Will we be overcome by power?

We’ve just finished a block of readings in our theory class about power, and tonight we all presented for 7 minutes or less about what they meant to us. My presentation tonight asked the question ‘Will we be overcome by power?’ Specifically, as we all prepare to embark on our careers in design post AC4D. We’ve all talked about wanting to do good, and resisting the allure and potential corruption of power, but how realistic is this?

Growing up I played a lot of sports, but never really enjoyed them until I joined the lacrosse team as a sophomore in high school. It was great. It gave me this wonderful outlet where I could be physical, and competitive, but also a part of a cohesive supportive team, and I ended up being pretty good at it. Later when one of my teammates I’d met playing for UT asked if I wanted to coach an elementary school 5th/6th grade girls team with her I jumped at it. I was excited because I saw this as an opportunity to pass it on and empower and encourage other girls. So I thought a lot about the type of coach I wanted to be and how I could:

  • help girls learn live lessons through sports,
  • realize that there’s more to sports than just winning,
  • and be supportive, motivational, and inspiring to my players.

George Aye recommends that designers ask themselves the following question before starting a project.

“How has this project/team acknowledged the role that concentrated pockets of power have played in the history of this issue?”

Thinking I had done this we created a rule at the beginning of the season that everyone who participated in practice that week would get equal playing time in the games no matter what. I didn’t anticipating this being a difficult rule at all, and mainly thought of it as a way to encourage attendance at practice.

I don’t think I went into the season expecting to win, but that’s what happened. Our team was doing really well, and by the end of the season we were pretty used to winning. Everyone loved it, parents, teachers, the players, and me. It feels good to win. Like many teams we had some players who were more athletic or skilled than others, and they often scored more points. There was also an awesome girl on the team named Lina who was not yet a star lacrosse player. She was shy and doubtful of her abilities, and often made excused to be able to sit out during practice. So when we were at the end of a close qualifying game against a strong team neither her nor I were super excited to put her in. In fact, she didn’t want to play because of the pressure, and I didn’t really want to put her in either because I wanted us to win. Tim Wu warns of something similar in his article about the tyranny of convenience saying

“Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes.

But she’d participated in practice that week, and I had that rule, so I told her to trust herself and have fun, and in she went. Somehow she ended up with the ball almost immediately, and panicked. She just stood there, and everyone started yelling to “RUN!” She snapped to and immediately started sprinting, but towards our own goal. The yells soon turned to “WRONG WAY” as her own teammates played defense on her, and at the last second she made a giant u-turn and started the other way down the field. This whole thing caused so much mayhem that it threw the other team off, and she ran down and scored. It was amazing! Everyone went wild and talked about it for the rest of the season. We called it the Lina play and turned it into a trick play. After that Lina was more present, confident, and engaged. Pierce Gordon talks in his article about how designers can learn from activists, and benefit from more diversity just like we all benefited from having every member of our team and the wide range of lacrosse skills they brought.

“In this, we hope to open the conversation about how multiple, valid, differing expertises contribute to the world. In many instances, the true innovation happens at the margins of society.”

I was so glad that I’d stuck to my rule, but I’d also learned how easy it is to be swayed by power. If I hadn’t had a concrete rule that I’d vocalized to the people around me to hold me accountable to I don’t know if I would have made the same decision. Or if we’d lost would I have re-evaluated that rule the next time that situation came up? If I questioned my ability to stay true to my values in a situation where the stakes are pretty low (elementary school sports) what does this mean for later when the stakes are higher? Margaret Gould Stewart says the following words of encouragement in her article.

“We just need to make sure that we keep the long view in mind and are vigilant about making ethical, responsible decisions along the way.”

I personally believe this is wishful thinking, and without a solid meaningful framework it will be a slippery slope. As students entering this field we are in a unique place where we can be both optimistic and naive about the industry we are hoping to join. I think we need to take advantage of the space this gives us to think about what we value, and craft our own personal codes of ethics. Adding concrete actionable statements that are meaningful to us, and sharing them with others is even better and may help to solidify our resolve when we inevitable do need to ask ourselves these hard ethical questions about power.

Also, encourage your daughters to play sports (preferably lacrosse).

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash
Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash