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Arrow pointing at Ethics

Welcome to week 3

In the past two weeks we have discussed human-technology relations and the phenomenon of technological mediation. This week we will examine how mediation is related to ethics; we will show that there can be ethics in things.

Technologies have morality

Mediation theory shows that human actions and decisions are fundamentally technologically mediated. The analysis that technologies inevitably help to shape human actions and decisions has important implications for our understanding of the ethical roles of both technologies and their designers. If ethics is about the question of how to act, and technologies mediate actions, and the decisions resulting in these actions, then technologies are ‘ethically charged’, as it were: they ‘have’ a form of morality. In a ‘material way’, technologies help to give answers to the moral questions of ‘how to act?’, and ‘how to live?’. As technologies actively contribute to human morality, we could say that moral actions and moral decisions are not the product of autonomous human agency, but take shape in close interaction with technological artifacts.

Moreover, when designers help to shape how technologies mediate action, designing appears to be in fact a form of doing ethics, not with words but with things. Technology design thus appears to be an inherently moral activity. Even without designers explicitly reflecting morally on their work, the technologies they design will inevitably play a mediating role in people’s actions and experiences, and help to shape moral actions and decisions and the quality of people’s lives. Designers ‘materialize morality’. Usually, this ‘ethics of design’ remains implicit. Designers shape a new technology with specific functionalities in mind, without explicitly aiming to influence the actions and behavior of users. The question, therefore, is how considerations regarding the mediating role that the technology-in-design will eventually play in society could be integrated in the design process.

Mediation analysis

As you will find out this week, mediation theory can help to make a (moral) ‘mediation analysis’ of a technology-in-design in order to inform the activities of designers. In the next steps you will be introduced to the three levels at which mediation analysis can inform the work of designers. A first, minimal option is that designers try to anticipate the mediations their design might bring about, to identify possible undesirable mediations. A second, more substantial option, is that they make an explicit ethical evaluation of the quality of those mediations. And a third possibility goes much further: designers could also explicitly try to ‘build in’ specific forms of mediation, which are considered desirable. Morality then, in a sense, becomes part of the ‘functionality’ of the product.

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This article is from the free online course:

Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

University of Twente

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