Performativity in Software Design

A socio-political approach to practices in software development

This Elise-Richter project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF develops a socio-political approach to software development. Aiming at the value-based development of information systems, it deals with processes and methods of software design that open spaces for socio-political reflection.

Established ways of doing

When making design decisions, software developers rely on technical methods and on everyday discourses. Shared social ideas and values are inscribed into information systems. Vice versa, the design and use of technology shape society. As a result, information technologies do not only express but also reproduce social, cultural and normative relations.

Take for example the internet and the technical infrastructure that organizes Web content: The information available on the Web is structured by search technologies. Linked data and semantic technologies relate various data to one another and, in this way, render some aspects visible and others invisible. This kind of linking and obscuring also defines knowledge areas in that it brings particular viewpoints to the fore while others disappear in the background.

In turn, the data models that such technologies are based on, relate the (societal, political, economic or scientific) implications of the mentioned knowledge areas to one another. In this way, they establish seemingly neutral realities.

Even though data models rely on methods and tools of software development, they are the result of normative design decisions and thus blend in with hegemonies in society. The crucial point here is: Implicit assumptions on generated knowledge areas or future use contexts gain momentum if they are not being reflected. They mostly act in accordance with power structures in society, which, for example, are indicated by gender and class relations.

Starting points of the project

Approaches of critical technical practice describe the collaborative design of information systems as socio-technical practices. In implementation, abstract technical concepts and models are brought to life by adding social meaning to them. Unknowingly, ideologies and hegemonic viewpoints become active and get reproduced in the same way.

The Elise-Richter project develops a socio-political approach to software development. Aiming at the value-based development of information systems, it deals with processes and methods of software design that open spaces for socio-political reflection.

“Deconstructive Design”, the design approach that has been conceptualized for this endeavour‚ will be applied, elaborated and evaluated in cooperation with development teams. The approach allows a team to critically reflect on the political relevance of their own work practices and to create space for thinking and acting in a way that exceeds solely technical perspectives and triggers creative socio-technical solutions.

Theoretical approach

The project relates research on the co-emergence of society and technology to approaches of critical technical practice and power-critical concepts from political science. Theoretically it ties in with Judith Butler’s and Karen Barad’s concept of ‘material-discursive performativity’. This concept explains how power relations reproduce in everyday practices through the entanglement of performative discourses and material (e.g. technical) phenomena. The project practically applies discourse theory and recent materialist approaches in developing information systems.

The project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), project number V273-G15.

In IT-Design, discourse colludes with technical methods. This entangled performativity raises socio-politically relevant questions.
Duration
10/2013 - 11/2019
Contact
Funding