Discover more from Ethical Futures Lab
Future #62: All that you can't leave behind
This week we kept bumping into different versions of the same idea, namely: no matter where you go, there you are. When we imagine a future, we often bring all our beliefs, prejudices, hopes, and histories along with us, leading to limiting ideas of what’s truly possible. (But there’s some cool architecture at the end, to lighten the mood.)
—Alexis & Matt
1: “I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New”
When we imagine a possible future, how much of that vision is truly novel, and how much is a projection of our present? So many “innovations” change the mechanisms of how we do things without ever questioning underlying assumptions about what those tasks are or who is responsible for them.
Central to this essay by Sun-Ha Hong is the idea that innovation and “corporate futurism” — practices that often dominate our discussion about coming technological change — reify the existing structures of social hierarchy and responsibility when imagining ways to increase productivity or simplify our lives. The continued focus on “office” or “kitchen” as the hubs of new technology, and the assumed qualities of the participants therein, show that our imagination for what a future might be seem limited by our existing biases.
One theme throughout this essay is the obfuscation of labor. Technologies that purport to make tasks more efficient or easier often end up simply offloading the work to less visible participants in the system. Alexis recently wrote about this in her Camera Obscura essay, observing that designing for ease of use can lead to experiences that obscure friction rather than remove it. Whether the click-farms that power machine learning data sets, networks of delivery drivers propping up a food delivery app, or remote workers piloting delivery robots, new technologies rest on old-fashioned manual labor, but they make that labor less visible.
One facet we noticed that Hong elided, too: in both “office” and “kitchen” the goal is to maximize revenue. Work-oriented innovations increase our productivity, delivering more value to our employer; home-oriented innovations often reduce the friction around buying things, or require buying more things to maintain our lifestyles.
What futures might we imagine, if we were able to imagine new societal norms, or if we were to imagine an improvement that isn’t tied to efficiency or commerce?
→ Same old | Real Life Mag
2: Will my Tesla know when it’s being pulled over?
There’s a common thought experiment when it comes to self-driving vehicles: in the case of a crash of an autonomous vehicle, who is liable?
It turns out the answer to that, while a bit cynical, is “whoever the law says is liable.” Every state in the US, no matter their stance on allowing self-driving cars, requires the driver to constantly monitor the car’s activity and intervene if it is making a mistake. This is referred to as “Level 2” autonomy, and the liability issue is one reason why systems achieving Level 3 aren’t yet allowed on American roads.
Such is the case in California, where prosecutors have filed charges of vehicular manslaughter against a Tesla driver who ran a red light while driving with Autopilot engaged. This marks the first time a driver has been charged with a felony while driving a car using Tesla’s Autopilot feature. This crash occurred in 2019, and is one of several reasons the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been investigating Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self Driving (FSD) capabilities. In the seven years since Autopilot was first released, ten people have been killed in crashes in which it was used.
While culpability in this case seems to lie with the driver — red light recognition is not one of the features Autopilot touts — more fully autonomous vehicles in the near future will almost certainly raise thorny questions of liability. After all, if a computer shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions if it can’t be held responsible, what are we to do with a computer whose decision-making capabilities now feature an “assertive” mode?
3: Your attention is a systems problem
Since the advent of social media and smart phones, there have been essays decrying the damage being done to our attention. While some dismissed the concern as the same kind of moral panic that surrounded the emergence of television, or video games, or any number of prior technological changes, there is mounting evidence that our ability for sustained focus has declined.
However, this piece by Johann Hari is not just more hand wringing. What we liked about his analysis is that it critiques the way we talk about this issue. Specifically, we tend to talk about “reclaiming our attention” as a question of personal responsibility — it is up to us to unplug, to create space for sustained focus through our own willpower and personal habits. But Hari reframes our eroding attention as a systemic problem, one which is largely caused by a set of structural factors including not only social media and information ubiquity, but also rising levels of stress and decreasing amounts of sleep in the general population. While we can do some things on an individual level to make space for focus and attention, the lion’s share will only be resolved if we can start to redesign our society in more supportive ways.
Systems thinking is a core theme for us here, and we see this misframing happen often, where the responsibility for systemic problems are inappropriately put on the shoulders of individual actions. Hari points to the parallel of the rise in obesity in the US, which is more due to changes in the kind of food that is available and affordable (as well as the availability of time for cooking and a number of other factors) than to a reduction in our collective willpower. But we also see a clear analogue in the narrative around climate change, which isn’t likely to be fixed with recycling and car choices, but by big socioeconomic shifts. The moral of this story is: if someone is telling you how you can solve a pervasive problem if you just try hard enough, it’s worth looking deeper at the root cause.
→ Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen. | The Guardian
4: It’s not a feature, it’s an abuse vector
One of our ethical design principles is to look at the affordances of a system and ask how they might be used for harm rather than benefit. “What’s the worst thing someone could do with this?” is a question we should all be asking on a regular basis. In this essay, Molly White does just that for blockchain technology. She examines key affordances of blockchain, namely public transactions, immutability, airdrops, and the loose relationship between an address and an identity.
Each one of these qualities is seen by proponents as a positive characteristic: Immutability allows for a trusted record, not linking an address to your identity allows for anonymity, etc. But White doesn’t have to dig very deep for us to see how each of these aspects can easily be repurposed for abuse and harassment. What happens when you can’t delete things that should be deleted, from the purely embarrassing to the outright illegal? If you do connect your identity with your wallet address, it’s not hard to imagine how the public nature of transactions could lead to stalking and other bad outcomes. If you’re already silently arguing with us about how there are ways around these problems, go read the essay — she gets into all of it!
→ Abuse and harassment on the blockchain | Molly White
5: The interface is the institution
We hear a lot about how we’re undergoing a crisis of trust in authority and institutions. This article from Brookings discusses President Biden’s recent executive order that calls for improving the customer experience of government services, which explicitly identifies experience design as a vector for restoring trust in government. As makers of technology products, we know that UX design and ease of use play a big part in people’s perceptions of the institution behind the interface. An experience that is easy to use and understand lends a sense of credibility to the organization, a sense of competence that leads to trust. (Conversely, it’s interesting to consider contexts where good UX design might be used as a way of giving a trustworthy veneer to something we shouldn’t actually trust at all!) We’re happy to see this conversation happening more explicitly in the government space, in a way that will hopefully lead to more accessible services and a better relationship between government and citizens.
6: Now everyone can sound like a chatbot
After hearing about a friend losing a customer service position because of his accent, three former Stanford students decided to build an app that would help someone with an accent be better understood. Essentially a speech-to-text-to-speech system, Sanas will listen to accented speech, then say the same words in a different accent (for example, it may take American English spoken with an Indian accent and return North American accented speech.)
We saw this headline (which is inaccurate - this is not a Duolingo-style app that trains people to have different accents) and had a lot of initial reactions. In reading further, we’re conflicted. On the one hand, a service like this could help people avoid abuse and be understood better, leading to better employment options and other outcomes. On the other, this service is only necessary to navigate around our biases and prejudices. The origin story of the company is a regrettable, racist incident, and while the app provides a “solution” to the immediate problem, it also potentially deepens bias by reducing people’s exposure to anyone who doesn’t sound like them, leaving less room for linguistic diversity and acceptance.
One architectural nightmare (and a palate cleanser)
Spending most of our time indoors, especially given the recent sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures we’ve endured in the Northeast US, means we’re aching for some scale. Depending on your mood, you can choose from some deeply dystopian, speculative brutalism, or photography depicting the world’s most gorgeous libraries. Maybe start with one, then balance it out with the other?
→ A future city from the past | Clemens Gritl
Any opinions expressed are those of the authors, and do not reflect on the policies, plans, or beliefs of their employers or any other affiliates.