Politics is the design problem of our times.
A couple of years ago I was talking to a conference organizer about doing a talk. Doesn’t matter who it was. That’s not the point. Everything was going well until they asked me the name of the talk.
“How to Fight Fascism,” I replied.
“Could you do something less political?” they replied.
I ended up not doing that conference, and that story repeated itself a few more times since then. People want to hear about design, and they agree that we might have designed ourselves into a “bit of trouble,” we may even be coming around on the idea there might be some people in Silicon Valley that don’t have our best interests in mind. But for the love of god, can we please address it without getting political? (After all, it upsets the sponsors.)
If we’re going to talk about design responsibility, ethics, or whatever you want to call it, we’re going to have to get political. Let me show you why. Let’s walk through a few scenarios — the names are fake, the situations are not:
Tom works at a very large social media company. He’s good at what he does. That’s how he got the job. He’s not in charge of any projects or managing anyone, but he’s a valuable member of his team, which is designing the system for buying ads. That’s an important system for the company, it’s how they make their money. It’s gotta work. It’s also complex. There’s a lot of knobs and levers to manage. All of those levers control who the buyer can target with the ad. Targeted advertising is important to the company, the more targeted the ad the better it converts. Tom’s job is to make sure all the levers are working, as well as to add and subtract levers as management requests. He gets a request to add a lever for religion. He reads the spec. It says that buyers should be able to select from a list of religions so that only people who self-identified as being part of that religion receive the ad. Because Tom is good at what he does he runs through the possible scenarios this new lever introduces. One of the scenarios Tom comes up with is the possibility of that someone might check all the religions except Jewish to send anti-Semitic ads. He raises this as a red flag to management. Management waves it off. Tom considers pushing the issue, but then remembers that his entire family counts on him for the healthcare he gets through his employer. Including his daughter, who had a medical scare last year. Tom can’t put their care at risk. The feature gets built.
Agnes works at a ride sharing company. She’s good at what she does. That’s how she got the job. She’s also the only woman on her team, which is currently working on a tool to track riders. The product spec says the company wants to keep tracking the rider’s location at all times, regardless of whether they’d just finished a ride or not. Agnes doesn’t agree with this, so she takes it to management. They wave her off. Agnes considers pushing the idea, but then she remembers she’s paying off $100,000 in student debt. $350 a month. The amount seems insurmountable. Agnes relents and helps build the feature. Maybe public outrage will get the feature deleted.
Nigel also works at a social media company. He’s on the Trust & Safety team, which is responsible for making sure the platform is free of abuse and harassment. He spends his day reviewing content that users have marked as harmful. He notices a large number of complaints about the same user and once he investigates, he realizes that user has a history of harassing other users. He takes this to management. Management doesn’t deem the harassment bad enough to suspend the user. They overrule Nigel. Nigel disagrees and considers pushing the issue but then remembers that he’s in the country on an H1-B Visa, sponsored by the company. If he loses his job he’ll be deported. Nigel doesn’t suspend the user.
To be clear, doing the right thing means doing the right thing. No matter the cost. But fuck, can we make it a little easier on people? I can’t fault someone for choosing their family’s health over an ethical dilemma, but we can work to take that dilemma away. No one should ever have to choose between their family’s well-being and working ethically.
So, tell me again… how are we going to talk about design ethics without getting political? We’re dealing with healthcare. We’re dealing with student loan debt. We’re dealing with immigration reform. That’s shit we need to fix at the polls.
It’s political. Thinking otherwise isn’t just foolish, it’s irresponsible.