Zachary Kaiser
Some Notes on the Interaction Design Course (2017-2019) at Michigan State University

Since arriving at Michigan State University, I have taught various iterations of our Interaction Design course (info about previous iterations can be found here). The curricular challenges of having a single required course that focuses on Interaction Design notwithstanding, I have worked to approach the course with a holistic lens that includes both the fundamentals of doing interaction design while at the same time situating that practice within a historical political-economic context and technoscientific milieu. Doing so is deeply important to me because, without an understanding of the ways our technologies come to be and the ideologies that shape them, these technologies and the forms they take (along with the politics they help enact and the ideologies they prop up) become naturalized in society. This results in students accepting the existence of particular technologies (and by association, therefore, the politics of those technologies) without considering how things might be otherwise. Indeed, one of the core contentions of the course is that the very thing that the students design—the interface—conceals the fact that things could be different. [1]

Weaving together the fundamentals of professional interaction design and the contextual study of computing (drawing on literature and approaches from Science and Technology Studies) has proven to be a challenge, and this exposition is not meant to suggest that what I have done is correct nor appropriate outside of the context of the research institution in which I am currently working.

In the iterations of the course that began to take shape in the fall of 2017, the course became composed of four separate movements. The first is a short exercise that we do together as a class, and actually isn’t really a project at all. That is, we read a book together. In 2017, that book was Metahaven’s Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?. And in 2018 that book was (and will likely continue to be for another couple semesters at least) Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism. These texts serve to introduce students to a broader conception of interaction design, not merely as a benign instrument of capital but rather as a political, economic, and cultural practice that has real consequences. The second project introduces students to some of the basics of programming for the web, while the third projects introduces students to the conceptual and technical linkages between database and interface. [2]

Above: Robin Talbert positioned herself as a “Real Housewives Historian” and developed a database and taxonomic conventions for the second project. 

The last project is one that I began assigning in the fall of 2017 (when, at that time, the course bore the title of “Interactive Web Design,” but has since changed to “Interaction Design”). This project concludes the semester and seeks to contextualize the work of interaction designers within a broader technological, sociopolitical, economic, and historical background.

This project asks students to watch The Trap and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace—two films by the British director Adam Curtis—and to try to triangulate their work as designers with the films’ examinations of relationships between technology and society, and the unintended consequences that precipitate from these relationships. Although the specifics of the assignment have undergone a number of iterations, the general arc of the project remains the same: students view the films, select specific historical figures or themes from the films and research those figures or themes in more detail than Curtis presents, and produce a proposal and prototype for an interactive (hybrid physical/digital) project that expresses that research for a particular audience.

This project has consistently been a challenge for students, but it has also produced some of the most provocative and rich classroom discussions and critiques of any of the courses I have ever taught, at MSU and elsewhere. I hope to continue to evolve the project in ways that leverage these successes.


[1] An article about this pedagogical approach is forthcoming in Design and Culture (summer 2019)

[2] Some examples of this project can be seen in student work from previous years, including those posted here.

Above: Nikki Dallich (BFA '19) proposed a project to bring the impacts of algorithmic inference and recommendation, and its incisive shaping of the contours of everyday life, to her classmates in the Art Department, specifically those who shop at the little Art Supply Store (which also sells snacks, coffee, and other beverages). She therefore produced a prototypical application that would sit on a device alongside the credit card machine and make recommendations to users based on their purchase history at the store. Her intervention, however, was interestingly performative, in that she controlled the prototype from her computer, and, even for users paying cash, would recommend things to them, supposedly based on what they had purchased. In this sense, her project also suggests a future in which we are all algorithmically anticipated, and makes this future apparent to her classmates.

Above: Christina Dennis (BFA '19) researched the past, present, and future of social credit scoring. She wrote a short essay arguing that Ayn Rand’s objectivism and the individualist “Californian Ideology” associated with 1990s Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism that Rand inspired were, paradoxically, similar to both the Chinese Social Credit Scoring system and to the underlying thrust of two episodes of Black Mirror (“ten million merits” and “nosedive”). This similarity, she suggested, positioned the ideal participant in society as an individual living out selfish desires. In the case of the social credit scoring system, this selfish desire is the desire for a higher score; meanwhile, a Randian approach would suggest that to behave in one’s own self-interest would inherently make one a better member of society. In neither case, however, is the individual motivated by altruism.
Part of Christina's piece was a performative intervention in which she pretended she was from a company that was beta-testing a social credit scoring system for the US, and that our institution had been chosen as a prototypical “community” for testing. She built a system that allowed users to ostensibly sign in to their social media accounts (the system did not actually capture any of the users’ data), designed a fake “body scan” in which a red line was projected across the entire space where users were standing, and then showed the users what their social credit score would be according to this company’s proprietary algorithms.

Above: In fall 2018, students were asked to produce a proposal for a small museum exhibition. One group of students chose to examine the relationship between social media and mental illness, reflecting the role of computing in the history of diagnoses of mental illness (e.g., the history of the DSM).