Wechat: Consequences of a Social Credit System

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the context.

 

The “social credit system,” first announced in 2014, aims to reinforce the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” according to a government document.

Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online.

WeChat has more than 1 billion users worldwide.

China’s internet is often referred to as “The Great Firewall,” because the Chinese government strictly regulates and monitors the content of the country’s roughly 800 million online citizens. WeChat has further strengthened that closed system; WeChat’s privacy policy makes it clear that information will be shared with the government when requested.

–   Business Insider

the exploration.

 

For this week’s ethical challenge, I decided to take the idea of the Wechat’s social currency system and make it feel tangible for my fellow students by asking them to give themselves social ranking numbers based on their likelyhood to parke in the following criteria. These criteria are based in real criteria that the Chinese government uses to rate their citizens.

-loitering
-smoking in non smoking areas
-playing video games too long
-wasting money on frivolous purchases
-posting on social media
-spreading ‘fake news’
-refusing military service
-walking dog without a leash
-traffic violations
-jaywalking

Based on the numbers that my classmates come up with, there will be an individual with a lowest score and highest score. The highest score is the highest number of social demerits. The lowest score is the cleanest record.

I will then reveal the real life consequences of a high vs. low score.

the challenge.

 

So, this all seems very risky and invasive, however, what if we attempted to see the positive impacts that a system like this may have on society. In order to challenge and solidify my own ethical framework, I wanted to take a stab at seeing how this may actually be a help.

“Despite the creepiness of the system — Human Rights Watch called it “chilling,” while Botsman called it “a futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control” — some citizens say it’s making them better people already.

“For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points. At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”

In order to expand on the possibilities in class, I assigned each individual a random economic class. ‘Citizens’ with the lowest numbers are rewarded with real benefits that mirrors ones that exist within the current Chinese system. These benefits are varied, but all affect the financial mobility of the individual.

Over time, if those with good credit can continue to benefit from the financial bonuses, there is possibility for new kinds of mobility within their class current class system.

why is this important?

 

1. This is not hypothetical.

“WeChat, today, offers a combination of services available from several different companies in the West, including Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Uber, to name a few. Its comprehensive nature has also made it one of the most powerful tools for government surveillance over Chinese citizens.

And apps and social networks in other parts of the world may soon be a lot more like it.” 

-Business Insider

This is not necessarily isolated to China. China is a growing power in our global society, and their influence is broad. The principles that are being enacted in Wechat’s social currency system are likely to be mimicked by other societies social apps.

2. Global trends are important.

Testing against your own ethical gut feeling is a good practice. If this is inevitable for Chinese citizens, as well as something that other societies will likely learn towards in the future (including American society), we need to consider how we should proceed and maintain our ethical framework as a society.

3. There is no way to opt out.

When we are thinking about the importance of privacy and the way our systems may change and adapt in the face of existing and emergent technologies, it is important to consider the power and influence of social systems as the consequences of using them begin to cross over into our non-digital lives.

my takeaway.

When certain trends are inevitable, even if I don’t like them or agree with them, it is important for me as a global thinking designer to test against my own bias in order to think more creatively surrounding how to build safe systems and products within our technology driven world.

Insights: Women Working in the Sex Industry in 2019

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continuing our exploration.

Following up on our last blog post recapping real stories from the field as told by women working in the sex industry in 2019 Austin, Brittany and I have continued our research and synthesis in the form of taking the themes that we have been working to create, and building design insights. An insight is a provocative statement based on blending what we already know with what we have heard to create bridges between the raw data and potential design criteria for our particular problem space. We have begun articulating our insights regarding womens experiences while working in the sex industry by diving deeply into the mass amounts of data and really immersing ourselves, and we are still in the process of ‘problem seeking’ as we continue to build themes and narratives while we draw out our insights.


 

insights. 

insight 1|| Women fracture their identity and develop personas to deal with the emotional performance of their work; however, the money made as Person A influences the financial decisions of Person B. This duality causes inconsistent behavior and creates friction in their lives.

Sex work is work, and it is difficult work at that. Through our conversations with women, a theme shined across all age groups and personal experiences. Every woman discusses how they put on a different face in order to go to work, sometimes quite literally. Of course, we all put a certain face on to go into different dynamics in our lives, whether it be with family, with work, with school. However, the stakes for these women are so much higher than your typical nine to five.

All women working in the sex industry today rely on developing a deep fracture of their identity in order to, quite literally, survive. When a woman goes to work, she is expected to be a tantalizing performer, unreal and hyper-erotic, to please everyone and to know the right thing to do and say. However there is also a defensive wall that she learns to build around herself. She is always calculating and manipulating situations to make sure she gets what she wants while also staying true to her own safety and boundaries. Or she experiences those boundaries being broken, and she suffers greatly for that in an emotional, physical and spiritual realm. She takes the compounding of these experiences home with her at the end of the night, and the next day they are carried over into her home self. Her vanilla self. Her emotional exhaustion in jumping over that rift in self is jarring, and her decisions will tell that story.

insight 2|| Quick money justifies quick spending. Fast cash coupled with unpredictable incomes creates greater opportunity for financial emergencies which leave women at a greater risk of exploitation. Money also grants women the ability to advocate for themselves in exploitative environments.

Money is power, and that is perhaps more literal for these women working in the sex industry than most others will ever experience. The tangibility of a cash exchange is something pretty unique to this industry. Due to the amount of cash going through their hands on a daily basis, not only do these women have very unique relationships to money, but they also have very interesting ways they think about how the money that they have or don’t have translates into power. When they have it, they are in power. They have more room to make decisions and set hard boundaries within their work. That money comes quickly, and it’s cash in hand immediately, which comes with immediate satisfaction. However, when that quick cash gets quickly spent away, they don’t have as much of a net to catch them in an emergency. Many of these women have been in circumstances where because they are not financially stable, can’t say no, they break their own boundaries, and make less safe decisions. The dire financial straits they find themselves in affects their vulnerability.


 

 next steps.

In the coming weeks we will be meshing our insights with the rest of the class of 2020 teams in our design cohort in order to work together towards discovering universal human truths surrounding financial inclusivity and behavior surrounding money. As we move forward, we want to push ourselves on the question of why does any of this matter?

We want to find design criteria will help us, and our client, to spur less stress, more joy for our research groups. How will the results of this process help us to serve JUST and the populations JUST serves? JUST is currently supporting communities of independent women who are marginalized in our societal systems, and we are excited to continue working with them to discover ways to expand best expand their impact space.

As usual, we will continue to share our progress and process with you, and if you are interested in discussing our work further, we are available for conversation any time: design4women@ac4d.com

JUST Capstone- Themes: Women Working in the Sex Industry in 2019

 


research focus.

For the focus of our research capstone, Brittany Sgaliardich and I looks to better understand women working in the sex industry and how the particularities in the nature of their work affects mental slack and decision making outside their work.

While sex work and the world surrounding can be difficult to swallow at times, there are a number of reasons why this area of focus is important and relevant to focus on in 2019, especially as two young women entering careers as designers. When given the freedom to explore a topic of our choice for our research capstone, Brittany and I knew where we hoped we could help tackle some truly wicked problems that we found to be worth solving.

context.

In 2018, two bills were signed into law that shook up the sex industry on and offline. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) were inacted in an attempt to protect victims of sex trafficking by targeting well-known websites like Backpage which functioned as marketplaces for sex-related services.

FOSTA/SESTA gouges at Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a bedrock of American online freedoms. It states that,

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Under FOSTA/SESTA, this is no longer true in the case where third parties are found posting ads for prostitution –including consensual sex work– on their platforms. While the intention was that it would make policing online sex rings easier, in reality it has simply shut down these online marketplaces that provided a lot of safety and transparency for countless consensual sex workers. The effect rippled out across the internet, and many sites that had nothing to do with sex trafficking or sex work in general shut down because of the difficulty that censoring their users would entail. Now consensual sex workers are forced to start over and potentially enter back into riskier situations where they have less autonomy over their business operations, and safety in many aspects, including the client vetting process. FOSTA/SESTA raises issues for thousands of women online, but also for the larger issues of online free speech.

While these women have always deserved autonomy and safety, now more than ever is there a pressing need to help create security and legitimacy for women working online, but also those subjected to taboo and ridicule in our society and culture.

JUST.

For the ac4d class of 2020 Capstone Research, our cohort is partnered with local non-profit JUST, who’s current mission it is to invest in female Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs in the Austin area coming from a low-income bracket. They seek to empower these women who are generally marginalized and excluded from other types of resources or support, and to provide a community and investment to help them accomplish their goals on their own watch.

JUST seeks to find new opportunity spaces in which to grow their mission with the ac4d class of 2020’s help. Brittany and I understand that our work with women in the sex industry falls in alignment with some of JUST’s current mission, in working with women who are marginalized and often excluded from financial services and instututions.

methodology.

Our research methodology consists of first collecting real stories from real people. We have spoken so far with 12 participants in form of long form interviews where we discuss their life and work. We sourced these participants through personal networks, through visits to local strip clubs in Austin, but also through local ads on websites like Craigslist and Reddit, which helped us to collect a range of circumstances and experiences.

Due to the sensitive nature of our work, and potential risks for participants, we guarantee absolute anonymity for all the women we spoke with. Their real names and faces will not be disclosed in any of our published material.

Using their stories as our hard data, we are currently working to synthesize their experience into insights which will later become our design criteria for JUST.

As a part of this process we hope to have one to two participants come into the studio and work with us, hands-on, as we go through the material in order to continue to help us with their voice and experience.

emergent broad themes

Already we some broad themes have emerged across all of the experiences we have collected.

Power, Intimacy, and Identity are complex each in their own right, and the intersection of these three forces, especially in the presence of cash, is something that we will continue to explore as we work towards insights. Each of the following themes touches on one of these spheres.


 

stories

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THEME: Feelings surrounding the exchange of money influence how it is used.

Kaylee is a 22 year old woman from California. She has stripped there since she was 18, and is now working in Houston and Austin. Kaylee is all about creating community in her life with her support system of women outside the club, but she was lucky enough to find a community at the club that she worked at for many years in L.A. She says that they need to support each other because “no one cares about strippers”. She still experiences a lot of instability, often times living in her car, which is her prized possession, the way that she helps her friends when they need it,  and what she puts most of her planned money into.

Kaylee has a special way of relating to the cash that she makes as a stripper.

“When you appreciate your friends and you have a moment of gratitude, you hug them, right? It’s like there’s cotton candy everywhere and it’s just like, ‘Ugh, I love you, here have some’. We have this sort of notion of, I don’t know. That’s just a few dollars. That’s just money. Money means glitter. Money means a good night. Money means smiles. Smiles come and go. I’ll go back and I’ll make more. I feel like I don’t take it as seriously because of the way that it decorates this nighttime world.

The volatility and the playfulness of the money can create an ebb and flow that creates tension in her life.

“Because it’s also embarrassing to be the stripper, to be making good money – And I go to work and sometimes I come home and celebrate with my roommates if they’re still awake and throw my money around and they all laugh because I had such a good night. And then it’s like, ‘Oh shit, guys, I’m actually dicks poor and I don’t even know how to explain that to you because you saw me with all this money two weeks ago. You think that I can make all this money all the time.

Money comes and goes for Kaylee, but at the end of the day, as long as she can help someone in the way that she knows she can, its going to be okay.

“…My car doubles as my home. And like a security blanket, it’s everything to me. It’s how I get around. That’s how I help my friends. It’s how I picked that one up who doesn’t drive. It’s how I take care of myself and everyone around me and so that thing, having money in that thing’s wallet, is much more important than how this is running.”

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THEME: My sense of self-worth is renegotiated each time I go to work.
Zooey is a woman in her 30’s currently working as a pole dancing instructor and burlesque dancer in Austin. She lives in a cute apartment with her siberian husky and her roommates. She works a vanilla 9-5 at a desk, and instructs on the side. Before instructing she was a stripper. She speaks to the complexities of boundary setting and emotional cost of going to work. She speaks about the front she puts up as she re-negotiates her boundaries with every interaction she has with a potential client.

When Zooey started, she endured a tough learning curve.

“I was really naive. I guess I was probably really naive and too much of a pushover like didn’t have a thick enough skin yet to deal with the clientele. Because clientele, try to push your limits and push you as far as they possibly can, like how much can I get for this amount of money.”

There is a learned balance between objectification and control.

“But I think both, both people think that they’re in control. But they’re really just using each other. It was sickening but I was naive and young at the time I didn’t know any better. But yeah, that’s when it really became obvious to me that I was being objectified that I wasn’t necessarily in control.

Zooey experiences that the friction that happens when you need to put up a concrete mask in order to perform that tasks at hand.

“It’s really easy to relate to people or interact with the world when you’re hiding behind the persona that you’ve built up in your mind. It’s a way to avoid intimacy. I feel like the lines get kind of blurred after a while and you’re not really sure who you are. Because you’re trying to protect yourself from yourself.

 

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THEME: The perception of power is just as important as power itself.

Leila is a 42 years old woman with gorgeous flowing hair and a wide smile. She is a former escort, former porn-actress and current cam-girl. She has two children, one who is 18 now off on his own and one who is a 6 year old little girl with autism. She grew up in California, but also lived in Texas on and off because her dad lived there. When she was in high school she had a bad falling out with her mother and ended up moving in with her father, who was “not a very good dad”. She set out on her own, and by the time she was 17 and a half she was engaging in acts of prostitution.

Leila spoke about how money has given her the power to protect herself and her children when they needed it.

“Because if you can’t just go out and do something to protect yourself… If someone is harassing you and you have the power to put yourself in a motel for the night to be safe, that’s power.

She spoke about the power in creating a guise of glamor and power. Here she discusses how her clients saw her in the visual world she created around her work, versus her reality.

“I had a lot of power at that time because of the perception is reality. I lived in a mansion, my roommate was a goddess. They didn’t know it was in a court case fighting to get my kid back and that I had no money except for the money they were giving me…”

She understands how important it is to know you own power while doing this work.

“Let them think that. If you have any power cards, play them, because they surely do have power. They do. They can hurt you. They have the money that you need and a lot of guys are shady.”

next steps.

Our next presentation with JUST will be around the insights we develop out of these and other themes. What resonates with us, and what resonates with our client, will ultimately determine how those insights shape our design recommendations.

We will continue to share our progress and process with you and if you are interested in discussing our work further, we are available for conversation any time: design4women@ac4d.com

Sex and the Internet

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Last April, two massive events shook up the business of sex on the internet.

Firstly, the FBI shutdown a website called Backpage which is a prolific website for posting online personals that had become a mainstay for sex-workers to secure clientelle. Days after that, President Trump signed two new bills into law, the Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Together these two bills essentially make websites that knowingly allow sex trafficking to happen liable for hosting the illegal activity, meant to make it easier to go after proprietors of Backpage and similar sites. Both of these moves were meant to help the vulnerable people impacted by this internet economy: minors being trafficked by pimps who sought out customers online.

For my Studio Capstone project, I am interviewing women currently (and sometimes formerly) working in the sex industry in order to better understand their vulnerabilities, how their work impacts other areas of their lives and decision making, with the ultimate goal of applying design thinking to problem in their universal experiences. In doing this work, I am consistently thinking about issues of ethics surrounding this topic and my place in it. For the purposes of this assignment for my Ethics course, I wanted to dive into the ethics behind FOSTA/SESTA and the breach of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the implications on our future as a society and government.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This means that no online platform is liable to the information that is posted on the platform. Under FOSTA/SESTA, this liability is being chipped away. Sudden sites ARE liable if the activity is potentially related to sex trafficking. It is the site owners responsibility to make sure that their users aren’t allowing content that may be related to sex trafficking to exist on their platform.

Regardless of the fact that these laws are not working as they are intended to, and that they are, in fact, creating a more unsafe environment to consensual sex-workers and non-consensual sex workers alike, they also are creating a ripple effect into other places on the internet. Other sites are preemptively removing personal section of their pages in order to avoid liability charges.

PROCESS

In thinking about this in the context of our ethics work at ac4d, I can’t separate the work that I am doing in Studio from the ethical questions that we discuss in Ethics. There are implications to every decision that we make as designers, especially when working with vulnerable populations with whom we do not necessarily share similar life experience. I want to continue to be aware of, not only the decisions that I make on a daily basis while working with women in the sex industry, but also on the larger picture as it applies to all American citizens. While this law may not immediately affect my daily life, as I am not personally using webpages that have become part of this shut-down, the unintended consequences ripple out past just that issue. And if our governments are going to pass bills that limit freedoms surrounding this particular issue, who’s to say that they won’t slowly infringe on issues that are closer to home, or who’s ripples are closer to home?

RISK

As as phenomenon, if bills like this continue to be passed, we are at risk of losing on our online freedom of speech one chip at a time, and ultimately giving in to being heavily surveilled by law.

We are currently being surveilled by both corporations and government, and both spheres hold different consequential data on us, whether we wittingly consent to it or not. While there are reasons that this surveillance exists that is meant to help us, there are also severe risks to both types of surveillance. At this moment in time in a post 9/11, post Cambridge Analytica world, these two sphere become more and more inextricable.

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If it becomes common practice to be surveilled in the name of the law, and in combination with the power that comes with the amount of data that corporations hold on the nuance of our behaviors, we could end up in a hyper-dystopian society which takes advantage of our freedoms of speech, expression, and privacy.

Imagine, for example, if we began moving towards regulating our internet use around state level legislature. Imagine this in combination with the level of surveillance that we already allow by both corporations and government.

Example:

Casey is a woman living in Alabama, where abortion is essentially illegal. If the government can see not only her hard personal information like her social security number, address history, voting history, and then could also see her soft data collected by corporations like Facebook which could show her liberal political tendencies, the fact that she volunteers for the ACLU in Alabama, messages she sent her friends about an unwanted pregnancy, the fact that she recently bought a pregnancy test, and that she was Googling abortion clinics in Alabama etc. They could decide put her on a black list for individuals likely to have an abortion in their state.

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QUESTION

(In observing these and other current events) how should we, as a society and a government, approach the internet of free speech?

CONCLUSION

We ride a slippery slope when we consider dovetailing internet free speech and regulation. If we also consider how our data can be used against us in the face of new legislation, we could be faced with an online “big brother” similar to China or Russia, who are currently pioneering the way of internet censorship. We should tread lightly, and take seriously the future of our privacy in the face of government regulation.

A Dichotomy

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The past year of my life has been an exercise in extended exploration into being honest with myself. Last year at this time I found myself just having moved back to the States from a long time abroad, without a job, without a consistent place I was living, having just gone through a separation from my partner, a bunch of debt, shaky mental health, no clear sense of direction, and a lot of free time to stew on all of it.

I actually committed myself to consistent therapy and visits to the psychiatrist for the first time in my life (largely overdue, but still managing to take advantage of the the privilege I had of the remaining six months on my parents health insurance).

One of the activities one of my therapists had me do was a personal values activity where I highlighted 20 words from a long list that resonated most with me. From there I was meant to choose four that felt the most important at that time of my life.

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Here was my list at the time:

Belonging
Community
Creativity
Curiosity
Empathy
Diversity
Exploration
Fun
Growth
Health
Love
Loyalty
Making a difference
Improvement
Independence
Openness
Self-actualization
Self-reliance
Sensitivity
Stability
Strength

Feeling that I wanted to dig into this exercise a bit more, I took it upon myself to, instead of just choosing four words, group these words into four categories that I identified as being overarching value buckets that emerged.

Connect – Cultivate – Constant – Change

These were things I already knew that I valued, but seeing them in writing, and with some process behind them was clarifying and validating. I felt, and often still feel, like I need validation for these values because I see them as being in direct contradiction with each other.

I value freedom, exploration, curiosity, diversity, independence — all of which change, agency and fluidity. However I also value consistency, stability, community, belonging — all of which require roots and intentionality.

How can one cultivate stability and community while also living a fluid life full of exploration and independence? It’s not impossible, but what I have learned is that it is a challenge and requires deliberate moments of sacrifice. My own duality manifests and different personas in my own mind and body, asking me to make important decisions.

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There is an element of judgement that comes with this contradiction though. Often I find myself feeling broken or like I must be tricking myself. That there is no way I can be both of these things at once…that I should have to choose. That if I claim to be one way, I must be lying about the other. And lying is unethical…right?

Throughout the course of our coursework at ac4d, particularly in research, I find myself in situations where this dichotomy emerges. Because of the fluidity it implies, I find myself able to adapt to many situations, and to test my own ethical boundaries inch by inch. It’s in the afterthought that the self-judgement comes in. Does this ability and willingness to toe the line make me an unethical person?

In the work I’ve been doing, and somewhat through our discussions of ethics in class, I have been learning to pass these thoughts and situations through a few core questions:

  1. Don’t judge yourself.

Judging yourself and beating yourself up about the way that you are is a great way to have unstable footing going into any problem space. There is a way to be self aware and even self critical without being judgmental of one’s self.

2. Check in with yourself and ask every question twice.

Knowing that my values and my constitution is made up of an inherent dichotomy and ability to move fluidly between spaces, it’s important to ask myself the same question in a few ways. For example: Does not being fully transparent about the focus of my research to my interviewee make their consent to be interviewed null, and therefore unethical? First say – Yes, this was an unethical thing to do and here are the reasons why. Then say – No, this was not and unethical thing to do and here are the reasons why.

3. Don’t fight the tension, embrace the fluidity.

Rather than seeing this fluidity as something that I need to hide or fight against, I should embrace it as a part of me and as an actual asset to my abilities as a designer. Being more open to toeing the borders of ethical questions, being more open to things going wrong as a way of learning is all an asset. By checking in with myself, I can be in control of my fluidity and own it as a part of my process.

Which ultimately is my takeaway. This process of addressing the dichotomy inside myself is the base of my personal framework that I will be building on throughout the course of this ethics class. I look forward to continuing my work jumping off from this platform.

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Financial Inclusion and Women in the Sex Industry

 

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For the next 8 weeks, our team (Leah DiVito and Brittany Sgaliardich) will be working with Austin-based nonprofit JUST and help them to find new design opportunity spaces within their business model.

JUST.

JUST deeply understands the current community they serve. They focus on helping Spanish-speaking, female entrepreneurs by unlocking resources to help them thrive. They provide access to capital and coaching within a supportive community to build strong, trusting bonds which carry their clients through to their financial goals with peer-led groups. As JUST looks to expand their mission and future offerings, they want to better understand the financial behaviors of a wider audience. More specifically, JUST wants to understand how other underrepresented communities seek financial inclusion.

JUST has partnered with Austin Center for Design students to research new communities they can serve.

focus.

JUST’s mantra is Less Stress, More Joy. Our team resonates with this phrase.

Through interviews, activities, and observation, we hope to better understanding how women working in sex-related industries define and navigate their relationships to money.

Historically, barriers such as credit scores, collateral, and track record have excluded people from starting and growing a business. Similarly, women working in the sex industry face barriers which keep them excluded from financial resources and financial institutions. We were also inspired by the emphasis on trust and community as a core pillar of JUST’s mission. We understand our research moving forward will require an inherent level of trust from the women we speak to.

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goals.

We have set clear goals to guide us through the course of conducting our research.

1.  To build empathy with women so we can better understand what it’s like to work in an industry where sexuality is implied in monetary exchange.
2.  To understand how emotional and practical relationships with money affect financial decision making.
3.  To observe the formal and informal financial planning strategies of women in this industry.
4.  To understand the role community plays in navigating the benefits and challenges unique to this industry.

We are looking to speak with:

  • Full or part-time exotic dancers currently working in Austin or other cities in Texas
  • Women who are formal exotic dancers in Texas
  • Women currently working as for-hire dancers in the Austin area
  • Waitresses and bartenders working in women-only environments where their sexuality is implied in their role in Austin

methodology.

We hope to spend 30-60 minutes with each woman we speak with, observing them at work (when possible), and then doing activities to dig further into their personal relationships with money and their financial decision-making. All interviews will be anonymized and this data will be used for research purposes only.

help us with our research.

We need help connecting with women participants. If you or someone you know may be interested in chatting with us, please reach out to design4women@ac4d.com to get in touch. Your perspective is incredibly valuable to better understanding and ultimately designing solutions for this unique group of workers.

As students working with a nonprofit, we appreciate your willingness to help both us and our community.

Austin Center for Design
Austin Center for Design (AC4D) is an educational program uniquely focused on applying design principles to address social and humanitarian problems. Explore more of our philosophy and approach here

Why serious creativity should be funny

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I’m here to convince you why serious creativity should be funny.

So, my secret vice is that I watch a lot of stand up comedy. I mean a lot. It happened really slowly. I went from hating stand-up to being the person who watches the new Netflix stand-up special the second that it hits the web. It started because I would put a special on while I was drawing for a few hours, because it was something that I could just listen to and didn’t really have to watch, but also that was light while still engaging and thought provoking. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and it seemed like a logical jump to another form of audio enterntainment. What started as an experiment slowly became more of a pattern. I found that I was choosing to listen to standup more and more often while I worked… but also while I did other things like clean my house or cook. In conversations with friends, I found myself referencing things that comedians said in stand-up specials that I’ve watched… and I eventually realized that maybe I was a straight-up fan.

When I watch the news or think about political or polarizing topics, I often find myself remembering a particular bit of a particular comedian and find myself smirking while listening to something horrible. I’ll smirk while I listen to news about abortion rights or police violence in Ohio (where I’m from), not because I think these issues are funny or because I’m a wildly insensitive person, but because in order to cope with my own absolute horror and discomfort, I simply HAVE to find the humor in it. Or at the very least the absurdity. The only way to get through the harshness of the realities of humanhood oftentimes is to find the humor, even if it’s wickedly uncomfortable…and laugh about it. If we aren’t laughing, we’re crying. And I’ve spent too much time crying. Crying about my rights to my own body, crying about the slow-cook death of the planet, crying about the separation of immigrant children from their parents. As it turns out, you can spend a lifetime and a half crying and being completely immobilized.

However, when I’m laughing…my mind is firing. If my depression is paralyzing, my humor is activating. My most hilarious and witty friends keep me on my toes and force me to keep up with their quick associations, unlikely observations and edgy provocations. They constantly challenge me, and the payoff of playing the game with them is the satisfying dopamine hit of a good laugh.

I have a small team for my design research course here at ac4d, and I feel lucky that the three of us are able to get into this space, even if the face of intense amounts of stress. Without these moments of hilarity mixed into our process, we would burn out so much more quickly. One can only discuss “monetary inequity in developing communities” for so long without feeling like they want to collapse on the ground in exhaustion and despair. Humor energizes us, it keeps us awake, and it forces us to break out of the same old tired loops that we enter when we are too in-the-weeds with our project. It also loosens us up. Sometimes I can feel the four black walls closing in around me when I am in the thick of synthesis. Humor blows down those walls. We create space when we allow ourselves to make a joke. We are more creative when we can forgive ourselves if we don’t approach a problem with the most ‘correct’ or most ‘sensible’ mindset. We work BETTER when we give ourselves this space.

This is the inspiration for how I want to approach wicked problems as a student of social design, and as a designer in general. I want to remind myself that I need to allow this humorous aspect of coping, and humorous reasoning with problems into my design process. I want to provide myself the space the comfort in understanding that these tendencies are a valid way to approach issues that are difficult, confusing, complex and sensitive, and that I am actually a better designer for it.

Frustrated in the face of inequality

Over the past number of years in my adult life, I have had compounding experiences which have led me to become more and more disillusioned with the inequalities that human beings face on this planet.

I have traveled the world to learn about issues that people around the world face, and how they are approaching problems in their own ways. But ultimately I have been left feeling powerless to be a part of any sort of solution.

My focus has gradually shifted from being concerned more with the outcome of my own life, to being concerned with how to position myself to be the most impactful to create a better world for all lives. This is not a small burden to take on. I have often felt extremely overwhelmed, depressed, and powerless in the face of what seem to be endless problems of inequality, misunderstanding, greed, and ignorance.

In reading Margolin, I was most affected by the framing of the “global situation”. Our expansionist societal trajectory is something that I have toiled immensely over, but never had the vocabulary to articulate in terms of design frameworks. The idea of a society which succeeds in attaining an equilibrium seems extremely far fetched to me, and that we have defended too far down our own rabbit hole of capitalism to ever dig ourselves out. But the sentiment being described in terms of design thinking is new to me, and sparks a moment of hope in me that others have the same thought process as me.

I took this as an immediate direction to the Pilloton reading, which emphasized proximity to a community in order to understand the nuance of their problems. I inherently believe in concept, and I really value being a part of a community, as well as working with that community in order to create sustainable change. In my last full time position I worked for the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation planning events for their public park. I hoped that I would be able to see the impact of my work on the ground with the communities I was serving, however, a lot of the impact of my role was clouded with the politics of non-profits, budgets, partnerships and funding. I also became disillusioned with the way this particular non-profit was affecting adjacent underserved communities near downtown city limits. I was shocked by the way that these issues were being essentially not being addressed, or actually being ignored in public dialogue.

I was also moved to feeling by the various articles about non-profits on both a local and international scale. Before coming to ac4d I heavily explored my desire to make a career of the non-profit sector. I started off in the arts thinking that I could make a difference in that realm, and after getting fully spent of the pettiness and corruption of arts funding, I moved on the environmental non-profits, only to experience similar kinds of leveraged relationships, emphasis on numbers rather than actual impact, as well as lots of turn-over in staffing and chaotic leadership. It left me feeling very disdainful about the effectiveness of non-profits all together. I felt that this was particularly addressed in Hobbe’s article about international development, which addresses this issues but, even takes it a step further when these operations that are essentially missing the mark upscale. Scaling only escalates the emphasis on numbers, dollars and appearances completely at the detriment of actual impact or fulfillment of their mission.

While all of the authors that I already mentioned somewhat validated feelings that I already had about how to approach issues of poverty, the one that I will likely take with me the most in my future as a designer and as a “social entrepreneur” was Yunus. Yunus is the author that left me with the most hope. The idea of a social business being self sustainable seems like the most likely way that I, personally, will be able to live a financially sustainable lifestyle, be creative and innovative, while also attempting to affect change to a wicked problem. I lean towards wanting to activate the Bernays in me to build a social business which uses elements of subtle persuasion, but persuasion for what I believe to be social good. While I know there could be unintended consequences, I believe that our global situations are all reaching a head and that we MUST take direct action, and we MUST have courage and fortitude in the face of the worlds problems. Or else there may not be a world left.

To believe or not to believe….

The value of design synthesis lies in the space between concrete human needs and squishy human desires and dreams. It is the ability to reconcile these two very real modes of the human experience that makes the designer special. It is what makes them valuable to any process, because processes are a human creation in their own right. A human way of coping with reality.

I worked through these readings feeling that each author was grasping at a way of reckoning with their own human limitations. Defining those limitations is difficult for everybody, but especially for those who’s responsibility it is to understand other people and change their lives for the better based on that understanding. There are other careers that immediately address improving, or even saving, other people’s lives. We place a lot of trust in our counselors, doctors, and lawyers, for example. We hire them with the expectation that they understand the human condition, they are trained and have special skillsets that will help us. We imagine that prospective doctors, lawyers, or counselors have natural and accelerated skills working with and understanding people that we may not possess ourselves.

Based on our readings from the past two weeks, I believe that we should take a designer’s role in our lives as seriously as we might one of these other widely respected professions. This round of readings largely paints a picture of a designer as being a person who is meant to think holistically. We sit with that ambiguous space between logic and emotion. We can integrate the implicit knowledge and intuitional judgement that we possess with the expressions of others to attack problems from an elevated level.  Regardless of human’s ability to know one’s self, there are limitations of our languages to describe the essences of our needs and feelings. It is the designers job to extract those essences, synthesize many types of qualitative information, and tell those stories to others so we can all have a better understanding of our world.

Working through these readings, I found that most to all of these authors used the concept of context as a way of describing this holistic approach to problem solving, however they all addressed this from very different angels.

My X axis lays these authors out on a framework of “designing with” and “designing for”. This with and for changes meaning slightly across authors, fluctuating between ‘with end users’ and ‘with other designers’ and ‘with other people in the system’. Essentially this axis refers to how much the designer is considering other perspectives as a part of their process.

My other axis relates to this idea of human essence. Some authors ask us to dive deeply into the lives of others and to suspend our own life experience to better understand theirs. Others place less value on this idea, and ask us to consider it when thinking about the value of context, but to remain ultimately distanced from the emotional experience of the end user or other player. Finally there are those who place less value on the role of the designer as a whole, and therefore do not see our holistic approaches to work relevant at all.

This type of empathy, the toeing of the line between emotional immersion into a narrative & keeping a safe distance sounds daunting to us as budding designers. However we practice this much more often than we realize. Think of reading your favorite novel or going to the theater. We all have the ability to (and very often enjoy to) jump fully into a narrative that is not our own. But when we read a novel, we also have no problem maintaining maintaining a sense of self, and while still feeling the feelings of the characters for the time, we can still think critically about the plot without losing our grounding in reality. This experience can be framed as the suspension of disbelief. We can, for a time, give up our own critical faculties to believe something outside of our experience or logic.

For the purposes of this project, I selected the authors that resonated with me most within this framework to discuss in further detail.

My Y axis has one end labeled “suspending disbelief”, referring to how much importance the authors place on on the ability and willingness to suspend disbelief as a part of their design process. The other end of the axis is labeled “resistance to suspension of disbelief”, referring to how the authors consider the importance of remaining grounded in their methods during their process.

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Who holds the power?

Presentation 1

Role of design in society. What is it? Who has the authority to say? How many correct answers are there?

After zooming in and out and in again on the five different texts with which we began our design theory adventure, and after much page flipping and self scrutiny, I eventually managed to piece together a few ideas that felt like they were worth shaping into a coherent takeaway that others could understand. For my presentation I decided to run with the one that felt grandiose and perhaps a bit dismal. But it is genuinely the way I found myself reading these texts, and what I found myself taking from them.

Idea: Design can be used as a powerful tool that will either empower everyone to become better thinkers and problem solvers or will be misused by a few as a weapon that disarms the masses unwittingly.

All of these readings were about the role of design in society as being a crucial tool in shaping our futures, but some see it in as an accessible tool for all, and others as a tool able to be utilized in an impactful way by only a few.

My scale of importance is based on the theorist’s insight into the ways that we, as the general populace audience, are empowered to utilize their insights for change, or left powerless by them.

I will break this down by position starting with the theorist who I find to be the least impactful to me in this framework.

Presentation 1 diagram

Vitta is intent on pointing out the metaphorical death of the designer in society. He sees the mass consumption of objects as cheapening the role of design, and sees a movement towards the cheapening of the power of objects themselves as they become more diminished to mere fetishized merchandise. This is all fine and well, but when I read Vitta I don’t see where I fall in this. The objects I posses tell a story about me, even if some are just shallow signifiers, and I am not offended by this role objects play in my life. Why should I care about the death of Vitta’s designer? And what am I supposed to do about it? Quite frankly, I don’t see this as being the most powerful way we can consider the role of design in our complex society.

Oh, Postman. I love your fatalist perspective on innovation. I think it is enchanting and dramatic and dystopian, and I have come to some of the same conclusions as I interact with my society filled with ‘fake news’ and exhalation of progress towards a “smarter” civilization of technology. Postman heeds a warning to a roomful of powerful and influential makers in society, urging them to think hard about all sides of the die when creating something new in this growing field of technology. He urges them to consider the consequences fully and to understand the weight of that responsibility. He describes us as being lost in a shuffled deck of cards, drowning in an ocean of information that keeps on growing in the name of problem-solving, and with no tools or guide to sort through it, no life raft to keep our heads above water. If this is true, and I often feel that it is, then that hopelessness that I get when I know I am drowning is not only justified, but isn’t in my power to fix or sort through. It is in the hands of others. My unexamined life is not worth living. I, an average good samaritan, have no way of arming myself against the chaos of “progress”.

Bernays discusses human beings in a very impersonal way. While he directly calls out that it now “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is everyone’s” he then goes on to describe all the ways that it is really only in the power of the elite, the special, the beautiful, and the remarkably ambitious to do so. He throws the general public a bone here and there rather disingenuously, claiming that if we learn to express ourselves, then we can do it too. But ultimately, he mostly discusses how susceptible people are to change their opinion and behavior if presented with the right set of well designed circumstances. As a reader, I do not get the sense that I am among those that how this power to influence, and I am rather scared of it and feel the need to look over my shoulder and wonder who put my opinions in my own head.

Papanek begins to steer the ship out of the storm for the common folk. While he does begin his paper with a very dramatic and heavy claim that industrial design potentially the (second) most harmful profession in existence, what he is really doing is setting the stage to position the role of design in society as being extremely powerful and important. He wants the reader to take it very seriously. He claims that with proper use it “can and must be a way in which young people can participate in changing society.” Unlike Vitta and Postman, his words feel more to me like a call to action for all human beings. Through vivid examples, he places all humans as having a tendency to conform in a society that encourages same-ness. He also describes the cultural, associational and emotional blocks we have. However, he explains that they are not inherited, but learned and, thus, able to be overcome. He even provides a few small tools we can try to change how we go about tackling problems (like the Eskimo dot test and the Arcturus IV experiment). With a diversity of experience and by intentionally taking on problems outside our familiar experiences, we can grow. These sound like attainable actions to me.

Finally, there is Dewey. Dewey lays out a theory of experiential continuum, meaning that all experience are impactful and that they will lead the experiencer to a subsequent direction that will lead him to another, compounding experience. He piece is also a call to action from everyone who participates in a system where they interact with others (so…everyone). He asks us all to be thoughtful and cognizant of our actions, because we “live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities”.  This theory lifts every action we make to be a meaningful one, and that attitudes are the essence of the soul. I think that this piece is most useful because it frames design’s role in society in a way that allows you to find your place as a designer of experiences wherever you might stand. It humbles you to realize that if you are successful and are lucky enough to have general good fortune, this is a result of compounded experiences that others created for you. If you find yourself in a less than desirable position, that’s okay, but your actions still mean something in the continuum of the collective human experience. We can change our systems.

I do not argue that my interpretation of the value of these positions applies to everyone, as everyone has different perspectives and life experiences. Someone who was born into unfortunate circumstances which have only led to more unfortunate circumstances might say that Dewey’s theory sounds like a curse. But while perhaps this interpretation is specific to my personality type, life experiences and personal morals, regardless, all of these theorists give clues to your personal power to change society through design process.