as the almost exclusive evaluation criterion, (Finelli, 2001).
This in turn creates unwanted outcomes and harmful reflections of one self, society and systems. Currently, systems are designed from an objective base, which means, designing a system or product to meet business requirements exclusively. However, there is a greater need to inclusively design in a way that is grounded in human activity to gain a more holistic idea of what the citizen or users experience of what the system or product should entail.
The practical problem here is to figure out what the process is for creating a social utility, which delivers both business value and most importantly citizen value. The platform is a computer literacy system for the citizens of the Western Cape; citizens must be able to easily learn how to use ICT (Information communication technologies) provided by the Western Cape Government. The platform will be designed with the purpose of fulfilling the citizens’ needs of Cape Access e-Centre’s, in rural areas placed across the Western Cape and the business needs of Cape Access programme stakeholders, who sit within the Department of the Premier.
The types of activities associated with these e-Centres are mainly:
- The Use of computers
- Access to the internet
- Access to e-mail
- Basic computer training
- Access to government information and services
- Access to job, business and research information
- Accredited computer training
The Research problem
Following on from the practical problem; this way of designing is due to the fact that systems are designed from an objective point of view rather than being grounded in a human centered approach. As (Finelli, 2001) points out, we have become restricted by the culture of business in our artistic approach to designing systems and products, by placing more emphasis on the material shapes and identity.
“The most important designing is ontological. It constitutes as intervention in the background of our heritage, growing out of our already existent ways of being in the world, and deeply affecting the kinds of beings that we are. In creating new artifacts, equipment, buildings and organizational structures, it attempts to specify in advance how and where breakdowns will show up in our everyday practices and in the tools we use, opening up new spaces in which we can work and play. Ontologically oriented design is therefore necessarily both reflective and political, looking backwards to the tradition that has us but also forwards to as-yet-uncreated transformations of our lives together. Through the emergence of new tools, we come to a changing awareness of human nature and human action, which in turn leads to a new technological development. The designing process is part of this ‘dance’ in which our structure of possibilities is generated.” (Flores, Winograd, P 163, Understanding Computers and Cognition)
Ontological design implies different ways of understanding how we, as modern subjects ‘are’ and how we be who or what we are in the modern world. Simply put, we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us. (Willis, 2006) The tradition of ontological design emphasizes the role of the intervener or discloser as one who reveals new ontologies. Therefore, the experience of the designer is of critical importance. This is because the fundamental methodology of ontological inquiry is phenomenology. The fundamental methodology of design is to understand the phenomena of the experience itself and to use this to synthesize new ways of being.
For this reason my research will engage into a phenomenological inquiry into design, around three practical projects, which involve the design of techno-social systems. The goal of this research is to shed light into the experience of ontological design, in the hopes of contributing in part to a new context of technology design.
There are two major, practical dimensions I would like to explore here:
- To create a design strategy for developing a system that is grounded in user-centered design process, which delivers both business value and citizen value.
- A learning platform for computer literacy and digital e-skills development, for the Western Cape Government’s Cape Access programme.
My exploration lies in two roles; the role of the designer in the creation of technologically orientated human activity systems and the role of technology in creating new worlds or ontologies for citizens.
- How do we design for better network and conversation that enables new social paradigms of interaction?
- How do we prepare for future technological systems from which to liberate the potentiality of Being and how do we realize this through the many current and future technological artifacts?
- How do we deliver value to the citizens and create better possibilities and practices inclusively?