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To what extent should designers apply their moral compass?

Post-event report of the Digital Design Ethics Conference

27 Nov 2018 15:00 | Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries

Are push notifications desirable in a news app for children? Should Airbnb be designed community-centric rather than user-centric? Would you ever create a platform which helps to deport millions of immigrants?

The Digital Design Ethics Conference on 26 November, organised by the Communication and Multimedia Design degree programme, focused on the moral responsibility of digital designers. What degree of responsibility do they have in this area? If you ask keynote speaker Mike Monteiro, the answer is simple: a designer bears huge ethical responsibility: the responsibility of one human being towards another.

Students, lecturers and researchers from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences met with designers and developers in the Amsterdam Eye Film Museum to hear the passionate pleas of Amber Case, Mike Monteiro and Cennydd Bowles. So what did the students learn? 'It makes sense to think about whether your products are genuinely useful', says Denise (21), a Communication and Multimedia Design student.

According to the American cyberanthropologist Amber Case, this point is exactly what matters: the added value. In her opinion, digital technology is increasingly accompanied by bells and whistles; sometimes quite literally. The society in which we live constantly demands our attention, with beeps, bells and alarms all over the place. 'It is such a shame', says Case. 'We are overloading ourselves with all kinds of technical communications which are intrusive and which do not always satisfy genuine needs. What they do is remove us from the emotional reality which really matters.' According to Case, the designer is the one who should apply human standards. Why design a refrigerator which beeps when your banana is gone bad, when the banana is quite capable of showing you itself? 'Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.'

Mike Monteiro

Mike Monteiro

Digital atomic bomb

Mike Monteiro was the second keynote speaker at the conference and defined the role of the designer in even more extreme terms: anyone who is uncritical is contributing to an undemocratic society: ‘a digital atomic bomb’. Monteiro worked out ten rules which designers can use as a checklist. One of his key starting points is that you are responsible for your own work. For example, do not be surprised if you end up in jail after designing fraudulent software for Volkswagen. 'And if you ever sell your soul to design a platform which deports immigrants, you are using your skills to harm the most vulnerable members of society.' He is referring here to the software company Palantir, which works with the Trump administration. In addition, Monteiro impresses upon his audience the importance of remaining open to criticism. Only people who really listen to their environment will know which problems they are solving.

Unforeseen consequences of tech

Various workshops later, the conference was brought to a slightly more balanced conclusion by Cennydd Bowles, the author of Future Ethics. Bowles described the unforeseen and undesirable consequences which always go hand in hand with technology. For instance, take Airbnb. This platform actually benefits only two groups: the lessors and the lessees. However, entire neighbourhoods have been disrupted and house prices driven up as a result, an unintentional outcome of what is actually an appealing service.

Digital Design Ethics

Bowles argues in favour of ethical working methods in tech companies. In practice, this fact also means that designers should spend more time thinking about what they are creating; 'even if it slows down the process', says Bowles. This outcome can also be achieved by hiring ethicists to look into technical solutions and by using more diverse teams. Or, as Monteiro says: not by having ‘privileged white boys’ design just for other ‘privileged white boys’, but by shifting the focus from the user to the community.

Although Dave (25) feels that it is all worded rather too strongly, he does recognise the issue. As a new front-end developer, he also encounters moral dilemmas from time to time. 'Lots of clients want push notifications for everything. As I sometimes find it hard to open my mouth because I am one of the youngest, these kinds of inspirational speakers are very helpful.’        

The Digital Design Ethics Conference was organised by the Communication and Multimedia Design degree programme on behalf of the Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries.

Would you like to read more about the theme of the conference? Visit https://did.amsterdam and www.cmd-amsterdam.nl.