Technology Ethics: My Seven Year Journey

In 2014 I attended a UX conference in which the closing keynote was about how the future will have no interface. The presenter gushed about the years ahead, when transhumanist devices, the Internet of Things, and ubiquitous sensors will transform our world into one in which the interface, instead of being located on a device, is the world itself:

You won’t have a light switch on your wall; you’ll turn on the light by pointing at it in a decisive way. You won’t learn to draw; you’ll wear a wristband that jiggles your hand as you hold a pencil to paper, causing you to make marks indistinguishable from those that might have been put there by a trained artist. You won’t interact with computer hardware; virtual objects and a keyboard will be projected right onto your desk and you’ll manipulate them as if they were real.

Rather than get excited for this, my reaction was horror and disgust. On my two-hour drive home I wondered if I was in the wrong industry, if maybe I should pack up my family and start life over in some kind of ultra-primitive arrangement in the woods.

I got over the worst of it by the time I arrived home, but I was left wondering why I had had that strong reaction and what it meant. What was it about that future that felt so wrong? What could I learn from it?

Eventually I figured out that what I recoiled from was the threat to my values presented by these technologies. All the sensors and complex circuitry required to make the IoT work violated my desire for simplicity and privacy; the transhumanist devices attacked my sense of authenticity; and so on. Moreover, I feared the alienation I would feel from my children if (or when) they embraced these technologies and absorbed their attendant values.

Amish churches, I came to learn, have successfully tackled this exact problem by drafting ordnungs — written community guidelines, more or less — that include regulations about which technologies may be owned and used as normal, or else must be modified, kept outside the home, or banned entirely. As a result the Amish appear frozen in time to most outsiders, but it is hard to deny they also enjoy the benefits of tight-knit communities, lower rates of physical and mental illness, and are even seeing a decades-long drop in attrition. Apparently being able to control the direction and pace of change in one’s social values comes with a huge payoff.

Although the Amish do not explicitly map technologies to values, this was something I recognized as necessary. In 2015 I devised a design process model in which the values potentially supported or threatened by a proposed technology are evaluated deeply so their primary and secondary effects on users’ lives might be anticipated, and negative effects avoided. I got as far as testing this process model, but the results were unclear. Later I determined my experimental design likely did not control variables tightly enough. Further, I conjectured that the system that includes both technology and modern western social values is probably too complex to predictably influence with a design process model.

I was deflated by this setback, but soon began to notice lots of other people had started talking about ethics in design. It sounded like many people shared my concerns about the future of technology and its impact on society. When I gave a presentation on this topic at Midwest UX in 2017, it seemed like half the other presentations shared the same theme.

(I wrote an article describing my technology ethics journey up to this point, with more detail about the process model and how I tested it, on Pomiet’s website in 2016.)

Shortly afterward I joined a fledgling discussion group, Ethical Technology, founded by someone who’d struck me by his intelligence and clear writing on the subject. Many of the things he said felt like things I’d wanted to say but hadn’t found words for.

The discussion group soon grew quite sizeable but I found the tone of the conversation had changed. We didn’t seem to be talking about technology as much we talked about the people making it. It did not take long for the dialogue to devolve further, all the way into partisan politics. Sometimes technology was merely decoration and not relevant to what people were really talking about; the issues raised seemed purely about political ideology. Disillusioned with both its political fixation and ideological uniformity, I left the discussion group and returned to thinking and reading on my own.

Around that time, during my “day job” I was the UX researcher on a learning management system that was to eventually be rolled out to thousands of employees at the large company where I worked. In our team meetings we frequently discussed the change management aspects of the project, and I came to see how the user experience and the change experience were intricately tied together.

I became fascinated with the field of change management. I read its foundational texts and many of its journal articles, and attended meetings of the local chapter of the ACMP. But I did all this with a critical eye: I wanted to show that those who resist technology change need to be listened to rather than persuaded. This stands as the most recent influence on my thinking about technology ethics.

The success of the Amish is ultimately attributable to the control and self-determination they are able to exercise over their technology adoption decisions. I have come to see that as the most basic truth of technology ethics. The most important aspect of a technology’s design when it comes to ethics is the degree to which the human user can control his or her relationship with that technology. This means the ethics may come from the design of the technology itself, or from the rules and customs that surround it, but will ultimately be determined by the user’s freedom to adopt or reject it.

This also means few technologies are ethically perfect. We give up some freedom of what technologies to use or avoid when we agree to work for various employers, or sometimes even just to live in certain areas. We adopt many technologies simply because they are considered normal and baseline, and we never think twice about it.

Yet awareness of this situation brings into sharper relief the opportunities to make technology more ethical. That is what I hope to do in my work these days, and going forward.

Stop pathologizing change resistance!

Change Management professionals are fond of pointing out humans’ many cognitive biases, which contribute to people’s supposed resistance to various kinds of change. Reference is also often made to the fact that most categories of human emotion are negative, and that change is threatening to people for a long list of emotional reasons related to things like status, or the feeling of insecurity that comes with having to learn to perform tasks in a new way.

It’s easy to come away from these messages with a picture of change resisters as damaged, fragile victims, who respond to change only with irrational defensive emotions, and who need to be “managed“, “dealt with“, “addressed” (and compared to toddlers!), and “overcome“.

In my career I have listened to countless people within various organizations tell me about workplace changes they resisted. In every single case these accounts centered around specific, often tangible negative impacts and interactions the changes were causing: doctors were forced by a new electronic records system to interact primarily with screens instead of patients; accountants had to do double entry in a new piece of software that was confusing and error-prone; engineers found their new ordering tool required them to enter extra, redundant search information while producing results that were unhelpful and irrelevant.

Without talking to people like this and hearing their stories, one could get the impression they were just being pulled along by their familiarity bias, or that they were simply fearful of the loss of status that the newly implemented systems represented. Their condition, one might think, is unfortunate, but ultimately they need to (in the words of one change leader I overheard) “get over it.”

In reality, people seem to usually resist change for good reasons: the new thing is flawed; the new thing is incomplete; the new thing is not communicated about effectively or truthfully; the new thing is not needed; the new thing is not the right solution; the new thing provides a worse interaction experience than the old thing; no training on the new thing was provided, or it was provided at the wrong time, or the training was of low quality; no support for the new thing was offered; etc.

Furthermore, over my years of interviewing people, everyone I’ve asked about workplace change has expressed some variant of this realistic and positive attitude: “Change is inevitable, and I do my best to adapt to it even if I don’t always like it.” Most people I’ve talked to could name both positive and negative workplace technology changes they’d experienced, as well as both technology changes that were forced on them and ones they undertook of their own will.

Pathologizing change resistance is especially damaging because it gives managers and executives the idea that they ought not to question or challenge the latest trends, lest they be found to be suffering the same pathologies as their Luddite employees. This contributes to a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes problem. In the end it’s everyone — not just the “emperor” — who bears the brunt of the bad decision to adopt the change.

The way to avoid this problem is to stop treating change resisters as obstacles, and instead use them as a front-line resource. Some texts give only the merest lip service to seriously engaging change resisters (for example, the 100-page book “The Eight Constants of Change” devotes exactly one paragraph to it) and even then, it is typically done as an afterthought. That is a backward approach.

The people identified as change resisters are really the ones who have the answers to questions like:

  • “What change does our organization actually need to make?”
  • “What are we doing well and should keep doing?”
  • “What makes this organization a place where people want to work?”
  • “What factors go into a successful change?”

These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered before any significant workplace change is considered, which means the so-called change resisters should be engaged right at the beginning, and their considerations taken seriously.

If nothing else, giving employees the impression they are not heard is a way to ensure that a workplace change will fail.

Data analytics, change, and ethics

Much ado is made about data-driven decision-making. Why do things the old-fashioned way with reports written by slow humans when you can make decisions based on vast quantities of realtime data compiled by automated systems, displayed in the most (ostensibly) helpful ways?

The firehose of data from which we are encouraged to drink, and to which our own activity contributes and from which others then drink and act, has a mixed reputation. Nobody would argue that informed decision-making is worse than flying blind, and in certain cases the “more data=better” curve really is a linear diagonal up and to the right. But at the same time, most people instinctively recoil from the collection and use of data in a growing set of instances where it feels invasive, unnecessary, and even “creepy.”

Take the well-known case (perhaps somewhat mythologized at this point) of the dad who found out his teenage daughter was pregnant because the big-box retailer Target tracked the daughter’s shopping habits and, identifying her as pregnant, proactively sent baby formula coupons to the household. It may be true that the dad would have had other more direct opportunities to find out about his daughter’s pregnancy eventually, but most people still see what happened as a violation of some kind.

Target was taking advantage of all the data available to them in order to maximize revenue, just as all businesses are coached to do, with the result that they intruded upon a delicate family situation and maybe even crossed a line with respect to privacy and ethics. To what extent are other companies taking notice of this and learning lessons from it?

The language of change management is often fatalistic: “This is what the future is going to look like, this is where your industry is headed, so you’d better do X or else get left behind.” This creates an environment where it’s easy to forget that even the biggest overarching changes are built from decisions made at the most granular levels, and that we actually have control over our technology choices. “No thanks” is always on the table even if we aren’t thinking about it.

The urgency with which companies are coached to adopt the latest technologies is not necessarily valid. Sometimes it’s better to hang back and wait, or at least to implement a change gradually and cautiously, so that the ethical boundaries of the new technology can be figured out and adhered to. It might be better for the bottom line to ask forgiveness rather than permission, but it isn’t always the right thing to do, and it can get you into trouble later on.