Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Bridges between Design & Philosophy


Short Position Paper for the International Exploratory Workshop on “Design Philosophy Dialogue”

"I Ain't Lying" by Dead Air on flickr
I Ain’t Lying by Dead Air on flickr

Gilbert Cockton, Annamaria Carusi, and John Mullarkey  organised a one day workshop on the Design Philosophy Dialogue at Northumbria University’s School of Design, and each participant was invited to write a brief position paper. This is mine. It is more a reflection of my current concerns, questions, and confusions about the intersection of design and philosophy than a position.

Before starting the word ‘design’ needs clarifying. I had trouble categorising the type of design I wanted to talk about until Nathan Crilly suggested the term ‘art school design’, i.e. the various design disciplines taught as design in art schools (graphic design, product design, interaction design, etc).

The Lure of Other’s Disciplines

"The bridge" by quasarsglow on flickr
The bridge by quasarsglow on flickr

Bridges create possibilities. The rickety old bridge across a forest river pictured represents a temptation, a temptation to cross to an unknown world. But it also suggests danger in the crossing.

My own discipline, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), started life as an amalgam of two disciplines, computer science and psychology, and ever since has periodically renewed itself by alighting on new fields. Philosophy has been repeatedly visited for inspiration and for guidance, from before Winnograd & Flores’s 1986 book “Understanding Computers and Cognition” (which, amongst many other things, applies Heidegger, Gadamer, and Dreyfus’ ideas to the design of computer based office management systems) through to recent work including, for example, my colleague Alex Taylor’s project on everyday understandings of (machine) intelligence.

Design and philosophy are far older disciplines than HCI; what might be the appeal in each for each? For designers, philosophical theories and ideas may serve as inspirations, either in general methodological terms, or specifically project brief by project brief. And philosophy also serves to provide designers with the tools they need to discuss their foundational work. Both of these are problematic, as I’ll argue, which will bring us to what design may offer philosophers.

Building Bridges

"First Tanks Across Bridge" from historian505th on flickr
First Tanks Across Bridge from historian505th on flickr

When people from different disciplines collaborate, each has a different specialist language. In their paper “Languages of InnovationAlan Blackwell and David Good talk about this coming together of differing languages and show how successful long term collaborations move through misunderstanding, through pidgin use of each other’s language, to a full Creole – a new language forged by the two disciplines involved.

Design is not a textual discipline. The language of design is the designed objects and their precedents, their form and their embodiment in the world, and though we use the term “the language of design” I am not sure it is a language.

Philosophy is textual, fundamentally so. When design turns to philosophy for inspiration, the depth and texture of the philosophical arguments plundered appear lacking from the design renderings. There’s little fidelity in the transfer. When philosophy is used to explain the underpinnings of design other problems ensue.

What Counts as Knowledge? What Counts as Inspiration?

"Gateshead Millenium Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne" by Xavier de Jauréguiberry on flickr
Gateshead Millenium Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Xavier de Jauréguiberry on flickr

Last year a scarecrow was awarded a Nobel Prize. Why? Because he was out standing in his field.

Joking aside, each discipline has its own ways of establishing excellence, of deciding which work is considered seminal, which work is worthy of study, etc. For design these things are measured from a craft or a commercial perspective, or other perspectives that include the context of use, the engagement with the consumer of the design. But academic research in design has to stop and think deep thought to justify the term “research”, and thus turns to philosophy. And it is here where I fret that the obtuse nature of some continental schools veils a simpler and more direct practise based research.

Negative Capability

"Golden Gate Bridge x9" by Area Bridges on flickr
Golden Gate Bridge x9 by Area Bridges on flickr

This is the second workshop on philosophy I’ve attended recently. The first was at the OII about Internet Ethics. In it, one philosopher, troubled by my stance on knowledge, said “we don’t want to talk shit”. I feel I almost do.

Designers, especially in the early phases of a design, seem perfectly happy to maintain contradictory standpoints, to adopt profligate beliefs in order to produce a wealth of overlapping and contradictory design ideas, to fill out the design space with as many creative possibilities as they can. Keats’ “negative capability” stands against “irritable reaching after fact & reason”. It is overly simplistic to characterise design and philosophy as either side of Keats’ analysis, but can a philosopher’s notion of rigour work alongside a designer’s view of possibility?

Perhaps we could approach this from the other perspective. If philosophy adopted the experimental approach based in objects in the world, what would the implications be? Am I wrong in perceiving philosophy as descriptive?


"The 'old' bridge" by The_lucas on flickr
The "old" bridge by The_lucas on flickr

I work in a fundamentally multi-disciplinary team, but unlike many multi-disciplinary teams embedded in technology companies ours is run by social scientists. As one of the few technologists in the group my role is shifted from being the intellectual focus to being a service skill: the intellectual critical mass of our work is not technological. This exposure to new ways of thinking is exciting, and so I understand the lure of new disciplinary perspectives. What troubles me, and what I hope I’ve laid out in this position paper, is that what I enjoy about design, and what I enjoy about philosophy, may be mutually exclusive.

Internet Ethics OII Seminar: Think Piece


I’m attending a seminar on Internet Ethics on Friday 30/04/10. Before the seminar all the attendees are sharing position papers. This is mine.

American Cemetery TtV Triptych by dumbledad on flickr
American Cemetery TtV Triptych” by dumbledad on flickr

“History is written by the victors” (attributed to Winston Churchill)


The history of the Spanish Civil War shows us that Churchill’s quote above was wrong, that in fact history is written by the best writers. The internet changes the way we are brought together to reflect on who we are and what we are doing; and thus our perception of ethics and our ethical actions themselves. I would like to take one specific ethical concern, and use that to explore my research position on ethics and the internet.

I am a computer scientist (or perhaps more honestly a software engineer) and much of my research life has been focussed on social software, that is on technologies that help bring people together. I have worked on online virtual worlds, co-located groupware, mobile media sharing, and home communication applications, amongst other topics. The social software movement has been hugely successful, setting the agenda for Web 2.0 and the wealth of social networking and social, community, or communications services online.

Case Study: work with the Internet Watch Foundation

Alongside the benefits brought by these applications – allowing friendships to be maintained made, or cemented online, social software also allows baddies to contact goodies, or baddies to form self-normalising cliques where their behaviour may feel OK. I have used the tongue-in-cheek term baddies but to be more concrete, example concerns have been raised about such echo chambers where anorexics gather to swap tips, or where paedophiles gather to swap images.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was formed to tackle this latter issue, more specifically they have a remit to provide the UK internet Hotline for the public to report criminal online content in a secure and confidential way.

Ring by Pete Ashton on flickr
Ring” by Pete Ashton on flickr

The goal of the IWF is summed up neatly in their vision: to combat child sexual abuse images online. At the heart of their process is the reporting system and the hotline staff. Anyone who stumbles upon online content they are worried may be illegal can report it to the IWF through their website, and then the IWF hotline team check the severity of the content, and if it is illegal report it to the relevant law enforcement agency, here or abroad. For UK hosted content they also alert the ISP, who remove the content. More recently the IWF’s list of illegal content has been used by UK ISPs to filter their customers’ page requests.

Once we have made applications that bring people together, for good, we also have a moral obligation to explore techniques to curb those same applications use for evil. For me that is exactly what the IWF work represents: an honest attempt to make it harder for paedophiles to share content online.

My involvement in the work of the IWF has been only small, but represents how I think we should engage these ethical debates: by building things. I have helped the IWF with one of the tools their hotline team use, a bulk image viewer for quickly scanning, selecting, and reporting images form highlighted nntp groups. I have also given technical advice on the implementation and audit of their blocking service.

This is just one ethical concern, and does not really address Yorick Wilk’s call in the seminar proposal “to consider the moral dynamics and implications of the Internet upon the whole human being”. But I believe that while commenting, philosophising, and influencing government and society are useful aspects of the process Yorick appeals for, it is only really by getting our hands dirty, by joining in and by building that we gain fully rounded insights.


Wittgenstein’s Grave by billt on flickr
Wittgenstein’s Grave” by billt on flickr

As Yorick’s proposal for this workshop suggests, we are at an exciting moment in the study of ethics and the internet, and I wanted to reflect briefly on the role different disciplines play in that study.

One problem I perceive is that social scientists and philosophers are rightly weary of technological determinism. They should also be weary of social determinism. I want to urge people in those disciplines not to shy away from working directly with technologists to experiment and to effect change. Such collaborations provide needed apparatus to support pragmatic philosophical investigation.

There are also issues around the language and style of different disciplines that I hope we get a chance to explore in the seminar. For example I worry that in an effort to provide concrete evidence the balance between qualitative and quantitative methods in the social sciences can favour the quantitative too much.


In conclusion, I would like to see the study of ethics and the internet not as descriptive (studying the interplay between people’s ethical behaviour, their ethical stance, and their internet use) but also experimental. Experimental in the sense that researchers test their ideas by building new stuff (or by changing the way old stuff works).

The internet, as a medium, is malleable.

Phidgets board and breadboard by tristanf on flickr
Phidgets board and breadboard” by tristanf on flickr

References and Links

Yorrick’s description of this Internet Ethics Seminar is at and another attendee, Aleks Krotoski, has posted her position paper on her blog.

The Internet Watch Foundation’s website and Wikipedia article are at



I mentioned my work about online virtual worlds, co-located groupware, mobile media sharing, and home communication applications. Example papers on these are:

· “Experiments in inhabited TV”, Benford, Greenhalgh, Brown, Walker, Regan, Morphett, Wyver, & Rea. CHI 98

· “Media center buddies: instant messaging around a media center”, Regan & Todd NordiCHI04

· “Trafficking: design for the viral exchange of TV content on mobile phones”, Harper, Regan, Izadi, Al Mosawi, Rouncefield, & Rubens. MobileHCI07

· “HomeNote: supporting situated messaging in the home”, Sellen, Harper, Eardley, Izadi, Regan, Taylor, & Wood CSCW06

The pictures used to illustrate this piece are all from flickr, where they have a creative commons licence:

· “American Cemetery TtV Triptych” by dumbledad

· “Ring” by Pete Ashton

· “Wittgenstein’s Grave” by billt

· “Phidgets board and breadboard” by tristanf