Steal Design from the Capitalists


People engaged in non-capitalist organization rarely keep tabs on the latest Silicon Valley business practices, except to point out when they are exploitative. There is a cultural disconnect, and a generalized suspicion that everything salaried professionals in big corporations do is in some way reproductive of oppression. This isn't totally off base, but in this way we do miss out on some tools that can be appropriated for the purposes of solidarity, tools that can be incredibly effective towards that end. As Evan “Rabble” Henshaw-Plath says, we should steal from the capitalists.

For me, user-centered design, including user interviewing, is chief among these. It can be seen as a kind of participatory planning. It should be obvious, but the crux is this: if you’re making something, you should put a lot of time and energy into talking with the people you are trying to make it for. At every stage of the process. Design should involve lots of one-on-one conversations. Of course, if your planning involves a community, you should also have conversations with the appropriate groups of members of that community. But that’s a different topic.

Solidarity is struggle alongside those struggling against oppression. Of course, no such group is homogeneous. Solidarity therefore requires of us a kind of synthesis between our own analysis and the perceptions, analyses, and directives of liaisons—strangers, friends, and comrades. This kind of synthesis is what, in a completely different matrix of ethics and interests, user-centered design was developed to accomplish.

Two years ago I was in a living room with a group of refugee solidarity activists in Turkey, beginning to lay out the plans for a web tool that would help refugees find friendly and reliable services. These were people who interact with refugees on a day-to-day basis, whether in their day jobs or among their friends. It wasn’t until I asked that I realized that no one had actually discussed this with any refugee at any point in time. I asked that each person discuss it with at least one refugee they knew. By the time we finally abandoned the project, the ratio of the time we had spent formulating the mission statement to the time we had spent talking to refugees was probably about 20:1. This was a group of caring, intelligent, and motivated activists, all highly conversant in social theory, all dedicated to solidarity, not having the conversations necessary to actually be practicing solidarity well.

Running Lean and Sprint are two books written entirely in the language of technocapitalists. The former especially is awash in the "big ideas" and "change the world" discourse in which bourgeois and neocolonial interests are now couched (hat tip to Anand Giridharadas for the incredible Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World). But both are essentially providing tools about how to have conversations with people about projects that affect them. It could be a project about public housing. It could be a community health clinic, or a cooperative grocery store, or a mobile library for refugees in Greece.

This isn't to say we should try and run our organizations like start-ups. Much of the antidemocratic and elitist ideology of the start-up world manifests in their structures and methods. These need to be analyzed and critiqued aggressively. But after, we should see what remains for spoils.

Silicon Valley is developing tools and methodologies at a breathtaking pace. It coordinates vast amounts of creativity and labor toward their development, in the breakneck pursuit of capital. If we are concerned with being effective, including being effective at dismantling capitalism, we should pay attention.

(Shoutout to all the Marxist website owners who refuse to use CSS though. Punk never dies.)