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“Very few things are more important now to the future of humanity than design ethics”

Tim Wu is a Professor of Law at Columbia University. He writes for the New York Times and the New Yorker. He’s the author of two very influential books on technology and its impact on society The Master Switch, and The Attention Merchants.

He’s not someone given to hyperbole and exaggeration. But the title of this post, “Very few things are more important now to the future of humanity than design ethics”, comes from him. So stop for a second and think about the enormity of what Wu is saying. The future of humanity.

Cast our minds back a quarter of a century. For some of us, this will be a memory, for others, ancient history.

It’s hard to believe, but at the dawn of the World Wide Web era, pre smartphones (indeed, before almost anyone had a mobile phone at all), before laptops, before computers outside the workplace were common at all, technology, computing was treated as something a little strange. The preserve of geeks and nerds. Of science and engineering, and banking. Something about which few other than these ‘high priests’ really knew much at all.

This last quarter of a century has seen technology pervade everything. As Mark Andreesen, who was instrumental in the popularisation of the browser, first with Mosaic, then Netscape, put it “software is eating the world“. Software mediates increasingly every action we take, whether with friends and family through social media, with our bank, how we get from A to B with ride sharing, what we watch on streaming services. Through machine learning, and artificial intelligence, increasingly every decision about us, medical, financial, governmental is made by algorithms and systems and data collected about us, often data we’re unaware of, or barely aware of.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this, but one that is really a matter only of degree is the Chinese ‘social credit’ system, “intended to standardise the assessment of citizens’ and businesses’ economic and social reputation, or ‘credit'”.

But what’s often left out of this picture is the fact that all of this is designed. All of it. Increasingly every action and interaction we take, tested, refined, with specific business or organisational outcomes in mind. Whether it’s keeping your attention on a site, buying something more. We talk about User Centred Design, but how often is it really business objective centred design?

And if this is problematic now, what happens when say all of us are wearing smart watch type devices, that measure our vital signs and activity every moment of out lives. There are many potentially marvellous, even lifesaving applications of these devices.

But, putting this data the hands of health and life insurers could have very significant impacts not just on individual lives, but on the very nature of insurance itself.

When everything is designed, every impact of a product, a service, a technology is in a way a choice. And those choices are driven by design ethics. And those ethical choices are as much the responsibility of individual designers, and engineers as they are of organisations, managers, CEOs. Arguable more so, since those of use who work on the details, not just the big picture, have more time, and more capacity to think through second order effects. The unintended consequences.

Couple this with the opportunity designers and technologists have right now, being in such demand, to choose whether they work for, and what they work on. These ethical decisions are yours to make.

Tim Wu has made explicit something I’ve felt for sometime, and as someone whom I’ve admired for a long time now, it’s gratifying to hear it put so succinctly and powerfully.

“Very few things are more important now to the future of humanity than design ethics”.

And if you look at the program for our upcoming Web Directions Summit, you’ll see ethics, both directly and indirectly, takes a central place. We have


If ethics and the impact of the design and engineering choices you make are important to you, I hope we’ll see you at Web Directions Summit, in Sydney, November 1 and 2.

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