Round-up on ethics of design in technology

One of the most interesting and challenging inquiries in the evolving ethical code of technology has to do with design choices. Ethical decision-making and process design has direct impact on the fluid, complex process of creating the devices, interfaces, and systems that are brought to market and used by consumers on a constant basis. In such a disruptive and innovative industry, there are moral costs for every design decision: every new creation replaces or changes an existing one, and for everyone who has new access or benefits, others experience the costs of these decisions. Therefore the ethics of design as applied to technology and, of particular interest, social media, have concrete importance for everyone living in a world increasingly dominated by user experiences, communities’ terms of service, and smart devices.

  • Former Google product manager Tristan Harris has gone viral with his commentary on the ethics of design in smart phones and platforms creating apps for them. There is a balance in online design where the internet platforms go from being useful or intuitive to encouraging interruption and even obsession. Many people worry about the effect “screen time” may have on their attention span, quality of sleep, and offline interactions with people. Design techniques may actually keep people attached to their devices in a constant loop of advertisements, notifications, and links, as content providers and platforms compete to grab viewers’ attention. Alerting people to the control their devices have over their attention and time is one step, but urging more ethical choices in the design process is the next frontier for innovation reform:  Our Minds Have Been Hijacked By Our Phones.  Tristan Harris Wants To Rescue Them. 
  • The above phenomenon of addictive design has become so imbedded in the creation of app features that even the most subtle changes can have a huge impact on the consumption practices of users. But when do features go from entertaining and user-friendly to compulsive, even addictive? Refreshing an app can be like pulling the lever on a slot machine, giving the brain rewards in the form of new content to keep the loop going at the expense of other activities and priorities. These design improvements, then, may actually affect users more as manipulations:  Designers are using “dark UX” to turn you into a sleep-deprived internet addict
  • These small, ongoing redesigns are intended to make apps more readable and consumable. These periodic improvements are intended to make content more captivating and enable longer browsing – again prompting the question, what is the ethical code for the control designers wield over users with these choices? From a design ethics perspective, these small changes can be viewed as more alarming than major ones, as they are so incremental that many users do not consciously notice them and therefore “optimization” tips into “over-optimization,” meaningful interaction becoming possibly destructive:  Facebook and Instagram get redesigns for readability
  • Artificial intelligence always captures the public’s imagination – thrills and fears about the possible developing capabilities of robots and predictive algorithms that could direct and define – and perhaps threaten – human existence in the future. AI has been developing in recent years at a breakneck pace, and all indications are that this innovation will continue or multiply in the coming period. The science fiction-esque impact of AI on society will grow and bring with it all kinds of ethical concerns about the abilities of humans to define and control it in a timely and effective way:  Ethics — the next frontier for artificial intelligence
  • Social media platforms have developed into social systems, with all the dilemmas and dynamics that come along with that. These networks may face the choice between engagement and all of the thorny dialogs that come with it, and a simpler, more remote model that can be enjoyable but is less interactive and therefore, perhaps, less provocative:  ‘Link in Bio’ Keeps Instagram Nice

Queries into design ethics and choice theory in technology, especially social media, ask the questions of what human experience will evolve into in a world which is increasingly digitized and networked. The design decisions made in the creation of these devices and systems require an ethical code and a sense of social responsibility in order to define the boundaries of what are the best collective choices.

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