“We do have choices and we have the option to promote alternatives, if not solutions”

How will your next online purchase decision impact your future and that of the planet? Chris Salter, Erik Adigard and Alexandre Quessy formed a transdisciplinary team to prototype a new kind of online consumption experience. Dissuasion Engine seeks to engage the broader public with the problem of overconsumption, the role that new AI-based technologies play in accelerating it and the unintended costs that such overconsumption generates for the planet.

When and how did your project start?
We initiated a conversation on topics related to overconsumption, consumerism and online shopping in January 2021. Chris brought the idea of focusing on recommendation engines from the start as well as the question of externalities that are critical to consumption decisions but are also difficult for consumers to know about, precisely because they are unaccounted for in the price of goods. But we also explored other approaches to tackle the crisis of overconsumption, including reading in the degrowth literature. We also opened our research to related factors like affluence, social injustice and the disruption of rising extreme wealth. Ultimately we decided to focus on Dissuasion Engine as both an artistic project and a practical solution to resist recommendation engines and to initiate a critical, if not uncomfortable discussion around the issue of mass consumption

What is the profile of the project collaborators?
Alex is a multimedia artist working with digital technologies, Chris is an artist, researcher and author interested in emerging paradigms and Erik is a multidisciplinary designer interested in cultural matters. Together we combine technical skills with conceptual follow through. We each operate with a critical mindset which allows the project to properly evolve. 

Which stage is the project in?
Our project is very complex but we are far along in framing the conceptual aspects. Our solution is well focused. We are proposing a browser extension along with a mobile app. The interface approach is conceptually resolved but the details will need more time and research to be perfected.
We have resolved many technological concerns but have not yet had the means to develop the software and backend resolution nor have we had yet the opportunity for necessary discussions with ecological economists and degrowth experts about the project and its larger economic and social contexts.

In this phase of your research, what are the two most important aspects of the project?
The first concern is to properly present the issues that define the nature of our project, such as the scope of massive consumerism, the ubiquity of online shopping and its manipulative techniques, and then the unseen externalities that are compounding the climate crisis with most of our daily purchases. The second concern is to present our solution as a kind of toolkit, for opening up a much-needed debate on the effects of mass online consumption as well as a practical way to reduce consumption by providing information during the process of online shopping that could sway a consumer’s decision to purchase something in the first place.

What are the next steps in the research?
We will further focus on developing the interface and backend of Dissuasion Engine. Such a project calls for many components often indirectly related to design itself. Everything happens through iterations therefore the project is in constant evolution and will continue to evolve during the course of development and distribution.  We also are in need of discussion, brainstorming and feedback with experts in degrowth and environmental economics as well as experts in the design of recommender systems/engines in how to design our database that will be the core structure for our recommender engine to function.

What Impact would you like to create?
Dissuasion Engine will help to reveal externalities related to our shopping habits and it will bring everyone’s attention to the impact of subversive technologies in our lives. Ultimately it aims to (1) promote critical perspective on the act of buying, hence establishing a space of responsibility and control, and one of choice; (2) initiate a debate about the externalities of both the products one buys online as well as a larger discussion on mass consumption and its effects; (3) by linking the DissuasionEngine to larger social networks, we hope to also generate debates not only among individual consumers about the externalities that are not accounted for in the products we purchase but also among larger groups of people, which aim for collective action around the wicked problem of mass, excessive consumption; (4) this project will hopefully also generate awareness on the part of all who are vested in online shopping such as  entrepreneurs, technologists, designers, and legislators.
We too often ignore the role we play in keeping the status quo in place and yet we do have choices and we have the option to promote alternatives, if not solutions.