The False Promises of Ethical Design

Ethical design of digital devices matters, but it's not enough.

Posted Jun 12, 2018

At its annual conference for software developers, Apple announced a new feature of its forthcoming iOS12 for the iPhone—a tool called Screen Time that the company says will help consumers manage the time they spend on their phones. The idea is that once we are shown how automatically we devote our attention to apps and social media we will cheerfully curb this tech addiction by spending more time off-line.

This little modification to iPhone software might not be original (see below), but it does respond to the recent spate of public denunciations of high-tech brands and social media platforms for a range of offenses that include the propagation of fake news, predatory privacy violations, and unregulated mind-management of children and adolescents. Many companies have responded to this so-called tech-lash with unconvincing apologies and minimal real action to make up for their mendacity. Leave it to Apple to get ahead of the PR problem by redirecting blame away from its phones and onto content providers; if we are to believe them, their phones are now part of the resistance.

But don’t be fooled. Apple has a reputation of marketing its devices using moral prompts that point to the company’s putative virtuousness. Along with Apple’s much-hyped privacy protections and self-promotion as a green company, Screen Time is another clever effort to demonstrate that the company cares about its customers’ “digital well-being.” It’s also Apple’s way of saying they listened without saying they’re sorry to all the people who are angry about the negative side-effects of mobile connectivity.

Some commentators see the new tool as Apple’s response to an open letter sent to the company in January of 2018 by two of its influential shareholders—the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (Calstrs) and activist investor JANA Partners LLC—who pressed Apple to use the company’s innovative powers to solve the problem of technology addiction, especially in young children and adolescents. JANA and Calstrs greeted the addition of Screen Time to the iPhone’s operating system as “a huge step in meeting that challenge."

It’s also a huge step for activist shareholders like JANA and Calstrs. When shareholder activists test a company’s vanity as a do-gooder their goal is not only to broaden a company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials, but also to enhance the reputation of activism. They were responding to research that has attributed the market value of corporations to their ESG standing. For shareholders, such activism also has the effect of wrapping them in a “sustainability cloak” that makes corporate leadership appear amenable to the call for change.

Beyond that, there has been an increase in non-profit advocacy for the ethical design of information technology (IT) aimed at changing corporate culture, public policy, and consumer habits. For example, the Center for Humane Technology, led by former “tech insiders and CEOs” from some of the top IT firms in the US, proposes to fight the many ways that “technology hijacks our minds.” The Center has launched what it calls a Time Well Spent Movement, which invites everyone to join in the effort to take back our lives from addictive technologies.

This combination of non-profit advocacy against tech addiction, shareholder activism for ESG branding, and a corporate giant devoted to “digital well-being” expands the horizon for ethical design but also risks narrowing the scope of ethical practices to the way consumers interact with digital devices. An example of how thin this design idea is can be found in so-called minimalist, or dumb, phones.

Dumb phones are designed to minimize the time spent on social media and other distracting apps. They tend to make activities other than telephoning either non-existent or difficult. These phones are being sold as “anti-smartphone” remedies for the ill-effects of mobile connectivity and multitasking. There is even a new kind of business journalism devoted to comparison shopping to find the right dumb phone for you.

The idea of an ethically-designed dumb device is not to replace the smartphone, but to sell a second phone that has no other purpose than to pacify first world mental health problems. And here we see another reason for Apple’s Screen Time—it gives users a way to make iPhones dumber while keeping all the bells and whistles intact. No need for a second phone.

There are other reasons to reject the hype, as illustrated by the Light Phone. The company website and packaging depicts the Light Phone as environmentally friendly and able to transport its users to verdant landscapes, peaceful waterways, and gleaming skies. How jolly. The fact that it’s manufactured by Foxconn, which also invested in the brand, should be enough to tell you that the phone actually originates in atrocious environmental and labor conditions. An Orwellian marketing strategy if there ever was one.

So what might an honest ethical design of a phone look like? Well, pretty much like a Fairphone. (We hold no financial interests in the enterprise).

Fairphone has shown that ethical design isn’t just about the interaction of human and device. It starts with the ethical interaction of humans who make, sell, buy, use, and dispose of the devices. This means radically redesigning the manner in which materials are procured, components are manufactured and assembled, and a device’s end-of-life is managed.

Fairphone tries to realign the ordinary supply chain to avoid as best as possible damage to the Earth’s ecosystems and physical harm to workers. They designed their smartphone with upgradable, modular parts that are easy to replace and recycle without damaging the environment. This has altered the end-of-life management of Fairphones and allows them to brand their phone as one of the longest lasting.

But the foundational idea of the Fairphone was to demonstrate to other smartphone brands that an alternative supply chain was possible. As Fairphone discovered, you can’t do this from scratch; you have to go to the existing industry and try to change it on the ground. The biggest hurdle was their minuscule market position—they have simply not been as influential in redesigning the supply chain as they had hoped.

Imagine if other brands took Fairphone’s aspiration for an ethical design seriously and launched new models using their suppliers. If Google had adopted the Fairphone production model for its Pixel phone, the firm’s scale and market power might have helped enhance a greener supply chain’s attractiveness and made ethical design a more competitive option for manufacturers and other competing brands.

Clearly, ethical design aimed at protecting the consumer from exposure to harmful effects of the phones, from radiation to mental distraction and other ills, is important. And while we welcome Screen Time as part of iPhone software, we should point out that Fairphone has had a similar feature called “peace of mind” for years. More importantly, Fairphone has called upon the movement for ethical design to do more than make the consumer experience healthier; we need to redesign the entire smartphone supply chain from start to finish. But for that to matter, the big corporations must get on board.

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