The Ethics of Design in Increasingly Complex Situations: The Case of a Broken Voting Machine

Designers tend to approach ideas from a certain bias, which may require some explanation. While design is focused on the process of creating artifacts, it is rarely a straightforward endeavor. Of particular importance is the accountability that comes from creating a new artifact, the ethics of design so to speak. In the most general and common sense, the impetus is to solve a problem, and the solution is assessed on the basis of its efficacy. This can be thought of as the function of a particular design – what it does as a means of resolving a problem. The designer, in the ideal circumstance, builds that function into the artifact. In addition to this functional aspect, there is also a process of changing and reframing problems [see Nelson for more clarity on this]. This procedure carries with it yet another aspect of evaluation– the framing of the problem is judged on the basis of how well it captures some aspect previously unconsidered that, nonetheless, is integral to resolving the problem. To put this all more simply, a design can fail procedurally due to improper problem framing, regardless of how well the it functions, or it can fail functionally, regardless of how well the procedure of framing the problem goes. The results of either of these failings have implications for the designer. A failing of functionality indicts the designer on charges of poor craftsmanship, while a failure of procedure points to general ineptitude. The inverse is equally true – merit is given for functional and novel approaches.

While there are a number of good and bad designs in the world, this topic has been covered considerably, and so the nature of such evaluation will not be addressed here. The proceeding is presented with the hopes of identifying how a designer is ethically tied to the success or failure of an artifact. If this is taken as true, then what happens in the grey areas? If two ends of the spectrum refer back to the designer, is it not reasonable that the middle ground has a similar effect? The situation above becomes socially relevant when one considers Winner’s argument that artifacts can have politics [Winner]. Those politics become built into the artifact both procedurally and functionally; both with implications for the designer. In the case of Winner’s examples, Moses’s bridges are problematic due to their function – their function is limited by the way they were made. Alternately, the tomato harvester suffers from a procedural issue – namely that the framing of the problem showed greater concern for efficiency and cost-effectiveness than the implications of mechanization with economical and ecological consequences. In both cases, Winner’s description seems to fit well within a model of accountability as prescribed by design. But lets suppose a situation where the decisions are not quite so clear. As an example of such a situation, consider this Pennsylvania polling station.

In a Philadelphia polling station in the 2012 election, one of the booths had a problem regarding candidate selection. When the space on the screen occupied by Barak Obama’s name was clicked, the box for Mitt Romney would be checked. Now, in a situation similar to Moses’s bridges it could be imagined that this machine was designed with the specific intent of favoring a specific candidate. This would be a functional aspect, in that the artifact’s functioning had a specific bias. But let us suppose that the person who posted this video’s first inclination (from going into “troubleshoot mode”) is correct and the problem is a malfunction rather than a deliberate decision. It seems reasonable that a touchscreen could break, particularly if used repeatedly (as would be the case of a polling station). Then it would seem that the accountability would fall upon the individual who chose that particular touch screen, making it procedural – rooted in a concern of cost over functional robustness. This need not imply any political orientation with regards to Romney and Obama, but it certainly represents a political statement nonetheless. However, suppose that such was not the case. Suppose, rather, that the reduced size of one option’s button was the result of a contextual issue. A power surge, a component broken during shipping, or any number of events that had happened to that specific machine could be at fault. In such a case, what would be the ethical standing of the designer? Would the complexities of the context caused a newly emergent political stance without an actor behind it, or is there an implication at the level of deciding to use such a machine in the first place?

If that sounds somewhat far-fetched, consider the 2010 “Flash Crash.” Sommerville et al. describes how a $4.1 billion block sale that was “executed with uncommon urgency” resulted in a “complex pattern of interactions between high-frequency algorithmic trading systems… that buy and sell blocks of financial instruments on incredibly short timescales” [Sommerville]. The systems employed had functioned together well, until that context had arisen. But when that context DID arise, roughly $800 billion disappeared [ibid]. As in the final hypothetical situation regarding the voting booth, it becomes difficult to consider the ethical position of the designer(s). Both describe systems of systems (the algorithms in the market and the technological parts of the voting machine). Both also describe situations where the final result is emergent, as opposed to a situation that is deliberately created. Risatti makes a distinction between function, and emergent application: use (Risatti)It would seem that these issues fall more under latter than the formerand by virtue of the fact that use is not constructed into the artifact in the way that function is, that the designer is somewhat free from blame. After all, designers cannot be expected to be capable of predicting the future, can they?

As a somewhat unsettling conclusion to this case study, what happens when the model of accountability that is defined by function and procedure becomes less common? It is becoming more difficult to consider any one given technology in isolation. Phones sync to computers that sync to bank accounts; information is stored to a cloud where multiple people, from multiple devices, can access it. Systems of technology are moving towards systems of systems of technology. As this increases, the chances for emergence also increase. Buried in this complex scenario is a notion that is as lucid and cutting as what Winner expresses: if artifacts have politics, do systems have politics as well?  It seems evident that the answer is a resounding “yes.” However, that answer only leads to a more worrisome question. If systems have politics, who is accountable for those politics?

Nelson, H. and Stolterman, E. (2012) The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredicatble World. 2nd ed. MIT Press.

Winner, L. (1986) Do Artifacts Have Politics? The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. U. Chicago Press: 19-39.

Sommerville, I. Cliff, D., Calinescu, R., Keen, J., Kelly, T., Kwiatkowska, M., McDermid, J., and Paige, R. (2012) Large-Scale Complex IT Systems, Communicatons of the ACM 55(7): 71-77.

Risatti, H. (2007) A Theory of Craft and Aesthetic Expression. U. North Carolina Press.


Posted on November 13, 2012, in Critical perspectives. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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