Ethical design is not superficial

We are seeing more and more organisations starting to talk about ethical design. Unfortunately I suspect this has less to do with caring about the impact of unethical design on society, democracy and the environment, and more to do with organisations attempting to distance themselves from similar businesses who are finding it impossible to continue to disguise their toxicity.

Matt Alagiah, me, Alex Macleod, Zander Brade and Deborah Goschalk sitting on stools on a stage, I’m waving my hand while speaking and everyone else is listening to me.

Matt Alagiah, me, Alex Macleod, Zander Brade and Deborah Goschalk. Photo by my brilliant sister, Jessica Kalbag.

Last night I spoke on a panel in London on “Designing For Tomorrow”, put on by Spotify Design. It was a fun chat, and we started to scratch the surface of some interesting ideas, but thirty-five minutes wasn’t enough time to dig down into a more substantial discussion. These are some thoughts I wanted to expand upon, and others that have been bouncing around my head since last night.

Ethical design is not superficial. It is not a trend, a fad, a framework, a library, or a marketing ploy. To truly commit to ethical design, we need to embrace a complete change of approach, method, and outcome in our work. And expect to ask, and answer, really difficult questions.

What do I mean by ethical design? The potential harms we can cause, and ways in which we can be complicit, varies between industries. In the tech industry, we’re generally getting better at making products functional, convenient and reliable. We’ve even improving at considering the experience of our products for those using them.

But we’re terrible at respecting people’s human rights with these products. We build products that are usable, even fun to use, but we consistently abuse or ignore people’s rights to privacy and security. We build products that exclude and exploit vulnerable people, and people from marginalised groups. We build products that centralise and concentrate power for a few CEO dictator-kings, taking ownership and control of people’s personal information and the content they create to express themselves. This isn’t something we can solve by saying “I care about ethics.” We have to actually do something.

Dilution

Can you be an ethical cog in an unethical machine? Can you be an ethical individual working for an unethical employer? Given the state of the world, and the absolute state of capitalism, it’s arguable that any attempt at being ethical is being an ethical individual in an unethical system. But that doesn’t mean our attempts are always futile, or that we have no control over the impact we can effect. I think it’s about dilution.

In a small team, you may be able to build ethical design processes, and work with an ethical approach, but if your employer’s business model is fundamentally unethical (for example they’re one of the many businesses exploiting people’s personal information for financial gain, also known as surveillance capitalists) your impact is both diluted and limited.

The less agency you have, the less ability you have to change an organisation’s funding model or business goals, the less impact you have. If you’re responsible for one component in a system, you are not going to steer the direction of a product or business, no matter how good or persuasive you are.

With every decision you cannot control, your efforts will be seriously diluted. At best, you’re having some impact on the outlook and work of those around you. But “guerilla” tactics can only get you so far.

At worse, you are providing the superficial appearance of ethics, adding positive reputation to a business that does not deserve it. At worse, you are luring more people into using an unethical product because you’ve disguised it as something more ethical, you’ve given it legitimacy.

Be uncomfortable

Ethics are not something you can try on to see if they make you look good. As I said last night on the panel, being ethical is not comfortable. It is living in a state of continually questioning what you are doing and the rationale behind your decisions. It is learning, iterating, and adapting to do the best you can in a given situation. It is being the person who asks the awkward questions and doesn’t follow orders to keep the peace. It is not going to make you rich or popular.

We should embrace being uncomfortable. We live in a political and social hellscape. The majority of us have no job security, we can’t afford houses and we can’t afford to have families. Many of us can’t even afford healthcare. None of this is comfortable, so we may as well do something to change that for our futures, and for future generations.

There’s no point wasting time pretending to be ethical when we could spend that time learning to have a real impact. If you aren’t able to do that with your current employer, find another, ethical employer. Last night folks laughed when Matt summed up my point as “quit your jobs,” but I mean it. Why are we stagnating in positions where we have no agency, are not valued, and are damaging the world around us? The only way we can have an impact is if we seek out the positions where we can do our best work.

Ethical design is not superficial.