Less Disruption, More Contribution
As creators and makers–artists, designers, developers, and engineers–we have been complicit in allowing the unethical behaviors of marketers to succeed. We pride ourselves in having knowledge and skills that allow us to create anything we can imagine, so why is it that we do not speak up loudly when a project harms the public good? The time has come for us to act as gatekeepers, to resist, and prevent ethically-dubious ideas from taking form!
We are responsible for conveying complex information to guide our political leaders. Isn’t that a problem worth solving?
The current startup culture and the on-demand economy in which too many of us bathe are at the root of the issues that we face, or rather refuse to face. Years of neoliberalism chipped away at the quality of our education as lobby groups and corporations pushed for more docile and work-ready graduates. Time given to Ethics and Philosophy has been reduced, if not removed, from many schools’ and universities’ curricula, effectively producing graduates with less skills and desire to understand, debate, and question authority and systems.
Public discourse focusing ad-nauseam on economy elevated entrepreneurs as heroes for all to worship, further reducing the perceived value of artists and designers. The economical rollercoaster onto which we are embarked make it difficult for many to support–or even care to understand–publicly-funded artistic and cultural endeavors. In such a context, many of us jumped onto the “capitalist-produced culture” (1) boat. The allure of finally earning good money while using our skills is understandable, but whether it is indeed hard to make ends meet, or because we have grown accustomed to our lifestyles (2), we drank the Kool-Aid, we developed unethical things: We designed works on top of data gathered by questionable means (3), we used our creative knowledge of psychology to attract audiences to our works and tricked them (4) into buying products for our patrons.
At the end of 2016, the BBC broadcasted a story (5) in which Haiyan Zhang, Microsoft Research’s Innovation Director, worked with with Emma Lawton, a young graphic designer diagnosed with Parkinson’s, in developing a watch-like device that would help counteract Lawton’s tremors and enable her to draw and write again. This story is constructed like an advertiser’s wet dream: nicely edited, with a moving soundtrack to heighten emotions, and with a happy ending for all. If this story does not make you shed a tear, or at least rejoice, you are probably dead inside.
But if we put aside all of advertising’s media language–and thus capitalism’s language (6)–the content of this story underlines that we, as creators and makers, have been aiming for the wrong goal. We keep hearing of disrupting and of changing the world, but too often do we only decorate products so they can be sold for more money. Is that really disruptive? Are we really improving the world? We don’t come close to what Zhang did for Lawton!
That is obviously not the only instance of a project where the bottom-line was not the main goal. Recent projects, such as Patricia Bérubé’s research (7) to develop a way for the sight-impaired to touch the colors of artworks, or Zacharias Vamvakousis’ EyeHarp, a “gaze-controlled music interface” (8) which enabled kids with impaired motor skills to play music (9), also strive for a more human-oriented use of our creative and technical skills.
Indeed, why should creators and makers espouse the ideals that should be those of marketers and other financial sharks?
While rampant neoliberalism eroded much of our social conscience, there are nevertheless those that fight to bring ethics back to our work. It is impossible to ignore the very vocal and direct designer Mike Monteiro, who shines a light on the misguided creations that we bring to life:
Let’s define design. Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints. […] First off, you need a problem to solve like: getting from point A to point B, or cutting down harassment on your social network. That’s a problem in search of a design solution. Increasing shareholder value is not a problem. It’s a desire, possibly a fetish. (11)
And this is what we have to stop! It is good to not participate in projects that we deem unethical, but it is not enough: we have to resist, and refuse to create such works!
Fighting back can be a difficult affair. As seen before, neoliberalism has convinced us that we need to become leaders in order to disrupt the current world order and bring change. This path only leads to too many cooks in the kitchen. Not only do we need to stand on the shoulders of giants, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and with our peers.
The task is daunting, and it’s not necessarily clear for all of us from where to start. But we know how to do this, we are skilled in the art of finding solutions to problems! Let’s use our privilege and put our skills for better use! (12)
We should join communities who work to benefit the public good, and whose cause or goals aligns with our beliefs. Meetups and other informal presentations are a great place to start. There we can find projects and people that could benefit from our time and skills. Contributing to communities and projects is great, but our intent and responsibilities must also be clear. Makers and creators that produce works that impact communities should consider more than participation and aesthetics: we should give ourselves a code of conduct, akin to engineers (13). Some of us are already stating our intentions towards improving our behavior: Aral Balkan, a cyborg rights activist, wrote The Ethical Design Manifesto, in which he states that projects should respect human rights, human effort and human experience:
Diversity is so important in what we do. If we do not have diversity in these communities that are tackling this problem, then we have already lost. The only way to design solutions for a diverse audience, for a diverse citizenship, is to have diverse groups designing for themselves. Not studying another group, not studying the other, not being colonialist in their approach, but having diverse groups that design for themselves. (14)
Jer Thorp, a writer, artist, and educator, works with very sensitive material when creating works: Big Data (15). Even though the ambiant discourse on data is that it is a new resource to exploit, it masks that this resource is in fact people’s data. Thorp’s thoughts on his field and practice also leads him to believe that respect for people and their communities should be paramount:
[We’ll] have to leave the utilitarian rhetoric of “Big Data” behind, and replace it with Human Data. We’ll need to deconstruct the systems we created and rebuild them so that they no longer flow downstream from people and communities, but upstream towards them. (16)
Additionally, we should consider respecting our peers with whom we work, as we too often concentrate only onto the work and the results. While that may seem obvious, we still fall short in that regards. As such, April Wensel founded Compassionate Coding (17), a movement which seeks to bring that issue to our attention.
As we can see, there is no need for more disruption, or to create a new movement to lead, regardless of what the startup culture followers would have us believe. There are already enough people working hard to improve our ways and our works. We don’t need to invent problems which we can easily solve by decorating websites, applications, and products. From here, it’s up to us to learn from all those people and to use our skills to actually solve the problems that exist. We have a responsibility to work on ethical projects with partners who will respect our ethical choices. If we intend to see ourselves as providers of creative solutions to problems, our solutions must also benefit the public at large, and not only our patrons.
We know that the education provided to citizens in schools and university lacks Ethics and Philosophy which are sorely needed for our digitally-oriented world. As experienced creators and makers, we should push academic institutions to bring those subjects back, so that we can serve our society better by ensuring that our works are ethical and serve the common good.
Politicians have a responsibility to the public, but they lack the necessary knowledge to not buy the snake oil sold by lobbyists. We have to remind the decision-makers that they should not simply get on board the neoliberal train. We are responsible for conveying complex information to guide our political leaders (18). Isn’t that a problem worth solving?
Let us advocate for a better understanding of the impact of our creations and our works, for a better digital literacy (19). We have a lot of work ahead of us: we have to stop being complacent, we have to speak up, call out the mistaken and the misguided, and refuse to let them proceed and prosper.
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(1) “While in the 1940s, the Frankfurt School philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer warned of an impending wave of capitalist-produced culture that would sweep across the world, the last twenty years has seen that wave become a reality.”
Nato Thompson, “Living as Form,” in Thompson, ed., Living as Form. New York and Cambridge, MA: Creative Time Books and The MIT Press, 2011, 29.
(2) “Inevitably, when I bring up the topic of designers working ethically, someone will reply with some flavor of ‘that’s nice, but I have rent to pay.’ Feel free to substitute ‘rent’ for student loans, childcare, medical costs and various other very real and very valid concerns. Along with what I’m guessing is a not-insignificant amount of designers who are filling in that blank with lifestyle to which I’ve grown accustomed.”
Mike Monteiro. “Ethics and paying rent.” Dear Design Student (blog), March 29, 2017. https://deardesignstudent.com/ethics-and-paying-rent-86e972ce9015.
(3) Charles Arthur. “Facebook emotion study breached ethical guidelines, researchers say.” The Guardian, June 30, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/30/facebook-emotion-study-breached-ethical-guidelines-researchers-say.
(4) Harry Brignull. “Dark Patterns: inside the interfaces designed to trick you.” The Verge, August 29, 2013. https://www.theverge.com/2013/8/29/4640308/dark-patterns-inside-the-interfaces-designed-to-trick-you.
(5) BBC Stories. “This invention helped me write again — BBC Stories.” YouTube video, 3:20. Posted [December 7 2016]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6rAlFYDffQ.
(6) “Before it’s an ad for shampoo or cat food or cola, every advertisement is first an ad for capitalism.”
Ian Bogost. “Pepsi’s New Ad Is a Total Success.” The Atlantic, April 5, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/pepsi-ad-success/522021/.
(7) Éric Clément. “Saisir les couleurs par le toucher pour les malvoyants.” La Presse, April 17, 2017. http://www.lapresse.ca/arts/arts-visuels/201704/17/01-5089049-saisir-les-couleurs-par-le-toucher-pour-les-malvoyants.php.
(8) Zacharias Vamvakousis. “The EyeHarp — Everybody should have access to playing music.” https://theeyeharp.org.
(9) Zacharias Vamvakousis. “EyeHarp. Clases de música para gente con discapacidad.” YouTube video, 1:12. Posted [May 2017]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVhCSJZLe00.
(10) Zeldman quoting Laura Martini from a presentation she gave at An Event Apart in Boston in 2017.
Jeffrey Zeldman. Twitter Post. May 17, 2017, 12:52 PM. https://twitter.com/zeldman/status/864206921401761793.
(11) inUseExp. “Mike Monteiro — How to Fight Fascism.” Filmed [April 2017]. YouTube video, 41:15. Posted [May 2017]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vW2moFk074Q.
(12) Alan Shepard. “Faisons entrer le bénévolat dans l’ère du numérique.” La Presse, April 24, 2017. http://plus.lapresse.ca/screens/0743f591-62dd-4ecf-ba27-7ccdaf6c0c97%7C_0.html.
(13) “Engineers bear a burden to the public, and their specific expertise as designers and builders of bridges or buildings — or software — emanates from that responsibility.”
Ian Bogost. “Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers.” The Atlantic, November 5, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/programmers-should-not-call-themselves-engineers/414271/.
(14) Aral Balkan. “Ethical Design Manifesto.” Video, 4:08. https://ind.ie/ethical-design/.
(15) Wikipedia contributors, “Big data,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Big_data&oldid=782062296 (accessed May 27, 2017).
(16) Jer Thorp, “Turning Data Around”, in The Office for Creative Research Journal #002 (2016):24.
(17) “Compassionate Coding.” http://compassionatecoding.com/.
(18) “We’ve arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it.”
Carl Sagan. Interview with Carl Sagan. Charlie Rose. PBS, May 27, 1996.
(19) “The schism between knowledge and technical skill has to be closed, to eliminate the prejudices held by each side (hacker intolerance for the technologically impaired, and activist intolerance for those who are not politically correct).”
Critical Art Ensemble, “Electronic Civil Disobedience” (1994), in Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1996, 20.