Monday, February 7, 2022

Jennifer Forestal's "Designing for Democracy"

Jennifer Forestal is Helen Houlahan Rigali Assistant Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Designing for Democracy: How to Build Community in Digital Environments, and reported the following:
Readers opening to page 99 of Designing for Democracy will find me reintroducing the concept of ‘participatory democracy’ that serves as the book’s theoretical foundation. As a form of collective problem solving, democratic politics is the process through which members of a community are actively involved in making the decisions that affect their lives. But this work does not come easily; it requires certain habits, attitudes, and relationships among the community members involved. For one, they must recognize themselves as members of a community. They must also, second, form affective attachments to that community and their fellow members. And, finally, as I explain on page 99, they “must cultivate and act with an ‘experimental habit of mind’—a kind of empowered open-mindedness without which we cannot properly ‘do’ democracy.”

These fundamental civic practices—of recognition, attachment, and experimentalism—are what I call in the book democratic affordances; they are the activities that built environments, whether physical or digital, must facilitate if they are to support democratic politics.

In Designing for Democracy, I show how each of these affordances is tied to a specific design characteristic of built environments—in both the physical and digital realms. Page 99 comes at the beginning of chapter 4, in which I examine the characteristic of flexibility, which affords experimentalism. “[W]e can only develop the experimental habit,” I argue on page 99, “in a built environment characterized by flexibility, meaning spaces that (1) host a variety of perspectives and experiences and (2) are malleable, affording citizens control over their environment so they might reshape the space to fit their needs.” What this means, in practice, is that democracy requires us to build spaces like parks and playgrounds—and subreddits!—that invite many different people and uses.

Overall, page 99 does a nice job of introducing the reader to the concept of democracy upon which Designing for Democracy’s argument depends. But in focusing solely on the design element of ‘flexibility’—with its constituent parts, variety and malleability—page 99 might also leave readers with a distorted sense of what it takes to build democratic spaces in built environments. To be sure, flexibility is important. But, I argue throughout the book, flexibility alone is insufficient. In fact, a too-narrow focus on flexibility will result in a space like Twitter—one that is messy, chaotic, and prone to harassment or worse.

Instead, Designing for Democracy makes the case that democratic spaces—both physical and digital—must balance three characteristics: flexibility must be accompanied by boundedness and durability. In addition to being flexible, in other words, spaces that support a participatory democratic politics must also be clearly demarcated (like a neighborhood or a Facebook Group) and durable over time (like a city park or subreddit). Only when spaces are designed with all three characteristics in mind—boundaries, durability, and flexibility—will they facilitate the civic practices of recognition, attachment, and experimentalism that democratic politics requires.

Ultimately, while the page 99 test does help readers to identify major theoretical themes in Designing for Democracy, it also reminds us that a single page is not in itself enough to support a book’s entire argument; in much the same way, a single civic practice is insufficient to meet the needs of democracy.
Visit Jennifer Forestal's website.

--Marshal Zeringue