Closing Keynote

“Design on the Barricades” by Chris Csikszentmihályi

Chair: Liesbeth Huybrechts, Hasselt University, Belgium

Technology is the continuation of politics by other means. An artful distillation of labor, nature, and capital, each product is a partisan golem, constructed by a specific group of humans — generally the more empowered ones — to accomplish particular ends. Uber, for example, is ostensibly an ICT-driven transport service that seeks to return value to its shareholders. Weakening labor and creating worse jobs is not its core mission. But the company burns the pervasive fuel of Silicon Valley strategies — liquify labor, disrupt markets, and enforce a monopoly — so while Uber drives to the bank it spews an exhaust of disruption and alienation. The social origin and implications of such technologies are well-camouflaged with terms such as efficiency, usability, and needs; our products thus subtly elide democracy, legislating society far more effectively than they are legislated by it. While new methods or economic configurations can occasionally create technology that solidifies and fosters progressive political relationships, as participatory design has done, it is difficult to resist dilution. We will look at some experiments in creating alternate political configurations for software platforms, by the speaker and others, and what the relationships of software tools to activism, organizing, and the public good might to users when they are acknowledged as citizens. These include examples like, a blogging system for the incarcerated, or the author’s own RootIO project for ICT-enabled community radio project, currently scaling to 24 stations in Uganda. Further, we will also look at ways to think about where and how political values might be instilled in the lifecycle of a product.


Chris Csikszentmihályi is European Research Area Chair at Madeira Interactive Technology Institute, and is director of the the Rootio Project, a sociotechnical stack for community radio. Csikszentmihalyi is helping broaden the mission of M-ITI — already a strong technical research center — to include more “H” in its “HCI” by building a research unit including faculty from the humanities, social sciences, art, and design. His current work focuses on software platforms for (geographic) community deliberation and engagement, especially for communities that aren’t typically designed for. Csikszentmihalyi has been a professor at colleges, universities, and institutes, including at the MIT Media Lab, and was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Art and Design Research at Parsons the New School for Design. He cofounded and directed the MIT Center for Future Civic Media (C4), which used participatory design and other techniques to develop technologies that strengthen communities, and founded the MIT Media Lab’s Computing Culture group to create unique media technologies for progressive cultural and political applications.