Design’s Lost Generation

There are two words every designer needs to feel comfortable saying: “no” and “why.” Those words are the foundation of what we do. They’re the foundation of building an ethical framework. If we cannot ask why we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say no we lose the ability to stand and fight. We lose the ability to help shape the thing we’re responsible for shaping....

We are gatekeepers, and we vote on what makes it through the gate with our labor and our counsel. We are responsible for what makes it through that gate, and out into the world. What passes through carries our seal of approval. It carries our name. We are the defense against monsters. Sure, everyone remembers the monster, but they call it by his maker’s name. And the worst of what we create will outlive us....

We’re killing people. And the only no I hear from the design community is about the need for licensing. If why and no are at the center of who we are, and they must be, the center has not held.

Mike Monteiro is my profession’s John the Baptist. He says “designers”, but that means developers and engineers too. He means me.

There was one time early in my career when I was handed a software project that could potentially protect people from injury or even save their lives. It sounds great, right?

But the context was about cutting the lag time for calling off a repo agent if the owner of the car he was going after was armed and desperate. And actually it wasn't even about that. That was an ancillary benefit to the real purpose: repossessing cars more efficiently.

Now we've got a whole mess to unpack. Poverty. The tight link in nearly all of the U.S. between losing a car and financial ruin. The ethics of lending and borrowing. Guns. Not all of that was on me, of course, but it cast a pallor over that project. It weighed. It makes me queasy to remember it.

When I went back to school for my computer science degree, I was told I was "lucky" that I got to skip Computer Ethics because I have a philosophy degree. What those students did not want to hear was that I was lucky, because I had at least a dozen credit hours of ethics classes underpinning my choices, not just one course half-heartedly PowerPointed at me by an engineer from Acxiom.

That education has made it hard for me to do my job sometimes. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I should leave my profession entirely. I’ve had meetings and seen project plans that made me despair for the world I’m going to leave my children. And that’s happened at jobs I liked.

We are gatekeepers. We decide what you can see and what you can do about it and where the walls are built. We choose what is shared and what is safe. We dangle the shiny things.

I've decided to stop feeling embarrassed for being so strident about Facebook and Twitter and metadata gathering and identity and white-male-viable software, because fuck your lack of concern. My profession will only care when you start screaming and throwing things at us. We control your future. We control what you think. And you need to start asking who the fuck we are and what we want.