New American Democracy

2016

Speculative City Studio

This is a project completed in a studio built on the ideas speculative design pioneer team Dunne & Raby introduce in their groundbreaking text Speculative Everything. In it, they “propose a kind of design that is used as a tool to create not only things but ideas. For them, design is a means of speculating about how things could be—to imagine possible futures…Dunne and Raby pose ‘what if’ questions that are intended to open debate and discussion about the kind of future people want (and do not want).”

I explored the idea of homelessness in proximity to cities, where shadow societies develop between the cracks in the urban environment. I worked on the excellent Street Voice production of The Washtenaw Voice, which explored the largely undocumented lives of Ann Arbor's homeless people. The reporting done on Camp Take Notice in this piece was very inspiring. Above photos courtesy of Jared Angle.

There is no sign that the United States’ political system will resemble an oligarchy any less in the foreseeable future—the people responsible for changing these corrupt practices are the ones cashing the checks. Starving and homeless lower class citizens are driven to desperation. Even those who are lucky enough to work full-time often face poverty, struggling to cling to the lowest rungs of the economy.

Homelessness is criminalized as business owners and neighborhoods push homeless people out with a “not-in-my-backyard” mentality that provides no alternatives. Homeless communities already crop up on the edge of our society, pooling what little resources they have to survive. Villages of tents occupy forgotten space and public parks in the night.

New American Democracy imagines a future where those who are struggling to hang onto the lowest rung build a new ladder. It's a smaller pie—but each citizen gets an equal piece. As members of the growing lower class find themselves continually marginalized and forced out of their homes, they create a shadow society that does not rely on the larger government. The resources brought by the once voiceless but surviving economic tiers of society are used to create more than a sea of tents under an overpass: an idealized and thriving democracy modeled loosely after Athens in the fifth-century BC. What tools would these refugees use to keep their democracy pure?

I set out to design a flag, a communication device, and a way for people to cast their votes.

The mark of the society is a visual metaphor, a body in motion escaping a larger entity. It is simple and flexible, with a wide variety of deployment options. Colors are chosen to reflect ideals of freedom, fairness, and solar energy.

It is scalable and simple to replicate. Members can easily locate messages and one another.

Language has the power to manipulate and influence people. The rhetorical manipulation neutralization device / hierarchy regulator is designed to allow any user to self-censor any language devices which use potentially harmful emotional appeals to reinforce unbalanced social hierarchies.

Harmful rhetoric goes in, neutral dialogue comes out.

“True patriots support initiative 29950 for equal housing access.”

“Secure your place in paradise when you join our society!”

“Elected officials are slaves to the consituents’ every whim!”

“I would absolutely die if you didn’t get dinner with me tonight.”
“Please vote in support of initiative 29950 for equal housing access.”

“Your life may improve if you become a member of our group.”

“Our constituents hold us accountable for our promises.”

“I would be pleased if you got dinner with tonight.”

An expected increase in social hierarchy distance can be overcome by mimicking it with a telescoping action, ensuring a translation result that has been altered for maximum safety.

Personal opinions, which function as votes on policy, can be updated at any moment with this personal enfranchisement unit / public opinion tabulator. Opinions are constantly shifting and allow non-binary input via a thumb-operated potentiometer.

The device is a single PCB with a rubber grip wrapped around the perimeter to protect the components.

Cellular networks are used for inter-device communication, a 3.5mm headphone jack for charging and firmware updates.