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In the first session of Unpacking Impact, we asked students to draw or describe what impact meant to them on sticky notes. One student drew an explosion to symbolize the disruption of impact. Another student thought the picture was a tree to symbolize how impact can grow and evolve.

Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make

MIT Media Lab
Feb 11, 2016 · 7 min read

Designers and makers need more opportunities to reflect on why we make and what it means for society.

Every day, we wake up to articles about technology companies with utopian promises or designers making questionable decisions about the platforms and systems that shape our lives. We couldn’t help asking: how are colleges and universities preparing their students to tackle the ethical and societal implications of their work?



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Images from students’ final project documentation.

In the first half of the semester, we focused on unpacking students’ views and assumptions of impact. In other words, we wanted to “pull the rug from under them.”

For example, this moment was especially apparent in our third session, “Inequality and Empowerment.” Students read an excerpt from Virginia Eubanks’ book Digital Dead End and Estzer Hargittai’s article on “The Digital Reproduction of Inequality.” Together, these readings disrupted the idea that providing access to technological solutions might be enough to bridge gaps in inequality. These scholars also argued that new technologies might even accelerate inequality, since only some people can take advantage of the benefits of emerging technologies. For some students, this class offered their first real confrontation with ways that their work may relate to, address, or even contribute to inequality.

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In this student-led workshop, we used a whiteboard with design personas to role-play different online discussion platform designs.
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Images from students’ final project documentation.

“We can’t hide behind ignorance and neutrality, and we need to be able to stand behind the decisions we make every day.”

Writing at the end of the semester, students explained how their understanding of impact and their role in that impact had evolved. One student remarked that “I had never noticed…the way in which design choices affect society [and] the politics of artifacts.” Another student reported becoming aware “that I am consciously making decisions that can influence a lot more people than I may be able to see.” For one student, “the concept of unknown consequences” was no longer an excuse when working for impact; she wrote about “the designer/creator’s responsibility to consider these before or as they reveal themselves.” Another student agreed: “we can’t hide behind ignorance and neutrality, and we need to be able to stand behind the decisions we make every day.” Overall, students reported feeling empowered by the class to consider the “human element to impact,” and to pursue their passions with humility, “using…strong skills for the betterment of the community…[in ways that are] actionable and thoughtful.”


  1. How can we continue the kinds of reflective and critical conversations we had in the course, and include the wider Media Lab community and beyond? Taking a course is a major commitment, and only some students can make the time. What are other ways to have these conversations? Conversations about research and design ethics should be a continued commitment, not just an elective.

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