The limits of “design ethics” under capitalism

Working as a product designer in media for the past five years, I’ve witnessed the topic of “design ethics” raised at industry conferences, presentations, and meetups. Yet I’ve noticed that in our discussions, designers rarely mention the economic context within which we design. We hold up examples like news feeds promoting fake news and financial apps encouraging users to trade the riskiest stocks and we ask: how might we design better? Conventional discourse presents these unintended consequences of our work as technical problems: how might we design and code ethically, while maintaining profitability and growth? (Perhaps the most well-known example of this framing is The Center for Humane Technology’s “The Social Dilemma,” which confuses correlation with causation by attributing negative mental health and political trends to technology, with no mention of technology’s place in capitalism.)

We will not solve problems of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, misinformation and addictive technology, mental health and public health, or climate change with design ethics. While designers should thoroughly consider the consequences of our work, the problems facing the design and technology industry are not ones of individual bad actors (though some exist). Rather, we must acknowledge that design decisions are economic decisions––and in our current economic system, the economic interests of individuals often conflict with their social consequences. Technology firms are not cultural or ideological actors, but “economic actors within a capitalist mode of production…compelled to seek out profits in order to fend off competition” (Srnicek 2017, 3). If we truly want to design ethically, we must first consider how technology is embedded in capitalism. Our ability to make technology work better for society as a whole depends upon our willingness to reorder our priorities and redefine value as more than profit maximization.

Use-value and exchange-value in design

In order to understand technology firms as economic actors, we must first look to economic history. The classical political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo––and later Karl Marx––divided the concept of value into two parts: “use-value” (a commodity’s physical and social qualities) and “exchange-value” (commonly understood as market price). Neoclassical economists collapsed this distinction in the 1870s, developing the idea of “utility” to describe both a commodity’s price and the pleasure it brings to its consumer. This concept of utility continues to allow modern economists to define value as personal utility (pleasure, satisfaction) and to conceptualize individuals as rational actors maximizing utility (“optimization”). Following a renewed conviction in the 1970s––resulting from a crisis of stagflation and unemployment in advanced capitalist economies during that time––these early neoclassical ideas still underpin the discipline of economics.

Today, designers continue to conflate the two concepts: we champion use-value (without using the term), while assuming that our efforts will translate into our company’s or client’s bottom line (exchange-value). Yet despite our job descriptions’ emphasis on creating value for users (use-value), our true goal––that for which we get promoted, and that which determines what engineers actually build––is to design for profitability and growth (exchange-value). This should not surprise us: the pursuit of profit drives capital accumulation. Any technology firm’s business model lives within this context.

It’s true that many design decisions can align with both use-value and exchange-value. Concretely, a dating app that serves a more diverse audience also expands its customer base. We’ve witnessed this approach more broadly too: “Zebra” companies strive to both generate profit and improve society, and members of the Business Roundtable pledge to prioritize stakeholder return in addition to shareholder return. However, these movements tend to assume that socially-just or “green” practices coincide with higher profits in the long-run––an assumption that will not always hold. For example, how might a social media app funded by advertising increase profits by making its platform less addictive? Or, how might a fossil fuel corporation increase profits in a transition to renewable energy sources? Not all ethical interventions are created equal: “Where technology is concerned, capitalism is far from neutral. It invariably favors those particular technologies that enlarge profits, accumulation, and economic growth” (Magdoff and Foster 2011, 33).

Libertarianism and interventionism

This path of inquiry arrives at perhaps the most fundamental question of design ethics: what constitutes an “ethical” design decision? I have defined the concept of use-value as a proxy for ethical design, but can a designer qualitatively understand a use-value? At a previous company, I advocated for a finite news experience with a start and an end (a closed loop focusing on the most important news of the day, rather than an infinite scroll). A handful of my coworkers pushed back: how can we believe that maximizing a user’s time spent on our news site (thereby improving advertisement views) conflicts with a user’s best interest (ethical design)? 

In response to this fundamental issue, some design leaders have advised designing for user emotions or user values (as opposed to designing for user goals or “jobs to be done,” in the traditional approach). Yet the question posed by my colleagues represents an older one common to the design of any product or service––that of libertarianism (i.e. tacit and local knowledge exists, and no one else can know what’s good for me) vs. interventionism (i.e. universal basic needs and social concerns exist, and a central planner should address them). If we view the role of a designer as similar to that of a central planner, we see that the same question of ethics imbues the realm of public policy and economics: for example, should a government impose a mask mandate during a pandemic (interventionism), or allow each individual to decide for himself (libertarianism)?

To design any kind of intervention requires prioritization among competing values. Advertising targeted to children influences an estimated $350 billion of purchases every year, fuels consumption, and builds brand loyalty among future customers. But it also promotes unhealthy eating, drinking, and smoking to children. If we limit advertising to children (as some countries have), we prioritize children’s health and future financial wellbeing over corporate profit. Similarly, the global drug industry (black-market drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and other stimulants) accounts for at least 4% of world GDP and boosts worker productivity. But it also mollifies the working class and mitigates social unrest in times of economic crisis, thereby maintaining the status quo. If we strive to disentangle capitalism from the drug industry, we prioritize workers’ physical and mental health over corporate profit. As already noted, we cannot assume that profit will always align with other societal values.

Every discipline rests on a philosophical foundation; utilitarianism sustains neoclassical economics, and therefore also corporate and civic design acting within this economic system. But the concept of design ethics implies a different philosophical position––that is, it rests on a definition of “value” that differs from personal utility maximization and profit, and it assumes that we can agree on a universal “ethics.”

What is “good”?

In the final season of “The Good Place,” the popular sitcom about a group of people traversing the afterlife, the main characters need to design a purgatory that enables its inhabitants to develop certain virtues (in order to enter heaven). This task requires the new designers to reach a definition of “goodness”––what are those virtues that the experience must cultivate? They, like countless religions and philosophers of the past, struggle with this question of goodness. It takes four seasons of seemingly futile attempts, but in the end the show posits that our social relationships will define and grow these virtues. (The book “What We Owe to Each Other” pops up throughout.) This is the best analogy I’ve found for our predicament of design ethics.

Ultimately, conversations of design ethics and frameworks for individual designers leave out discussions of the political economy of design. From this perspective, design ethics becomes a social, not technical, problem: how might we design an economic system that allows us to prioritize use-value over capital accumulation? Changing the way we design requires returning to age-old questions in order to create an economic alternative. If we want to design ethically, we must move past designing at the margins; we need to focus on the design of our policies, institutions, and economies. “Design” in its broadest sense is a political and philosophical question.

Sources

Anderson, Sam. “The Ultimate Sitcom.” The New York Times Magazine. October 14, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/04/magazine/good-place-michael-schur-philosophy.html.

Bush, Sasha Breger. “Drugs and Global Capitalism.” In Real World Micro, edited by Rob Larson, Bryan Snyder, Chris Sturr, and the Dollars & Sense collective, 59-66. Portsmouth: Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc., 2020.

Firdausi, Aabid. “The Social (Relations) Dilemma.” Developing Economics (blog). October 19, 2020.

Foley, Duncan. Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Hunt, E.K., and Mark Lautzeheiser. History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2011.

Magdoff, Fred, and John Bellamy Foster. What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Vols. 1 & 3. London: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2019.

Scharber, Helen. “The 800-Pound Ronald McDonald in the Room.” In Real World Micro, edited by Rob Larson, Bryan Snyder, Chris Sturr, and the Dollars & Sense collective, 78-79. Portsmouth: Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc., 2020.

Srnicek, Nick. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

Victoria Sgarro is a senior product designer at The Atlantic and a master’s student in economics at The New School for Social Research.

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