Graeff, E. 2020. The Responsibility to Not Design and the Need for Citizen Professionalism. Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility: The Past, Present and Future Values of Participatory Design. Retrieved from https://pdc2020cpsr.pubpub.org/pub/vizamy14
I advise two programs at Olin College of Engineering that invite undergraduate students to conduct community-engaged design work. In the fall of 2019, project teams in both of those programs decided not to design systems requested by their outside collaborators based on ethical concerns about the harm they might cause. This paper briefly describes how those decisions came to be, the need to educate for and celebrate design refusal, and how this exemplifies the need to develop the next generation of designers and technologists to be citizen professionals.
Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people collect information about their surroundings or track issues of local or personal interest in order to improve their communities and pursue justice. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, coordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and elite individuals and their perceived responsibilities. The term originates in Michael Schudson’s 1998 book The Good Citizen. Schudson proposes monitorial citizenship as a successor to the “informed citizenship” paradigm to better account for our current age of information overload, arguing “the obligation of citizens to know enough to participate intelligently in governmental affairs be understood as a monitorial obligation” (p. 310). This original concept positioned monitorial citizens as “defensive rather than proactive” (p. 311). The idea of citizens paying attention to public affairs and serving a monitorial role pre‐dates Schudson and, of course, the Internet. What is different now is that technologies like the Internet and smartphones enable the average person to be more effective at monitoring topics of interest and powerful actors in society through the construction of distributed networks and ongoing campaigns that can leverage sophisticated narrative strategies with data to hold them to account. Some contemporary scholars believe monitorial citizenship may be one answer to revitalizing civics in an age of mistrust (Zuckerman, 2014), an effort media literacy can support.
Educational institutions producing graduates who design and implement the technology changing our world should be thinking deeply about how they are fostering good, responsible technologists. This paper introduces a workshop activity meant to start a conversation among faculty, staff, and students about which attributes we most want our graduates to develop and how those attributes might help them address dilemmas of technology’s negative consequences
Graeff, E. 2019. ‘Everyone Should Be Involved in Designing, Implementing, and Evaluating Digital Surveillance Technology.’ In Levinson, M & Fay, J, eds., Democratic Discord in Schools: Cases and Commentaries in Educational Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Although digital surveillance technologies may seem to be purely technical innovations, how technology is designed always also involves political choices. Technology design embodies the values of its designers and those who commission the design, as well as the values embedded in the underlying structures it often abstracts and amplifies. When digital surveillance technologies are used in schools without being subject to appropriate political discussion and contestation, they threaten democratic education in several ways. First, they impose a set of policies that affect the rights of students and parents without consulting them in their design and implementation. Second, they may chill legitimate student inquiry or even criminalize students who are researching topics or personal questions deemed taboo or dangerous according to administrators. Building on participatory design and “popular technology” principles, I thus recommend that schools involve students, parents, teachers, and administrators in collective deliberation about the design, scope, and use of digital surveillance technologies.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election stoked concerns about the potential of digital technologies to disempower citizens and erode democracy. Such concerns followed years of promises from tech companies and investors about the democratizing power of the internet. Since their founding, Twitter and Facebook have touted themselves as tools for democracy and citizen empowerment. A closer look, however, reveals that tech company incentives are often poorly aligned with the social goals they espouse and the type of good they promise to do for the world.
A new crop of companies — self-titled “civic technology” companies — are now taking the democratic mission more seriously by designing their platforms and tools with the explicit intention of promoting civic engagement. Some of these companies are nonprofits or ventures with the dual mission of making a profit and providing social benefits. Others are traditional startups financed by venture capitalists. In both cases, these companies need better metrics to ensure that their products and business designs remain aligned with their social missions.
Unfortunately, Silicon Valley companies are often judged simply on their ability to attract exponentially rising numbers of users and maintain user engagement. This standard for “success” encourages companies to work with paying customers who advertise to users and exploit their attention and data — rather than serving users in empowering ways. In turn, such standard measures are what matter to business leaders and investors. Measures of success need to change in order to encourage more tech companies to pursue democratic goals. Industry leaders, governmental and citizen users, and investors — all must create new performance standards to redefine success and hold tech companies accountable. New measures for evaluating company performance should be tied to service to democracy and to citizen empowerment.