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Digital Discomforts

Quarantine, lockdown, social and physical distancing, pandemic: words we usually only encounter in dystopian literature and movies have become the defining motto of our lives. As we adjust to life under new rules, we, as the Royal College and Victoria & Albert Museum’s History of Design programme, like everyone else, have had to radically alter our approach to studying and working.

As first-year students, our contributions to RCA2020 form a work-in-progress encounter with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This serves as a springboard for collecting, discussing and sharing ideas on the topic of Digital Discomforts. The project explores issues brought about by the accessibility of libraries during lockdown and the strengths and failures of their digital resources, the impact of colonial and hegemonic thinking on digital access to knowledge, the impact of the lack of physicality and the sometimes unwanted intimacy of remote learning, and the digital inequalities arising from disability.

Resulting from intense weeks of collaborative work, the following diagrams and videos are representations of our practice as design historians, intended to reflect real-life corridor-conversations we would have usually had in person as part of our studies. Impromptu, spontaneous and intellectually unpredictable these conversations embrace spelling mistakes and thematic jumps as characteristic of the method of communication. Our diagrams show the twists and turns of such informal, creative encounters. The maps were designed to induce in the reader a sense of the discomfort arising from digital inequality, and as a consequence, it is sometimes deliberately difficult to penetrate beyond their apparently orderly and attractive surface.

Disability & Ableism

The aim of this conversation was to discuss the issues and assumptions surrounding access and abilities when using digital interfaces. The overarching questions that guide these responses are how digital experiences are designed either as user-centric or human-centric, and how these choices belie assumptions of a universal way of processing digital information.

Discussing Disability

Remote Working

In this conversation, participants discussed the ways in which remote working has posed difficulties for students’ learning experiences. Struggles in feeling connected to peers, issues with privacy and surveillance, ‘touch up’ features, and the curation of Zoom backgrounds were highlighted. With these issues in mind, the conversation concluded by asking how users can adapt to these features, and to what extent digital design responses which seek to alleviate these issues have been successful.

Libraries & Archives

Despite the availability of digital repositories, physical libraries and archives have remained an essential asset for design historians. This conversation unravelled the types of discomforts that students have experienced as a result of a lack of access to these resources. Critically, the conversation highlighted the need to question the disproportionate distribution of knowledge in the digital archive, and how digital libraries and archives can act to eradicate these biases.

Libraries and Archives

Dating Apps

There is an ever-increasing panorama of dating apps, each with their own signature approach towards connecting strangers online. In this conversation, students discuss the extent to which the design of dating apps have influenced the dating landscape, and the ways in which gender, sexuality, and geographies shape the individual user’s experience.

This discussion examined the ways in which the digital creates and reinforces acts of colonisation. In probing the discomforts and violences brought about by digital design, students’ texts foreground the importance for design historians and researchers to demand and contribute to actionable change at both a micro (altering open-source codes) and macro (targeting large tech conglomerates) level. As viewers of this map you may experience exclusion - the English language translations may be too small for you to read, for example - in this way we aim to evoke the digital discomfort of minority groups.

Decolonising Design Education

Public Spaces

Reflecting on permanence in an increasingly digital world, this conversation is centred around moving from discussions that could previously be had in person, to the effects of life lived increasingly online. What is the impact of (the lack of) physicality on issues like memory and action? Do we run the risk of “forgetting” current events more easily because of their fleeting digital presence? Can we expect anything to change in the future, through the impact of recorded events? In discussing such questions, examples of recent events including the removal of imperialist monuments and recordings of protests prove central for navigating the relationship between public spaces and the Internet.

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