Ethics isn’t just for philosophers—designers need to take responsibility, too

The evolution in design ethics.
The evolution in design ethics.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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A few years ago, I was doing PhD research and interviewing designers around the world to identify the limiting factors in designers integrating sustainability into their work. Nearly everyone I interviewed had, at some point, learned about the systemic implications of rapid innovation and how to make better decisions. Yet most of them still passed off the responsibility of making the “right” decision to someone else: It was the boss’s, client’s, manufacturer’s, government’s, or consumer’s choice that would solve the problem that their production would participate in.

When everyone within a system plays this hands-off, “that’s not my problem” game, the system is very quickly riddled with external issues … and a shitload of problems. This appears to be the case with the complex debate around the ethics of design and technology. Who is taking responsibility for the outcomes, externalities, and downright damaging impacts of our hyper-consumer, ever-changing landscape of new gadgets and virtual arenas that are coming on board at a lighting-speed pace?

We make decisions every day based on our personal and professional ethical frameworks, be it conscious or not. Consider for a moment where you draw your ethical knowledge-set from and what the life experiences and conditions are that have created the scaffolding that makes you you. There is no collective moral compass, and the dichotomy of right and wrong differs dramatically across generations, cultures, nationalities, and professionals.

Everything that is created requires something else to be changed, destroyed, or depleted. Under the current linear systems of design and production, much of what we consume is at the expense of something or someone else—the cost of an ecosystem, a culture, or a human’s well-being. The ramifications are no secret; we see the dynamic feedback loops of our individual and collective decisions everywhere (see here, here, here, and here).

In our hyper-globalized world, the lines of what is ethical and what is not are becoming increasingly blurred, if not disappearing altogether. Cultural conditions, social factors, and, more increasingly, political climates are dramatically shifting the status quo of what is deemed ethical and what has simply become normalized.

For example, I recently experienced virtual reality (VR) for the first time. I was challenged to escape from a room at a trade show as a magician and failed, without knowing what the consequences would be. After two minutes, an axe was thrown at my head in full 3D, making blood trickle in front of my VR headset in a very real way. The cognitive reaction was incredibly visceral—I screamed and was instantly filled with an extreme rush of cortisol and endorphins trying to make my body run from the danger. Only I couldn’t, because I had been loosely chained in to prevent me from pulling the headset out of its connector.

The experience was so real—testament to the incredible technological advances we have made—but also worrying for me, as I considered the neurological impacts of such realistic but completely made-up scenarios. My brain could not distinguish between the two experiences: the real world I actually exist within and the virtual world that is designed to simulate the real world. In that world, anything can happen—including having an axe thrown at your head.

But here is the often-complex thing about ethics—there is no universal truth or governing paradigm that dictates what is ethical and what is not. Instead, ethics is bred out of the act of making conscious, deliberate decisions that take into account many of the conditions that are at play in the arena that one is deciding upon.

When it comes to designing the material and technological world around us, we must demand public ethical considerations by the shapers of our lived experience. If you graduate from a computer science degree in the US and decide to be a member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), then you are bound by this ethical code of conduct. The national body for designers in the US, the AIGA (disclosure: they are a client of mine) also have a professional code of conduct. In fact, many of the other design industry associations (IDSA, AGDA, IGDA, IDIBC) have ethical codes of conduct that members must abide by to too. They entail doing no harm, being good to your client, and protecting rights such as privacy.

These have become the cornerstones of most industry’s ethical frameworks, and rightfully so; making sure that other members of your profession don’t stuff it up for the rest of you makes good business sense. However, they are not good enough. Cognitively, agreeing to something you didn’t decide upon has very little weight in broader decision-making contexts.

I’m therefore agitating for the personal responsibility set to be more refined, and for the deflection of agency to stop—especially for those in the producer roles. You want to live in this world, create stuff, have fun, and live in a healthy happy life? Then you can’t avoid ethics.

Design is an incredibly powerful social scriptor. The designed world creates us, so if we create designed artifacts, cities, communities, and the technologies that guide it all, then why aren’t we having bigger, louder, stronger, and more significant public debates about the ethics of our collective choices? Who gets to decide what we end up with and what is not a good collective decision to invest in? I mean, do we even want AI?

Ethics is not an option—the conversations need to transpire out in the open, not behind locked doors or protected by the privileged and perverse legal structures of proprietary information. Things that will dramatically impact the planet, and all of us on it, need to be collectively agreed upon. Otherwise, we will lose much of the incredible beauty our species has created over the last millennium of complex evolution, development, and negotiation around what it means to be a human living on this planet.