How can scientists, technologists, and activist-scholars learn to create positive transformations in our work and our world? And how can we turn that critical work into pathways for others to do the same?

Image: “Guns into Plowshares” (1997) by Mennonite artists Esther Augsburger and Michael Augsburger. The plow is constructed from 3,000 guns purchased in a buyback program in Washington D.C.

Earlier this year, my collaborator Jonathan Zong sent me a beautiful article by the theologian of technology Hanna Reichel about the ethics and design of blades, and what it teaches us about the design of ideas. Quoting the book of Isaiah chapter 2, she reminds us that swords can be changed to plowshares – and that the reverse is also true:

“Imagine you found a piece of metal with a sharp edge. You turn it in your hands. What you imagine that you could do with it will depend…”

What happens next in this story? Will the edge be used to threaten another person, mark a path, or release nutrients into the soil with a new year? Reichel argues that critical scholars can “read tradition against tradition” to imagine transformations of this generative kind. The idea of turning over ideas on top of themselves with a hoe (or a plow) is a beautiful metaphor for critical thinking and critical design. As a professor, this is one of my jobs—to nurture the creative, critical imaginations of those I mentor, supporting them to imagine and develop new growth.

When Jonathan sent the article, we had just finished wrestling in the wilderness with a double-edged blade for five years— in our work about research ethics and power. At first we wondered if common abuses of power by data collectors could be solved with the right processes and software for consent. But seeing that bureaucracy alone can’t manage abuses of power, we then traced the history and psychology of the idea of consent itself.

Critical work is a craft that you can become skilled at, even if the uncertainty never gets more comfortable

We realized that consent is a blade whose handle is only designed to be held by certain people and institutions. In the end, Jonathan concluded that people often need a different tool entirely to manage the abuses of data – tools of refusal that say no rather than yes. The articles and designs Jonathan produced in this wilderness are now transforming fundamental ideas in design and have won numerous awards.

The art of thoughtfully transforming a design (or idea) is disorienting work that needs a compass that pulls consistently toward uncomfortable truths you cannot yet name or understand. It’s common to worry if you’ll ever find a path through. But take it from one who regularly wanders without being lost – critical work is a craft that you can become skilled at, even if the uncertainty never gets more comfortable.

This post is for students wondering what I mean when I talk about critical writing and making. I hope the examples and tips will help you think more clearly and and confidently when doing this work.

What does critical writing look like?

The story of Jonathan and my wrestle with the idea of consent is a journey that might have been predicted by the philosopher G.F. Hegel. Writing in the 19th century, Hegel argued that Plato’s model of critique (most notably the Socratic dialogues) reduces an argument to nothingnesss. Rather than merely tear down ideas, Hegel argued that thinkers and writers could explore the problems and contradictions of an idea (thesis and antithesis) in a process that generates something new (synthesis). Antitheses melts down the blade; synthesis forms it into something new. Antitheses cuts into the soil; synthesis brings fresh nutrients to the surface to grow.

When I do this kind of transformative work or ask students to produce it, I’m usually asking for two parts. One part is a critical analysis of an idea, design, or method. The second part is a worked example that the critical analysis explains. Here are some examples in CAT Lab’s work:

  • The CivilServant system (computer & social science):
    • thesis: in psychology and computing, behavioral experiments provide valuable knowledge to democracies about the effects of interventions
    • antithesis: behavioral experiments have also upheld top-down, authoritarian power
    • synthesis: a method and system that accounts for those critiques
  • A recent report on Risks/Harms to Independent Research led by Sarah Gilbert (whitepaper):
    • thesis: tech firms are making bad faith accusations about privacy and ethics about industry-independent researchers
    • antithesis: companies do sometimes have a point, which is why their accusations sometimes resonate with the public
    • synthesis: recommendations for how to strengthen industry-independent research
  • A post once I wrote about count models in consumer protection (statistics):
    • thesis: in statistics, researchers typically compute effects with simple regression models that are easy to understand
    • antitheses: these OLS models mis-estimate the final results, due to these very specific statistical limitations
    • synthesis: other kinds of models overcome these limitations, as demonstrated in the post, while still providing understandable results
  • Sarah Gilbert’s recent article on intersectional moderation (qualitative social computing):
    • thesis: in computer science, community/content moderation is justified by its work to protect marginalized communities
    • antithesis: the way people imagine and structure moderation actually gives marginalized communities more work and further sidelines them
    • synthesis: by seeing this problem more clearly, we can re-imagine an idea of “intersectional moderation”

This kind of writing is not about pros or cons. Even the most superficial essay can list pros and cons and arrive at a recommendation. Imagine for example a project about blades and safety. A simple pro/con essay might argue whether children of a certain age should be allowed to use knives. This simplistic essay lists the pros and cons then offers a recommendation. But there is no synthesis, no new knowledge here, and nothing new has been imagined or justified- just arguments stacked on either side of a binary decision that was defined in advance.

What would a critical essay and project on knife safety prioritize? First, it would not offer a simple, binary choice – the options might not even be known when starting the project. Perhaps the essay would critique the question itself – what does it mean to create age safety rules for children, and how could that shape how we design or regulate sharp objects? Such an essay could explore developmental psychology, ethics, history, or policy. Or it could involve social science to understand the cultural context that gives (or restricts) access to sharp objects, or the lived experiences of children who might need sharp objects to thrive. Another direction could consider the design of the objects themselves. 

In the example of knife safety, something needs to be transformed. The final essay would be an argument for a different way of seeing, designing, or doing, one that turns on a detail you unearthed in your in-depth research. The essay would also explain and justify an artifact or intervention based on the argument in the essay. It might be a new kind of cutting device, a new concept for thinking about the design of blades, or perhaps an instructional guide to knife safety. In the best projects, the artifact contributes to the argument in the essay and the argument explains the artifact.

Despite the very human desire to solve all problems in one essay (or design), the strongest critical essays should not cover much more than one core idea or argument. Ideas are, after all, attempts to package an unruly, complex reality into boxes of illusory simplicity. By carefully examining the box and the thing it purports to contain, you can often find a generative detail that was left out, squashed into the bottom, or covered by the rug – some inherent contradiction or problem in the very ideas you’re working with. That’s only possible when you focus on a single idea/event/design, its history, and its uses. By starting with a concrete case or idea and trying to understand it thoroughly, you save yourself from the shallowness that arises from trying to do too much.

How to move through the wilderness

Writing critical work will always take you through the wilderness, and you will likely not know what kind of synthesis will emerge until later. Here are some tips for navigating:

Decide what to navigate by. Throughout the project, you will repeatedly have to say no to interesting questions, and you’ll frequently feel lost. So before you start, choose a north star – it might be a question, a cause, a value, or something else. If you write it down, you can return to it when you feel lost and use it to guide your decision – or if needed, change it when you understand things more clearly.

Once you have your compass, follow it relentlessly. Go to the library, visit a museum, talk to a designer, read the bibliography, and then do it again. In short, treat the question like it truly matters, because if you chose well, it truly does.

Learn how to read and contribute to relevant disciplines: Students in inter-disciplinary fields like design, communication, and information science can get lost in our wanderings. Unlike scholars in border-patrolled fields like psychology or mathematics, we draw from many disciplines. A disciplinary student can learn unspoken assumptions about what counts as a good question or legitimate inquiry. Interdisciplinary/critical scholars have the curse of fewer boundaries. As boundary-spanners, we become experts in the art of studying an unfamiliar discipline well enough to read and contribute to its conversations.

When you get back from across the fence to write, don’t assume your audience understands how to navigate the fields you just returned from. If your argument depends on the work of mathematicians or historians or psychologists, help your readers make the same journey.

Understand the detail of what you are critiquing: The best critical essays build on a thorough understanding of a design or idea. Try to understand the underlying logic of the thing you are considering. How does it work? What are its defining characteristics? What would lead someone to develop it to be what it is, and what constraints did they face in the making?

One of the earliest examples of critical writing in English is Alexander Pope’s 1711 “Essay on Criticism.” To prove he understood his subject matter (and to satirize his targets), his poem imitated the creative styles he critiqued. You don’t have to go that far, but you should make an effort to understand the underlying logic of what you critique.

Look for shortcomings or contradictions, but don’t stop there: Many excellent essays stop after criticizing something for its flaws. But those essays fall short of transformation.

Write and create in parallel: if you make an early commitment on what you want to design, the work of making will reveal things that you will not notice in books or interviews or data. So if your intervention is to organize people, then start organizing. If you want to dive into statistics or media-making or software design, get started. The struggles and inspiration of design will be powerful guides to your reading and writing and critique.

I encourage you to keep a diary, field notes, or a lab notebook to record their questions, struggles, and contradictions, which are easy to forget as the project gains greater clarity.

Demonstrate your point, but don’t assume it’s self-evident: Especially if you are a designer, creative writer, or data analyst, the synthesis will make sense to you long before you find the language to explain it to others. So use the essay to help others understand and adopt your way of seeing. As you develop the transformation your critical essay calls for, take note of what you had to learn to get there. Then, in your essay, use your writing to mark the path for others.

Show your work to others. When they fail to understand your work and say things that confuse or frustrate you—it can be a good sign. Ask yourself why they misunderstood and use those insights to improve your writing.

Choose antagonists wisely, and be gracious to them. On this journey, you will learn to see the flaws in the work of people who are influential and admired. Everyone, including them, will benefit when you critique and extend their ideas. As you write, remember how hard it is to develop your own ideas; think about what they had to overcome as well. You are not obligated to write in a way they will find pleasant. But the best critical writing often earns respect even when it disagrees. And sometimes you can even convince the people committed to the ideas you are critiquing.

Path breaking, path mending

We live in a world with too many swords and not enough plows. In many cases, we don’t see the blade until it’s too late. Whether you work as an academic or are serving on the school board, the world needs your creative eye and critical work. Sometimes you will create new paths, sometimes you will mend old ones, and in all cases, you leave a mark for others to follow. I hope this post helps you see how it might be possible and inspires you to give it a try.

Further reading

  • Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S., & Kaye, J. J. (2005, August). Reflective design. In Proceedings of the 4th decennial conference on Critical computing: between sense and sensibility (pp. 49-58).