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.

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Center-periphery relationships of pharmaceutical value chains

By Cristina Fróes de Borja Reis and José Paulo Guedes Pinto

It is well known that, during the 20th century, the pharmaceutical industry became extremely powerful at the international level, alongside financial, energy, technology, and manufacturing companies (Wells, 1984). The internationalization of the pharmaceutical industry only rose after the internationalization of patent protection in the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs Agreement) (Haakonsson, 2009). This industry is highly concentrated around a small number of very large transnational groups (65% of global sales are made by the 20 largest players – the ‘big pharma’) that operate worldwide through subsidiaries in 150 countries, on average. Revenue in the worldwide pharmaceutical market increased at a considerable rate, even during the global slump of 2008, and was estimated at an astounding USD1.143 trillion in 2017 (Statista, 2019).  Recently, we published an article  on pharmaceutical value chains, which investigates how they are embedded in an international division of labor, from a new-structuralist theoretical perspective. We ask: how global are the pharmaceuticals value chains? Are there centers and peripheries in pharmaceuticals value chains, and if so, which countries are in each pole?  

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Intellectual monopoly capitalism and its effects on development

What is new with contemporary (global) leading corporations? If gigantic monopolies are a repeated phenomenon in capitalism’s history, why all the fuss we see every day regarding high concentration?

Leading corporations of the 21st century are intellectual monopolies. These are firms that rely on a permanent and expanding monopoly over portions of society’s knowledge. A recent joint OECD and European Union report shows that the top 2000 corporations in business expenditure in research and development (BERD) concentrated 60% of total IP5[1] patents between 2014 and 2016 (Dernis et al., 2019).

How did this happen if intellectual rents enjoyed by the innovator were supposed to disappear once the rest of the industry adopts the new technique? They disappeared if the secret was broken, the patent expired, or when another firm innovated, overcoming the innovating firm’s advantage. Knowledge is cumulative and those innovating have a greater absorptive capacity to keep innovating. Aided by a more stringent and global intellectual property regime, the continuous reinforcement of knowledge monopolies has led to a perpetuation of the core, maximizing rentiership over time.

Intellectual monopolies may not monopolize the markets they operate, which can even be competitive markets like Amazon’s marketplace, where Amazon sells its products with millions of other sellers. Their monopolistic condition relies on their capacity to significantly and systematically monopolize knowledge, which generally – but not always – contributes to market concentration.

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The Social (Relations) Dilemma

The Social Dilemma that is currently streaming on Netflix has garnered much attention by raising a single question – how have we come to accept as normal the fact that a few hundred tech-enthusiasts in Silicon Valley has had an unprecedented impact on billions of lives around the world? Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the Social Dilemma features tech industry insiders raising ethical concerns about business models that shape our everyday digital experience. 

Though the docudrama has topped charts, the narrative on reckoning with this digital Frankenstein moment is not new. For example, Black Mirror is a popular show streaming on Netflix that speculates on how unchecked tech developments can result in a dystopian world. What makes Social Dilemma unique is perhaps because it features an array of “prodigal tech-bros” – usually white males who got rich working for big tech, but then got disillusioned and subsequently achieved “enlightenment”. 

The tech-bros point out that most platforms were started with good intentions to improve the quality of human lives. However, due to the advancements in AI, coupled with a shareholder model of revenue maximization, these platforms have become weaponized by those with nefarious interests. This has threatened liberal democracies, leading to political polarization. We are warned that a civil war is on the horizon, ironically triggered by social networks apparently aimed at bringing people together.

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The Use and Abuse of the Phrase “Global Public Good”

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Photo by Miroslav Petrasko

A flawed understanding of the concept of “public good” hampers the fight for equitable access to the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine

The term “global public good” has been used in very different ways by policy makers, economists and others. The term “global” is not particularly controversial, and in this context is generally understood to involve cases where the benefits of the service or good impact residents of more than one country, even if not necessarily the whole world. The term “public good” is subject to more diverse uses, often depending upon one’s educational or professional training.

For many people, perhaps most, the term “public good” is loosely defined to include cases where governments are willing to undertake measures to expand access, with universal access at least an aspirational goal. However, among the other influential definitions of “public good” is one that is exceptionally restrictive. A proposal by Paul Samuelson first published in 1954, meant at the time as an extreme and polar case, has found its way into countless articles, textbooks and academic courses, and has parameters that are rarely met in practice. At times, Samuelson’s 66-year-old paper is actually an obstacle to collective efforts to supply and distribute goods that have considerable impact on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an astonishing global challenge regarding the control of the pandemic and the reduction of harm. The health impacts are large, particularly for older patients, and growing unpredictably, and the pandemic has had an enormous social and economic impact on everyone, with no obvious end in sight.Read More »

The local state origins of national economic development

Korea_busan_pusan_harbour_cargo_container_terminal.jpegDuring the high period of global neoliberalism (1980-2008) the international development community essentially banned the heterodox concept of the ‘developmental state’ from polite discussion. One of the reactions to the global financial crisis and the Great Recession that ensued after 2008, however, was a growing call for the partial revival of the developmental state model. Most attention in this revival of interest has predictably followed the line that began with Chalmers Johnson’s pioneering work on Japan’s developmental state; which is to say that the discussion has overwhelmingly centred on the purpose and role of national-level developmental state institutions. This discussion is somewhat incomplete, I would argue, if not a little misleading. This is because a great part of the historic economic development success attributed to the ‘top down’ developmental state model since 1945 is actually success brought about thanks to the innovative and determined activities of sub-national ‘bottom-up’ developmental state institutions, which we can term the ‘local developmental state’ (LDS) model. Read More »

Despite many changes in today’s modern global economy developmental states are needed more than ever

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In the fall of 2017, SPERI’s Matthew Bishop and Anthony Payne gathered essays from a group of nine development economists who produced essays on ‘Revisiting the developmental state’ (SPERI Paper No. 43). They drew upon a body of work published on the SPERI Comment blog and in other publications about the state’s appropriate role in development and the nature of a modern industrial strategy. The essays examined the current status of the notion of a ‘developmental state’ in today’s contemporary context of globalization. This article reviews the series, highlights some key takeaways, and considers some other elements that were not addressed by the essays.Read More »

Secular Stagnation: Short-term Fixes for Long-term Problems

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The concept of secular stagnation, first propounded by Alvin Hansen in the 1930s, has enjoyed an academic – and mainstream – resurrection thanks to Lawrence Summers (2014, 2016), who first advanced the theory as an explanation for the subdued recovery and anaemic growth prospects of advanced economies. A surprising criticism recently came from Joseph Stiglitz (August, 2018), who believes that the theory offers a convenient escape away from assuming responsibility for failed policy during the crisis.  An acrimonious debate between Summers and Stiglitz followed.  

On the face of it, Summers – and Gauti Eggertson – are right: the modern theory of secular stagnation does see a central and substantial role for fiscal policy. The problem, however, lies in the fact that a short-term fix for aggregate demand shortfalls – fiscal policy – is being advanced as a long-term solution of the problem of reduced growth prospects. The central question of what drives investment in a capitalist economy is not addressed.Read More »