Jul 13, 2021 | by Budi Tanrim
Ethical Design: Harms of our work
Is stealing morally wrong? Perhaps you’d say it is.
What about Robinhood? If a person steals to help the poor, is that morally wrong?
As a practitioner, I started to worry about how tech affecting our future. Now and then, we would hear a horrifying story about how unethical decisions harm individuals, society, or the environment.
In 2015, Volkswagen was caught cheating on their engine emissions. They have proudly claimed their vehicles as fuel-efficient and low emissions. But the truth is, they have had installed a “defeat device” in more than 11 million cars worldwide. When tested in the laboratory, this device would turn the engine’s safety mode. Once on the road? The engines produced up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US.1
In 2017, Oxford professor Philip Howard studied 22 million tweets. They found that Twitter users shared more “misinformation, polarizing, and conspirational content” than had shared actual news stories. We can assume because fake news contains more emotional content and unexpected information.2
It’s hard to talk about ethics in general. Because who would say what is morally right or wrong? Back to the Robinhood example, I stated before. Throughout the series, let’s use multiple perspectives to discuss this topic. But first, let’s talk about how unethical work hurts us.
Our work can produce either intentional unethical work as the one Volkswagen conducted. Or an unintended consequence of Twitter’s misinformation example. The type of harm can be broadly divided into three areas:
Individual harm: Anxiety, depression, distraction, the violence of the privacy, or financial strain. This affect anything from interpersonal relationship, or cultivating our psychological aspect. You’re probably the victim of sunk cost in the social media.
Societal harm: Human exploitation create any injustice, exclusion of people with disabilities. Social media would be a good example of this. Where they exploited our psychological vulnerabilities.
Environmental harm: Pollution, global warming, excessive exploitation of the forest. The tricky part about the environmental harm is most of them are long-term affect of our today’s decisions. We don’t get an immediate feedback of our action, so it’s hard to prevent it without having a strong systemat thinking.
In our work, we face an ethical dilemma. Combine with the time-pressure, short-term business goal, and misused of A/B test to justify their dark pattern. As one of the C-level I’ve worked with said to me, “Users trust and satisfaction are not measurable. So, we need to measure what matters.” He meant to measure revenue and engagement.
How can a designer who works in a company with a mandate to generate revenue stay ethical? What can we do to reduce potential harm of our work?
P.S. Happy birthday to myself :) I am so thankful that many of you still read my blog. Thank you.
- Volkswagen: The scandal explained. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772 ↩
- Philip N. Howard, et al: Social Media, News and Political Information during the US Election: Was Polarizing Content Concentranted in Swing States?