Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A few questions about design ethics

For the past few years I've taught mostly STS classes, and teaching power and everyday life this term has been an interesting shift that's really challenged me to question what might constitute ethical practices of everyday life. For example, I've been following with some interest recent debates about anthropologists consulting for the military. Given historical and current geo-politics I wouldn't do it, but over the years I've heard researchers and designers say everything from "The pay is great!" and "Who else do you think funds this kind of work?!" to "Someone's gonna do it, so it might as well be me!" and "I have no problem with this."

Only a very few have bothered to ask "Doesn't it depend on how the research/consulting is done, and how it's used?" Score for attention to situational rather than universal ethics--but are 'we' really such an individualistic bunch? And at what point can we say that someone subscribes to a standard of ethics but not to ethical practice?

Over at Design Observer, Elizabeth Tunstall has written a piece asking What If Uncle Sam Wanted You? or more specifically, "What if the U.S. Army asked designers to join teams to do 'service design' projects in Afghanistan?" It's worth reading the whole thing for insights into the different perspectives of anthropologists and designers, and then move over to her blog for how she's actually a bit concerned by designers' responses to the article.

I'd wager that for most people attracted to, and trained in, understanding social and cultural interaction, the confounding bit is the value these designers placed on individual choice instead. But as Dori more pointedly asks: "As design seeks to expand its progressive impact on business, government and society, I wonder if we, designers as thinkers, can continue to afford to see ourselves in such individualistic ways."

I think it's interesting, too, that she brings her students into the discussion. Time and time again at conferences and workshops, I've noticed significant differences between those who actively teach and those who do not--especially when it comes to witnessing cultural (including generational) changes. In fact, the classroom is one of the very few places where I encounter difference that I am not allowed to ignore, or to circumscribe in ways that reduces or flattens it to conversations amongst 'equals' - and that is something I believe more designers could stand to do in their own work.

What I mean is that things are changing. My students also see themselves as part of a bigger, more diverse, more unequal, and more interconnected world--and they have different ethical expectations than most of the established practitioners I meet. They have genuine concerns that professional life will involve more ethical standards than ethical practices, and they object to this. Given these and other differences, it's not surprising to have seen their concerns casually dismissed as youthful naivety, and formally opposed as threats to lifetime career interests.

But for me, the more disturbing bit is that these concerns are actually given a lot of lip-service, in much the same ways as ethical guidelines can become ethical alibis for practitioners who ally themselves in abstract, but not concrete ways.

So let's get more specific: Is consulting for the military unethical? Well now it depends, doesn't it? I recently had a very interesting conversation with a scientist who regularly consults for the US military. He argued that the issue should not be if consulting is unethical or not, but rather what kinds of consulting may be unethical. I agreed, and when I asked him for an example he claimed open research as the most important value for scientific research, and explained he would only work on projects that did not involve non-disclosure agreements and proprietary research. For him, closed or restricted knowledge, whether supported by the military or a corporation or the university, was simply "bad" science. And this made me wonder if designers have a sense of "bad" design that might preclude, for example, working on proprietary projects with NDAs?

Historically, design interests have been so well aligned with the logic and desires of capitalism that many a joke has been made about whether design can ever be an ethical practice. But most designers I know don't find these jokes very amusing, and I've never met a designer who enjoys being characterised as a dilettante when it comes to social, political and ethical matters. At the same time, many have become very frustrated at the suggestion that they simply not work with clients they think 'do harm'. They insist: "That's not a very practical option!" which, ironically, returns us to jokes at their expense.

But are design's clients only ever the ones who, for example, require NDAs and create proprietary knowledge? Of course not. Designers do have and make choices every day, but there appear to be rather serious obstacles to seeing these choices as something other than individual or personal matters. And this, of course, makes it very difficult to hold them socially accountable for their actions, or inactions.

In any case, I certainly don't have all the answers and I'd love to hear from students, teachers and design practitioners about any of these things! What do you think?

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Blogger njyo said...

Yes, it is a good question. Personally I think that everybody bears a responsibility towards the society for all their actions. No matter whether designer, engineer or a farmer. In German we have the word "Zivicourage" which my dictionary translates as "courage to stand up for one's beliefs". think it goes much further especially in the professional world where one devotes 8 hours a day producing something. If I extrapolate on this, it means that one third of our time is the result of decisions taken at work. Of course it matters what we decide and of course we should always question whether the result of our work contributes positively to society. As a sidenote, this is also my problem to find work that I really care for as many things feel to have too little impact.

This question became relevant to me when working on my thesis on emotion estimation via mouse movements. Feeling rather strong for privacy I did argue that any type of affective computing system that reads data from humans must not release this data. It should not be possible to query how somebody feels by unknowingly connect the target to such a system. According to my results, there was a significant correlation between arousal and certain movement characteristics. The shock then came as I presented the system to a colleague of my supervisor and he asked me "Would it be possible to implement this system on a standard website and show the visitor different images of people and measure these characteristics and obtain their arousal state indicating their orientation?" What a shock, not completely surprising but still, the idea that a technique that was developed to make users more comfortable could be abused in such a way was disturbing.

Of course it is always difficult to predict what impact one's work has but in my opinion it is clear that I don't want to do any work where I find my ethical grounds disrespected. This might be luxury though.

Is selling burgers at McD as well an unethical job? These questions with less clear effects are difficult to tackle. Especially when introduced slowly and through peer pressure. Imagine a fingerprint-scanning express line at the airport (get your fingerprint scanned instead of a passport check). At the beginning only early adopters will use it as they see the benefit of being faster by just providing their prints. However, as soon as a critical mass is exceeded the pressure for innocent but privacy-concerned people will just be too big to reject using such a system.

So yes, in my case I might have extreme views bordering (to paranoia) but I think that each and every person has a responsibility with every action they do. As such, as a designer, I want to just work on projects where I see that the results make a positive change (no, more money is not a positive change).

Best regards,
An idealist.

Anonymous anne said...

njyo - i like the word "zivicourage"! reading your comments reminds me that ethics are never absolute, and that's okay. it means that we can do the occassional unethical thing and not necessarily become unethical people (action vs. essence).

the important bit, for me, is that all these little "individual" choices that we all make every day are really not "individual" when we remember that they implicate other people, places, objects, etc.

i also despise hypocrisy, so anyone who talks about the importance of ethics but contradicts or undermines them in their everyday actions really bothers me.

in any case, i wish that more designers had your degree of self-awareness, and willingness to engage the possibility that idealism can be pragmatic.

thanks for your comments!

Blogger Ida said...


Great post. Thanks.

I am a student of Design and Technology at Parsons. There was quite a debate here when The Parsons Institute for Information Mapping (PIIM) accepted a contract from the Department of Defense. While the project itself did not seem particularly unethical (graphical search results?), the fact that this research would be put to use by the military and that the parameters of the project are based on surveillance was very disappointing for me. Yes, if PIIM doesn't do it, someone else probably will, but what good work is not getting done because PIIM is putting their energy into military projects?

We all have to eat and live comfortably. Doing so will enable us to make better work. I have seen many activist designers limit their base of income to poverty in the effort to remain true to their values. This is commendable until we are all so over-worked and lacking material resources that we can not do good work. How do we create a balance?

If we do take corporate or government work from institutions that are, by our estimation, creating an unjust world, how are we using the resources we gain through those projects to significantly offset the damage done? If it doesn't compensate, I choose not to do it. In most cases, it's difficult to gage the damage done.

In the case of PIIM taking a military contract, the nature of that relationship and the potential for damage from that research seems so great to me, that it damages the institute reputation. Good designers with strong ethics might keep away from PIIM as a result, decreasing the potential impact for good in future projects.

Obviously, there are a lot of issues at play. I'm glad to see a number of design blogs stirring up these questions. It's gonna take all of us to figure it out together.

Anonymous AG said...

In the case of PIIM taking a military contract, the nature of that relationship and the potential for damage from that research seems so great to me, that it damages the institute reputation.

I'm sorry, but with all due respect this literally made me laugh out loud. I'm betting there's not actually all that much daylight between the way you would have the world behave and my own desires, but this comment is just bottomlessly naÔve.

Consider institutions like MIT, UC Berkeley, Stanford, NYU: have their reputations been affected in the slightest by their acceptance of military- or intelligence community-funded work? If you answer "yes," can you honestly say that effect hasn't been almost entirely positive (i.e. that these institutions are as a direct result perceived as being "serious," world-class, and so forth)?

If you wish to change the rules of the game, I certainly support you, and would work alongside you. But let's not fool ourselves as to the direct and indirect benefits accruing to anyone who chooses to get in between the sheets with the military/intelligence community: they can be considerable and enduring. That's why these choices can frequently be so agonizing.

Full - well, discreet and partial - disclosure: I work closely with certain institutions of this nature.

Blogger Ida C. Benedetto said...

Fair enough. My comment quite naÔve and hopefully I will get more realistic as I continue to work in this field. Perhaps I am projecting my hopes, rather than assessing reality. You're right ag, none of the listed institutions have suffered in their public reputation due to their relationship with the military.

Is this generally the result, that institutions working with the intelligence and military communities help their reputation by being perceived as serious and capable?

Anonymous anne said...

ag (is that you greenfield?) - i'm really interested in this bit:

But let's not fool ourselves as to the direct and indirect benefits accruing to anyone who chooses to get in between the sheets with the military/intelligence community: they can be considerable and enduring...Full - well, discreet and partial - disclosure: I work closely with certain institutions of this nature.

am i understanding correctly that you are currently working with the military? in any case, are you able to discuss what you think these "considerable and enduring" benefits actually are, or might be? i'm also curious if not being an american and/or ex-military would make a difference in this assessment? and while we're on the topic, do you think the american anthropological association is being naive in their statement against participating in human terrain systems research?

ida - i think you've touched on how difficult these issues can be. i also find the question of institutional reputation to be quite interesting, and i would think it depends on who you're asking and what their interests are. i certainly know people - especially outside the united states - who have actively avoided such places precisely because of the sort of "successful" reputation ag alludes to...

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