Do things have ethics? — A design provocation

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?

A do-it-yourself glove that makes music
Mini.mu gloves by Helen Leigh (Image source: https://shop.pimoroni.com/products/mini-mu-glove-kit)

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: https://www.hackster.io/news/designing-an-adafruit-featherwing-handheld-with-a-blackberry-keyboard-d788c3bb04f7)
Overflower by bleeptrack (Image source: http://www.bleeptrack.de/assets/gallery/overflower/plotterpeople2.png)
Overflower by bleeptrack (Image source: http://www.bleeptrack.de/assets/gallery/overflower/maeppchen.jpg)

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!

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

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

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Researcher, designer, crafter of things

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