Can we codify culture?
As we rolled over from Q1 into Q2 at AC4D, our class transitioned from theory, thinking about the foundations of design and our methodology, to ethics, where we are discussing how our designs may manifest in the real world and the repercussions they may have. Throughout the quarter, we are building our own ethical framework, a personal artifact that we ourselves as designers can reference when we feel we may have veered off course, or are confronted with a situation that needs deliberating. Currently, my framework is a work in progress, morphing and growing as we dive deeper into the nuances of design in practice, but I want it to be the center point of my first presentation.
During class, I had brought up an article I read in WIRED which told the story of Canadian civil engineers, who after a tragic bridge failure galvanized around an oath to their craft which they have recited at graduation for over a century. My brother and father are both engineers, who both graduated from Queens University in Canada, and both recited this oath. When I asked my brother what this oath meant to him, he said “You are designing systems that take human life into applied scientific practice.” It is taken seriously, as well it should be for the very reason he stated.
But how does an industry like design, which is not held to the regulations and certifications of engineers, doctors, or lawyers, create a code of ethics?
How can we define design ethics in a world where it’s nearly impossible to define design? I recall from my first theory presentation, using the definition of design to say that everything is designed.
to do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.
To me this means our code of ethics needs to be broad, and reflect on all industries. Ethics should not be limited to a single profession with a single oath, it needs to permeate the culture of society and everything that is done with purpose and intention.
So I wanted to explore how this culture change could happen. How can we safeguard against poor ethical practices like dark patterns and against behavior design as a method to exploit our psychology for profit?
How could this look in different forms?
What does a policy change look like? There are already existing movements to penalize malevolent behavior. But is strong-arming even the right path? We have seen before that our representatives are not exactly fluent in tech, so could this actually be a danger?
Can we approach this issue from education? Design is so ambiguous, a single code of ethics would be hard to agree upon, and may not even be effective. Plus take into account unlike engineering, many designers are self-taught therefor circumventing the process. The emerging field of Progress Studies looks at human progress over history, and may be critical in establishing a code of ethics for best business practice which I would hypothesize does not include deceit of the clientele. This seems like a slow process, that may take awhile to find it’s way into our society. On top of that, it implies that only those able to get formal education will be able to determine the best process moving forward.
What does this look like if we use technology to fight technology? As an example, what if we use crowd-sourcing to weed out poorly designed sites? Perhaps the hidden dark patterns wouldn’t be noticed, as is their goal, but for the most part a lot of us know a bad website when we see it. Or maybe we will spur a new wave of 5-star bots for a self-serving rating.
There are already people at work trying to make the underpinnings of technology more transparent. The website algotransparency.org has made it’s goal to show people what the YouTube algorithm’s intentions are, and how they may be promoting misinformation.
How about the idea of making the cloud an open-source infrastructure? Advertising and metrics are the drivers of a lot of these dubious behaviors, done in the name of profit. By removing the incentive to collect our data, perhaps we can remove the ethical oversights so often committed and move away from a culture of greed by metrics.
To me, the only path I see for change is a shift in our culture towards technology. As designers, I believe we all have a duty to use our influence to make society better, and not get frozen by the daunting task of changing it all at once. If you build something, build it better. Lead by example. Be transparent. Give people the option to opt-in or opt-out. Be modest and put aside your 2nd vacation home to take less, instead of just give more. Any good business person will tell you the path to repeat customers is earning their trust.
Thank you for reading along with my journey towards building my own framework during this work in progress. If you are interested in your own ethical framework, this code of ethics has been the one that resonates with me the most and has been a great springboard for my self-reflection. If you are not a designer by trade, I urge you to consider just how much you actually may be a designer and how to bring these ideas into your professional world as well.