Monogamous Book Club – Design and Agonism

Monogamous Book Club – Design and Agonism

November 30, 2017 Off By JR

A path of least surveillance traced in Manhattan (courtesy of the Institute of Applied Autonomy). via

Defining Adversarial Design

I had recalled a bit about defining adversarial design, but I found myself equally challenged to think about it again as I read this chapter. The author goes through quite a bit of detail to separate out a few concepts which are used to define adversarial design, particularly political design and design for politics. The latter was described by way of example: The “Getout and Vote” campaign. This project took a look at a problem, created a solution, and executed it. Another example I just came across which I think would fit into this category is the project at Davidson College, Hacking Facebook’s Ad Network for Justice. Both of these examples seem to do the work of politics. Disalvo distinguishes doing the work of politics and the work of agonism (or the political).

Agonism in Theory & Design

Chasing down a way to define AD, Disalvo treads down the line that is often the first thing you hear designers say is the focus of the work they so, finding solutions. Quite contrary to this central goal/desire of design, Disalvo notes that the work of agonism, and therefore adversarial design, is not about the solution but to generate discussion and debate. Agonism was a completely new concept to me the first time I read this book, and is still pretty foreign. My shorthand notes way of thinking about it will come down to a few things that seemed key:

  • agonism prompts debate, and there will be no ultimate victor, it must be ongoing
  • agonism acts against “third-way” and “centrist” politics
  • agonism examines and challenges faces, beliefs, and practices of a society (I think this could be micro and/or macro)

To get a better idea of this I took Disalvo’s suggestion and checked out the video This is What Democracy Looks Like (1999).


But that doesn’t get us quite to adversary. Adversary could be used to define and describe the people/actors engaged in agonism, but as this is adversarial design the author focuses on its ability to characterize artifacts or systems.

In labeling an object as adversarial, I mean to call attention to the contestational relations and experiences aroused through the designed thing and the way it expresses dissensus. Labeling an object as adversarial also shifts the grounds for critique. It requires that the description and analysis of the object bring to the fore the way that its designed qualities enable or model the productive and ongoing questioning, challenging, and reframing that typifies agonism. (Disalvo, 2012, p. 7)

This focus on the object means that three qualifiers we might consider when thinking assessing an object as to whether it’s adversarial or not include:

  • is it a kind of cultural production?
  • is it grounded in agonism?
  • does it do the work of agonism through a product, service, or experience?

Herbert Simon’s work makes and appearance again which is about creating a solution (as the author describes it, a more ‘scientific’ approach) and juxtaposes that with Richard Buchanan’s liberal arts based design which sees design as rhetoric. Designing an object as solution juxtaposed with designing a product as an argument for how to live our lives.

Examples: Thank Goodness

I’m glad that the book is later divided into case studies and examples because I’m not sure I could go from the abstract descriptions and qualifiers above and jump straight to what this would look like. By way of example a few interesting cases are already highlighted which are worth checking out:

Agonistics: A Language Game (Warren Sack)

Warren Sack, «Agonistics: A Language Game», 2004 via


Million Dollar Blocks (Laura Kurgan)

Million Dollar Blocks. via

  • asks a different question that we usually would (i.e. instead of “where does crime occur” asks “where does the prison population come from?)
  • does not work to support of improve existing governance (i.e. not solution based but rhetorical)
  • illustrates the important differences between the geography of prison from geography of crime
  • reveals obscured configurations

iSee (Institute of Applied Autonomy)

Not quite adversarial – or at least not presented in the same way as some other adversarial design examples in this chapter – iSee seems to have one foot in Critical Design and Tactical Media. The former leverages societal values to push the lived experience rather than the medium itself (contrary to say traditional industrial design which pushes media and materials to new forms a limits), and the latter being “artifacts, systems, and events that critique contemporary society” (p. 18). This interactive map includes information on the location of CC cams all over NYC and allows users to select a start and end point, then it displays a path which crosses the least number of cameras. This may fit in with adversarial design in that the program:

  1. performs a function we are familiar with
  2. reveals a prominent form of surveillance which we might otherwise not see or be complicit with
  3. provides a means to oppose the status quo.

Surveillance and privacy have come up again and again in different forms over the last few years. Other interesting projects I’ve come across include:

  1. Do Not Track (2015) is a personalized documentary series about privacy and the web economy. I remember trying this out in 2015 and it presented you with a narrated journey and series of activities that revealed to you what information they could gather just by visiting the site (or other activities). It was the first time I’d encountered such a tool and it’s pretty rare I think for users to be presented with what information they’re broadcasting. From an Instructional Design perspective for example, how much information do institutions gather up from students that they can never see?
  2. Another series of media (podcasts) and activities is the 5 day Privacy Paradox plan by WNYC’s Note to Self. Newer than the previous example, but a similar idea of using different tools to peek behind the curtain so to speak to reveal the data that websites and advertisers are sucking up as you browse the web.
  3. Finally, a different kind of approach I heard about on Gimlet Media’s Reply All Podcast (#94 Obfuscation) are tools like TrackMeNot and Internet Noise. The idea basically being to send confusing information, or just TONNEs of information to the data collection tools used.

“Racing the Beam” or the Intersection of Design and Technology

The author makes some reference to Montfort & Bogost’s 2009 work “Racing the Beam” bringing to mind the impact technology itself has on design as well as expectations of those who interact with the design. The case study used by Bogost and Montfort is the Atari2600. Prior to more powerful processors videos games were stuck to screen by screen processing and each line projected by the CRT had to be processed in series. The expectation that changed with the technology in 1985 came with SuperMario’s smooth side scrolling play. But even then the NES had limitations designers had to overcome. A few popular examples of designing around the limitations of the NES technology include why MegaMan was blue (out of the 8-bit colour palette, blue had the most variation so the graphics team could create a unique character) and how the theme for Super Mario was created (layering notes and sounds to get as much out of the sound card as possible).