Subjectivity in design

by Sebastian Benthall

One of the reason why French intellectuals have developed their own strange way of talking is because they have implicitly embraced a post-Heideggerian phenomenological stance which deals seriously with the categories of experience of the individual subject. Americans don’t take this sort of thing so seriously because our institutions have been more post-positivist and now, increasingly, computationalist. If post-positivism makes the subject of science the powerful bureaucratic institution able leverage statistically sound and methodologically responsible survey methodology, computationalism makes the subject of science the data analyst operating a cloud computing platform with data sourced from wherever. These movements are, probably, increasingly alienating to “regular people”, including humanists, who are attracted to phenomenology precisely because they have all the tools for it already.

To the extent that humanists are best informed about what it really means to live in the world, their position must be respected. It is really out of deference to the humble (or, sometimes, splendidly arrogant) representatives of the human subject as such that I have written about existentialism in design, which is really an attempt to ground technical design in what is philosophically “known” about the human condition.

This approach differs from “human centered design” importantly because human centered design wisely considers design to be an empirically rigorous task that demands sensitivity to the particular needs of situated users. This is wise and perfectly fine except for one problem: it doesn’t scale. And as we all know, the great and animal impulse of technology progress, especially today, is to develop the one technology that revolutionizes everything for everyone, becoming new essential infrastructure that reveals a new era of mankind. Human centered designers have everything right about design except for the maniacal ambition of it, without which it will never achieve technology’s paramount calling. So we will put it to one side and take a different approach.

The problem is that computationalist infrastructure projects, and by this I’m referring to the Googles, the Facebooks, the Amazons, Tencents, the Ali Babas, etc., are essentially about designing efficient machines and so they ultimately become about objective resource allocation in one sense or another. The needs of the individual subject are not as relevant to the designers h of these machines as are the behavioral responses of their users to their use interfaces. What will result in more clicks, more “conversions”? Asking users what they really want on the scale that it would affect actual design is secondary and frivolous when A/B s testing can optimize practical outcomes as efficiently as they do.

I do not mean to cast aspersions at these Big Tech companies by describing their operations so baldly. I do not share the critical perspective of many of my colleagues who write as if they have discovered, for the first time, that corporate marketing is hypocritical and that businesses are mercenary. This is just the way things are; what’s more, the engineering accomplishments involved are absolutely impressive and worth celebrating, as is the business management.

What I would like to do is propose that a technology of similar scale can be developed according to general principles that nevertheless make more adept use of what is known about the human condition. Rather than be devoted to cheap proxies of human satisfaction that address his or her objective condition, I’m proposing a service that delivers something tailored to the subjectivity of the user.