B Cordelia Yu
Last year I took us on a trip through the socioeconomic, cultural, and regulatory stack that the tech industry is built on. We talked about how lasting social change to create true sustainability and inclusive justice required push for change at all levels: the personal, community, social, and global scales. And while I offered a few suggestions for personal action and laid out principles for what it would take to make the whole system environmentally and socially just, the question that everyone asked was “Okay, so how do we do this?”
So that’s what I’ve been working on for the last year and it’s time to start refactoring.
Come learn how radically reimagining what democratic participation looks like may just be the key we need to creating a more inclusive and just society. And think about our role as technologists in building the spaces and tools to support systems that expand sustainability.
The talk I planned started with a simple question. To me, this is a UX question, except it goes by another name. The word “user” is a bit sterile, so let’s replace it. Instead of calling it “experience”, let’s call it “living”. Because, after all, we’re not having a collection of experiences. We’re having lives. But “human” still feels wrong, so let’s replace it with something else. To be human is to be social. Therefore, we’re not merely a plurality of persons, we are a people. Let’s improve the grammar a bit. You know, “people” still feels wrong. Let’s try another word. Yeah. There we go.
UX, to me, has never been about an individual’s experience in a vacuum. Our experiences are framed through socialization, in our communities, and so, for me, we’re back to the roots of UX: anthropology, the study of communities and their people. This is the fundamental belief that underlined my session from last year, where I started with these questions. We deconstructed three examples in tech to get to this question. We took a trip through the socio-economic, cultural , and regulatory stack that lets us do our work as technologists. We talked about how our phones and iPads contribute to modern slavery in the Congo and toxic waste in Mongolia. We even talked about how recycling centers, one of the most championed tools of environmental responsibility, can contribute to the marginalization of black communities here in the U.S. How power keeps us ignorant to make us complicit. How mainstream environmentalism in the west often ignores the marginalized groups that are most affected by climate change. I talked about our roles as designers and technologists in fixing that problem.
But I didn’t go much into details. And a lot has happened in the last year. From Australia to the U.K. to the U.S. to Europe, it feels like democracy is fraying. As white nationalism continues rising, climate change feels a bit abstract. When the U.S. election happened, this is what I saw. On November 8, roughly 25.4% of the U.S. population likely condemned the entire world to a 3° increase in global surface temperature. Without federal movement, no amount of server efficiencies, electric cars, or energy behavior shaping design will ever offset the amount of fossil fuel drilling or community killing policies of Donald Trump’s energy agenda. If inaction continues, my political science Spidey sense tells me that it’s going to get worse. One thing you learn in political history and psychology, is that scarcity and uncertainty creates and empowers dictators and demagogues. As ecological catastrophe hits more and more ecosystems and climate refugees become normality, basic resources are going to become more scarce.
As a political philosopher who works in tech, I ask myself, “What went wrong?” In a world where 3°C is likely inevitable, where do we put our energies? What can we, as designers, do? Are there any paths out of this? You see, when I saw these pieces on how Facebook’s trending news was pushing outright lies into people’s news feeds, I was reminded of this piece. There’s a wealth of research that says the first thing we read on a subject is set as true in our minds by default. Especially when it matches our worldview. Any evidence to the contrary has a boomerang effect that reinforces the false belief. When you have a content algorithm that reinforces the echo chamber and outright lies, you have a civic space that’s constantly filled with falsehoods. When it comes to political decision making, reality is secondary to perception. Even when people are doing well, safe, and thriving, if they perceive the world they’re in as falling apart, we make decisions accordingly. When I see these political lies on Facebook and connect them to 3°C, I see New Orleans still rebuilding.
This is where I tell you it’s OK to mute me for a few moments. I’ll bring the screen back up when it’s safe. I remember what environmentalists in the largest nonprofits telling me that it’s too hard to partner with environmental groups from marginalized communities. That creating programs to galvanize those isn’t financially sustainable. I see Trump saying that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by China in the lead. But the fact check doesn’t happen until paragraphs later. I see hateful attacks on my Muslim friends, my immigrant family, my trans friends. Deportations in the middle of the night in the U.K. Deportations in the middle of the day in the U.S. I see Twitter full of people with chronic illnesses and parents of children with disabilities worrying about medical care and school access. I remember getting on a bus to speak about social justice. A man in the back yells, “Go back to China!” His friends laugh and no one defends me. I think about the water protectors in North Dakota being treated like animals, their connection to the outside world jammed. All of this to create a world full of fear and hate. I think about the Marshall Islands sinking below the sea. I think about black children drinking lead tainted water. I see white men writing articles about how we must come together, while my family is bleeding. What we have here is failure to communicate. What we have here is the foundation of democracy crumbling. And, yes, I work in tech. But I studied as a political philosopher. I’m telling you right now that the stakes are, in fact, this high. This is not a drill. Western democracy is on a path to collapse. But there’s hope.
Before we talk about solutions and our role as designers, I want to think about what democracy is and what makes it worthwhile. Oh, sh*t. That was very much a scholar thing to do, wasn’t it? Don’t worry, don’t go away, it will be useful. I promise. Here we go. Several thousands years of democratic theory in five minutes.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls democracy this. To put it in less academic terms, democracy is where people come together and make decisions. This immediately raises the question, “So what is even worthwhile?” Some of us might scoff at that question, right? Yet, 25.4% of the voting age population of the United States voted for an authoritarian. Not only that, they consciously voted for an authoritarian. Another 44.7% were either unable to vote or, more likely, didn’t bother to vote. “Why bother?” is a question a lot of people answer with, “I can’t” or “I don’t”.
People keep saying that government is so efficient. Having one strong make all of the decisions is a good way to speed it up. But the world is complicated. A small group is deeply limited in how much information they can parse, even if they’re perfectly moral. Even if they’re perfectly well intentioned. One reason we need democracy is that everyone has a different perspective and different needs. That one person’s great decision is devastating to another. The legitimacy of those decisions requires everyone’s input. Democracy is about the legitimacy of the decisions that affect the body politic. It is about us having a say in the rules that govern us. To make sure our cares, needs, and interests are considered and cared for. Let me say that again. Democracy is about legitimacy. Not efficiency. Not about choosing one person to make all of the decisions to get the job done. It’s about consent.
What makes democracy sick? Folks in the U.S. will probably know the Tree of Liberty quote from Thomas Jefferson. But do all of you know the full context? He was talking about British propaganda during the Revolutionary War. How tyranny always perpetuates lies. How ignorance creates complacency and is anathema to democracy and healthy society. The only way to fight that is through popular education and truth. I think about research in political psychology. How our political ideology makes it hard for us to do math when it is around politically charged topics. Simple math, like adding and subtracting. How when we see people suffer under inequality, we’re often more likely to blame them than confront the truth that the world is unjust. How when we feel uninformed, we’re more likely to avoid it than educate ourselves. These falsehoods and bullsh*t are only part of what makes democracy sick. Through them, back decisions are made.
The tools that we’ve built, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest, those are the tools that made it happen. When civic engagement is facile and our voice ineffectual and our survival isn’t at stake, it’s natural that we spend our limited attention elsewhere. That we pay attention to problems that we have the power to change. When civic engagement is simplified into a few votes on a ballot, it’s natural that we look for shortcuts for making decisions. That we concentrate on the quick outrage rather than the deep policy. If we are to rebuild a healthy democracy, we need to design a system where people are empowered to use that knowledge so what’s worthwhile is to be well informed.
What does this have to do with UX and design? IKEA, one of the biggest proponents for democratic design, calls it “Design for everyone.” They’ll say they do it by providing choice, lowering the cost of home products so they’re affordable. And that’s fantastic. Choices provide some amount of agency. But there’s an inherent problem with this understanding of democratic design. Choice is like oxygen. It’s necessary for survival but it’s not enough for living. The IKEA model of democratic design is oversimplified. It becomes about lowering the barrier to access, which is not what democracy is about. In creating the tools that lower barrier to entry and emphasize engagement, we have created tools that empower the loudest voices, but not the ones we need to hear most. We have expanded access but not democratized it. The most marginalized communities are the ones who are most hurt by climate change. Yet we technologists are building little to help them. Even as we faun over self driving electric cars and solar panel roof tiles. This is a problem and we need to fix it. Democratic design needs to be about bringing in the underserved voices. It needs to be about expanding equity, not just equality. Letting everyone join Twitter easily is equality. Making sure we protect the people who are most commonly experiencing harassment is equity.
The founders saw that when the body politics grew ignorant, we could fall under the spell of demagogues and tyrants. They saw no way to sufficiently and enduringly create an educated population. That’s one of the reason they created the electoral college and the senate. It’s a lot more complicated but that’s one of the main reasons. We call the vote the epitome of democracy because that’s how western founders of democracy framed it. What if it isn’t? What if it’s only the cornerstone?
During the mid-2000s, Taiwan needed to update its national health system. At the time, pubic interest in government was at an all-time low. We know how the U.S. passes major healthcare reform. A bunch of congresspeople and the president get together, put something together, and they try to give it to a lot of legislators. Convincing the public is mostly in ancillary consideration. Which is why, despite success many years later, on the eve of its repeal, most of the public loves it, but they’re still confused about what the Affordable Care Act is.
What Taiwan did was different. They put together a task force of public health officials, academics, and policymakers. They collected a huge amount of public health data. Then they went into the communities and started holding forums. They invited activists, public health officials, citizens. Not just to listen to speakers but to look at the data, teach them to analyze it, and ask them to give feedback on what they cared about and what needed to change. Then they took that information and went back to the legislators and used that to make policy. Now, Taiwan’s national healthcare system is considered one of best in the world. Both by patient satisfaction and people in public health. This type of participatory government happens locally as well.
Another story. A developer wanted to build a new property on an underutilized park lot in a type A neighborhood. As an aside, type Aa has roughly the same population density as New York City. As far as the planning, the public commissioner put out signs next to the park and put ads in newspapers to try to tell the neighborhood about what was happening and invite them to public forums. Nobody responded or attended so the plan went ahead. Right before demolition, when they’re starting to bring in the equipment, a student was walking home and noticed that they were demolishing something. She asked the neighborhoods, they knew nothing about it. She called the public commissioner and she organized all of the neighbors to protest. Within the week, they halted demolition and started holding new forums. As anyone who has done community organizing can tell you, even in your best days, not all attempts at organizing people work. You can try your damnedest to do your due diligence oftentimes no one pays attention.
Which reminds me of a different example here in the U.S. When the Standing Rock protesters were gaining public attention last year, backers of the pipeline started putting out a lot of ads in opposition. One that was all over YouTube said that Standing Rock protesters said they were never consulted, this isn’t true, etc. They used it as the justification for why the pipeline should continue. “You didn’t say anything before, so now you have no choice in the matter,” in not only the straight up language of abuse, it’s also a gross misunderstanding of consent. It completely overlooks the fact that marginalized communities are usually intentionally ignored. Attempts to consult with them are often structured in a way that silences them. Back in Taiwan, through new public forums, they discovered the reason people didn’t use the park was because it didn’t have the facilities. So the developers of the neighbors and the commissioner put together a new plan. They got federal grants to update the park with new equipment. The developer still was able to build a building with public commercial space to help bring life to the neighborhood. After the renovation was complete, people were using it daily. The important point here is that public outcry is critical. Taiwan’s political culture is such that when there is new public interest, there are systems of practice to stop and reconsider. Rather than say, “You didn’t follow procedure, therefore you forfeit your voice.”
Because in the west we’ve developed a dangerous conceit that the functions of government should be efficient above all else. It’s an idea that we imported from capitalism. But government and democracy aren’t about efficiency. Government is about efficacy. Democracy is about legitimacy. Dedication to real substantive public input is necessary for that legitimacy. Efficiency is in service of those, not the other way around. This isn’t to say that just by creating public education task forces or having tools for public engagement will automatically make government more legitimate. While Taiwan was reforming its health insurance program, a lot of activists didn’t trust it and refused to participate. It’s through repeated practice and engagement that these systems gain the public trust. As someone’s grandmother always said, you only gain trust through trusting others.
Taiwan’s work here continues to evolve. A few years ago, one of Taiwan’s ministers went to a civic hackathon and asked them to build and find “digital tools that could facilitate successful and substantive civic participation at scale.” Words we really like in tech: at scale. Scalable engagement. Awesome. They decided to build a tool called vTaiwan using a system called pol.is, which is built by a team in Seattle. In pol.is, anyone can ask a question and everyone else can answer yes, no, or pass. Through that, they can find out where there are groups of consensus and points of disagreement in real time. The way VTaiwan works is really amazing. Already it’s been used to create substantive policy and reshape healthy political dialogue in measurable ways.
So, a real thing that happened. Taiwan had been considering laws for selling booze online for about six years. It’s taking that long because there’s deadlock in both public rhetoric and in the legislature. On one side was their version of mothers against drunk driving, who are against it because they didn’t want an increase in public drunkenness. On the other were liquor lobbies saying the lack of online sales was bad for business. To give you an idea how VTaiwan works, two statements were put in. One, we cannot have an increase in public drunk driving. Over 75% of people agree. Two, we need to have online liquor sales. Again, over 75% of people agreed. Tens of thousands of people participated in this. They agreed with both sides. They realized that the deadlock was a false dichotomy based in political rhetoric. After putting the issue through VTaiwan, they passed legislation in three months. Let me repeat that. Six years of political deadlock broken in three months because citizens were given the chance to substantively contribute to the policy discussion.
This is a show called Talk to Taiwan. Most of it exists as Facebook live streams, where a journalist will sit down with a policymaker or expert and have a live interview. They’ll have a conversation around an issue that’s going through the legislature or whatever. They’ll respond to the chat. but they don’t just respond to the comments section on Facebook. They also use pol.is. So they can build citizen coalitions and mandates live on stream. This isn’t merely journalism for telling us the voice of political leaders. This is journalism as a bridge for creating citizen informed policy. This is democracy that can only happen through digital mediation.
To come back to the U.S., the majority of us care about sustainability and climate change, yet we have few avenues to affect either government or corporate policy around the issue. Concentrating on the tech is dangerous. Yes, the visual tool is important, but for Taiwan there was buy in from the highest levels of government right from the beginning. The digital tools are an augmentation of an established political culture. They have a history of doing it and that’s powerfully important. You can’t just build the technology and hope the problems of governance are solved. By the way, what you’re seeing on screen now is, in fact, the GitHub repo for Canada’s digital services team. They’re talking about building deliberative practices into Canadian government right now. If you’re Canadian, go contribute because it’s really exciting.
The technology is only part of the process. In Taiwan, they used it to find what issues need focus. Through the public question and answer process, they build agendas for committee meetings, where stakeholders have to build consensus. The meetings are in person with policymakers, lobbyists, citizens, activists—whoever has a stake. It’s live streamed for public viewing. If there is deadlock around an issue, they push it off for reconsideration later. Draft policy is only created around where there’s unanimous agreement. Then the draft is put back in vTaiwan for another round of questions and answers from the public to build the agendas for the next meeting, and the next meeting, and the next meeting.
Is this sounding familiar? Because it is to me. The current government has already said the plan is all national policy has to go through a process like that. All the government industries already have initiatives to do the same thing. Already this process has been used to create completely new regulation on huge issues, like closed companies, which are their version of what we in the U.S. would call a Delaware LLC. Car sharing services, like Uber.
It’s easy to say this is interesting but impractical to bring here to the west. I know because a lot of my professional policy friends have told me this already. But this sort of thing is already happening in the U.S. and in the west. Participatory budgeting is the most common form of deliberative democracy practice in the U.S. and a lot of places. Tishaura Jones is the democratic candidate for mayor in St Louis, and she plans to make it a reality. It’s happening all over the U.S. and many places in Canada, Brazil, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Spain—it’s happening everywhere. It’s part of the core platform for the movement for black lives. If you watch the protests, they often practice forms of direct democracy on the streets. Black leaders and activists have always been way ahead of mainstream America here. This is possible. What we have to do is find officials who want to make it happen. If you can’t find one, demand it. If they still won’t listen, vote for someone who will. Or even better, run for office yourself. If the federal government is unwilling to do anything, concentrate on your local government. Your state government. Build it from the ground up.
The core of sustainability work in UX and design can’t just be about the products we make. It has to be about the way we make them. It has to be about involving our communities.
Let me give you an example. In July, as part of the project Letters for Black Lives. Immediately after police had killed Alton Sterling. Christina Xu, a digital ethnographer who works out of New York, wanted to write a letter to her parents about anti blackness in Asian American families and hoped a few friends would join her in writing it in a Google Doc. In a matter of hours, there were hundreds of people contributing. The english version was finished that night with edits from more than 100, possibly more than 200, people. Within 24 hours, there were a dozen translation teams translating and rewriting the english letter for their particular cultural history. Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi. A professor started one for African immigrants. A Latino team started one. A Canadian team started one for Asian Canadians. Each letter was speaking directly to their community’s experiences and fight for social justice. Because I’m the nerdy tech person, the Korean translation team had more than a dozen people working on it. In the Google Doc, they created a voting system to translate words and phrases and paragraphs. If you’re a project manager, this is one of the most beautiful examples of organic collective decision making that I’ve ever seen. The letter got picked up in national, international, and local media. It started Thursday morning. On Sunday, there were over a dozen people at offices in San Francisco making a recording of themselves reading the letter. By Monday, when we launched, there were a dozen Finnish translations and more than a dozen in the works. Hundreds of volunteers across the world. The Google Docs were crashing with how many people with trying to view and contribute. But more important than that, the letter got picked up in ethnic community media. The Korean text was published in Korean papers all over the country. A few weeks later, NPR’s Code Switch did a podcast episode where I cried when I was listening. The world journal of the largest Chinese newspaper in the United States created a six page feature about the letter and the history of Asian Black solidarity and clashes, all in Chinese.
But that wasn’t the amazing bit. You see, people started making their own recordings in their own languages. We started hearing stories of siblings sharing the letter with each other and saying, “Let’s sit down and talk to mom and dad about this after dinner.” Overnight, hundreds of people came together to create something that was measurably shifting the conversation for social justice in our communities. At the dinner table. None of us could have done this alone. But together we created something to empower ourselves to go to our families and have hard conversation. Similar projects are popping up everywhere now. People are crowd sourcing collective call in sheets, documenting and tracking protests they can join, or how you can call your representatives. One of my favorite is a bunch of librarians starting a library of resistance. It’s on Goodreads and WorldCat now, because librarians are beautiful, beautiful people.
Look at your own work. Look at your projects. Look at your clients. Are you building products and telling people how to use them? Or are you building products that empower people to self actualize? Are you client websites for them to talk to people? Or with people? How are you taking feedback from your customers and constituents? How do you turn that feedback into meaningful change?
The Brookings Institute has six conditions for making deliberative democracy work. I compressed them into four. The first is about the neighborhood park in Standing Rock examples. How do you make sure the people who have a stake in a decision give their input? Not only have the chance to give their input, but are actively engaged throughout the entire process. Second, this is about the health insurance task force. Good decisions come from good information. How do we gather the necessary data and educate stakeholders to analyze and understand the information so they can better contribute? Third, when Taiwan was starting their experiment in deliberative democracy, a lot of people were deeply skeptical. There were no direct avenues for their input and a community forum would be sharing actual policy. But now the government believes that every major piece of policy that goes through the legislature must go through public comment. Fourth, one of the first things Obama’s white house implemented when he entered office was “We the People,” which allowed anyone to create a petition and if it gathered enough signatures, would receive an official response from the White House. This was a huge move in giving people a direct voice in government. But because it didn’t require any action, it was less effective in creating real change. But because what happens in vTaiwan creates binding results to tell legislatures how to write policy, people see their input have direct impact on the laws that govern them. This creates trust, which encourages people to participate more, which means they have incentive to learn more, which means they can contribute more.
In his farewell, Barack Obama said that we have to sit down with our neighbors and family and convince them. We must rebuild a healthy civic culture. This is core to deliberative democracy. It is the core to our jobs as creators of community experiences. We are the ones making the tools and spaces in which people talk and interact. That’s why the experience architecture matters just as much, if not more, than the code we use to build them.
Last year, Science Magazine published a study showing that volunteer canvases going door to door to talk about the rights of transgender and non binary folk can successfully change stranger’s minds after a 10 minute conversation. These conversations work. They work a whole lot better than ads and think pieces and Facebook posts and whatever else.
Make spaces for people to tell each other’s stories. This is what we need to be designing for. Because the storytellers will reshape society. We want to concentrate on the trash fire. The ones at the top are really the leaders. While strong, they can do nothing without followers. It’s always the ordinary people who carry out the inhumane acts. As I’m watching news about the raids and airport customs agents in the U.S., I’m thinking about both the Stanford prison and Milgram experiments. Ordinary people who, because authority tells them to, carry out horrifying acts because that’s their job. But I also think about the World War I Christmas truce, where despite fighting a war against each other, once opposing troops broke bread together and sang together and played together, they refused to fight. I think about the difference. The difference is, they knew each other’s stories.
As I think about the global protests of the last month, with congresspeople turning off their phones or sneaking away from town hall meetings, I remember my time on the hill. The CRM that most of them used was built around a few specific things: recording your name and address, topic of the comment, and the rest was a process for responding by form letter. I got to wondering, what if our representatives weren’t just voted in to make legislation? What if their CRM wasn’t just about responding with form letters? What if they had tools to help take public input as core to how they shape legislation? What if each of them was more of a moderator to help us find consensus with each other, through a system like vTaiwan? What if we created new spaces for collaboration, where people aren’t just yelling at each other, but understanding one another?
When democracy starts fraying, you don’t compromise with the fascists in a gamble to save what’s left. That is a false hope that ends in total ruin. When democracy starts to fray, you double down on democracy. It is increasingly apparent that we can’t pin our hopes on the established political or intellectual leaders to make it happen themselves. Even though out political theorists have been talking about participatory government for decades, we join projects like the Open Government Partnership to make the rest of the world’s governments more deliberative. Because they see no way around the institutional inertia here in the west. It is up to us. It is our job to demand our governments become more deliberative. This is how we raise the voice of the water protectors above the oil baron. This is how we raise we voice of the immigrant against the Nazi. This is how we raise your voice and the black kid and the trans girl in North Carolina and the single mother and the steel worker. This is how we bring up the everyday voices that we all need to hear most, above the well-dressed fascist or the dapper neo-Nazi. It’s through that work that we rebuild healthy democracy and stave off the con artists and charlatans. Through that work, we create a space that raises the voices more vulnerable to climate change.
Completely changing the form and function of western democracy, that’s hard work. Like I said last year, this is a radical reimagining of society. But the alternative of continuing down the path we’re on right now, hoping democracy somehow muddles through, that’s not sustainable. When we sit down to hear each other’s stories, we understand each other more and we love one another more. We take each other’s stories and make them a part of our own. That’s how we make ourselves a people.
So, go. Demand better democracy. Find the storytellers. Run for office. Tell your story. Make spaces for others to tell theirs, so we can build a new civic of love and joy. My friends, don’t stop telling stories.
B Cordelia Yu is an editorial and content strategist working on projects to expand democracy and access to communities of knowledge. Particularly around policy, environmental activism, journalism, and scholarship. They are also a core coordinator for the crowdsourced project Letters for Black Lives.