The ethos and methods of participatory research have been widely embraced as a powerful approach to address systemic inequity in the design of technology. While there have been many gains and developments that merit celebration, an unspoken, prevalent assumption is that inclusive forms of engagement will unequivocally result in a more inclusive product. Using the case study of an ethnographic project, this paper critically examines how the task of producing “better” (more ethical, more participatory, more statistically diverse) representations, had the unintended consequence of displacing structural outcomes to questions of aesthetics and statistical sampling. An investigation into the cause of this displacement reveals the resilience of deeper historical biases that persist from the early years of electronic computing. As a possible remedial framework, this paper introduces the field of infrastructure studies, which makes an explicit connection between the material, historical and semiotic dimensions of contextual investigations, thereby broadening the scope of ethnography from developing insights to driving systemic change. Put simply, this paper argues that to truly develop inclusive products we must find ways to expand the concerns of ethnography beyond questions of representation to strategies that can decolonize the sites and processes of techno-production.
Design Research and Strategy, Google, California, United States
Participatory Research, Infrastructure Studies, Critical Techno-histories, Ethnography
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