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Somehow we missed it

Twice in the last week or two I’ve taken part in panel discussions focussed on ethics – at Sydney Tech leaders and then at an evening organised by Fjord here in Sydney. One focussed more on ethics and technology, the other on ethics and design.

Both featured lively, thoughtful conversations, and a clear underlying desire by the audience to include ethics as a key aspect of decision making and their professional practice.

At both I spoke around the same idea–inspired by a presentation Stephanie Troeth gave at our Design conference earlier in the year (you can watch the presentation ‘influencing Decisions with Design Research‘ below). Stephanie quoted a scene from one of my favourite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Hamlet, friends of Hamlet. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle has killed Hamlet’s father, the King, usurped his throne, and married the Kings wife, Hamlet’s mother. Got it?
Claudius co-opts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to carry a letter to England where Hamlet is being ostracised, that will result in Hamlet’s death. Hamlet outwits them, ultimately leading to their execution.

What’s the relevance of all this to ethics? As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern await their execution (a scene that doesn’t appear in Hamlet) one turns to the other and says

There must have been a moment, at the beginning, were we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.

The point I made at both events is that beginnings are vital moments. This is where small decisions can have major impacts. The projects we work on, the companies or clients to work for, once these decisions are made, the impact of our choices is increasingly diminished. These are the times we can say ‘no’, or have outsized impacts on the direction of a project.

At all of our events this year, ethics has emerged as a central consideration. It’s no doubt partly as a consequence of the realisation of the impact social media platforms are having on our societies, the impact the so-called ‘sharing’ economy is having on the role of labour and work, and numerous other ways in which technology is impacting long standing social structures.

For many years there’s been the naive sense that technology is essentially a force for good, or is at least natural, rather than simply a tool we as individuals, groups, companies, societies use to achieve outcomes.

The consequences of our use of technology are choices, whether we are conscious of those choices or not. Only last week, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter observed at a US Congressional hearing

We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.

But why weren’t we expecting any of this then? Human nature hasn’t changed in that 12 year period. It was a naivity, fuelled in no small part by privilege. Those who built twitter (and the significant majority of those who’ve built the social media platforms, and other high impact technologies of the last quarter of a century) are incredibly privileged, very often white, very often male, very well educated people. Their experience was rarely one of vulnerability–to the voices and actions of hate, to the negative impact on the nature of work, on our culture and society.

To create a platform designed to connect millions of people and not imagine its potential misuses is wilful blindness. When we imagine and design and build tools and technologies and platforms and services it’s as important, perhaps more important to ask ‘how might this be misused’ as it is to ask ‘how might this be used’.

We might think the work we do is far less significant. After all, few of us are building world changing technologies, we’re only working on small seemingly insignificant features.
But these considerations aren’t simply relevant at the scale of whole systems–they can impact even the smallest details of the things we build.

I’ve taken to wearing an Apple Watch the last few months. I’m particularly interested in tracking my activity, heart rate, that sort of thing.
On a recent day for some reason I didn’t wear my watch for some hours, and then the next day I was greeted with a message about how I’d missed my targets the day before but if I tried hard I could do that today. Seemingly innocuous. Quite positive really. Encouraging me to be more active, more healthy.

But what if the reason I’d missed my targets was because I was ill? I’d Injured myself? My mental health causing me difficulties?

What seems at first glance like a harmless, cute, “you go” kind of message could have very significant negative impacts. Millions of people will have seen a similar message over the last 3 or 4 years. Small details can add up to significant impacts.

The days blind of optimism about technology and its impact on the world, the naive sense that, on balance, what we do is without question a force for good, these days are over.

Ethics is at the heart of what comes next.

At Web Directions Summit this year we’ll be addressing the issue directly with a keynote by Oliver Reichenstein–Philosophy, Ethics and Design–and related presentations by Holger Bartel–The Untold Benefits of Ethical Design–and Tim Buesing– Design For Transparency.

Tickets are on sale now, with significant discounts for freelancers, contractors and not for profits.

Influencing Decisions with Design Research

Stephanie Troeth Design ’18 Presentation, which inspired my thoughts in this piece is here.

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I’ve been admiring the Web Directions events for years, and was honored to be part… What a fantastic event!

Ethan Marcotte Inventor of 'Responsive Web Design'