Entangled in Technology

Ariel Guersenzvaig and Taavi Hallimäe

Published on

Ariel Guersenzvaig is a design and technology ethicist, and a professor of design at ELISAVA, Barcelona School of Design and Engineering. Guersenzvaig researches the ethical impact of machine intelligence on society, and the ethics of professional design activity. His book The Goods of Design: Professional Ethics for Designers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), was reviewed as ‘Essential’ by Choice Magazine. The paperback edition of the book will come out in March, 2023.

Taavi Hallimäe is a lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Arts and the editor-in-chief of Leida. He has a master’s degree in cultural theory and philosophy from Tallinn University (2019). Currently, he is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture.

As questions about the impact of technology on society and culture are increasingly emerging, Ariel Guersenzvaig, the professor of design at ELISAVA, discusses the ethics of designing in these new circumstances. In the interview he relies on the historical background of the philosophy of technology and on his own experience working with designers to share his ideas about how technology shapes who we are, and is simultaneously shaped by us. The designer’s responsibility is to find a balance between the impact of technology and our contemporary values.

Taavi Hallimäe: How should we define philosophy and ethics in the context of technology? How related are they to each other?

Ariel Guersenzvaig: The difference between the two lies in that that while the first tries to engage with technology and technologies as phenomena, the second thinks about the entailments or the effects of the technologies, and the design thereof, in the context of our lives, as well as how we relate to these technologies. Especially about how they mediate our perception of the world, how they mediate our actions and how they influence our values. Yeah, so they are related, but they are not exactly the same.

TH: That was something I was interested in as well. Because there is this saying that technology is also the expansion of the human body or human mind. And in that case it seems interesting to know how one would really become aware of this kind of tautological perception of technology because every tool to understand technology is also technical in the end.

AG: In my book “The Goods of Design”, I discuss the views of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who is an important figure in the philosophy of technology. According to his view, technology is inherently human, it’s part of who we are – being human is being technological. He argues that we develop or conceive technology in order to make up time to pursue other endeavours, to do other things that seem to be more relevant to us, and technology simplifies the process for us. Thus, releasing time that we can devote to the task of becoming ourselves. For example, we develop houses, shelters, and dwelling spaces, so we don’t have to think about where we are going to sleep every day. So, in a way, we are solving the problems of staying warm and safe preemptively before they occur. We know that we are going to have to sleep. We know that we’re going to have to have a safe place to rest. We know we’re going to have to eat and that’s why we have a fridge. And of course, the fridge has consequences for our behaviour. I am not saying that it doesn’t. Some of these consequences are undesirable and negative, but the idea that Ortega puts forward is that technology is the way that we have to pursue the task of being human, and being human is not so much about seeking shelter or seeking food because that will be part of our animal behaviour. He is not contrasting humans with animals, but he says that’s part of our animal side. Keeping yourself warm and stomach full is something that all animals have to do. But he says that there’s some things that only we humans do. He is not fully clear about what these things are. He doesn’t talk in detail about these things, but technology is part of his philosophical anthropology, at least in my reading of Ortega.

TH: So, we use technology to have more time for more meaningful activities, but even these meaningful activities are based on technology. To enjoy music, we have to log in to Spotify or to play vinyls we have to know how the record player works.

AG: Yes, but then we are talking about technologies in the plural. We can make a difference between technology as a phenomenon – some kind of overarching system, if you will – or a technosphere, as Don Ihde, an American philosopher of technology who talks about the technological texture of life, describes it. Analogously, we have the biosphere, but we also have a technosphere. And in a way, it is some kind of veil that covers our world, technology is an all-encompassing framework. And then we have technologies, in plural, which are all the individual technological things, devices, and artefacts, like Spotify or the record player and vinyls that we use.

All of them have an influence on us. But I would say that technology as a phenomenon has a deeper influence on us than any kind of particular technology. Let us consider things first. For example, when you are using a soup spoon you are the one who at first sight determines the quantity of soup you are taking into your mouth. But the size of the spoon will also influence the quantity of the soup on the spoon, it will thus influence your behaviour. Technology as a phenomenon is also influencing your behaviour. Then we have to go to Ortega or Heidegger, who thought very extensively about it, as well as some other philosophers from a post-phenomenological perspective. They, in a way, revisited Heidegger’s writings to have a less pessimistic view because Heidegger thought that technology distracts us from real life. But post-phenomenology says that our existence is technological – which is in line with Ortega. We are technological beings, not in the sense that we are cyborgs, but in the sense that we use technology to be ourselves, that technology inevitably mediates the relation between us and the world. And this is the deeper level of influence: in our perceptions of the world and our actions. This is just how we live, there’s nothing pessimistic about this. Yet post-phenomenologists do not look for neutrality either. They are not saying that technology is either good or bad. They say that technology is both – good as well as bad, and also not neutral. (Laughs.)

TH: As soon as someone starts talking about technology, someone else interrupts to ask if it’s good or not. On one hand, I think about the German cultural critic Theodor Adorno, who diagnosed the relationship between fascism and the amount of force one has to apply to close a car door. On the other hand, there’s a lot of people who are seeing technology as something which is going to solve the crisis we are having or are going to have. How can we balance ourselves between these viewpoints?

AG: Yeah, but seeing a door as fascist is actually coherent with what I was saying, because – according to Ortega – we embed values in technology. We build houses or shelters because we want to stay warm, so the idea of preserving warmth to stay alive is a value that is intrinsically embedded in the house. Of course, you could use the house for different purposes. You can use a house to hold somebody hostage, for example. Or you could rent it out and earn some income from it. But this idea of the door – I think Bruno Latour talks about the revolving door. In a way, the revolving door was invented for climatic efficiency, for preserving the heat inside the building, or in other cases cool air, if it’s too warm outside. In this sense revolving doors are a very efficient way to keep too cold or too warm weather outside. But when you are in a wheelchair – unless these doors are huge – they become a barrier for you. This shows us two things.

First, they are not only imprinted in the design by the designers, either intentionally or not, but there are other values that in the end, because of a failure to consider the possible consequences, will emerge. The people who were behind developing these doors didn’t perhaps think about people in wheelchairs. Maybe they even couldn’t think about these particular side effects because these side effects were not known yet. For example, in my book I refer to pollution. We invented cars long before we discovered the consequences of pollution. It took many decades to discover the pollution caused by cars. So, in some cases we lack the knowledge and imagination, but in some cases it’s just impossible to figure out and prevent these unintended effects beforehand.

The second aspect concerns the issue of multistability. Technologies are never only one thing, they are many things. The revolving door is a way of preserving the temperature of a building. It’s also a way of preventing people from bumping into each other, but it’s also an unintended way of preventing people from entering the building who are in a wheelchair. This shows that a building is never doing only one thing. This illustrates the idea of multistability. Of course, a designer has a primary function in her or his mind for the design of the technology they are designing, but once that design is deployed, your control is gone and the designed artefact will open up for other possible uses. So that’s how we get technologies, for example, which were developed for fun – like holographic glasses or virtual reality glasses – but these could also be used not for playing games or killing time, but when training a soldier and learning to kill other human beings. So yes, that’s the idea of multistability, which depends on many issues besides design, such as adoption, regulation, maintenance, appropriation, etc.

TH: The same is true for computers, which have their historical background in the military. This is often the way we have developed new technologies. But this brings us to the question of the code of ethics for designers, which is also one of the focal points in your book. What is your point of view in the context of codes and regulations concerning designers, as well as companies or technicians?

AG: This is a crucial point that has many sides. I am in favour of regulation, but first we have to clarify some terms. Some professions are certified. For example, if you are going to be a doctor, you need to be certified. But you can also call yourself a healer or a shaman, and then you don’t need to be certified. Nevertheless, you will still claim to heal people. Yes, you cannot prescribe drugs, but you can prescribe herbs, crystals or Reiki. But the professions which are very important are controlled by the state. We cannot call ourselves lawyers just like that. First, you have to study law, but knowing the law is not enough. You need to be certified by the state and you need to have some type of licence. In engineering, in some cases, you need it too, you also need it as an architect. But I don’t see that happening in design. I mean, it could happen, but I don’t think that it will happen anytime soon, because there are even types of engineering – for example computer engineering – that don’t require licensing. The paradox is that if you need to remove asbestos from a floor or a wall, you need a certified professional. You need to have a certified company to remove asbestos because it’s highly toxic. But if you are a programmer, you can develop a program that is used for harassing people, and you can do it without any kind of certification. For me this is highly paradoxical. Despite its impact, design is not a certified profession. Journalism is not a certified profession either, anyone can call themselves a journalist. You could study journalism, but you could study law or history or nothing at all and you could still work as a journalist and call yourself one. Still, I’m not sure mandatory licensing for designers is the way to go, possibly not. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have regulation at all either.

TH: In Estonia, we have the official press council formed by the public newspapers themselves whose main function is to discuss the ethical questions raised from publishing controversial articles written by the journalists of the newspapers who are part of the council. Could designers have something similar to that?

AG: Yeah, we could have that, we could have a regulatory agency.

TH: But it won’t be regulated by the law itself. It will be based on ethics.

AG: Not necessarily. This usually depends on the broad sense of liability. For example, if you design toys for children, then they need some special kind of stickers, or there are some materials you cannot use or sizes in which you cannot produce. Or if you are manufacturing pencils, then there are paints you cannot use... So, there are already a lot of laws in relation to product liability.

TH: Would you say that in some sense the rules and bureaucracy are giving agency to the technology or the products themselves?

AG: You mean agency in the sense of capacity to act?

TH: No, more like becoming a responsible object.

AG: Oh okay. That’s a good question. I think that in this case nobody will ever be responsible for anything. That’s a super dangerous idea. Because when you are able to allocate responsibility to a thing – then it is an illusionary responsibility. People also allocate responsibility to a company, and we know the consequences of that. At least you could claim that if a company is responsible for something then they have to pay a fine, and there are also people behind it who will eventually get affected by it and may be sent to prison. Whereas taking a chair or a robot – what are we able to do? Are we going to destroy the chair, dismantle the robot? There are many different definitions for responsibility. But to me one thing is clear when talking about responsibility as blame or praise: it only makes sense when applied to humans. Yet, for me the most important part of responsibility is feeling responsible for others, caring for others. Of course, objects are important and they have a role. In an article I wrote with Ramon Sangüesa – who is an artificial intelligence expert in Spain – we made a differentiation between strong and weak agency. Strong agency is something we do, and some non-human animals have as well. This means this agency is about making plans, executing these plans, but also about coming up with the plans in the first place and thinking about its potential consequences. But weak agency is when we have things do something for us. So, for example, a robot vacuum cleaner or even a table, they do things for us – the table is supporting the plates and the cups and the robot is cleaning the room. But this happens because we instructed the robot to do so, but the robot did not decide to do that. And when the robot kills a baby playing in the room, it would be silly to blame the robot. You could blame me for using the robot in a dangerous situation or you could blame the designers or the programmers, right? But it still won’t be sensical to place blame on the robot because – besides blame – responsibility is also about praise. It would also be silly to say “good Roomba, you cleaned the room very well”, because it doesn’t have any appreciation of that praise. Related to responsibility, there’s also the problem of many hands, which is a known problem with large projects in engineering. When things go south and we have a problem, then it is very difficult to attribute responsibility because there are so many people involved in the project and often they don’t have access to the big picture. It is very difficult to blame somebody in particular – when a plane falls down, should we blame the maintenance staff, the designers or the pilot? It is called the problem of many hands because you have many hands working on a project. It might be initially difficult to find one person that is particularly responsible. Thanks to regulation focused on accountability we can greatly mitigate this problem in highly regulated sectors like aeronautics or the automotive industry.

TH: For me it is also related to what Hannah Arendt wrote about the repressive society where we should question putting responsibility on people who are just trying to do a ‘good job’ regardless of the consequences.

AG: Yes, but Arendt also made a claim which is very important to me. If we are talking about Eichmann in this case, then his problem was very basic – it was his thoughtlessness. This is the most despicable part of his whole behaviour.

TH: And in this case it would be also irrational to blame trains the logistics for which Eichmann was responsible during the holocaust.

AG: Yes, exactly. Tragically, his identity and ethics worked in a very operative manner. At least you should contemplate what you are doing! The problem with the banality of evil is that it’s banal because Eichmann didn’t think about it. Perhaps the evil had happened anyway, but this is one important blame one can place on Eichmann – he was thoughtless, he didn’t consider what he was doing other than saying that he was following rules.

TH: Yes, following rules is something I was also thinking about. We can picture a perfect world where the designer is always ethical and caring, always concerned about accessibility, equality, sustainability, etc. But in this case, what would be the ethical responsibility of the technicians at the assembly line?

Ariel: Well, two things. First, I think it will be very difficult – even in a hypothetical scenario – to be fully ethical all the time according to all ethical perspectives, because we live in a contemporary society which always accommodates plural views. It would be difficult to balance conflicting values, goals or views of the good life. But beware, I’m not saying that all views should be equally promoted. I’m saying there are many which could be defended. By contrast, to illustrate, there are many different types of family dynamics, but not all family dynamics are worth empowering or enabling. Some family dynamics are despicable and should be avoided. But if we agree that there are many different types of valuable family dynamics, then they all should be equally defensible, even though they might be in opposition to each other when we think of the values or the ways people view the world.

And then the second part, which deals with the role of technicians. Actually, I am planning to write about technicians. I have had this idea in my head for like two or three years, but I am still thinking about it, I haven’t figured it out. It is about the opposition between professionals and technicians. Technicians are bound by general morality and general ethics. They don’t have a special obligation other than being a human being, right? But professionals – at least in terms of how I understand professionalism – are bound by particular views about the role of professions in society, and they play a proactive role in promoting the flourishing of all. But I don’t think that technicians are bound by these views, they do not necessarily aim to promote human flourishing as professionals are supposed to.

TH: I recently read an interview with Kirsti Metusala who was an Estonian lamp designer during the Soviet period and whose works were exported all around the Soviet Union. Her name wasn’t well known, but in Estonia products designed by her were part of every home. In her interview she says that even though she and her co-designers worked on lamps, the design of the switches – how far from the lamp the switch is positioned on the wire – was decided by the technicians at the factory. Designers didn’t have any say about this. But like Metusala is arguing, the switches were directly related to the question of usability – they were also an issue of design.

AG: Yeah, I agree. I think this could feed into my framework in the sense that the technician’s obligation isn’t about usability but about implementing or developing the design specifications. Usability is surely within the designer’s purview. I want to clarify the dichotomy I’m envisioning between technical and professional design. Technical design is mainly concerned with technical issues. I am not saying anything about how beautiful it is, I am not saying anything about the quality of the materials. Social or ethical concerns are not part of technical design. And then we will have professional design. The difference will have to do with how much the role of caring for others will occupy a particular activity. So, the technical part of the practice will be similar, and the skills will necessarily be very similar. Perhaps the same people can work as a technician one day, and as a professional designer the next. You were right, if I decided to design a car I need to think about the person’s safety, but my main goal is also to make money for the company. It is not to contribute to the sustainability of the city. As a technical designer I would think in this way. But if I want to engage in professional design, then perhaps I will not be able to design cars the way we are designing cars now, because that will be against the welfare of society. You see what I mean?

TH: Do we need some kind of certification for the products that are designed according to these or those values?

Ariel: I don’t know. You see something similar in dermatology and cosmetic surgery. For example, a lot of plastic surgeons, people who are dealing with cosmetic interventions like botox, medically unnecessary liposuctions or silicone implants, they basically engage in activities that are potentially harmful to their patients or at least very costly and dangerous. We have a lot of people who have deformed their faces by using too much of those services or have even died because of those interventions. Of course, you could argue that this is for the mental benefit of the person. But still, you know, most doctors will never amputate a functional arm. Some people may feel that their arm doesn’t belong to them and they may want to have it removed. So, they go to a surgeon and say, I want this to be removed and the surgeons will refer you to a psychiatrist. But with some plastic surgeons, you can say I want to have a different nose, I want to have breasts, or I want to get rid of 50 kilos, they will operate on you. And a lot of doctors think that this is against the very practice of medicine. Most doctors frown at breast implants in most cases because they make detecting cancer much harder as they conceal lumps. So, there are a lot of doctors who are against these doctors who perform medical interventions without true medical reasons, even though they are both certified doctors. One group is still saying to the other that what you are doing is not medicine, but business. So, this discussion is about the purpose of the medical intervention, not about the operation itself. For example, if you have severe burn scars or you have problems with your lips, or you are born without ears, then that is definitely reasonable for most doctors to operate. 

So, the trust in medical surgery will be about whether the intervention is justified because even the smallest intervention carries a risk. The doctor needs to think about what the patient could gain and what the risks are. How necessary the operation is to increase the person’s health. So, I think with design we could have something similar. And it is already happening; a lot of the designers refuse to design, for example, guns. This is a simple example, but other designers refuse to design ads for gambling or products that involve some sort of animal suffering in their production. That means that they see in a way that this is not part of their practice.

TH: Refusing to design guns is a very distinctive, but relatively easy example. A lot of design today is not necessarily visible, and therefore we tend not to acknowledge where – or even if – there’s a designer with some ethical responsibility. For example, in the service sector a customer may realise that some processes are not working as they should and because of the unpleasantness the customer will start blaming the service worker who is standing behind the counter.

AG: Yes, you’re right. But that doesn’t change the point in the sense that if you, for example, think about banking. I don’t know how it is in Estonia – you are a highly digitised society – but in Spain senior citizens have a lot of trouble accessing their bank accounts. The offices are closing down, but they were used to going to the office to talk to a clerk, to get help from a real person. Now they are all of a sudden told to do it online, but they don’t know how to. It’s not only a matter of the will they have, they are unable to do it, they are digitally illiterate.

TH: This is actually the case in Estonia as well.

AG: They need to engage their children or grandchildren and this breaks them – even if they manage to make the transaction – because it brings them into a position of dependency. And putting a perfectly able person in a position of dependency is highly unethical. How can anyone design such disabling tools without, at least, questioning these facts?

But if a professional service designer is being hired for a bank, then the designer may ask what capabilities are they empowering here. What is each stakeholder gaining? We are making a lot of people less able to do things they did before. And the bank will say that we are saving money. The professional service designer may now say that this is not what she or he wants to do. It is more or less similar to when a designer is refusing to design weapons. Maybe you shouldn’t design a bank application which makes people more dependent or drives them away? I don’t think every designer should be Don Quixote. I just propose that thoughtlessness must be abandoned. This allows for your own ethical reasoning to take you to many destinations about what to do.

Perhaps, instead of professional design, this type of designer will be called a social designer.

TH: In your work, Alasdair MacIntyre is a very important author who you constantly refer to. He writes about internal and external goods. How are these concepts related to technology as well as the separation between technicians and designers – or even social designers – as we have been discussing here?

AG: Yeah, absolutely, I didn’t mention him. The idea of a technician is that he or she will be engaged mainly with external goods. And the external goods in this case will be money or getting paid for your job. But a professional designer will also be engaged with internal goods. And these goods have to do necessarily with the idea of promoting the flourishing of other’s well-being. So that’s why the internal and external goods are important for the professional and the field itself. The technical work of different designers may be very similar, but the idea is that some designers will be primarily engaged with internal goods, whereas technical designers will care first about external goods. They might still care about the quality of the design, as well as about beauty or even usability and accessibility. But this will be secondary to achieving the external goods.

TH: I am wondering how technology helps us to achieve the internal goods. For example, should the social designer be more engaged with technology?

AG: Like I said at the beginning, we can’t avoid technology, right? Not only for our daily functioning, but we also need technology to become the person we want to be. And a very good example of this is that in order to be a designer, you need a computer. In order to be a samurai, you need a special type of sword, made from a special type of metal. 

TH: We also need technology to define and understand ourselves, to construct our identities.

AG: Exactly, that’s why it makes you, it constitutes you. The idea of technology is not only instrumental, it’s also constitutional, for becoming who you are. If you play soccer, you need a ball, but the ball is not only an instrument – without the ball, there’s no football.

TH: It’s part of meaning making – to write a poem, you need a pen.

AG: Absolutely! Of course, you could write a poem with a typewriter or you could write a poem in your mind. But then you may forget it, or, like in ancient Greece, you will have to replicate the poem, but then your voice will be technological in a way.

Every human activity is somehow mediated by technology. So that’s why they are intertwined, and that’s why ethics has such relevance in design. Meaning making is an important part, but also sense making. If you take a hermeneutical approach and think about how we measure time or temperature, then there’s nothing ‘late’ or ‘early’ at 4 p.m., there’s nothing intrinsically ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ at 25 degrees, right?

Also, Peter-Paul Verbeek, the Dutch philosopher, talks about the echography of the foetus. He goes into detail and tells how it is used to measure the look and the form of the baby to see, for instance, if they have a predisposition for Down’s syndrome. So if there are problems the doctor has to do the amniocentesis to test and to tell if the foetus may have a genetic mutation. Then the pregnant person can decide if they want to carry on with the pregnancy or have an abortion. But at the same time, the same echography is what constitutes the foetus as a baby. It transforms the foetus into a person for the parents. The fact of seeing the images is what changes something inside your mind and how you relate to that.

Next Article
Of Becoming a Land(Scape). Material, Science, Utopia
Britta Benno