Values in Technology Design

Posted 15 Dec 2016

A colleague recently wrote me to ask me about my opinion of an article about the design of mobile technologies, and how they seem very addictive.

I originally wrote this for him in an email, so the tone is fairly casual. But, I figure I probably won’t try to sit down to figure out how to word it better, so here it is verbatim.

About 8 years ago, I remember being struck by a talk about “Slow Design,” by Phoebe Sengers. It was the first time I had encountered a designer who was being very explicit about thinking about the kind of negative consequences of designing technologies in the way that we do right now – i.e. that we assume values of being “always on” and “always available” were desirable. And, it was the first time (for me) that I was forced to think carefully about what kinds of values that we as designers and researchers impart on technology implicitly (and explicitly).

I have since learned that the movement has been afoot for quite some time, and that Design schools have long been very aware of this relationship between a designer’s values and design. The best example of this, perhaps, is in urban design (and city planning) or architecture. What you see is that people’s values about what kinds of cities we want, what kinds of living spaces we want (do we want to talk to people, do we want to be in awe) are embedded into the way cities are laid out (suburbia vs. revitalization efforts in city cores), buildings (e.g. cathedrals were designed to give strong sense of awe, and acoustics were designed for reverb, and less about being able to actually hear what was going on), to layouts of working spaces (offices today have open plans vs. cube farms of the 80s).

I think what we have today with regards to technology is very much driven by the values and ideals of Silicon Valley. By this, I don’t mean just that design happens there (because this is in fact where most of the tech we used is designed), but that because the design happens there, it is the values of the people that populate that area that are now imbued in the technologies we use today. And, the reality is that Silicon Valley people are mostly CS/EE people, where the values are roughly “build cool things”, “efficiency”, “working is fun/life”, and so forth. I’m being a bit facetious here, of course, but those kinds of values are not much different from how I felt in a very recent previous life, so I feel fairly comfortable talking that way. One way that you see this value manifest in our technologies is that your phone likely has a “do not disturb” mode; however, it is not enabled by default. When you turn it on, it has a reasonable default (e.g. no notifications between 9pm and 6am or something). But, the fact that you NEED to turn it on (i.e. as an explicit act) says something about what the designers thought the “default experience” ought to be.

Chris Sacca, a big-time angel investor, captures it really well in the talk above. Roughly, he describes the problem as being design driven by a monoculture of technology designers that are living in a kind of “technology bubble”. The idea is that the people building these tools and apps and things have grown up without understanding the broader context of real life and about the different kinds of roles that technology can have in our lives (rather than assuming that it can and should be used to solve every problem). Even this language that we use in the tech world of “problems” and “solutions” – real life isn’t necessarily like that. Not everyone thinks that “not getting my email the instant it is sent” is actually a problem. But the technology bubble kids don’t get that.

What makes it a bit challenging is that many of these kinds of values align with the business values of large economies like the US. And, because the US drives a lot of technology design (right now), those values do get translated in the technology. From the article, I think the reaction of people at Google is kind of unsurprising to me. It’s not that they are bad people – rather, the machine they are a part of needs this kind of design, and so it’s kind of weird to stop doing it altogether.

The funny thing is that most of us don’t adopt this technology because our values align with them (not generally). Rather, we are driven to the technology because technology is the medium through which we interact with one another. This is not a new phenomenon – think about radio, the phone, the newspaper, even paper or cave drawings – these are technologies that mediate, support and amplify the interactions we have with other humans. But, the consequence of our buying into the technology is that literally, we are paying money into a system of values that we may not necessarily agree with.

A moment of self-awareness in the mileu of software engineering.
A moment of self-awareness in the mileu of software engineering.

Articles like this one are sort of wrestling with this, as they kind of reflect a sort of moment of self-awareness by people in the system. Usually, it’s a moment where someone says, “Hey, actually, I’m not sure I actually agree with these values.” It reminds me also of the moment in Jurassic Park where one of the characters says, “Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” My sense is that while this kind of thinking has traditionally been the realm of the humanities, I do think that it is worthwhile that technology people be not only cognizant of the same kinds of things, but that they ought to be thinking about these things themselves. It’s this kind of empathy that I think the technology monoculture lacks.

The talk I heard 8 years ago was sort of the first surfacing of these ideas into my consciousness. Since then, there is a growing movement in the research community to be cognizant of these values as we move forward. But it is a weird place to be, because it is about social commentary (and an author’s values), and even within the scientific community, finding traction is challenging because we too fall back on values of things like efficiency.

I guess I see what the article is talking about, but it’s kind of a weird machine that we’ve started that might be hard to put back to bed. Kind of a Pandora’s Box. Fixing it is going to be challenging, and I think it will demand a conscious culture shift. For instance, at our university and in many workplaces, we are increasingly being expected to respond to things in a super timely way because we have email and we have email at home. This increases stress generally. But, fighting against it is hard. It demands people at the top that have values that go against that.

Anyway, probably not a satisfying way to end this. So, check out this musical (15 mins) called “The Millennials”, which sort of deals with these kinds of ideas and thoughts: