The beginning of a year always has that feeling that there is still time. Time for what? Maybe to take on new challenges or simply pick up where we left the year before.
One thing is certain, January 2021 certainly delivered. So sit back and grab some 🍿.
Following January's recap we'll be talking with Cocoon's Lead Designer Vanessa Silva on what is Design Ethics.
The major event in January is undoubtedly the attacks on the U.S. capitol. It rekindled the subject of moderation and free-speech, placing Big Tech companies in the middle of the storm.
Following January 6th, Twitter permanently banned then President Trump, followed by an indefinite ban from Facebook. Reddit followed suit and banned r/DonaldTrump, the last Trump centric subreddit of the platform.
A study concluded that misinformation dropped 73% the week following Twitter's ban of Trump and over 70,000 supporting accounts.
Regardless of these attempts to distance themselves, the long term involvement and complicity of major social media such are only now unfolding. Facebook's own research revealed that 64% of the time someone joined an extremist Facebook Group it was because the platform's recommendation algorithm and research by the Tech Transparency Project suggests that the Capitol attack was months in the making on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Big Tech turned against alt-right social media platform Parler, the designated digital culprit for having facilitated the Capitol riot event.
Apple started by notifying Parler in order to moderate its content within 24h or face a ban from the company's app store. Nonetheless, the app ended up banned from both Apple and Google's respective app stores. Shortly after, Amazon dropped Parler from its web hosting service, effectively turning Parler totally unavailable, an action reminiscent of the 2018 purge of alt-right social media Gab.
Reactions from Trump's de-platforming and the shut down of Parler have been a mix of objection and concern from the likes of Twitter's own CEO, Elon Musk, E.U.'s President Ursula Von Der Leyen or U.N. chief Antonio Guterres which called for regulating powerful social media companies, saying they shouldn't have the power to decide which accounts get to be banned.
Despite effort by Google to curb the movement, over 800 Google employees have unionized under the Alphabet Workers Union. Google had been allegedly monitoring the emails of over 400 employees over "disruptive" language.
Amazon on its end is also facing unionization as warehouse workers to decide whether to form company's 1st U.S. union. The company, known for using aggressive anti-union tactics has attempted to delay the vote by forcing in-person vote.
In Europe a Brussels hearing to allow tech CEOs to input into the new rules the European Commission is preparing on antitrust and anti-competitive practices has been postponed, Italy filed a €60m lawsuit against Apple over throttled iPhones and in France hundreds protested against Amazon's plan to setup a new warehouse. Also in France, Google signed an agreement aimed at opening the path to digital copyright payments to the French press.
After speaking to new U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Germany's Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said that a global tax on tech giants is now "highly likely".
Finally, Facebook and Amazon set record annual spending on Washington lobbying while Apple and Google reduced theirs.
Mark Zuckerberg said Apple is now one of Facebook’s biggest competitors while Tim Cook implied that Facebook's business model of maximizing engagement leads to polarization and violence during a Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference.
New legislation was proposed following an investigation on tech giants' unbalanced market power in the media industry. Shortly after, Google ran alleged tests which limited access to domestic news content.
The U.S. asked the Australian government to scrap the new laws which would force Facebook and Google to pay for news. Google then threatened to block Australia altogether from its search engine all the while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed to limit the internet giants’ ability to access users’ online histories to cross-sell products.
Let's see what will come out of this back and forth for consumers.
An Italian judge ruled Deliveroo's algorithm used to measure rider's skills as being "discriminatory" while a U.K. watchdog stated online algorithms should face increased regulatory scrutiny.
Amazon pledged $2b for affordable housing in 3 U.S. cities.
Facebook will pay more than $300 each to 1.6m Illinois users to settle the case alleging the company collected facial recognition data without their consent.
WhatsApp upcoming privacy agreement changes in regards to data exchange with Facebook drew criticisms from Hong Kong, India and Italy. The E.U. may fine it €50m for possible privacy violations.
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency admitted to buying citizens’ location data, claiming it doesn’t need a warrant to collect the info.
Amazon’s Ring now reportedly partners with more than 2,000 U.S. police and fire departments.
Spotify patented technology to interpret the speech and background noise of users in order to better manage the music it serves.
"Neofeudalism and the Digital Manor" by Cory Doctorow.
"The Anti-Human Religion of Silicon Valley" by Douglas Rushkoff.
"Tech supremacy: Silicon Valley can no longer conceal its power" by Niall Ferguson.
Lawrence — Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your career path and how you ended up with the term Design Ethics in your vocabulary?
Vanessa Silva — I've been breaking in the design area for.. I don't want to tell for how long [laughter] but for more than 15 years.
I started when I was young, I was attracted to the sort of toys that had schematics. I went to IADE which had a good program in visual interior and industrial design. At that time I had some colleagues with whom we would build websites for people to see their grades and share school material. That type of behavior of collaboration was something that always permeated my professional path. This was way before web design was anything as it is today here in Portugal.
I spent a few years doing freelance work, I wanted to know and learn the market by myself. I then worked for a biometric and security company, later worked for a company that created and developed real-time data digital products and a team of about 40 male developers. I learned a lot about the interaction of design with technology and the language that developers use. I moved again to another large company where there were maybe 30 designers for a 2000+ people sized corporation. In that team were people with a background in journalism, psychology, architecture and there were a lot of people. Presently I’m at a company where I work as a lead designer. In the meanwhile I was doing some pro-bono work, volunteer design work. I was helping small businesses create their identity and aided pet-friendly associations that needed to enhance their presence online and activism.
Why ethics? To give our readers some context of the why, I'm very interested in current geo-politics and the impact that technology has on society as well as I have the benefit of being in a generation that learned how to act and be and see the world without technology.
Having had the privilege of building products and seeing the impact that they have and understanding that sometimes tools and means and decision making and incentives behind the projects that we do and clients that we work with do have invisible consequences. These consequences are very often overlooked because there's no time to think about them. I've been very conscious of that impact and I'm very fortunate to be in a company that allows me to think about it. Making time to think about ethics and apply them is essential.
We have people that work on Design Ethics outside of Portugal but we don't have a lot within our country.
L Let get into the gritty part of it: what is Design Ethics?
V When working as a lead designer in a project, we get to a certain point where we need to discuss the requisites and functionalities that we're going to implement to build let's say an MVP.
Depending on the scale of said project, depending on how many users are going to use that product or service, the designer should be a moral compass in the room saying "Hey, what about the consequences of ____ ? Why are we aligning this to that? Why is this the KPI? Why is this the goal and not that? Will this team be the same during the project and if so or if not how can we expect to maintain the same ethical decisions when we started?"
I need to frame this in our context in Portugal which is most of the projects we do are time and budget constrained, like everywhere else, but here in Portugal that's the main focus. So we have yet to have companies where the ecological or social impact of that product is measured and accounted as a type of incentive. Companies should also embrace these new measures of success although they might seem abstract at the beginning of their implementation. Ethics serves as a guiding orientation to implement them according to a moral code.
All of this to explain that ethics is not something new. Ethics comes from Aristotles and he comes from a school of thought that deals with what is good and what is bad and what are our moral duties and obligations and that what is decided and done is actually beneficial and not damaging. I’m oversimplifying it of course. As we've moved in time so have our virtues. Virtues are how we behave. For instance we say a person is very courageous because it aligns with our own virtues and principles of behavior. We see their actions as being of a courageous nature. But you can have courage in excess therefore rushing in your decision making, like a person that doesn't care about the outcome and just wants to get things done.
Ethics is acting within a certain virtue. As designers we have to be very conscious, firstly of ourselves and secondly by transporting that framework of understanding to the outside world. We need to understand our own virtues as in: "Where do we stand?. What actions am I ok with making?" For instance if we have to make a new product for the health industry, will the virtues that we have in that moment align with this type of project? Can I be a decision maker that provides thought out solutions? Because if, for example, you've been deep within the Fintech sector for a while and you now come to the health industry with that same mindset it may not be beneficial to those that will ultimately use your product. We have to recalibrate and do so outside of typical project motivators such as time and money. So we have to perceive that our virtues have impact in the decision making process. How we act and what we bring to the table matters beyond the end of our participation.
L So it seems that Design Ethics is a way of thinking about the tradeoffs between what you want to achieve — your client and stakeholder goals and what is being built — and potentially negative outcomes, biases for whomever will use that service or product. In that sense, when you're conceptualizing a new product how do you approach it? Do you look for clues, do you have a set of things that you are on the lookout that you know may have ethical implications?
V I take into consideration the maturity of the company that I'm working with and the context of the team that I'm working with. It has happened to me before raising ethical issues that were completely ignored because neither the company nor the team I was working with were aware that these would be issues. I try to split it into three approaches depending the type of person you are. Think "Where can I put myself to influence this decision"?
L Right and it important that you point out that it's a very nuanced subject. Of course it depends on the size of the company, its maturity, the complexity of the product. If I'm a designer that has this moral aspect in my personality but I'm in a small team or my product is still small, it's niche. What sort of opportunities can I look for to apply my ethical thinking?
V If it's a product that has competitors in the market you can try to understand the stage that the product is in and understand the consequences of the other product. If you're morally sensitive and understand that, you can transmit it to the team and to the client in a way they’ll be able to understand because this might not be aligned with what you - as a team - want for the product. First you have to read a lot and understand the context of the industry that you're working in. That's the only way you'll have vocabulary and have the knowledge to speak with decision makers and with the development teams. If you try to explain something, especially in an ethical sense, about something that the other person doesn't fully understand you're not going to get your point across.
Try to create an ethical contract. If you have a small team and you're developing a new product you can say "What type of virtue do we want our product to have?" and you collectively decide on 3-5 virtues that you want that product to have. "What virtues do I want it to transmit to the user?"
For instance you want a product to convey honesty and trustworthiness so you make the information you hold on users very transparent to them. Purposefully define a goal that says "Ethically this is what I want to achieve with this product". And then you get to compromise, you get people to sign off on that ethical contract. The contract is not something that is locked in time, it should be reviewed and refreshed whenever there is new information that could have an impact. Some ethical statements in that team contract can be for example: "Ensure data security and privacy of users.", "Ensure the right to anonymity while presenting a user’s CV to potential employers", "Ensure the option of non social media logins", "This product should behave in a helpful manner and not be intrusive". These statements will inherently have to be translated into design actions and development requirements, the impact is real.
If there are new team members they should be made aware of the contract and add to it. You have to make it your own. For instance there's a product owner that says "I want this done that way" and there comes project management and says "Ok let's move that way". Is that aligned with what we talked about when creating our contract? Is the client involved in the creation of that ethical contract? Have they forgotten about it? If so let's show them again and let's discuss if we really want to implement this micro-interaction that'll make people really hooked into our platform.
We’ve seen what the lack of this type of virtue awareness and formalization has done to big companies outside of Portugal, such as Facebook, Google, Cambridge Analytica. Examples are plenty. What we see and experience today is an onslaught of technical regulations that hinder our digital experiences, because problematic issues are being dealt with after and not before or during the conception of products. As elite product development entities that have the monetary ability to pay post the fact lawsuits they have set a misguided example of what other companies might do. The expectations of what can be done need to be realigned with the consequences that we are experiencing as a society. We didn’t know before. We know now.
We can learn from these examples, and dare I say that as the last generation to have had the benefit of experiencing a world without internet plus a free internet, as well as being the connectors with technical proficiency to bridge the gap between older and younger users, we certainly have the duty to preserve its more beneficial traits.
Be aware, bring awareness and refresh your awareness whenever possible. Design Ethics is one of many tools that can complete our toolbelt.
L I've been thinking on something. Digital products now already answer the basic needs that we have: communication, sharing, social interaction but as the current generation of users becomes aware of the manipulation I wonder if there'll be a competitive product or service, against the GAFAM, that has a sort of value based layer and that that will attract a user base that is looking for that. The same way you have consumers that choose companies that are environment friendly you'd have people choosing for a platform that is respectful of the user's time, of your privacy, of not addicting users. I wonder if we're going to see some alternative like that and whether or not that'd be a competitive advantage.
V And there's this concept of techno-capitalism that has been unchecked for quite a while where the creation of these platforms tends towards convenience.
Yet they don't only do harm, they also can do a lot of good. When you say "Will there be companies or products that shape the moral value" I do believe there are already some but this is a type of movement, of social movement, that has yet to delight the traditional type of corporations that are addicted to making money. We have a system that I believe that in the 80s-90s, outside of Portugal, reached its peak in terms of financial return. Right now the decision makers on top reflect the values of society.
This movement of sustainability, of circular economics, of thinking about nature and our impact, these are features that are taken into consideration like an add-on to what they already deliver. What I mean by this is that we have to be aware and careful that some companies will use these movements to their benefit without holding those values. These two types of environments will coexist for a long time still due to the nature of our current system. I'm a firm believer that the people that are in their 30s and early 40s have a responsibility to close this gap between younger and older generations in a sense that younger generations will expect by default social and moral and sustainable values from their products and services whereas people from older generations will have trouble seeing that.
L With time yes I suppose but there is an appeal for that right now I think. Coming back to the subject of design, what advice would give young designers or any designer actually for approaching their peers, colleagues bosses or clients to make them more receptive to this? Sometimes your worries can be projected into the future, where a negative outcome may only happen in many years and there's no data to backup your stance. How would you advise approaching this for people that face this situation?
V If you have the ability to pursue within your company the subject of ethics, of even just raising awareness of the impact the product you're working on will have, you should feed your brain. That's my only and best advice. You should look into ancient ethics and understand its evolution and how it was modified for instance by religion.
That has a very strong impact on the perception that people have.
There's this guy Tristan Harris who worked for Google and is one of the most visible faces of the design ethics movement and he explains very well the problems he has encountered. He founded an organization called the Center for Humane Technology. They have a lot of information you can look up and see if that's something you're passionate about and want to invest your time.
You'll be confronted with situations that you will not be able to do something that was asked of you unless you explain and make it visible to stakeholders why that shouldn't be done in the first place. That takes a lot of courage to politely stand up and say "This is what I think". You have to build up your trust in the work that you do.
Something that I see a lot with the Portuguese designers: we have one of the best graphics and UI industry in Europe, apart from Estonia and Ukraine. But we don't have people that have the guts or the diplomatic skills to speak of these matters. It's important that start having people like that. There's Mike Monteiro, everybody knows him as being that very rebellious type of person but he's Portuguese. He went outside of his comfort zone and continues to push and prickle every single designers to understand the role that they have. This isn't explained in university: the impact of your decisions, the impact of your work. People that develop things should be responsible for the things they put out.
So you have to understand that even though a client says "Let's develop this". If your product will be used to monitor or identify people on the street you have to live with the consequences that product will entail, even if no one knows that you helped build it. Are you willing to design that?
L Yeah I think you need to have a sort of moral compass to ponder "Am I comfortable with what I'm doing here?" I think that many times you end up being embedded in a super enticing problem with amazing teams and colleagues and you end up not realizing or get distracted from the side effects of the thing that you are building. You know you're just implementing this cool algorithm for solving a complex problem but the application of that solution can end up being used for nefarious purposes right? But you're just focused on it. On top of that we're talking about very young people that have probably never been in contact with the theme of ethics. We're starting to see some universities in the U.S. offering ethics classes in computer science degrees, Stanford for instance. But the common engineer student won't have any contact with this unless he is himself curious about it.
V Yeah and it's not very talked about as well because at least in Portugal we have a development ecosystem that relies a lot on the project developer on the project manager role that amasses the information from the stakeholders.
If you're truly invested in being a designer with consequence, if that's something that calls to you should be aware of the context of the product or the project you're in. Even if you think management doesn't relay all the information to you, go on ahead and inform yourself. There's plenty of information to go around and sometimes even the project managers are not aware they can pull in that product or service to make it better. So if you start doing that, bring information from outside the scope of the project you're in and say "Hey if we bring this in, this can have that consequence". Essentially you start by making good decisions with information that they don't have so the trust in yourself will be built not only when you relay that information but as well as the reputation of that information.
I have a book recommendation called "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" by Shoshana Zuboff and her book is very interesting to read. She identifies very strongly key lessons in the book. It's good to have that foundation when you start so that you can either move away from it or at least mitigate.
L Yeah I love that book. It's a sort of small bible for the next decade for the tech industry and everyone rotating around it.
You did mention something which was here in Portugal we have great designers but we apparently don't speak up? What's the deal? Are we afraid to? Or are we not mature yet? Is it a problem with the market that's too small and everyone knows each other? Why don't we go out like Mike Monteiro? Is it because they're in companies that don't empower them?
V I have mixed opinions.
L Well in your case you're in a company that seemingly gives your room to think about these issues but I would say that it isn't normal in Portugal.
V We have a very strong uplifting inner culture and we truly value each other's opinions even if we're not very confident. The company has a lot of senior designers as well and the new designers that come in start to develop these core communications skills as well.
L So what's the difference with other companies? You said the culture. Is it something that Portuguese have in them? Are we shy in a way?
V There are two things. There's that side in which company's C-level people say designers are just doodling, you're just making illustrations. They don't understand the inheriting value unless it's shown to them. Showing is not just showing how to doodle. It's showing that "This is being done because of X".
L In a way designers are seen as playing and not doing "real" work.
V Right and that's our own fault because our work can look good and aesthetic yet we fail to demonstrate how hard it is to achieve that result. Vocabulary is important so you can explain the value of your work. Then people start to understand that it's not just a doodle and that in turns build confidence and self-esteem in the designer.
There's also another thing you touched which is in college and technical schools this subject is not talked about and you can't expect someone to just understand the value of ethics without learning how to go deep within their own mind. Not just creatively but also in the way it feels: "Why is this decision provoking this reaction in me? Is it because I'm angry or because it goes against what I believe in?". That too is important for designers to be able to build that courage. When we see people here in Portugal with that potential they either have the opportunity to expand and also to fail and learn from it or they have to go abroad to be recognized. We're still a bit stuck in this hierarchy within companies. That in itself is an opinion buffer. I feel like I can't express myself so why bother. Why take the time to express myself? Am I going to be taken into account?
L Hopefully that will change. Anyone that is looking at this can see that people are moving into Portugal, not only individuals but companies as well right? This will create a more competitive market I think and because of that, employers will need to step up their game in terms of how they listen and value designers and developers too. And I think we have matured as well in terms of product users. Nowadays we look at Netflix, Google Docs or Instagram and that is a product with a lot of effort put into. It looks simple and is simple, but that simplicity took a lot of work to achieve and so people get more sensible as "This isn't just a mockup where someone programmed it". There's much more behind an elegant and fast product. With some more time I think we'll get there.
I want to wrap up by touching another subject which is the social involvement of white collar workers in non-profit organizations or causes. You've been a volunteer for VOST, you've been a mentor for Gulbenkian's Hack For Good as well. I understand why you personally would be involved but I wanted to ask what is there to gain by being involved in an organization or movement that has social impact? Why should I as a programmer or designer give my time for that?
V There are plenty of benefits as well as drawbacks. The impact that we have when we have experience in a certain field whether programming or design can be considerable. For instance with VOST they have to rely with a lot of volunteers. For instance when Covid started, we started working on several dashboards and gathering information and making pamphlets, calls to wear masks. Essentially this open movement of volunteers moves faster than a traditional government. Another benefit is that you get to work with and make friendships with very interesting people with completely different backgrounds than yourself. When you're mentoring people too, you have the opportunity to plant little seeds and say "Hey can you see that goal over there? Try to focus on that and see where it leads".
It's just like the lanes in a marathon you guide people towards something that they have not seen yet. In part that helps people to move faster to have more adequate information and reduce excuses not to know what to do. That's one of the main reasons. That impact that we can have as a society when we stand for what we believe in is positive.
Just like Critical Future Tech, I believe this is a very interesting and very positive, much needed project. I'm truly delighted to see whom else will be featured on and talk about and share their knowledge as well.
L So far it hasn't been easy to convince Portuguese people to participate. I'm hoping as the project moves forward and gains some traction that people will better understand what it is about, maybe they will revisit their willingness to participate. I think it goes back to what I said and I believe in this: Portuguese are shy. They don't want to be the first to voice their opinion or be the vocal person in the room.
I also believe that people that have this specialized knowledge set have an advantage to better understand the things that they use on a daily basis and in my opinion this understanding almost makes it a responsibility to give back or at least educate. If it's your team or your managers that's great but sometimes even only your friends or family, the people you care for. If you have that advantage and some ability to explain or give back in however form that may be you should try. That's something that I hope to see more and more in Portugal.
All right cool. Thanks for being a part of this and talking with me for an hour.
V No problem. Thank you.
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