In this November 2020 #mtpcon Digital keynote, Cennydd Bowles, Designer and Author of Future Ethics, highlighted how, as an industry, we will not survive the 21st century with the over-quantified methods of the 20th and must prioritise ethical practice as a fundamental part of the product process.
Watch the video to see his talk in full. Or read on for an overview of his key points:
- From 2010-2020 we have witnessed the collapse of the “tech utopia”
- Lean has become an ideology of over-quantification
- Companies consistently cross the “ethical line”
- We must create space for, and capitalise on, ethical practices
Cennydd describes 2010 as “the heyday of tech utopia”, where “mobile had reached full pace”. And while we witnessed the “triumph of the connection age”, our hubris made us blind to the consequences of progress; “we knew full well that technology can have deep social impacts. We just assumed those impacts would always be positive.“
The End of the Tech Utopia
Today, as a result of industry failures, “the pace of innovation continues but that utopian narrative is gone”.
Cennydd lists some examples of “missteps”:
- Amazon’s racist chatbot
- Uber’s semi-autonomous vehicle that killed a pedestrian after classifying her as a bike
- The harassment campaign that wrote the playbook for the emerging alt-right
- YouTube leading people down a rabbit hole of radicalisation
- Facebook non-consensually manipulating people
Cennydd connects how technological abuse and mistrust is reflected in our avid consumption of shows like Black Mirror or the recent documentary The Social Dilemma, (a film that was hugely popular but poorly received in the tech ethics community). Today, “data suggests people also feel disempowered, resigned to feeling exploited.”
“The risk is, of course, that things could get even worse”, Cennydd says, examining technologies that already threaten human rights: deep fakes, computer-generated audio and video, facial recognition, autonomous weapons systems.
Exploring the Ethical Line
So how did we get here? Cennydd highlights how the Lean framework has evolved into a widely adopted ideology, prioritising metrics above ethics. He describes “a common product illness of over-quantification” that “makes ethical mistakes more likely because ethical impacts are hard to measure.”
Tests on users become “tools of manipulation, and teams start talking about users of experimental subjects.” This manipulation is realised when you’re “nudging users to behave in ways to make us more money” or thinking “of users as aggregate red lines”. Non-users are also impacted, he says, describing that while “Airbnb is a fantastic service […] All of the costs, harms, externalities fall on people who haven’t used Airbnb at all. Neighbours, local people and businesses.”
Product practices make us ignore emotional, social, mental and even democratic outcomes as we move fast and break things. “Breaking things is fine,” Cennydd says, “if you’re only breaking a filter you like, but not if you’re breaking relationships, communities, democracy.”
Employing Ethical Practices
Cennydd describes 2020 as a “huge opportunity to choose new directions”, emploring us to use thought and compassion and to acknowledge how our “decisions will change how billions of future users interact with technologies and by extension with each other.”
He lists 3 steps to better ethical practice:
- Anticipate – Make space for ethical deliberation, after all, “moral imagination is a muscle”. You can use tools for risk mapping like the “ethical explorer toolkit” and should look to broaden your research and listen to unheard voices, like activists and advocates and minorities to prototype new approaches.
- Assess and evaluate – Ask, which problems really matter? How do we weigh up competing benefits and harms?
- Act – Be willing to act according to different priorities and avoid “ethics washing” (refusing to make the ethical changes that matter)
Such practices will benefit both the world and our businesses – “companies with a positive ethical reputation can command higher prices and land better talent.”
Cennydd ends with a message to us all: “And I say to you, my product friends, you have a power to influence our futures that very few other professions have. All of these worlds are yours. You just have to choose which worlds you want.”
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