Listening to Kaleem Khan at Interaction 11 last week, I thought he was on to something, at least in his intent. The main problem was in his delivery, which somewhat obscured his message. If you read the talk description (linked above), it seems clear the focus is 1) to encourage designers to be reflective about the ethical dimension of design and 2) to start a discussion specifically about how we can find an ethical framework to support interaction design.
But unfortunately the most memorable parts of the talk were 1) if you own an iOS device, you killed workers in China, 2) you shouldn't use technology you're not familiar with for your presentation material, and 3) Kaleem is pretty proud of his decision to turn down a gig for a gambling concern (he could have generalized the actor instead of saying he himself did it, and still illustrate the point).
On that count, I think Bruce Sterling was right to add a little perspective in his keynote that closed the conference Saturday. A person chooses to kill himself, nobody forces him to do it, and people die and are harmed in all kinds of professions. Bruce mentioned people dying in the tuna industry, but people also die in other more common professions. It is extremely tenuous, to say the least, to effectively lay the blame for worker suicides at a factory in China at the feet of consumers of that factory's output half a world away, who neither directly nor indirectly willed those people to kill themselves nor willed the conditions that may have contributed to those individuals' choices to take their own lives. Especially for products like Apple's, which are typically seen as premium devices, one can imagine that such consumers would be willing to take on extra cost to avoid those conditions and their potential consequences.
If anyone is directly responsible, it is the particular executives at those companies who have full knowledge of the conditions and/or even created them and choose to do nothing about them in order to increase their profits. But even then, there is still a matter of individual human freedom--the people choosing to work in these conditions and, most importantly, choosing to then end their own lives. I don't pretend to offer a full account for ethics in business by any stretch, but I simply offer a more thorough treatment than that given by Kaleem in this particular example he used to make his talk "controversial."
What makes the example even more perplexing in the context of his talk is that it is pretty tangential to the question of ethics in design. I doubt anything about the design of these devices necessitated the creation of factory conditions that influenced these individuals to commit suicide. I also seriously doubt that the designers at Apple (or perhaps even many executives) were aware that their designs would be realized under these conditions, so how could they have reasoned beforehand about the ethical import of what they were doing? I imagine they are proud of their work--see it as enabling people to live happier and more enjoyable and satisfying lives.
Now again let's take the example of whether or not working for a gambling concern is ethical. At the least, I'd say it is not black and white. He asked us to raise our hands if we thought he did the right thing (or not), but there was so much context lacking. For instance, what if you were able to influence the design so that it at least helped gamblers to be more aware of what they're doing, of the risks involved? What if the work was even explicitly focused on helping people to make the right decisions, e.g., only risk money that is truly surplus, to think of gambling as a form of entertainment and don't risk more than you can safely throw away?
In that case, I'd say he would be almost morally wrong to turn down the gig. And there are degrees to this. In the more traditional ethical quandary, what if taking that gig was the only way for Kaleem to maintain his fiscal obligations (debts) or to support his family? Would the potential, even the likelihood, that some people would choose to risk too much and harm themselves through something he designed be worse than him directly choosing to not meet his own obligations, to in a sense risk too much of his own livelihood by refusing to facilitate others choosing to do the same?
Am I a supporter of gambling? No, I'm not. As a rule, I think it's unwise and on the whole is a wasteful and potentially damaging form of entertainment. But so are many other things that are superficially harmless, or at least mostly harmless in moderation. I personally do believe in moral absolutes, but that by no means makes every moral choice an absolute, black and white.
In any case, these examples, though in my opinion poorly chosen, were not the essence of Kaleem's message. I can fully agree with him that we should be cognizant of the ethical dimension of our work. Honestly, there's not much controversial about the actual content of his message. I just wish he'd taken it a step further--that we should be cognizant and aware of the ethical dimension of our entire lives.
It's pretty fashionable right now in the design world, and our culture at large, to be concerned with the environment, with living sustainably. I'm not saying there is not good in that, but it keeps the focus on something distant and unmeasurable enough that we can safely treat it, agree with it, and not be touched too personally by it. But what about our day to day ethical choices that more directly affect us and those around us?
For instance, how many of us are reflective about gossip at our workplace? Do we think about the negative impact our talk has on our co-worker's lives? Do we sense that we are doing real violence to their character? How about when we get angry at the person driving near us? Do we reflect on the ethical dimensions of being quick to anger? Or (the ever hot topic) what about how we express our sexuality? Do we reflect on the ethical dimensions of hooking up anymore? Do we really believe these sexual encounters really don't have any moral content, that they have no bearing on our well being or the other's well being (or the well being of potential offspring)? How about how we eat or drink? Are there ethical dimensions to overeating, or under eating? Or getting drunk?
It's nice to be concerned about "the environment" and "nature" and "our posterity" and people in a distant land, but what about the person next to us? What about our own selves? The examples above are but a few of the many ethically charged situations we encounter that we have direct influence on and that have direct consequences that we can observe. Fashionable morality comes and goes, but there are moral issues that are always present and personal and, often, more uncomfortable for us to examine and face than whether or not we dropped that bottle into the recycling bin or whether or not that Web form we designed encourages people to spend money they maybe should not be spending.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't care about these more distant, potentially harmful effects of our choices--we should be--but we should also be taking our concern a step closer to home and looking at those ethical concerns that aren't so fashionable, and I would even suggest that these should take more of our effort and have a higher priority because not only do we have more control over them, but they also have more direct consequences, and, taken additively, probably have more impact on society and humanity as a whole. Plus, if we get these straight and practice being reflective about them, we will naturally be reflective about other, more distant concerns that we face.
As for the second dimension of Kaleem's talk, creating an ethical framework for the practice of interaction design, I see a problem. The problem is that in a pluralistic society that has been and continues to erode anything resembling a moral consensus, it will be difficult to create a shared ethical framework for a profession practiced in that society. His example, specifically, of gambling speaks directly to this problem--no doubt there are plenty of IxDs who see nothing wrong with gambling.
I could name another, more controversial topic--pornography and masturbation. How many IxDs would advocate against practicing in the sex industry, despite the very real, documented damage that it has done to many people, both practitioners and consumers? There was even a vocal, apparently proud-of-himself (judging by his tweets) attendee at the conference who specializes in just this industry, and another presenter thought showing improvements in personal sex toys was a good way to illustrate her point about IxD aesthetics. Are there IxDs who would refuse to work in that industry today? Surely a few, but hardly, I suspect, would we find anything resembling a consensus to inform an ethical framework.
I think the best we can do on this count, in our society, is to do what Kaleem did--to promote reflection on ethical issues, and to have open discussions on the particular issues at hand--to help each other think them through and make good ethical choices.
If nothing else, Kaleem's talk did spark people to think about it, which is a good thing. I just hope that we as a group can take it beyond the controversy and beyond what is currently fashionable and become more reflective across all aspects of our lives and let that reflection have real consequences in the choices we make and the way we act. Here's hoping!