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Self-interest, democracy, justice, and injustice

As I monitor the US National Design Policy Initiative reactions and the ongoing wrangling in Congress, I have been thinking a lot about self-interest. While not quite an Ayn Rand Objectivist, I believe that self-interest is actually a healthy thing. You should know what it is that you want and why, what are the things that would further enhance your life, your ambitions, your survival. Self-interest can provide the boundaries of self-love that keep you from being exploited or abused by other people. It is a guard against totalitarianism.

People ask me how I deal with the self-interest of the groups involved in the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative and I respond that my job is not to dissuade them from their self-interests, but to guide them into seeing how their self-interests are met within this wider community and framework. Self-interest is healthy as long as you allow the self-interests of others to flourish as well. War, fundamentalism, genocide are all the result of a clash of self-interests where one group says, "I will annihilate your self-interests to protect my own." This is where self-interest leads to injustice.

This is why I am so disappointed in people who say, "I cannot support the initiative because there's this thing about patents and intellectual property and I don't do that as a graphic designer, although the others are really relevant to me."

Or those who say, "This thing is not valuable because it doesn't 100% reflect my interests, but only 65%."

Now if the 35% percent actually harmed that person I would say okay. But in most cases, the 35% has no direct effect on them and may benefit some other group. Injustice happens when a person refuses to tolerate the interests of others. The great American clash of values was that one group of people disrespected the right to life and liberty to Native Americans and blacks, because they wanted  land to raise tobacco and cotton.

A just society is one in which self-interests can exist harmoniously because one group recognizes that by allowing the self-interest of others to flourish, then theirs has an opportunity to flourish as well. This is not naivete or romanticism, but the cold reality of global interdependency on the same planet.

Canadian politician, Lester Peterson writes, "We must keep on trying to solve problems, one by one, stage by stage, if not on the basis of confidence and cooperation, at least on that of mutual toleration and self-interest."

American democratic public policy, because of its scale of impact, has to operate on the basis of mutual toleration and self-interest. This has made me better appreciate the wranglings of Congress over the appropriations bill, now that the Republicans are actually collaborating.

Yet, it saddens me that people do not seem to understand the importance of mutual toleration and self-interest or live by it.


Socially responsible project failure and time

A Faceboook friend of mine, Dori Gliasson, sent me (and others) an email asking, "Why is it that socially responsible projects fail?" He blogged about it on his blog Nordic Dogs.

My response follows:

It has to do with the fact that designing ends at the prototype (whether it is an object, or a concept, or a "transformation") as such it often fails to fully engage with the complex processes and issues of implementation.

Socially responsible project "failures" that I have experienced have often had one of two sources: the failure to be implemented or the failure to scale the implementation in order to have measurable impact.

My health financial information project for Chicago Cook County Bureau of Health Services failed because the employees directly blocked its implementation through stonewalling. Why did they act that way? The project would have made more transparent their processes, which they wanted to keep private, so they sat on the warehouse of designed artifact systems and processes until I ran out of energy trying to both adapt the design to the bureaucratic culture, yet bring about change in the culture. As an anthropologist, the most challenging thing to do is to change institutional cultures.

Thinking of the Design for Democracy example, it is mired by the fact that it cannot scale to have national impact, although it has been approved by the Fed gov as the national standard for ballot design and polling place information and the templates to implement the system is widely available. AIGA, the sponsoring organization, does not have the resources (staff and money) to convince all 3,421 counties to adopt the standard. The Fed government cannot mandate the changes due to the Constitution. So even though it has been successfully implemented, it will lag in its ability to scale.

But failure is always a question of for whom and under what time frame. Is DforD a failure because it will take 10 years to have full acceptance instead of 2-3 years? If Cook County rolls out the design system because a new Lt. Government applies pressure, will it still be a failure?

Perhaps socially responsible projects "fail" because the temporal scale of change is longer than the temporal engagement of designers.