Chapter 3 Review: “Design Narratives: From TXTMob to Twitter”

Two rare and valuable traits in any scholarly text are immediate utility and lasting impact, and Sasha Costanza-Chock’s third chapter on the topic of Design Narratives exemplifies both. In this section of their wider work, Costanza-Chock outlines how reframing popular conceptions around who exactly designed new technology can be a tool of design justice. Beginning with a historiography of Twitter that centers a collective of hacker-activists as opposed to any one individual, the author breaks this division of the larger framework of design justice into four parts: “who receives attention and credit for design work, how we frame design problems and challenges, how we scope design solutions, and what stories we tell about how design processes operate.” These intertwined aspects of a guiding philosophy build upon a diverse lineage of technology scholars to deconstruct such neoliberal fables as the solitary man retreating to his garage or university lab and emerging with groundbreaking technology. Praising the exceptional entrepreneur is abandoned in the design justice framework, and replaced by another critical question: “Who contributed?” Asking this question and recognizing the societal influences that impact whose work is recognized for any given design project is a key component of Costanza-Chock’s work.

In a later section of the same chapter, Costanza-Chock takes on the medium of a design challenge as a space where design justice can be implemented. One example that Costanza-Chock highlights is the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge funded by the Gates Foundation, which challenges researchers to craft a toilet that can be used without connection to electricity, water, or sewage. The somewhat predictable result of a design process that focuses on material innovation rather than the cultural contexts these toilets will be used in is devices that superheat waste, or others that produce chlorine gas; technically, these innovations fix the problem as it has been understood. However, a design justice framework here might have encouraged designers to talk more with the folks these toilets are ostensibly being designed for. In fact, the author points out that there have already been a few designs for safe toilets that do not require involving more chemicals, such as composting systems. “My point here is not to argue that new, innovative toilet technology is not desirable, that it is not possible, or even that the Gates Foundation grants to the toilet innovation teams were a waste,” writes Costanza-Chock. Rather, they problematize the story underlying this design challenge through the design justice framework, which might have asked how the problem these toilets were supposed to solve was framed and scoped as well as whose designs engineers should be building off of. 

The specific example of the design challenge highlights where design justice can move from the ideological work of recognizing contributions equitably and toward the practical impact of more just design solutions. Costanza-Chock’s work is a valuable contribution to those interested in the critical study of technology from a humanistic perspective, but the book’s accessibility online and approachable prose make it a tool for engineers and designers to begin unthinking the mythos of individualistic Western design.

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