People over profit

Human Computer Interaction, Digital Civics and the relationship between academia and the recognition of what is a science and what is not raises a number of significant questions that have no simple answers. However, for me the issues that matter more relate to why Digital Civics researchers do what they do.

For industry, the interests of shareholders are paramount, this means the pursuit of profit is the central driver of business decisions. In terms of research and development this might not be immediate profit, but profit down the line. Ultimately there needs to be a profit to be made for industry to invest. For me the pursuit of profit is the fly in the ointment that is the greater good.

Senger and Gaver for me epitomise how researchers and academics can be free from the constraints of producing profit for shareholders. The idea of staying open to interpretation[1] is one that may not have many practical uses in products for end users but allows one to explore possibilities in a way that industry would not. In my opinion the goal of research is to explore the options that would otherwise not be pursued in a system driven by profit.

In my own experiences I have seen how this market thinking manifests. In the early part of this year I attended a hackathon based around ‘Worker Tech’, with aims at creating technological solutions that help create a fairer world of work.

Of all the projects undertaken during the hackathon, one stands strong in my memory- a group created a tool that allowed workers to upload their payslips, these payslips were analysed and the user was informed of their entitlements to social security and support.  The group created the product and decided – with direction from the hackathon organisers -that they would white label the system and sell it to a large trade union.

There are those who would call this ensuring the ‘sustainability’ of the project, however to me this undermines the goal of clawing power back from the powerful-  when there is a requirement to produce profit the altruistic goals that were originally envisioned are corrupted.

Rather than empower the workers, the choice to sell it empowered the union bureaucracy – not the people. It simply added another service that was under the control of union. Bureaucrats’ would have the ability to control access, rather than the entire community having access to what should be a shared resource.

The proliferation of the market thinking in to the world of academia is resulting in the neoliberalization of higher education in the UK. Universities risk becoming places where students become customers buying a product; where the role of research is only to contribute to boosting metrics that specify the position of institutions within this ‘market’.

As market thinking permeates further Digital Civics research, to me involves being the gunsmiths in a war against the atomised individualism neoliberalism aims to perpetuate. Digital Civics research involves creating tools that promote community, togetherness and shared purpose. The outputs of digital civics research are arming the resistance in the conflict between the forces of competition and solidarity.

[1]         P. Sengers and B. Gaver, ‘Staying open to interpretation: engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation’, in Proceedings of the 6th ACM conference on Designing Interactive systems  – DIS ’06, University Park, PA, USA, 2006, p. 99.


“Resistance is Fertile – Lisbon Graffiti” by Mark Hillary is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Author: Mohaan Biswas

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