Recently there’s been a glut of articles and commentary reporting on the remorse of social media techies and Silicon Valley engineers, looking back with regret on the inventions they innocently delivered into the world, and the dystopic side-effects they have had. They argue that these technologies, largely financed and powered by the advertising or ‘attention’ economy, are affecting our brains, our attention spans, journalism and public discourse, politics, and democracy – and not in good ways. This Guardian piece gives a fairly comprehensive overview:
Here are some other pieces on a similar theme:
- Self-Defence in the Age of Attention: How to win back our time and minds
- Jaron Lanier: ‘the solution is to double down on being human’
- Homo Sapiens Versus the Internet
This seems to me to be a new incarnation of an old failing. One could see plenty of problems in the industrialised world as sharing the feature of – somewhere along the line – a designer or engineer or creative professional not thinking beyond the box circumscribed by the interests of the client (which is, most of the time, the interests of profit).
This led to a debate with my partner about the extent to which inventors, entrepreneurs, designers etc are responsible for the longer term impact of things they have designed. (This seems particularly pertinent now given the systemic plastic disaster). On the one hand, it might be very difficult to predict the way things are going to go, to see the specific widget you are working on as part of a broader (future) problem, to see your part in a bigger and complicated system. On the other hand, these waves of public regret might prompt us to reflect on design accountability and where the limits should be drawn.
The typical position of the designer/ engineer in industry is one of buck passing, giving ultimate moral responsibility, or accountability for outcomes, to the client or some higher authority within the business. But when there is little structural incentive for corporations to behave ethically, or seek anything beyond their own profit, designers might want to reconsider this position.
Tracing accountability is admittedly made hard by the fact that our work happens upstream (it’s design, not delivery), and by its methods. Design has been described as ‘serious play’, provisionality is central to its logic and practices (brainstorming, speculating, simulating, prototyping). This serves to obscure the fact that we are always prefiguring certain things, embodying particular prejudices, making some outcomes more possible or likely. And in presenting our provisional ideas, we aren’t simply putting options on the table. We are creating possibilities, and even if we are not involved in implementation directly, we have some relationship to what happens next.
I think we need – especially as design starts meddling in government and social issues – to start questioning the lines and limits of professional accountability, and to relatedly start talking about professional identity: why are we in this game in the first place? Each individual might feel differently – but it’s a conversation to be had, at the very least.
And if there is some discrepancy between intent and outcome, this conversation must include what we would do differently, in practice. To quote Cameron Tonkinwise,
Considering my own area – social design/ design for government – I think a good place to start would be to balance out the characteristic optimistic register of practice with a bit of catastrophic thinking and conspiracy theorising. We often develop our ideas through lateral thinking tricks. What if we also asked ourselves, ‘what is the worst that could possibly happen as a result?’ ‘Who might stand to profit from this?’ ‘Who might exploit it?’ ‘Whose nefarious purposes might this inadvertently serve?’ And, as a follow up, ‘how could we do our best to ensure that didn’t happen?’ In some (many?) cases the only answer might be to not do that thing, not present that option to the client, not pursue that line of thinking. And of course it might ultimately mean not doing that kind of work. Not designing needs to become understood an equally valid act on the part of a professional designer.