Do things have ethics? — A design provocation

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DON’T PANIC badge by David J. Watts

Things having ethics?
When people talk about ethics, they are usually addressing ethics in and between humans — to cause no harm to one another, to be polite, to respect one another, to not cross boundaries etc. However, people rarely think about ‘things’ having ethics in them. For instance, consider a non-human thing as mundane as a door. While on the one hand, its purpose is to keep us safe from external harm, but on the other, it brings about the need for polite behaviours such as knocking before entering and being respectful of one’s space and privacy.

As smart things in our homes, bodies, and cities are driving ethical actions, now more than ever, on the humans’ behalf — such as a smart door camera warning about intruders or a smart weighing scale sending reminders about healthy food to avoid bodily harm — there are new questions on the rise. For example, who else knows about these intruders, other than the device owner? What if the person at the door is harmless but the device categorizes them as harmful based on their race or class? Or, what does the scale know besides the user’s weight? Could it be that the user is at the risk of a heart condition, but the scale withdraws that information to protect the user from causing harmful stress? In this regard, there is now a higher moral imperative for focusing on the ethical role of things.

Areas of scholarship such as technoscience, political ecology, cultural studies of design, environmental science, and geography have been discussing the ethics of things for a couple of decades now. These discussions are deeply relevant in contemporary debates around not only technologies of automation, but also sustainability, nuclear power, and gun control. In particular, the notion of user-centeredness or human-centeredness has come under fire for being the main driver for any ethical action. By raising new questions about things, scholars are inviting everyone to think about how we bring things into the world and their role in ethical doings alongside humans.

Ethical considerations of things
One suggestion for how we might address the ethics of things has been discussed by Cameron Tonkinwise (2004), the director of design studies at the University of Sydney. Instead of embedding ethical behaviour directly into the man-made things — for example, a speed bump that forces people to slow down their vehicles or a smart thermostat that automates the optimization of energy consumption, he suggests the need for things that deliberate conscious thinking about ethics (p. 139). While this is well and good, in theory, what would be practically needed to promote ethical considerations as we interact with things?

‘Making’ ethical considerations — a case of ‘maker-culture’
To engage with this question, I consider the example of an existing practice where ethical considerations come as close as it gets to a self-sustaining ethos. The practice that I speak of is a ‘maker-culture’ where makers are engaged in conscious deliberations concerning how and what they produce (less the why). What does that entail?

  • Expanding the space of deliberation between humans and things
    Typically, the humans in the maker community are individuals of varying nationalities, age-groups, job-profiles, and genders (although still unequal). The non-human things are physical makerspaces, soldering and prototyping equipment, congressional spaces (e.g. CCC), software platforms such as Github, Hackaday (for publishing and documenting projects), Twitter (for sharing ideas and giving feedback), Youtube (for maker-podcasts and tutorials), Tindie (for small businesses), all of which activate the makers in many different ways.

    At every stage of making — right from sharing an idea for a new project, showcasing a prototype, sharing each other’s struggles and giving advice, publishing and documenting the work, announcing a release or sale, to getting feedback — the non-human things work to keep human makers on their toes. In other words, they enable the makers to put themselves out there with not only their ideas, but also their strengths and vulnerabilities as they learn from one another, each feeding off another’s actions while bonding over nostalgic pasts, emerging futures, and pop culture. The system makes space for humans and non-humans to intervene in this loop where many energies thrive.

    Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that this maker community of humans and non-humans tend to share languages and codes that are characteristic of western cultures — millennials who could easily access technology, gain a university education, and lead fairly protected lives where they could shape their identities and interests. While on the one hand, the community is highly inclusive of women, LGBT, disabled populations, and children, but on the other hand, the makers’ upbringing and education already set a high barrier for entry, which most marginalized populations find difficult to acculturate. While we can turn to morality for balancing out these inequalities, what is perhaps interesting here is turning to the role that ‘things’ play in doing the ethical work — things that make ‘learning by making’ a bigger part of its function than use.

    A recent example of such a thing is the gloves (see image below) by artist-maker-educator-musician Helen Leigh, who re-created the Mi.Mu gloves, used by professional music artists such as Imogen Heap and Ariana Grande, into something children and adults can learn to make by themselves (fairly cheap and accessible). The Mini.Mu gloves encourage embodied learning by making soft circuits that produce music and do so in ways that lower the barrier of entry for newcomers to find their place in the maker community of humans and non-human things.
A do-it-yourself glove that makes music
A do-it-yourself glove that makes music gloves by Helen Leigh (Image source:
  • Using past things as a resource for the future
    Within the maker community, respect is always reserved for individual contributions as well as throwbacks to a ‘thing’ that someone has made in the past. For instance, it is relatively easy to trace a technology, a code, a library back to an individual, group, or community, and it is also easy to re-use that technology to spawn a new idea or to improve the technology (make it relevant) out of self-interest. This is because makers engage in a code of conduct to credit the original maker/programmer and to not erase their past work, but rather make ‘commits’ — meaning that it allows everyone to see what has been taken, modified, and re-created. The ‘commit’ indicates that the code is ready to use in some form, which is then shared amongst the community (and public) through the channels mentioned above.

    One inspiring example of how technology from the past makes its way back to the current is the Keyboard Featherwing project (see image below) by the avid maker arturo182. This project is essentially an effort to re-create the Blackberry (mobile phone) form factor using newer development boards (Adafruit feather) and open source programming languages (Circuit Python). It is interesting how this maker takes something old and forgotten, and brings attention back to the eyes of not only the maker community but also to advocates of ethical design as well as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wish to profit from public interest for such a technology-revival. While on the one hand, there are risks that someone uses the technology to make profits for themselves without consent or credit, on the other hand, the makers do not feel threatened by such unethical actions because they are secure in their knowledge and interest to make new things rather than fixating on the profits.

In many ways, the things speak more than the humans in these frictions because the makers are not always in control of what happens to the things once they are released in the open. Even if the makers take their contributions down from the internet, it might already be in the hands of someone who is ill-intentioned. However, it is better to have things whose politics returns to the table, rather than blindly subscribing to a ‘thing’ (e.g. smart device) without having to think about it.

Keyboard Featherwing by arturo182 (Image source:
  • Listening to the things
    The maker community engages in many channels for gaining feedback for their work. Sometimes, the feedback comes in the form of social media (Twitter), and at other times, the feedback comes through publishers such a (blog) or Adafruit (blog) that announces new releases of products from makers. As the things move in and between virtual spaces, they give the makers a sense for who needs their products, what might be missing from it, and the shortcomings. Unlike designers who conceive ‘use’ and ‘users’ early into the design process, makers do not always start by thinking of the role of the thing in people’s lives, rather they think of what kinds of technical possibilities the thing might offer to support making.

    What is fascinating is the solidarity with which the community is willing to ‘listen’ to what the thing has to say once it is released, without it having to be finished or perfected for use. Once the ‘thing’ (as work-in-progress) reaches another maker, they might offer to improve the design or offer to be the user and provide feedback by sharing videos of how they used it and what happened when they tried something with it. The humans, therefore, allow the things to act through the channels and give them a voice in the discussion they bring about.

    An inspiring example comes from generative artist-hacker-maker Bleeptrack, who runs a bi-weekly video series titled ‘work in progress’ where she discusses her projects through things that she has made, the processes and tools involved. Her work ‘generates’ machine plotted illustrations of beetles and flowers which can be reprinted on wearable products such as bags and clothes (see images below). Although there is no explicit ethical conversation here, it is implicit in a sense that these ‘things’ speak back to us in different ways — through art-prints, bags, and clothes. These things find a way to become a part of everyday life, something most people can learn to make on their own with the tools made available.
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Overflower by bleeptrack (Image source:
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Overflower by bleeptrack (Image source:

Ethics of things in design?
Under the premise of Cameron Tonkinwise’s (2004) article, I am tackling the possibility of things having ethics and what it would practically mean to take the ethics of things seriously in design. To do so, I have drawn inspiration from maker-culture practices to discuss how non-human ‘things’ activate ethics in ways that can support a self-sustaining ethos.

The first observation is that the maker-cultures make space for human and thing interventions in the system, but often at the risk of being uncredited and exploited for the work produced. What design can learn from here is how to step out of profitability as a value or as a sign of a designer’s worth. Designers tend to be quite afraid of putting their unfinished ideas or work in the public eye, but as the maker community shows, there tends to be more support than criticism because everyone in the community realizes that they have a stake in uplifting and encouraging each other’s work. If academic and commercial design practice can pursue things in the same way, it might be possible to bring ethics more vividly into things being designed.

The second observation is about not erasing the thing’s past by ensuring the changes and seams are visible — every ‘commit’ that follows a code of conduct, a way of documenting and publishing the work that is intended for everyone’s benefit, than harm. Designers tend to erase history in favour of something new (e.g. tearing a thing down to remake it from scratch is a common practice in design), but there is a lot to learn from the maker community where the past is not erased, but it is seen as something of value, something that can always come back to someone’s need or reflection. Erasing the past also takes a political connotation here, wherein past biases and misdoings are frequently erased to protect one’s self-identity. While this is primarily a psychological strategy of self-preservation, the maker community reminds us that courage goes a long way in building a reputation. Often, the most respected makers are not people who are skilled at making, but those who are humble and not afraid to show vulnerability through the things they make.

The third observation is how the maker community engages in listening to what the thing has to say once it is released in the open. What design can learn from the community is allowing smaller things such as ideas, sketches, and prototypes, but also doubts, questions, and struggles to float freely in the open, so that the designed thing is no longer ‘owned’ by one person but is rather shaped by the community — putting the thing to different kinds of work and giving the thing a voice to come back through human and non-human channels. By listening to the shape the thing takes through the community, it becomes possible to raise an ethical discussion around what needs to be made and how it ought to be made. This includes decisions such as choosing to build something locally versus outsourcing to China for production. In these ways, design can benefit from listening to the thing even before it becomes a ‘thing’ as well as after it takes some effect in the world.

Final thoughts
In spite of the maker community’s ethos, there is plenty of room for expanding sensibilities about what things are and what they do within the community and beyond. For instance, it is important, even for makers, to sometimes take a step back to self-reflect on the things, without solely relying on the community for feedback. This is not to say the makers do not already reflect on what they make, but they do it very differently from designers. For instance, makers reflect before publishing their work at every stage of making, because they are also striving to be seen rightly in the public eye. It is, therefore, necessary to understand how these alternative forms of reflection can resource thinking ethically about the things designed into the world.

I titled this essay ‘do things have ethics?’ and discussing this question has led to the conclusion that yes, things can have ethics — but it is not about the thing having ethics per se, instead, it is about how people and things together constitute an ethos or, in other words, a culture where ethics is always implicit. Perhaps then, the question ought to be ‘Can things promote an ethos between humans and non-humans?’ I’ll save that for my next post!

Tonkinwise, C. (2004). Ethics by design, or the ethos of things. Design philosophy papers, 2(2), 129–144.

Thanks to the Twitter maker community for being a big source of inspiration.

Written by

Researcher, designer, crafter of things

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