Notes from the Future Ethics at UX Book club

I went to the first UX Book Club Berlin in a while last night, and it covered Cennyd Bowles’ book from 2018, Future Ethics.

Below are my notes. Apologies for the quality.

A set of notes for future reference

Peter’s Bihr’s writing is accessible and really interesting in this field. This whose work I referred to when talking about category errors in technology we use to fund digital products:

People doing interesting work in this field

Projects By IF – a UK technology studio, specialising in ethical and practical uses of data They blog openly, and maintain a pattern library for thinking through interactions in a more privacy friendly way:

Simply Secure
The closest thing to “Projects by” If in Berlin

SDFY – Stop design for yesteryear
They’re more focussed on climate, but the way they approach the issue from the setting of a brief, all through through to delivery is worth a look

DotEveryone – a think tank designing tools, and doing research for more responsible tech

Consequence scanning is likely the easiest event to fit into an agile development process. It’s well documented and easy to start.

The doteveryone tech workers’ view report
Required reading for attitudes amongst employees about responsible technology, and the impact it has on among other things employee retainment, and attitudes to coming regulation.

OMGDPR – I helped organise an unconference in Berlin in 2018- to create space to discuss the stuff

Creative and Climate
A normative campaign about creative agencies working with high carbon industries. If they can’t divest from working with these companies yet, they can at least disclose the work to create implicit pressure to stop working in these fields.

Why I spend time working on

I’ve been investing a bunch of time into, an online community since around August 2018.

I’ve seen it grow from a private slack group of about 100 people into something closer to 1600 people now, and I figured it would be worth writing down why I spend this time.

I’ve tried to work out what I am trying to do, and this think this is it.

Make climate action at work by tech professionals more effective

Let’s break this down – I’ll refer to each bit separately.

make climate action effective

This it the thing we care about making happen. We’re literally in a climate emergency.

at work

We can’t do it as a just side project. If we spend maybe one night a week on a side project, but 5 days a week in the same destructive default of the last 20 years, it doesn’t achieve much change.

So, it’s more about these

Giving employees arguments and information to argue for actions that have a measurable impact, and support for them.

I’m thinking of stuff like:

  • how we build and maintain things (products and services)
  • how we travel
  • how we’re set up to work

There are more people who work in companies than founders of said companies, and increasing the number of people working in companies who are able to make these arguments for change means it’s more likely that the message will get through.

I think this is better than only focussing on a small number of people, when in many cases, structurally, they’re incentivized to not advocate for these changes. An example might be A VC backed startup. I would argue that employee is more interested in doing their best work, in a stable, supportive environment.

A founder is sympathetic to this, but they are structurally incentivized to increase the valuation of the company, such that the investors will make a large enough exit to return the fund, and will have to choose this option over making more environmentally responsible decisions.

An investor is more interested in as many of their companies shooting for hypergrowth, to make up for the fact that most of them will fail. In fact, if a company in their portfolio implodes, it’s often preferable to it surviving but growing slowly, as it offers a chance to write it off as a tax loss. These do not sound like sound foundations for the kind of long term thinking needed when talking about climate.

So, a union?

You might think this sounds like a union of sorts.

I think many of the ideas of unions are relevant and useful, like collective bargaining, or providing a counterweight to the influence of owners of companies, but my problem with many unions right now, is that the decisions I see from them basically put the needs of a minority of people already working in fossil fuel industries over the needs of well… everyone else alive on earth.

I don’t see leadership from unions on this, and most of the leadership I see at management level seems unprepared to talk about the practices of other organisations.

Helping people understand where the biggest levers are if they choose to work on this full time.

Many founders do not have the domain expertise or background outside of the tech sector, and assume the approach that has worked for them in their existing career will work just fine elsewhere. I don’t think this is the case.

If we can help signpost useful information, or help manage expectations about how hard this will be, and what has gone before, and in general, create a body of domain expertise folk can tap into, I think we should.

Than these:

Demo marches

Marches as citizens are cool, but there are loads of existing organisations doing this really well. Personally, I think it’s better to partner with groups and take part in their activities, than try to organise our own ones.

Giving people side projects to donate time to, that don’t change how we work

These are fun, and working on them probably feels more comfortable to spend time on than having uncomfortable discussions at work.

But we need to have these uncomfortable discussions at work, because we spend most of our time at work, the scale of the challenge is so large, and the science demands that we learn to change our norms.

Otherwise the uncomfortable discussions with everyone younger than us will be much, much more uncomfortable than whatever we might experience in the next few years.

I’m not saying don’t work on side projects. Some of these do grow into larger things, and the learning they can provide is also something that can help professionally. But in 2020, I think that, if we only consider climate a secondary priority, we’ll default back to the same destructive patterns we’ve seen before.

I also think there’s are already a multitude of programmes to support the ‘heroic founder’ figure, and we’ll see more of them.

There are more people who work as employees, and without these folks getting better at expressing themselves, or pushing back against action that enriches a tiny minority at the expense of a wider group of people, we won’t see the change we need.

By tech professionals

Because of the way power and resources are currently allocated, pretty much company is either:

  • already a tech company
  • turning into a tech company
  • or being eaten by a tech company, and therefore losing influence.

Tech professionals is deliberately something of woolly term, and it might help to describge it in terms of deliberately targeting a group who have disproportionate amounts of influence, and agency right now, and relatively high amounts of professional mobility, but are not all that aware of it, or used to using it.

Okay, that’s my position now.