My phone is not a fridge
When talking about consumer and producer responsibility, there are apparent differences in device categories. OEMs take note.
One of the more shocking moments regarding technology ethics for me was at a design conference in 2019. A leading figure in technology was on the stage, who worked on smartphones for quite a bit of their career.
Their presentation was about accelerating complicated, fundamental technologies to improve life for all. A plea to invest more resources in attention to tackle hard problems, rather than build the next social app.
During Q&A, the question came up: “Knowing what we know today, what are your thoughts on the impact of technologies like smartphones on individuals and society? What is the responsibility of a company like [OEM] in that regard?”
In the context of what was discussed prior, the question aimed at problems such as device addiction, shortening of attention spans, unhealthy relationships of people with technology — the whole nine yards. A reasonable inquiry, looking at what we have learned.
The response? “A smartphone is like a fridge. What you put into that fridge is your responsibility. Whether you eat healthy or unhealthy, that is up to you. The device maker has nothing to do with that.” I was stunned.
Here was a technology leader, looked up to by many, in the same stage time making the case to solve harder problems, build a better future, while denying any kind of responsibility that technology companies might have for how their products are used. That this shocked me is, to say the least.
Yet it also powerfully highlights a massive disconnect — between the tech elites and their vision of a better future and the people who are actually to live in their techno-utopian brave new world.
Technology without empathy
“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” — Bernard Baruch
And the most popular hammer of the 21st century seems to be technology. No matter the problem, Silicon Valley and their ilk are here to help. And what if new issues arise after the solution is scaled up? We can always throw some more technology at those as well. Repeat until finished.
A severe lack of accountability and taking responsibility is the status quo today, all over the technology scene. One needs to look no further than the inquiries of US and EU lawmakers and the testimony of the CEOs. Every criticism is deflected, every problem blamed on someone else.
If potential problems are acknowledged, then in the same breath as the suggestion that self-regulation will suffice to keep everything under control. Why outside scrutiny? Only we know how to control everything.
This is very much in line with the conference appearance I was so shocked by. Instead of exploring the problems with persuasive technology and engaging in dialogues with the community, the problem is quickly blamed on the users.
Why can’t they act most responsibly? Why do they not make better decisions? They are presented with every possible option; they should be better informed and have more willpower.
One of the critical problems in technology today is a lack of empathy. People are stuck in their echo chambers in these hip tech companies staffed with young people of remarkably little cognitive and moral diversity.
When their company’s workforce bears no resemblance to most of their customer base, it is no wonder they don’t get the problems. No matter how much user research they do, their customers will always be foreign to them, leaving plenty of room for projection where empathy should reign supreme.
Along the lines of a big push for sustainability, topics like extended producer responsibility are hotly discussed and debated.
Essentially, the goal is to expand the responsibility a producer of goods has from mere warranty into areas of dealing with disposal and more. This is supposed to ensure that they already care about repairability and recyclability during the design and manufacturing process.
We need a similar concept for creators of software systems and expand their responsibility for their creation. If a product team releases a feature that shows apparent harmful effects, they must be liable to fix it or otherwise face penalties.
This is needed to address the diffusion of responsibility that happens in large companies, where in the end no one feels responsible for anything, and ethics is left unconsidered.
That would also mean that there needs to be a monitoring of impact beyond just the company’s bottom-line and business metrics. Social and environmental responsibility means monitoring second-and third-order effects, which might sometimes be fuzzier than conversion numbers, to understand what impact a product has.
Sounds complicated? No one said this would be easy. Or that it should be easy. Creation comes with enormous responsibility and should not be taken lightly. By bringing something into existence, you alter the nature of our reality. This should be complicated and well-considered.
My phone is not a fridge.
The producer of my fridge has a clear responsibility. Today it is the warranty they serve, tomorrow hopefully, the full recycling and disposal as well. Responsibility evolves as we learn that impact products have.
What they are indeed not responsible for is what I put into the fridge — because it neither acts as a gatekeeper (like the AppStore), nor does it make recommendations or provides features for third parties to interact with me on a regular and intrusive basis.
The producer of my smartphone today only takes responsibility for the hardware in terms of the warranty. Tomorrow hopefully also for the repairability of it.
Soon the disposal as well. Yet, they also need to take responsibility for what they allow onto my phone because it passes their gates. And for what they enable those third-parties to do because they provide the infrastructure.
We can, and should, hold companies like Facebook and Google accountable for their part in all of this. But that does not mean that someone like Apple should be off the hook. If a mobile app uses provided platform features to make it more addictive, someone like Apple is a part of that — and needs to own up to it. They have, admittedly, made relevant updates and moves in the last year. Quite late, and still too little.
Creation should not be taken lightly. And responsibility does not expire.
Sebastian is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of MING Labs, a global strategic design and digital transformation consultancy with 6 offices in 4 countries. He started and grew MING Labs in Shanghai, China for 5 years, before moving to Singapore and establishing an office here. With now globally 80+ experts, Sebastian, and MING Labs work with MNCs, local champions, SMEs, and government agencies in setting their transformation vision and strategy, as well as helping them execute against that with organizational enablement and implementation of key strategic initiatives across Business Design, Experience Design and Technology Implementation.