Dialectic Design & Speech Act

Ted Hunt
5 min readAug 10, 2018


Definition: ‘Whatever you say you wish for I will treat as a command and do straight away.’

We are, it is widely anticipated, about to enter a new era of design. An era in which the technologies of Bots, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Voice Recognition and Intelligent Personal Assistants align to accelerate both spoken and written dialogue as our primary means of interfacing with machines.

Although not yet universally agreed or defined this new era of design might become known as Dialectic Design, the design of dialogue. Indeed former head of Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Professor Richard Buchanan, has contextualised Dialectic Design as the fourth order of his Four Orders of Design model.

Like previous orders of design the question of what exactly is Dialectic Design will be defined by its active practise as much as its theoretical interpretation, or its immediate commercial application.

The definition I am particularly interested is the implications of considering this type of design as a form of Speech Act (an utterance that has a performative function). By this I mean how both written and spoken commands given to technologies, through the vehicles of Dialectic Design, might bring about new means of thought and behaviour associated with our articulated thoughts instigating physical actions.

‘But language wasn’t only for communication: it was also a form of action. According to speech act theory, statements like ‘You’re under arrest,’ ‘I christen this vessel,’ or ‘I promise’ were all performative: a speaker could perform the action only uttering the words. With performative language, saying equaled doing. For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using to inform, they use language to actualise.’

— Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life (later adapted into 2016 film ‘Arrival’)

It is the evolution of human language/dialogue as a (largely) descriptive mode of communication morphing into a (largely) actualising mode of communication that might see the realisation of Dialectic Design change multiple notions of how we primarily interface and interact with technology. And in turn evolve the primary notions of what technology can do for us and how it does it.

In order to gain greater clarity on the possible applications and implications of Speech Act Theory within Dialectic Design we should first map the existing landscape of commonly used dialectic commands within the leading Intelligent Personal Assistants (Siri / Google Assistant / Alexa).

It quickly becomes quite obvious that Alexa offers the highest volume action based commands (where we define action based as commands that result in a perceivable change to an object or event in the physical world). Alexa will have achieved this status simply be being able to connect with more systems outside of it’s core operating system, unlike Siri and Google Assistant which are largely locked into the smart phone OS that they occupy.

What significant implications can we predict from the immergence of Speech Act Theory within Dialectic Design?

Unknown knowns.

The first implication that should be seriously considered is the reduction, or complete removal of free choice. The nature of dialectic interfaces within chat and voice technologies dictates that the presentation of choice is inherently limited by space (a book can contain far more information than a instant messenger ‘speech ballon’) and time (a web page of information can be easily skim read where as a spoken rendition of the same information is limited by its sequential necessity). These limitations mean that any given command is based upon the users knowledge of what options are available to them at any given time, and as humans we don’t know what we don’t know. When we don’t know we tend to guess /ask for what we think everyone else is asking for, or follow a linear path of presented options.

The second critical implication might result in the further simplification of reductionist social engagement. Every machine interaction might become the equivalent to a command line within machine processing logic. And every instance of dialogue a direct means to an end rather than a means to the meaning of the means to an end.

The end game of this scenario is an equivalent to all dialogue becoming a thin veneer for an elaborate version of the spoken parlour game Twenty Questions (above), with every command merely serving as a further step to a final predefined True outcome.

Small Talk

The dialectic performance of Speech Act could essentially become an enhanced version of processing logic, where structured reasoning is hidden behind the illusion of open dialog. Constraining our engagement with reality to a ‘call and respond’ dialogue leaves us open to all of its judgmental consequences, in a similar manner to the universal small-talk question ‘what do you do’ defining an individuals existence. Indeed the social exchange of self validation and contextualisation has recently migrated to the trends for business’s to define themselves through the statement we exit to.. (predictably followed by change the way the world.. x / y / z or disrupt.. x / y / z). It is this predictability of response that limits the horizons of possibilities offered by dialectic design. Once the formula for a successful response is established it quickly becomes fixed into a Status Quo Bias, and reinforced as the favoured output associated with the defined input.