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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The Techfare State: The ‘New’ Face of Neoliberal State Regulation

By Ali Bhagat and Rachel Phillips

A recent article in the New York Times takes aim at ‘How Big Tech Won the Pandemic’, highlighting how in the last year alone, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook posted a combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion. While the pandemic has resulted in the loss of both work and life the world over, companies like Amazon have managed to expand their warehouses and their cloud computing infrastructure—and reaped unprecedented profits in the process. As the Times put it, ‘the pandemic created a peculiar economy that benefited some people and industries, including in technology, even as it battered others.’ 

But as many commentators have pointed out, the explosive growth of the tech giants must also be understood in relation to more overtly political conditions. It may be true that the technology industry has maintained a liberal, progressive, and socially equitable visage throughout the pandemic, even as it has subtly extended its multi-tentacled reach into new physical and digital spaces. Indeed, we know by now, that Big Tech has long thrived on regulatory evasion and the exploitation of legal grey areas and this is a dominant reading within critical political economy which has been at pains to point out how laissez-faire regulatory environments—particularly in the United States—have allowed the tech industry to sniff out and exploit new sources of profit, including those that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.  

In this literature, then, the tendency is to assume that it is an absence of state intervention that has underpinned the technology industry’s growing economic (and political) power. With our conception of techfare, however, we aim to push beyond these explorations of how Big Tech evades state control. Instead of focusing on state absences, we set out to highlight an equally significant dynamic: how the technology industry has become deeply entwined with the activities of the neoliberal state. 

Our research agenda is centred on one key question: how has the dramatic post-2008 growth of the American technology industry interacted with—and been shaped by—the neoliberal regulatory projects that have prevailed during this time? In pursuing this question, we focus on one pivotal arena of neoliberal statecraft in which Big Tech companies increasingly participate, but where their presence has gone largely unnoticed: the disciplining of the relative surplus population, particularly through consumer debt, policing, and imprisonment. 

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Land, property, technology: interrogating an infrastructural promise

Land has served as a central means of sustenance, but also as a nexus of wealth and power for people throughout the ages. The World Bank has estimated that more than seventy percent of the world’s population lack access to legally registered land titles. Existing land registries are centralized databases, vulnerable to corruption and destruction. There is an increasing turn towards emerging technologies such as blockchain for recording the relationships between people and land, coordinating and synchronizing that data for efficient governance, and making the information publicly available.

This essay explores the abstraction of blockchain as employed for formalizing land rights in emerging economies. Behind the seemingly neutral façade of the technology, diverse aspirational claims and narratives guide its implementation in different societies, shaped by particular histories and socio-political contexts. This highlights the need to explore blockchain-based land registries as distributed knowledge infrastructures, uncovering their broader embeddedness in older, non-digital modalities, and the “peopled infrastructures” of informal networks with their histories and cultural repertoires. As digital technologies can facilitate an illusion of enhanced visibility of some elements while obscuring others, I argue that more attention is needed to the role of broader colonial legacies and enduring North-South inequalities that frequently remain backgrounded in the adoption of such technologies.

An increasing number of governments are investigating the prospects of transferring their land registries to blockchain (Graglia and Mellon 2018). Blockchain applications are explored as enabling the formalization of property rights in the countries of the Global South, as well as providing more efficient coordination of real property markets in the Global North. Blockchain registries have several advantages as compared to centralized digital or paper-based databases. Records on blockchain are distributed and verified by a multitude of nodes in a peer-to-peer digital network, affording them more transparency and resilience. As new additions to the chain of blocks are cryptographically time-stamped, this makes tampering or accidental data loss less likely. Auto-executing “smart contracts” that transform legal agreements into code could mediate contracts (De Filippi and Wright, 2018).

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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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Digital Workerism: Technology, Platforms, and the Circulation of Workers’ Struggles

UberTaxiProtestChicagoBy Callum Cant, Sai Englert and Jamie Woodcock

The so-called platform economy – the distribution of, and access to work through websites and apps – continues to grab headlines and the imagination of policy makers, researchers, and journalists the world over. Much attention is given to its rapid expansion, its potential for further growth, and the large amounts of wealth generated through it.

Amongst many others, PWC (2015) published a much-quoted study, if not always critically, which projected global revenues of $335 billion in 2025. If those numbers are potentially inflated, different valuations do point to a significant financial importance. For example, in 2015 ‘17 companies operating in the platform economy were valued at over $1 billion. Of these 17, 12 were based in the US, one in India (Olacabs), one in China (Kuaidi Dache), one in Australia (Freelancer), one in New Zealand (Trademe) and one in the UK (TransferWise)’.

Alongside these macro observations, an equally large amount of ink continues to be spilt about the liberating nature of the platform for the worker (for a particularly excited account see here). The gig worker, we are told, is entering a new reality free of the constraints of oppressive 9-5 employment, far away from the controlling gaze of their manager, able to choose when to work, set their own wages, and whom to work for. A new dawn of democratised entrepreneurialism is supposedly upon us.

Yet the actual evidence is – perhaps unsurprisingly – less rosy. Across the world, platform workers are confronted with the fact that, far from liberating them (or replacing them), new technologies play a disciplining role, deepening many of the characteristics of working conditions in a neoliberal economy: ranging from insecure and precarious employment relations, to greater managerial oversight and debt control. Callum Cant has masterfully documented some of these processes in his recent book on Deliveroo riders, as Jamie Woodcock and Mark Graham have done in their critical introduction to the gig economyRead More »