Hegemony is designed into objects
- The object is discursive.
- Designers must engage semiosis.
- Ideologies hide in tech writing.
- *The UX* is *the sales pitch*.
- Hypertext is no escape.
Consider how a device or program carries or even enforces a hegemony or ideology. The object is discursive. It makes an argument, it makes a claim, it is grounded in particular warrants. The ideology is encoded in the object, which makes the values designed into the object invisible but decipherable. Feenberg calls this the technical code – cultural hegemony design into the object.
We can see how these values get encoded if we take a design perspective. Your design brief is to Devise a new application to, say, navigate through an airport. The brief itself encodes the values implied in the design: a traveller, in a new space, who needs or wants independent assistance in moving through it. Why does one need this? To move safely? Quickly? Unthinkingly? through. The user has a smartphone, carries it, uses it. Is this an appeal to convenience? That’s telling. An appeal to efficiency? Telling again.
Now consider an alternative brief: an app to navigate through Tehran. Or one to help explore the Notting Hill-Maida Vale-Paddington districts of London. Or rather than an app, consider that the design brief calls for a 16 page booklet – with local advertising designed into “appropriate” pages. The appeals to convenience and efficiency are now more openly at the call of commerce.
With each shift, the values change, the ideology shifts. The object makes a different claim, grounded in different warrants.
One manner with which to approach such questions is through Andrew Feenberg’s concept of “technical code” that he describes as the “background of unexamined cultural assumptions literally designed into the technology itself.” This background of assumptions is a crucial mix of values, ideas, concepts and cultural norms that are essentially part of the technology itself both in terms of material form and application. A given piece of technology, such as a Palm Pilot, for instance, is thus more than a handy new tool but rather a discursive and ideological object that speaks to the cultural, economic and political voices that went into its creation. What does the Palm Pilot “say”? For one it is a testimony to the changing nature and experience of space and time in the twenty-first century where the boundaries between work and leisure time have blurred into one constantly connected present. Second, it speaks also of the dominant values of our postmodern, post-industrial information society where mobility, access, media convergence, information and time management are paramount for a socially and economically successful life. Accordingly, the Palm Pilot and a host of other technologies effectively confirm the values and mind-sets of the dominant social order, which in the case of most Western societies can be represented by global capitalism. For Feenberg, this means that the technical code can be linked to what is known as the hegemonic forces within a society, which is another way of describing these dominant values that determine, often “invisibly,” how we live out our day-to-day lives.
The UX is never neutral. It rarely (never?) places the agency of the user’s needs and desires at the center of attention. The UX defines the user’s needs in its own terms: the command to consume.
Capitalist social and technical requirements are thus condensed in a “technological rationality” or a “regime of truth” which brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalist hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code.
technical code and hegemony
To some, Feenberg may seem to be overstating his case, especially through the use of such loaded terms as “conformity” and “domination.” Most of us, I think, would balk at the notion that we are controlled by our technologies or that we are all just pawns in a world ruled by evil capitalists. However, it is important to consider how Feenberg is using such terms and also how concepts such as “power” and “capitalism” are being framed within his argument. Similar to another philosopher, Michael Foucault, concepts such as power, capitalism, conformity and domination are not necessarily being employed as negative terms but rather as descriptive indicators of how the world works. Consider, for example, the concept of “power”as used to describe human relationships. To a large degree the manner in which we define and understand our relationships with one another is based on a balance of power: a mother has power over her child in a manner that she can control the child’s circumstances in order to make sure that the child avoids injury, learns important skills and so forth. One could describe teacher-student or doctor-patient relationships on a similar basis. Even a simple friendship is structured by power relationships in which one friend may take on certain “roles” that grant him a measure of “authority” over activities and exchanges. In terms of technology, similar mechanisms are at work insomuch that “social purposes are ’embodied’ in the technology” and are, thus, more than just the practical results of a neutral tool:
The embodiment of specific purposes is achieved through the “fit” of the technology and its social environment. The technical ideas combined in the technology are neutral, but the study of any specific technology can trace in it the impress of a mesh of social determinations which preconstruct a whole domain of social activity aimed at definite social goals.
Hypertext doesn’t (can’t) escape encoding. That’s clear to see (from today’s distance) in The Englebart Demo of NLS (youtube). A commercial hegemony is encoded into the NLS from the beginning.
What then are the technical codes of hypertext and more specifically what does the history of hypertext tell us about the meaning and potential direction of such codes? Think back to the topics covered in this chapter’s brief historical overview:
- The oral/literate distinction and the manner in which hypertext is often linked to certain characteristics of the oral tradition as well as compared to the revolutionary impact of the first printing press.
- The tendency to situate the creative use of hypertext within the experimental traditions of modem and postmodem literature.
- Vannevar Bush and the memex.
- The visions of pioneers such as Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Andries van Dam.
- Equally pioneering applications such as Intermedia, Storyspace, HyperCard and Mosaic.
- The use of hypertext by publishers, educators and creative writers and how such individuals describe and characterize such use.
In the first case hypertext as a technology is often linked to a particular historical trajectory that for the most part is progressive in nature. In other words, hypertext represents an important evolutionary development that is not only more appropriate for current conditions but also represents a marked improvement over previous technologies and practices….
Hypertext cannot be the revolutionary mode we want to cast it as. The augmentation of human intellect is still focused on a hegemony of commerce that defeats itself. It’s a bootstrap.
Kitzmann, Hypertext Handbook, p 26-28. Also in Slate.