Design today faces a new generation of problems that carry an entirely new ethical burden created by the impact of new technologies such as AI and ubiquitous surveillance. It didn’t used to be that way–a product’s ethical disposition was easy enough to see at face value. A toaster never had another purpose in life other than to toast bread. The lines were clean and simple.
Now, AI, surveillance, and what I call “dark interactions” are transforming even the most prosaic design task into one rife with potentially dark outcomes.
In response, designers have been making the case that we have an new obligation to act responsibly in the face of new ethical challenges–that we should be “agents of positive change.” Sounds like a good idea, right? But how exactly is this supposed to work? It’s time to look deeper into the subject–and to mine wisdom from professions with long-established ethical guidelines.
Toward A Design Code Of Ethics
I don’t think most professionals in the industry have anything resembling a conscious or formal plan for how they will navigate these new waters. What is an “agent of positive change”? What exactly does a designer’s responsibility look like? Is it merely a personal filter for the projects we take or reject? Is that even practical? Imagine if every doctor you encountered treated your problem differently, some willing to save your life, others refusing it. It wouldn’t work, which is why they have a code of ethics. Designers need something similar. We must define an ethical framework, and adopt it industry-wide.
Let me illustrate how difficult it is to navigate our industry without a code of ethics, using two projects I encountered just this last year. The first is that we were approached by a gaming company to create a gambling machine. For us it was an easy line to draw. We don’t want to be part of that. It was an example of what I’d call a first-order ethical choice: The intention of the design was clear, and at face value we didn’t agree with it. So we passed on the project. It’s important to note that we could afford to pass up that work; most designers don’t always have that luxury. How firm might our ethical stance be if we needed the work?
A second design challenge provided more of a conundrum. A startup approached us with a technology that would allow it to track movement in a given physical space, such as in retail or in the home. That data could be used in many scenarios for clear benefits. But in our eyes, there were also drawbacks. Tracking individuals could be construed as a breach of privacy, or at the very least, a creepy intrusion into our expectations of public space. This is exactly the kind of project where there is no clear ethical line–at least not yet. It’s what we can call a second-order ethical challenge: The technology itself isn’t bad, and in fact has many positive applications, but it also carries the potential to be used for objectionable purposes.
A design code of ethics would guide us in each unique situation. It would also help us advise and navigate the companies that task and pay us to solve these new challenges.
What Can We Learn From Other Professions?
The design industry is not alone in facing ethical choices in our jobs. Many established professions have robust ethical systems already worked out. I’ve picked out three examples from iconic roles in Western culture: the priest, the doctor, and the lawyer. They all face moral dilemmas in their work, and they all have clear models for resolving those dilemmas.
Priests guide and encourage their congregations, and they can wield enormous influence over the moral choices of their parishioners. But in modern Western culture, the priest’s guidance exists only as a recommendation, an ideal to strive toward. (Modern religious organizations often don’t live up to their own ethical codes, which is a risk our industry also faces.)
The takeaway: It’s foolish to think that we can fully control the design choices industry makes. Similarly, the priest does not control people’s choices. When church is over, parishioners go their own way and make their own decisions, which may or may not comport with what they heard from the pulpit. As designers, we may be able to shape the contours of the world, but as with modern religion, our ethical framework works best as a set of ideals rather than any rule of force.
All MDs take the Hippocratic oath at the start of their profession. By doing so they agree to treat everyone who requires medical assistance, regardless of which side of the war they’re on, where they come from, or how much money they have. Doctors commit to treating a thief with a gunshot wound just as they would treat a child with a broken arm. The Hippocratic oath also commits doctors to “do no harm” to a patient. In other words, doctors have to recognize that there are times where intervening in a situation might be more harmful than doing nothing at all.
Finally, it’s important to understand that doctors’ ethical model has evolved over time. Doctors used to wear patchouli in their masks and use leeches for bloodletting. They used to believe in the four humors. But their craft is constantly evolving to adopt new ideas and technologies. They learned how to give bone marrow transplants and triage in times of war and famine. As the science has evolved, so too has the code of ethics.
The takeaway: Just as patients go to doctors, clients come to designers with complex problems, and we’re tasked with solving those problems. Our first priority is not to make the problem worse, and if we don’t see a way forward, we have to speak up and recommend a different approach. We also have to mindful that a solution that makes sense today might not meet our ethical standards in the future, and we have to be willing to adapt.
Lawyers pose the clearest parallel to how designers operate today. In the law, regardless of people’s innocence or guilt, they are afforded an attorney to help them navigate their rights. It’s an agnostic service model, and it’s crucial to ensure fairness. Society would be doomed without lawyers to defend people.
The takeaway: Clients task designers to solve problems, and it’s not up to us to attach innocence or guilt to the product or outcome of the work. We represent our clients. Some of us may pick and choose clients based on a moral outlook, but this brings me back to the original conundrum: You may be fortunate enough to turn down work, but the client will just find another designer.
It’s not a question of being for or against designing for good. That work is going to be done. Design for evil people, products, things–or more likely, things that will become evil–will happen. It may be our highest calling to interact with things that are questionable in order to drive a better outcome, rather than simply accepting or rejecting work based on our personal feelings.
So What’s Next?
The industry needs a clear declaration of the business purposes of design, and to promote a dialogue about what role designers should take. It begins with documentation. Medicine has a system of articles, studies, and schooling–an entire institution for building its craft. Lawyers have the law. Designers today are limited to conventions and intuition–often routinized by the corporations that hire them. Imagine if Google’s Material Design became the law, or Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. I’m not recommending that. But that’s one end of the spectrum. Waffling with our feelings is at the other end of the spectrum; neither is acceptable.
As technology seeps into everyday life, designers have to figure out where they fit in. Design for technology cannot be placed solely into good or bad buckets. It’s true that there are unsolved moral and ethical questions around new technologies–especially those as profoundly impactful as AI. We need to grapple with all of the implications of the ceaseless march forward, both good and bad, and we need a method to do it so we can come together to make a better world for everyone.
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