An ethical new age for technology

One of the biggest challenges to my digital practise of late has been a creeping cynicism I’ve been feeling. It’s hard not to really. The excitement and promise of an open, accessible technology enabled future is something that I’ve been inspired by since the first time I snuck onto Prestel as a child. It’s why I pursued a career in the digital industries, and why I have spent most of that career advocating for it. Yet it’s increasingly beginning to feel like we’re in the bad future – that we’ve gone William Gibson instead of Arthur C Clarke. Powerful corporate technocracies, ever distant remote controlled wars, a media which is struggling to monetise and is therefore diminishing it’s own core values, and of course the post Snowden realisation that we’re not paranoid, we’re not over-stating it, there really is a huge structural system of surveillance which is beyond the dreams of Orwell. It’s a sobering time, and so I been finding that, for the first time in years, I haven’t leapt on the Gartner futures list or excitedly watched TED talks.

That is, until I saw Aral Balkan’s article on ethical digital design, and watched his (superb as always) talks on the subject. I’m not going to understate this, I think this is the most important thing that I have read about Being Digital since Negroponte.

I’ll leave the manifesto to speak for itself, and there is good debate around it’s points happening elsewhere. What I would like to focus on in this post, however, is the response from technology to this challenging and liberating ethos. When I read this manifesto, and in particularly the Maslow-style hierarchy of user needs, I excitedly forwarded it on to various networks, including an internal technology team here. There was a good response from the UX and design departments, those that are traditionally focussed on user needs as much as the brands. From the developers though, barely a peep.

This is a problem.

The experiences which we create for people to use are ultimately built in a technical stack, and for far too long, developers have focussed entirely on the technology itself. In fact with the front-end technology stack becoming ever more immersed in software engineering practises with the rise of Node, React et al, I am concerned that this is becoming more and more the case. The traditional ‘unicorn’ client-side developer used to be one that bridged the gap between design, UX and development. More than ever, it’s one that works across the full technology stack. This is good for technology, but bad for our users. I’ve already been witness to long discussions about technical design which utterly ignore what we’re actually trying to achieve for the people of the world that will consume these experiences.

If the vision of the ethical design manifesto and it’s human-centricity is to be realised, then it is vital that key figures within the front end technology community start to talk a lot more about their end user, and (slightly) less about the virtues of functional programming versus classical inheritance.

Those of us working with technology for a better end user experience are working in a golden age of frameworks, tooling and techniques. It is a huge mistake to think of the ethical design manifesto as only being a strategic, design or experience solution. It lies at the absolute core of what we are actually trying to achieve when we build websites, apps or other digital products. Even with regard to middle-ware or service layers there are lessons that can be learnt from this approach, for instance, in the design of your micro-service suite in alignment with the needs of the users rather than the needs of the application or architecture.

In short, we need to be just as excited about this stuff as our design, strategy and UX driven colleagues and I really hope that we see some traction amongst technologists. A good many of us seized on the promise of digital to create a better world and the fight is far from over.

About Andrew

I am a technical director, creative technologist and digital strategist who has been working in the web industry for 15 years. An early online user from the days of Prestel and BBS systems, I am a self-taught technologist and developer who has been immersed in the creative possibilities of digital technology from childhood. My career path has taken many turns, from the heady dot-com agency days, through the corporate world and the variety of experience which freelance brings. Throughout, my goal has been to help organizations and brands realise the potential that the art and science of being digital can achieve, and to help them create opportunities to better use the most important emerging medium of our time. I am a strong advocate for digital as a multi-disciplinary medium, with an enviable record in building and retaining teams, and in the importance of the creative disciplines of collaboration, vision, practicing and failing in order to push things forward.

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