Aral Balkan FRSA argues that if we are to challenge and alter the current mainstream ideology of Surveillance Capitalism, we must ultimately alter the character of the technologies—the everyday things—we are designing. For this we need an ethical design revolution.
Today, my social enterprise Ind.ie are releasing the Ethical Design Manifesto.
We live under what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. For the past three years, I’ve been working to understand and explain how we ended up in this dystopia and how we can chart a course away from it towards a more democratic future.
The Indie Tech Manifesto, last year, was our initial attempt to articulate the problem and suggest a solution. It is as valid today in guiding our mission as it was then. However, in the past year, I’ve refined my understanding of the problem and managed to simplify how I articulate it. There are two important things that I’ve learned, which are also common misconceptions in how we approach the problem today:
1. This is not a technology problem, it’s a capitalism problem; it’s a human rights and democracy problem.
2. Advertising is not the cause of the problem, tracking is. (Advertising is just its most visible symptom.)
The products of Surveillance Capitalism are our new everyday things: our phones, our fitness trackers, our baby monitors, our fridges, our cars… We’ve built a world where our everyday things track our every move, profile us, and exploit those profiles for monetary gain. A world with a wholly privatised public sphere. A world of malls, not parks. A corporatocracy, not a democracy.
This is a design problem. At its core, what we have is the wholesale failure of ethics in design. To tackle the source of the problem, we must design alternative everyday things that respect our human rights as a core tenet. To that end, we need a model that articulates both the problem and the solution in a clear, unambiguous, and accessible manner.
Ethical Design Manifesto
The Ethical Design Manifesto is the culmination of three years of thinking about and working on solutions to the Surveillance Capitalism problem. Ethical Design is not a panacea. Neither is technology. Surveillance Capitalism is a societal problem. It requires a broad spectrum response.
That said, mainstream adoption of Ethical Design must be a component of the solution. Technology, as Melvin Kranzberg eloquently pointed out, “is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”. Technology is a multiplier. Technologies are the concrete implementations of philosophies. They amplify and perpetuate the particular ideologies that authored them.
If we are to challenge and alter the current mainstream ideology of Surveillance Capitalism, we must alter the character of the technologies—the everyday things—we are designing. Specifically, we must build them on a solid foundation of respect for human rights. So here is the challenge I put forth to every design faculty, studio, agency, and indie across the planet:
Adopt the Ethical Design Manifesto today.
Add a link to it on your web site, print it out, put it on your wall, teach it in your Design 101 classes, and adhere to it when designing and developing your products.
Let’s ignite an ethical design revolution. Let’s create a sustainable future with a healthy commons and technologies that work for us instead of enslaving us within a feudalism of faceless international corporations. Let’s create products that respect human rights, human effort, and human experience.