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Design, responsibility, and future generations

A nice piece at the Washington Post by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asks "what will future generations think?"

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah recently posed this challenge to readers of the Washington Post:

Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father’s duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved — in fact, invented — by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.

Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?

Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.

Appiah then details four practices he considers likely candidates: Our prison system, our treatment of animals in food production, our isolation of the elderly, and our treatment of the environment. His thoughts are interesting, and worth reading in full, but the topic I’m interested in today is the results of the Post’s related poll.

Current poll results from the Washington Post; When future generations look back on us, what will shock them most?
When future generations look back on us, what will shock them most? (Poll Results, 10 Oct, 2010)

At the time I wrote this post, 55% percent of respondents thought that our treatment of the environment would shock future generations the most. Our treatment of animals came in a rather distant second with 22% of respondents; the prison system and our treatment of the elderly each garnered around 10% of popular opinion.

Now, I invite you to ask yourself why such a startling majority of people settled on this issue? I also invite you to consider the following answer: advertising.

You’d have to be in a pretty deep hole to be unaware of the ecological problems (of our own design) we now face. A deep enough hole, anyway, to avoid the massive amount of advertising (political and otherwise) surrounding the issue. On the other hand, rare is the advertisement that promotes better prison systems, or better elder care.

The point of saying all of this is not to condemn people for thinking that our treatment of the environment is unconscionable. I doubt many will disagree with that. The point is just to notice the huge power that advertising (and relatedly design) have in bringing these important ethical issues to light. If that’s right, insofar as advertisers and designers care about these substantive ethical issues, they’re on the hook to make sure that their power is being exercised in the right ways.

Of most interest to our readership, this means that as long as there are serious problems with design ethics in general, these problems infect designers’ ability to get the right messages out in the right way. If the ability to do that is as important as the above considerations suggest, this is a very significant and deep problem.

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PaulOct 11, 2010
 

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