Ethics of technology and design ethics in socio-technical systems
Author: Eleonora Fiore
Couple of years back I was duped by my mobile operator to renew my contract with a fitness bracelet as part of the package. I assumed the gadget would not be top of the line. But I was not prepared to be so right. That thing could not do anything right. It grossly miscalculated daily steps (I know because I was running a lot and using my quality fitness watch). It had extended periods in which it was roughly doubling my heartbeat, and sleeping times were not quite right either. Needless to say, I tossed it aside and never looked back. A week of my fitness data might still be floating somewhere in the cloud, but I do not care, partly because it is so inaccurate.
As this little story shows business ethics impact the consumer in different ways. First, the mobile operator most likely knowingly offering a bracelet priced well over its actual worth. Second, the bracelet manufacturer which really should not be selling such low-quality product. And finally, the data.
But why did I not have high degree of trust in that piece of technology in the first place? Because I figured the involved businesses did not hold my satisfaction in high regard. They did not direct their design to what I value.
Paper in Review
Internet of Things solutions present many ethical challenges. During system design, designer decisions can bear significant moral implications. The reviewed paper (Fiore, 2020) advocates for an inclusion of ethical principles in designers’ conduct. The author focuses on Value Sensitive Design (VSD) implemented in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) as part of IoT and AI applications.
The starting point of the paper is the lack of a formal approach for providing guidelines for ethics in design, whereas if looking into the field of HCI some work has been done on Value Sensitive Design. VSD emphasizes human values as the pillars for responsible design. The author then narrows the focus into IoT systems, characterized by having connected appliances. It is primarily awareness, as brought by Artificial Intelligence, which turns connected appliances into smart objects. Thus, turning the attention to AI the author brings forth several ethical challenges. First, user disempowerment, or a reduced sense of agency, resulting from wrongly applied or too much automation. Which in turn can cause disengagement. Second, undesired consequences of technology use in unintended manners.
The author further explains that due to these issues, mistakes designers make can have grave consequences. Therefore, designers should first be equipped with an ethics code which can aid them to navigate the treacherous waters of their craft. And furthermore, three guidelines are provided for responsible design: First, security, privacy, and data accessibility. Second, keeping humans in control, and finally, increasing friendliness via physical objects and interfaces.
The paper focuses on the design aspect as opposed to engineering or operational aspects which of course involve ethics as well. NIST’s IoT Trust Concerns whitepaper provides 17 technical concerns vital for establishing trust in IoT systems. These include scalability, control and ownership, security, reliability, and usability to name a few (Voas, et al., 2018). Efforts such as NIST’s of course highly correlate with efforts to standardize responsible design practices.
In “Carousel Kittens” Spiekermann (2018) describes IEEE P7000 Working Group’s initiative to standardize the inclusion of ethics in IoT system design. The Carousel Kittens 1960s experiment in which kittens where rendered immobile for extended periods of time is brought as a metaphor for “being carried along by technology without any agency of my own” (Spiekermann, 2018).
As above two 2018 examples show, some efforts have been made to standardize ethics in IoT, but the theoretical maneuver conducted by the author does not record them. Perhaps this work predates them as most recent references are from 2017.
Overall, the paper is highly abstract and philosophical in approach. It also condenses a lot of ethical design history into small space. This to some extent reserves it to academic experts, rather than IoT practitioners. Still, IoT practitioners could benefit by being exposed to the overall topics and concerns. From a practical standpoint, the paper references the IoT Design Manifesto 1.0 (2015), which is a down to earth attempt to formulate 10 short and easily understood principles encapsulating the spirit of ethical design.
Also, more practical is the final guidelines part. But it is there that I struggle the most with one thing in particular. The author is adamant on the need to “protect the human agency” (Fiore, 2020). The proposed test is whether after implementation the user is found to be the final decision maker. This view is too simplistic as even though AI is more commonly used in decision support systems it will inevitably be more incorporated in automation. One could say that the operator can always pull the plug on the machine, but I am pretty sure this is not what the author means. In addition, sometimes relinquishing control is the right thing to do morally, because in some situations a machine has a better chance of taking right life-saving decision.
I find the paper to be original especially in its synthesis of theories and approaches as well as in the quality of background research. In terms of methodology, this is a paper which mainly grapples with academic ideas. It does not follow a qualitative or quantitative research method. Its declared objective is to offer an approach for guidelines formulation to incorporate ethics in design. While this was achieved to some extent, the final three guidelines are not exhaustive and a lot more can be said about the unique challenges of IoT. The paper should be read by anyone seeking to open their thinking towards design ethics.
Fiore, E., 2020. Ethics of technology and design ethics in socio-technical systems investigating the role of the designer. FormAkademisk, 13(1), pp. 1-19.
IoT Design Manifesto 1.0, 2015. IoT Design Manifesto 1.0: Guidelines for responsible design in a connected world. [Online]
Available at: https://www.iotmanifesto.com
[Accessed 18 6 2020].
Spiekermann, S., 2018. Carousel Kittens: The Case for a Value-Based IoT. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 17(2), pp. 62-65.
Voas, J., Kuhn, R., Laplante, P. & Applebaum, S., 2018. Internet of Things (IoT) Trust Concerns, Gaithersburg, MD: NIST.