Design Ethics: Defying the boundaries of possibility
Jurassic Park was, by all accounts, a fine novel. The late Michael Crichton's bestselling tale of long extinct prehistoric creatures brought back to life by means of genetic engineering was a public success. The inevitable movie version became a worldwide blockbuster, spawning an entire new franchise and a fleeting wave of dinomania. This cinematic reference also serves as a timely reminder of an issue that causes disquiet and debate in equal measures: Design Ethics.
Jurassic Park dealt with two key issues: a practical demonstration of the chaos theory, and the results of uncontrolled and unethical design and genetic experimentation - providing an insight into why defying the boundaries of possibility can sometimes lead to unintended consequences of a biblical scale.
The core of the story was, of course, the resurrection of an entire species through genetic engineering for the purpose of public entertaining and financial gain. All goes awry though, and many pay the ultimate price for transgressing into the natural order of life.
Life finds a way: The unintended consequences of unethical design
Human endeavour sometimes leads to unintended consequences. Bringing rabbits into Australia late in the 17th century, for example, led to an uncontrolled infestation due to lack of local predatory species. Millions of rabbits were culled every year without having any noticeable effect on overall numbers.
And just as unintentional thinking sometimes leads to disaster, unethical design may lead to dire, or at the very least, detrimental results for the end user. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, exposed this truth in his essay about how technology hijacks our minds. In a recent essay, Harris says “This is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.”
Design ethics is a complex and far-reaching issue, one that fazes system designers, inventors, and innovators the world over every day. In many cases, creativity is led by a “because we can” attitude, rather than a “should we do it” attitude? Is a final product the mere fulfilment of the designer's own intentions, or is it designed to elicit a better customer experience?
It is important to understand that design is the ultimate result of a chain of decisions. And that those decisions are guided by an intention of achieving something, be it good or bad. Even these concepts are ambivalent. Good for the user, the designer or the organisation that hired the designer?
To put this into perspective, the latest Snapchat update became embroiled in controversy. Snapchat quantifies individual popularity into a single number, deemed the “Snapchat score”. This number theoretically indicates how popular users are. The algorithm that calculates this score is a trade secret. But the undeniable fact is that the higher the number, the more popular users are ranked and perceived by their peers. The quickest way to raise the score? By using the app more often.
So questioning and considering that intention at an early stage is a vital piece of the design puzzle. Alan Dargan, UX Design Expert Lecturer, makes several observations on this:
In the context of Social Media, for example, Alan makes a clear point: “If we see product design as a catalogue of intentions then it’s obvious that the options presented to a user on a social media platform are carefully selected to shape the user’s experience. Options can include accomplishing a task quickly or ensuring someone uses the app longer or more frequently.” Alan's words raise a clear question: Whose needs are catered for here? The users', since they perceive they are doing what they want to do, or the designers', since users are merely following a carefully programmed design pattern?
In any case, Jurassic Park is the fictional epitome of good intentions gone bad, while the introduction of rabbits to a new land where the species was not native to became a real life example of the same quandary. Had those intentions been questioned and analysed, the final outcome would have been very different, because life indeed finds a way.
The great dilemma: Good personal ethics vs. good corporate ethics
American Supreme Court Justice Associate Potter Stewart once said that “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
Killing is wrong, right? Whether we talk about a big game hunter looking for their next trophy to grace the hunting lodge, a law enforcement agent using a gun against someone of a different race, or indeed, government-sponsored killing in the form of lawful executions.
Yet, all this is made possible because someone thought of and designed firearms, and a research team in an engineering or pharmaceutical firm came up with a prototype for the electric chair, or the right mix of drugs to induce human death.
People lie at the heart of the design of all these items, and knew what the result of their research would lead to, yet, they went ahead with their original intentions. They did it because they could, not because they should.
This raises the question of good personal ethics vs. corporate ethics.
Some of the people involved in those research times might have had reservations about what they were doing, perhaps thinking inwardly that implicitly enabling a government-sponsored killing method was morally wrong. “If you feel that you are constantly being concerned by the things you are being asked to do, then it might be time to ask yourself serious questions about your career choices,” says Dargan.
Ethics are a set of very personal determinations and ideas about how things in life should be. But in corporate land, senior management usually has the final say in design guidelines, and these usually overrule any personal reservations. What tends to happen, according to Alan Dargan, 'is a gradual dilution of (moral) principles'. Be it because of financially or politically driven motivations, a decision is taken even in the face of potentially devastating consequences. Morthon-Thiokol's bow to NASA's pressure to launch the Challenger shuttle in 1986 is a perfect example of this
Still, despite ethical considerations, new weaponry and more efficient killing devices spring up every day. Indeed, the human kind is the only species on the planet to hold the very dubious accolade of intentionally designing the means to wipe themselves out.
It is hard to see the bright side of design ethics sometimes, or even if ethics played a role at all, given the outcome of many projects. Design sometimes does lead to unforeseen or unpredictable consequences, but as long as ethics are an inherent part of the design process, the end result will at least comply to a certain set of moral standards.