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We Can Talk About Ethical Design Till The Cows Come Home – Now It’s Time To Act

This article was first published on Dataethics.eu 2020-02-22

Review. Change for the better is difficult. But there is a good chance that it will become easier after reading the “The Ethical Design Handbook” by Trine Falbe Kim Andersen and Martin Michael Frederiksen. Read it if you are in a small organization or in a big business, but be aware that reading this book will maybe lead to actual change. And that it starts with you.

The core thesis of this book is that “design” isn’t just decoration, and that “ethics” is not the same as the good sales pitch or yet another CSR trick in the book. Ethical Design is core business and the story begins in ancient Rome:

“Bonus pater familias is a term from Roman law. It means good family man or reasonable man. In a lawsuit, you can ask yourself, “What would a good family man do?” This is a good standard for reasonableness. When designing the digital platforms of the future, we should ask ourselves the same question. When we collect data on a user, are we collecting what we need, or everything we can get our hands on?”

Today, many companies do just that: collect tons of data. But, as claimed in “The Ethical Design Handbook”:

“Surveillance capitalism is unethical by nature because at its core, it takes advantage of rich data to profile people and to understand their behaviour for the sole purpose of making money”.

And there are lots of reasons to start doing things differently:  The climate: Think of all the energy and money spent collecting and storing unnecessary data; The security risk and responsibility associated with owning and carrying data on others: in the EU you have to comply with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). And then there is the ethical side: Our ethical duty and responsibility to treat others with fairness and respect. Bonus pater familias!

The book is a hands on, comprehensive and well written roadmap to exactly that. But it is also an eye opener that maybe the majority of status quo is actually neither OK nor wise in a business context. Perhaps we just tend to forget about that in the turmoil of the everyday strive to reach our immediate business goals. This is why sometimes we need to withdraw, read a good book at get inspired to quit the status quo of everyday manipulative design.

After reading this book it is suddently very clear how saturated the digital realm is with manipulative design. And that it is staged with intent. “The Ethical Design Handbook” teaches both the persuader and the persuaded what design for the most vulnerable looks like and how to avoid surveillance capitalism – the root cause of unethical design.  One of the fabulous business cases explains why “small tech” is a much needed solution:

“We can talk about ethical design till the cows come home, but it’s not going to change what surveillance capitalists do. Surveillance capitalists like Google and Facebook are incapable of ethical design because their core — their business model — is unethical. No factory farm has ever been converted to an animal sanctuary. The two are diametrically opposed things. So, change from within is impossible. People farmers like Google and Facebook cannot be reformed. It doesn’t matter how lovely some of the people who work at these companies are, they cannot change the fundamental nature of their companies. In the case of venture-capital-funded startups, they cannot alter the billiondollar exits that their investors demand. And as for publicly traded companies, they cannot overrule their fiduciary duty to their shareholders to provide quarter-on-quarter profit growth”, claims one of the founders, Aral Balkan.

Something else has to happen. The whole system needs to be re-written. And this is the beauty of the book: It gently moves from the level of the practical and hands on to the level of the fundamental critique of surveillance capitalism. Real change requires new bold moves at several levels at the same time.

The authors’ ambition is to “develop a new type of working framework to empower people to practice ethical design in their business, on their teams, and with their products – and that this book will speed up the process”.

I actually think that this book can speed up the process of change which is very much needed. So, let it be found beside the bed in the home on all business leaders, developers, student of and lay persons around the world. So, when they wake up from their sleep, real change can begin!

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