The Ethical Challenges of Data-Driven Design – Technology’s Impact on Trust

2019 Talk


Design processes rely on data supplies that enable practitioners to constantly improve the functionality and usability of technologies, ideally within a continuous feedback loop. For many in the field the main aim is to enhance experiences and push optimisation. However, over the past two decades the original focus on product and service improvement slowly took a backseat while generating and harvesting large swaths of behavioural data for predictive analyses became a primary objective. The ultimate goal is often to offer increasingly accurate predictions that raise prospects for success in marketing and related commercial operations pursued by third-party businesses. The rise of the big data platform companies illustrate this development strikingly and critical voices bemoan the dystopian tendencies of platform capitalism (Srnicek 2017), Internet oligopoly (Smyrnaios 2018) or surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2018). As academic criticism starts to resonate in the broader public sphere -not least triggered by data-driven scandals involving Silicon Valley top players such as Google and Facebook- designers that deal with digitalisation and datafication are confronted with complex ethical questions: what data should we collect? What (economic) sacrifices would be necessary in a new social contract about data that gives empowerment to users? How do user needs differ in this respect? How can we build relationships of trust? What is the added value of a new data ethics for the digital economy? This talk first maps the state of affairs around technology, datafication and the impact on trust with a critical eye on the role of designers. It then explores answers to the main ethical challenges – but also how redefining the user-provider relationship may imply economic sacrifices and thus sober up overly utopian visions. However, the argument is that in the longterm a renewed emphasis on ethics and empowerment can have a lasting positive impact on digital society.

About the speaker(s)

PhD in media and communications from the University of Hull, UK. His thesis discusses online public spheres and political communication, with emphasis placed on transnational political discourses. He works as a senior lecturer, researcher, and graduation coordinator for the Creative Business program (BA, formerly International Communication and Media) and Data-Driven Design program (MA) at the Hogeschool Utrecht in the Netherlands. His current research focuses on the impact of digital media and datafication on public discourses and data ecologies.