Through the Looking Glass: Design, Power, and Our Virtual Selves

Over the weekend, I was asked why ARCADE is hosting our upcoming salon. I explained that, in part, it’s because it’s been a minute since we last hosted a salon. But, why this salon? Why would anyone want to sit around and consider the ways that online spaces impact who we are and who we become? Don’t we think about online spaces enough?

As designers build the future right around us, both in the physical world and the virtual world, we all consider the overlap between our physical and virtual identities, as well as question the role and responsibility of design. For me, the overlap between online space and the built environment makes sense. The way that I have come to understand individual and collective identity development is through interaction with the world. The culmination of our experiences, combined with the cultural tools we have for understanding and navigating, quite literally shapes our minds and the way our minds function. Take the way classrooms are traditionally designed, for example. Desks in a row, the rows face the teacher, the teacher stands in front and acts as keeper and distributor of knowledge. The environment is designed for that kind of interaction and power dynamic. What came first: Teacher as knowledge holder and distributor? Teacher as behavior controller? Or the way a traditional classroom looks? As we move through buildings, streets, public and private space, the shape of those spaces impact who we are.

Architects and designers know this all too well.

So when we step through the looking glass and participate in digital space, we go through similar processes of sense-making, learning, and participation. Designers of these spaces, much like designers of other spaces, impact the way that we figure ourselves out – but how much impact? And what then is the responsibility of the designer? And how in the world do designers take theory and concepts and turn them into concrete materials?

That’s just a tidbit of what we’ll discuss Thursday night, so if you want to talk about things like

What does it mean to design from an idea?

Is an avatar you? A piece of you? Outside of you?

Who controls access to online spaces?

Are designers to blame for the negative effects of online space or is the public to blame?

Does tech save the world?

How do we see subculture in social media spaces?

then join us at Capitol Cider on Thursday, 16 May from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.

Sarah Jo Ward, ARCADE’s interim executive director, is a past member of the ARCADE Board of Trustees and an organizational change and learning expert with experience in a variety of settings including nonprofits and arts organizations. In addition to being a graduate of the University of Washington with an M.Ed and a Ph.D in Learning Sciences focused on organizational change and strategy, she got her start in journalism and publishing while living on the East Coast prior to starting her graduate work.