Thursday, January 5, 2006

Social, not individualist, ethics for technology

I'm often turned-off by the ethical guidelines suggested by technologists and designers, mostly because they strike me as individualist rather than social. And so I was quite interested when I came across Richard Devon's discussion of social ethics in engineering.

Devon, Richard. Towards a Social Ethics of Technology: A Research Prospect, Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2004

In his article, he fleshes out tensions between what engineers consider to be ethics ("individual human conduct") and what they consider to be politics ("social arrangements") and he calls for more research into what he calls social ethics, which of course includes collective and individual politics.

"Taking a social ethics approach means recognizing not only that the ends and means of technology are appropriate subjects for the ethics of technology, but also that differences in value systems that emerge in almost all decision-making about technology are to be expected. The means of handling differences, such as conflict resolution processes, models of technology management, and aspects of the larger political system, must be studied. This is not to suggest that engaging in political behavior on behalf of this cause or that is what ethics is all about. That remains a decision to be made at the personal level. Rather, the ethics of technology is to be viewed as a practical science. This means engaging in the study of, and the improvement of, the ways in which we collectively practice decision making in technology. Such an endeavor can enrich and guide the conduct of individuals, but it is very different than focusing on the behavior of individuals in a largely predetermined world in which their options are often severely constrained..."

By focussing on the process as much as, or more than, the product, Devon identifies design as the primary context in which technologies - and technologised life - emerge. He summarises his argument like this:

"There should be a social ethics of technology because most decisions about technology are made socially rather than individually.

The social arrangements for making such decisions are variable and should be a prime subject for study in any social ethics of technology.

Two key questions about such social arrangements are, who is at the table and what is on the table?

Enhancing cognizance is essential to ethical decision making. Representation by stakeholders in the design process is desirable. Diversity in the design process opens up more choices, which is ethically desirable and could well benefit both the technology and the marketability of the technology."

Given the exploratory nature of the article, it's no surprise that the reader is left with the vague call to pursue and support more "democratic" design. While admitting this is no easy task, he does cite Richard Sclove's accounts of Danish consensus conferences as a possible model:

"Lay groups are formed that exclude experts in the areas of the science and technology being examined. At some point, such experts are summoned and they testify under questioning before the lay group. Then the lay group produces a report and submits it to parliament. These lay groups ask the contextual questions about the science / technology being examined: what will it do, what are the costs and benefits and to whom, who will own it, what does it mean for our lives, for the next generation, or for the environment. The results have been encouraging, and industries have become increasingly interested in the value of these early assessments by the general public for determining the direction their product design and development should take."

This sounds a lot like what I suggested at Design Engaged: designing in the parliament of things and design as a matter-of-concern. Now, what I'm working to flesh out in my dissertation is what kind of politics and ethics this actually is and where it can take us. But more on that later.


Anonymous Francois Lachance said...


Your Berlin piece on the Parliament of Things made me want to playfully consider further fragmenting representation. You inivte us to consider the space that open by splitting the repetition from the presentation --or at the very least hyphenating the relation between the "re" prefix and the "presentation" root. [Aside: a re-petition is like asking again.]


- resending the presented
- presenting again the presented
- revisiting that which goes before the presentation

somehow there is a questioning of circulation that is asked of the assembled. somehow a set of pragmatic design questions arises: what goes, what stays, what arrives ....

are these the question to which you are tending?

Blogger Chris said...

I have been against democratising game design, because in my experience it creates more problems than it solves. It also reinforces the hegemony of design within the games industry.

But what's being proposed here is something different... not democratic, perhaps, but more participatory - breaking down the barriers between the end user and the design. I need to think about this some more...

As for why technologists and designers tend towards individualist ethics; many such people lean towards Introvertion over Extroversion - the introvert will tend to prefer the ethics of the individual, perhaps...?

Blogger Anne said...

francois - yes!

chris - it's tempting to equate this with the scandinavian tradition of participatory design, but i think we can, and actually need to, do better for more people. i've also never considered individualism in terms of introversion because i've always assumed the connection to be related to what loosely falls within the scientific method...i'll think more on this.


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