Design & Capital

For a general discussion of topics relating broadly to power and political economy (e.g., capital-as-power, Marxism, neo-classical economics, institutionalism).

Moderator: sanha926

Design & Capital

Postby rsalisbury » Wed Mar 27, 2019 6:45 am

A friend sent me a draft of an article he is working on about design (as in making a product that's useful and attractive to users) and capital as power. He is interested in any feedback people familiar with CasP might have.

I will say that as a programmer for data-driven websites, I would agree with him that products are designed to be exclusionary and hierarchical. Much of what I do revolves around building elaborately restricted access to a database.
rsalisbury
 
Posts: 12
Joined: Fri Aug 28, 2015 4:40 pm

Re: Design & Capital

Postby bfix » Thu Mar 28, 2019 4:43 am

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for posting this here. I read the article last night. The author raises some interesting points. Here are my thoughts.

Comments on "Design & Capital"

The main thesis, as I read it, is that there is a tension (or at least, a perceived tension) between the goals of designers and the goals of capital.

The author observes that most designers are in the profession for the creative aspect. They want to create well-made, useful products. They seemingly don't care about making money. And yet "design-led" companies are enormously profitable. How can this be?

This is a very interesting tension that I would like to see more fully developed. Unless we raise the Marxist spectre of "false consciousness", we need to accept that designers legitimately want to make good products.

The author brings up Veblen, and I think it would be great to discuss this more. Veblen distinguished between "workmanship" and "salesmanship". According Veblen, workmanship is a natural drive to be creative and to apply one's skills to something that one values. It has nothing to do with making money. In my mind, designers are driven by workmanship.

But then how do they make money? The underside of all of this is property rights. Without property rights, it is impossible to earn money from good workmanship. Take the Linux operating system. It is far and away the best designed operating system. It continues to improve because a vast army of "design-led" developers are trying to make it better. And yet these developers are not raking in huge profits. Why? Because the Linux kernel is open source. Without the ability to restrict access, Linux developers cannot earn profits.

Now take Apple. Like Linux developers, Apple developers want to make a good product. But unlike with Linux, Apple is ruthless about protecting its property rights. That's how Apple makes money.

Then their is Apple's production model, which is to outsource all production to the lowest bidder. So Apple's developers can sit in California and do "design-led" work for ample pay. Meanwhile the boring job of actually making the computers is done by low-paid workers in other countries.

The author is, I'm sure, aware of all of this. I'm pointing it out because I think these issues are at the core of the tension that the author raises.

The other aspect of this is the tension between "usefulness" and "desirability". Do designers want to make things that are useful? Or do they make things that people desire? These are not the same thing.

For instance, an Apple computer is certainly well-made ... probably better than any other brand of computer. As such, it is "useful". But consider if there was a company that churned out computers that were identical to Apple's, but did not have the eponymous Apple symbol on them. The generic apple computer would be just as "useful", just as well made as the brand-name one. But would it be as desirable? Probably not.

Part of the appeal of Apple computers is that they are a status symbol. We want them because "cool people" use them. So part of the desire for Apple computers has nothing to do with the "usefulness" of the design. It is the social aspect of their use. Veblen called it conspicuous consumption.

Again, I'm sure the author is aware of this. I point it out because it is an interesting tension to explore.

I hope the author finds this constructive feedback useful.
User avatar
bfix
 
Posts: 14
Joined: Mon Dec 29, 2014 11:03 am

Re: Design & Capital

Postby rsalisbury » Thu Mar 28, 2019 5:52 am

Good points Blair, thanks.

I also has some thoughts about Apple, as well:

1. More than any other company they build a lot of hype about their products before they are even finished with them.
2. They've developed a cult-like loyalty around them, which probably peaked around 2012 but is still there.
3. They make their products look really attractive and sleek. In the 90s computers were beige boxes but Apple made their iMacs colorful and smooth and futuristic.

Basically at every stage where someone could turn around and not buy their products, Apple aggressively tries to pull people in.

On the other side, I have experience doing app development for their App Store. It is easily the most bureaucratic and authoritarian way to publish software.

For one, it's not even possible to build an iPhone app on a Windows or Linux computer. You have to use their toolset, or a third-party service that uses their toolset.

When building the app, you include an "info.plist" file, which contains information like the version numbers (there is an internal and public one), references to icon files, etc. If you build the app and submit it to iTunesConnect and put something wrong in the info.plist file (e.g. you forgot to increment the version number, which you have to do every time, and it does not do it automatically for you), you have to start over.

They also use something called a "provisioning profile" which is basically a cryptographic certificate that controls which iDevices are allowed to install the app. If I want to add a tester that's not in our provisioning profile, I have to generate a new one and build the app again. Testing has to be done through their testing service, which used to be optional and third-party but was acquired by Apple a few years ago and made mandatory.

Once you've submitted your app, it goes into their black box of approval, and in 3-14 business days they will tell you yes or no on your app getting updated. You have to do this every single time you update your app. If you notice a typo or missing graphic, you have to go through this entire process. I rewrote a bunch of the app so that I could update it remotely because of this.

Another team at my company does the eRecords system for the US Department of Justice and making updates to that system is much faster and more straightforward.
rsalisbury
 
Posts: 12
Joined: Fri Aug 28, 2015 4:40 pm

Re: Design & Capital

Postby bfix » Thu Mar 28, 2019 10:21 am

I'm not a developer, but I've played around with building R packages. I usually work in Linux, and the process is very simple. But with Apple you need to install the bloated Xcode environment to do even the most menial task. I found it very frustrating. But Ryan, your experience sounds much worse!
User avatar
bfix
 
Posts: 14
Joined: Mon Dec 29, 2014 11:03 am

Re: Design & Capital

Postby Jonathan Nitzan » Fri Mar 29, 2019 8:00 pm

Interesting, well-written paper. I enjoyed reading it and learned about a subject I wasn't familiar with.

One way to examine the design process from a CasP angle is to correlate (1) changes in design with (2) the limitation/sabotage imposed on/by the changed design.

If there is a positive correlation between the two, it could imply that design-related differential accumulation is driven by power rather than well-being.

To test this latter possibility, you would then have to examine whether design changes that are not protected by limitation/sabotage do not increase differential accumulation.
Jonathan Nitzan
 
Posts: 79
Joined: Sat Dec 06, 2008 2:39 pm

Re: Design & Capital

Postby uma » Mon Jun 17, 2019 11:09 am

bfix wrote:Take the Linux operating system. It is far and away the best designed operating system. It continues to improve because a vast army of "design-led" developers are trying to make it better.

Now take Apple. Like Linux developers, Apple developers want to make a good product. But unlike with Linux, Apple is ruthless about protecting its property rights. That's how Apple makes money.

[...]

For instance, an Apple computer is certainly well-made ... probably better than any other brand of computer. As such, it is "useful". But consider if there was a company that churned out computers that were identical to Apple's, but did not have the eponymous Apple symbol on them. The generic apple computer would be just as "useful", just as well made as the brand-name one. But would it be as desirable? Probably not.


I am not sure Linux is the best designed operating system. Both Linux and macOS are essentially Unix, an OS design from the early 1970s for the then new mainframe computers with many restrictions of its age. More interestingly, Linux was created and continues to be developed by hackers for hackers but not for the computer-illiterate masses, whereas Apple's products are the opposite in that Apple tries to shield the OS from the user, not so much by actual technical restrictions, but with its neat user interface which makes ordinary users not even want to look into the machine.

I think that there are two topics of interest here.

One is the observation that today the preferred way of control and management of people is by comfort/discomfort rather than by authoritarian forces (police, security, etc.). I realized that around 2005 in the new Hamburg airport: After the usual check-in and security there is the mall and all the catering with a view on the airfield, all in pleasant light, comfort, helpful service. Then you could go down some corridor: no borders, staff or signs saying you should not go here, but the atmosphere became darker, unpleasant - clearly no longer were you are supposed to be, and indeed you do not want to go any further, there is nothing interesting. In an interview about his 2012 film about a consulting agency the German filmmaker Harun Farocki observed that in todays workplace the enterprise tries to engage the employees, make them responsible and uses religious language ("vision", "eternity", "meaning"), whereas in the past day laborers would sell their "work force" but remain mentally absent and resistant and would only do what they were directly and sometimes violently ordered to do.

As to Linux there were grand debates about free software, copyright, the free internet, etc. at the end of the 1990s. The big enemy then was Mircosoft. That was before the reemergence of Apple. At times it looked as if Linux could win the OS war against Windows. It never happened, at least not in the end user market. There was certainly a lot sabotage from Microsoft, but that was helped by the inability of the hacker community to look beyond their own interest and take a societal view. In the end most of them weren't anticapitalists. Wau Holland, founder of the Chaos Computer Club (the most famous of its kind in Germany), always complained about this shortsightedness of the community and that it worked against their own interests since a mass produces Linux computer, integrated with hardware as Macs are, would be a much better environment even for hackers. The lesson is perhaps, that even the most creative and free people need outside direction if they should create something for the common good rather than just for themselves.

NB. The best designed OS is arguably Wirth's Oberon, a lesson in minimalism and efficiency. And the integratedness, openess and yet conceptual simplicity of a Smalltalk system, created at Xerox Park in the 1970s, is still ahead of today in some respects (for a modern version see Pharo).
uma
 
Posts: 22
Joined: Thu Dec 11, 2008 6:59 am


Return to Political Economy

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

cron