We Can’t Fix Design with Fear
The key to digital tech’s ethical dilemma is innovation and optimism
“Stand back!” yelled Arthur Edsall in an imported Roger-Benz, one of the first-ever petrol cars.
He, along with two other passengers, was demonstrating the German-manufactured, French-assembled car near the Crystal Palace in southeast London, driving at what a witness called a “tremendous pace, like a fire engine — as fast as a good horse could gallop.”
The automobile was traveling at four miles per hour toward Bridget Driscoll. Mrs. Driscoll, who had likely never seen a gasoline-powered vehicle, was reported as seeming bewildered — she didn’t seem to understand what the driver was doing as he zigzagged in an attempt to steer away from her.
The car swerved at the last moment, but unfortunately couldn’t avoid Mrs. Driscoll.
She died that day, August 17th, 1896, the victim of the first-ever reported fatal car accident.
That same year, Detroit’s streets saw its very first gasoline-powered vehicle. It went as fast as 20 miles per hour, which was described in the newspaper as “tearing along the street at a lively rate, dodging people and teams.”
In the years that followed, the rise of automobile production and adoption transformed the streets around the globe from the age of horses to the new, fast-paced age of motor vehicles.
Yet it would take three decades for things like stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver’s education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver’s licenses, or posted speed limits to appear. Our current method of making a left turn was not known, and drinking and driving was not considered a serious crime.
What was meant to be the promise of a revolutionary mode of travel came alongside a serious debate held over whether the automobile was inherently evil. In 1931, the state of Georgia’s Court of Appeals wrote:
Automobiles are to be classed with ferocious animals and … the law relating to the duty of owners of such animals is to be applied … However, they are not to be classed with bad dogs, vicious bulls, evil disposed mules, and the like.
Today, because cars are such an essential part of everyday life, it’s easy to take for granted the enormous social and economic impact that the automobile has had.
The French automotive engineer Maurice Norroy described the revolution succinctly:
The history of the automobile more than anything else is the history of a revolution. In only a few years, industrial methods were transformed, and along with them the means of communication, and more, the nature of rural and urban life, the way goods are distributed, and the entire economic system.
But like most technological revolutions throughout human history, it took decades for the automobile to mature into a technology that fulfilled its promise while also creating infrastructure to ensure it was used responsibly.
The digital revolution is no different, and we’re left debating whether today’s technology is inherently evil. Like the automotive revolution, today’s digital revolution is under similar scrutiny due to the growing awareness of the harmful side of digital technologies.
Design is now a weapon. Proceed with caution.
Digital design has turned technology into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions.
Digital design exploits human psychology.
Digital design perpetuates negative stereotypes.
Digital design promotes fake news.
Digital design damages your mental health.
Digital design violates your privacy.
As a digital product designer myself, what used to make me feel like I had heroic superpowers — that design could save the world — now makes me feel like a clumsy villain wielding a sharp, dangerous sword. Design is now a weapon. Proceed with caution.
Amongst designers, attempts to establish ethical guidelines have become more prevalent. From proposing a licensing system to repurposing the Hippocratic Oath, the digital design industry is crying out for solutions to minimize the harm done by the digital products that shape the world today.
Most of the time, the sentiment of the conversation is rooted in self-righteousness and anger, the kind of civil unrest that you’d find at riot.
Mike Montiero, a design influencer who has had much to say on the matter, wrote a book that I think epitomizes the extreme tone toward design ethics, titled: Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It.
Tristan Harris, director and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, argues that designers have used coercion techniques to “downgrade” the species.
This sounds similar to the general reaction to early automobiles. Are we classifying product designers with ferocious animals, the way automobiles once were?
With all of the attention aimed at the deleterious effects of emerging digital technologies today, it’s easy to overlook the fact that modern technology has enhanced global communication, increased access to information, and paved the way for new business models. The emergence of digitization and the design of digital technologies has, without a doubt, improved our standards of living.
Similar to the way automobiles revolutionized everyday life, digital technologies have done the same, with design as the driving force behind it all. While designers running fast and loose is admittedly reckless, the notion of designers “destroying the world” is rather dramatic. The reality is, the integration of digital technologies into everyday life, and the design industry that shapes them, is still relatively new.
The dark side of digital technologies isn’t a hot topic because the negative aspects are new, but rather because we’re only now becoming aware of them.
But we’ve had very little time to design better.
Any new component introduced to society is followed by an aging period. Prevalent digital technologies shaped by designers — like social networks, online banking, online media platforms, and the like — are just over a decade old. For cars, it took nearly 30 years of “tearing along the street” before rules and laws were established and cars were designed for safer driving.
We’re sounding the alarm on technologies still in their infancy — it’s easy to forget that.
The signature process for designers in the digital age is to make, learn from mistakes, and iterate — a process that requires time. It’s a spirit of experimentation and trial and error that has created so much value. But it has also been inhibited as a result of today’s tech reckoning.
Of course, it’s important that we limit intentional harm in design, and it’s clear that the industry has at least become more mindful of that. There will always be the challenge for designers to balance business goals and objectives with doing what’s right for the end-user.
We’re sounding the alarm on technologies still in their infancy.
But when fear is the primary motivator for designers — when a designer’s reaction to today’s ethical dilemma is to take fewer risks — isn’t it possible that we’re actually limiting our ability to find a better way? We learn by doing, and we do more as we learn.
The trajectory of the invention of the car — like most technological innovations throughout human history — is, if anything, reassuring of design’s optimistic future. What was once a promising technology that we learned very quickly had the capacity for harm was eventually, and inevitably, designed to be safer.
It wasn’t until a decade after cars were invented that the now-ubiquitous steering wheel was adopted. Instead, the earliest automobiles took inspiration from the steering mechanism of boat tillers, a lever attached to the rudder of a boat that could be moved to either side. Moving the tiller left made the boat turn right, and vice versa. Although it was a common method of steering, for drivers of early cars it was incredibly confusing and arguably the primary cause for most accidents.
The adoption of the steering wheel inevitably replaced tillers in every manufactured car after proving safer results. But it required a paradigm shift that, without a doubt, could not have been possible with a conservative, risk-averse design approach.
It’s imperative that designers do not act gently when we become aware of the dark side of our work. It’s our undeniable responsibility.
But our efforts to turn this dark side around is a process, one that requires a level of openness and optimism that I’m afraid is wilting.