Cennydd Bowles is a London-based designer and writer with fifteen years of experience advising clients including Twitter, Ford, Cisco, and the BBC. His focus today is the ethics of emerging technology. He has lectured on the topic at Facebook, Stanford University, and Google, and is a sought-after speaker at technology and design events worldwide. His second book, Future Ethics, was published in 2018.
Building Better Worlds
Digital dystopias loom large over the coming decade – mundane surveillance, hypernudging algorithms, autonomous weapons, widespread disemployment – all against the backdrop of political upheaval and escalating climate crisis. It’s easy to succumb to fatalism, to feel powerless in the face of a world tipping off its axis. But our trajectory is not yet locked in: we have millions of futures to choose from.
We’ve talked enough about how the tech industry lost its way; now it’s time to make things better. Cennydd Bowles, author of Future Ethics, will reveal how tech workers and companies can mobilise for change, bringing ethics into the heart of their practice, and making technology more responsible, more just, and more democratic. Better worlds are possible, if we wish them.
In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.
Early spring everywhere,
the trees furred pink and white,
lawns sharp green that meant new.
The skies so blue it looked manufactured.
We had heard the cherry blossoms wouldn't
blossom but an epic blooming and
the desert had an explosion.
And when coyotes slept deep in orange poppies.
One New Year’s Day we woke to daffodils,
wisteria, onion grass.
Near the end we were cottoned,
sun-dressed and bare-foot.
At least it's starting gentle, we said,
an absurd comfort, we knew,
a placebo but we were built like,
that built to say at least, built to reach for the
heat of skin on skin,
even when we were already hot.
Built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,
built to marvel over the pink bursting dog woods.
To hold tight to every pleasure even as we
rocked together towards the grain.
Even as we held each other,
warmth-to-warmth and said - sorry.
I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.
While petals sifted softly to the ground all around us.
There is no such thing as the future.
There are, instead, a near infinity of
potential futures, the road as yet
untraveled stretches before us in abundant directions.
We get to choose the route.
There is no fate but what we make.
Now, of course some of those routes are
more dangerous than others.
Some futures are better than others.
On many of these horizons,
digital dystopias loom large,
our chosen future may feature facial recognition,
a technology which today is being used by
police to survey all citizens,
despite a false-positive rate above 90%.
A technology touted as a way to
detect sexual orientation or a way to
identify potential criminals or terrorists before they strike.
So, maybe our chosen future will,
with facial recognition technology,
offer up some macabre and
digital reflection of phrenology,
where our appearance alone is evidence of criminality.
Where every tool is of surveillance,
building a map of our movements,
our friendships our emotions or perhaps our
chosen future will be shaped by
autonomous weapons, there are
international efforts to ban these,
but the progress is patchy.
Exactly the countries you would expect are dragging their heels.
There is a good chance we will face a
future in which autonomous weapons,
we believe them to be abhorrent and
up acceptable right up to the point in which
our enemies deploy them and then
we find a new arms race begins or
maybe, a group will use cheap autonomous
drones to terrorise society.
The good news is that these particular dystopias are elected.
There is nothing inevitable about these dark futures.
We can restrict, we can regulate.
We can abandon these protectories.
The bad news is that there is one
dystopia that stretches across all possible futures.
And that, of course, is climate change.
Thanks to the lag between emissions and impacts,
and the awful physics of our immense atmosphere,
it is certain that things will get worse for decades,
before they get better.
The punishment is in the post.
The only question now is:
How bad things will get.
For years climate scientists have had to
tiptoe around the topic,
they couched their language,
wary of being labelled alarmists.
Realising at last alarmism is justified.
The opening sentence of David Wallace Wells' book
opens with a punch to the gut
"It is worse, much worse than you think."
Our climate trajectory is going to
be decided within the next couple of decades.
We at least get to choose our own Apocalypse.
Compared to global preindustrial temperatures,
maybe we will end up with just 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.
This is a figure we all know,
the intended limit of the Paris Accord.
But even this figure will see five million
square kilometres of permafrost melted by 2300.
It'll see half of the world's population facing
severe heatwaves every 20 years.
It'll leave 130 million people exposed to
severe drought and create by some
estimates an 8% drop in global GDP per capita.
Now this 1.5-degree target unfortunately is
almost certainly lost, we are at about 1.1 already.
The US, as we know, has withdrawn from Paris,
Brazil threatening to follow suit.
And those who remain fall far short of their pledges already.
Maybe we will end up with 3 degrees,
3 degrees of warming we can expect
crop failures and significant geopolitical breakdown.
The promise of the eternal growth age was
one of positive benefits for everyone.
Some profit, sure but certainly the curve only goes up.
It seems impossible this mentality will
provide this huge productivity and
output losses that happen at 3 degrees of warming.
So, the implication then, is clear:
In place of the at least theoretical
positive sum systems will revert to zero systems,
isolation, nationalism, resource force, if you win, I lose.
The UN world meteorological org look at the pledges.
They see three degrees as a likely minimum.
A 5-degree future is almost unimaginable.
Facing temperatures, from 55 million years ago,
major cities, Osaka, Shanghai,
Miami, Jakarta, wiped out.
The Hajj pilgrimage,
for example would be a physical impossibility.
Can there would be desert.
Canada and Siberia would become
among the planet's less fertile lands.
Recent Syrian crisis expelled some five million
refugees and their arrival into
Europe pushed the continent into the hands of the far right.
At five degrees of warming we can
expect around 20 times that number of climate refugees.
Put simply at five degrees of warming,
human society devolves into a naked fight for survival.
Sadly, five degrees may be where we
are headed without urgent reduction in emissions.
This time we are the asteroid.
And in recent years I have become known as
a vocal person in the field of technology ethics.
I have no doubt at all in saying that
climate is the moral issue of our
generation and probably our century.
Now I'm not seeing tech issues,
like algorithmic bias or addiction or
privacy are not important,
they deserve our attention but they are
rather like worrying about cholesterol or
clutching a stab wound.
Climate will exacerbate all the injustices of our world,
racism, oppression, poverty, war.
It will become a Dam clean backdrop to future generations.
Since World War II we have had a
huge increase in standards of living across
most of the world, almost all predicated upon
burning fossil fuels, this is an addictive lifestyle.
It will be extremely hard to give up.
We will hold tight to every pleasure,
even as we rock together toward the grain.
But whether you believe modern society as we know it now,
whether you think it is a force for good or
not is frankly immaterial,
it cannot and will not last,
it cannot and will not last.
Now in an abstract existential way,
I think anyone who is paying some attention knows this,
but when you really assess what it means,
the personal living experience of this upheaval,
it is an agonising realisation.
This change requires nothing less than mourning,
we have to grieve for this familiar way of life.
We have to go through those familiar steps,
denial, anger, bargaining, depression,
before we get to acceptance.
Hopefully we do that quickly,
while there is still time to create
something better on the other side.
But I think this gnawing loss is more
difficult for people like us, for designers,
because of course, we have been entirely complicit,
we are partly responsible for this coming crisis.
In 1971 Victor Papanek savaged designers for
their contributions for their environmental degradation.
There are professionals more harmful to industry design,
he said but only a few of them.
It is tempting to think that doesn't apply to
people like us, to the world of digital work,
after all we deal in abstraction of information,
we are not the people creating landfill and pollution.
But I don't think that distinction holds,
we don't get to wriggle off that hook of responsibility.
Just ask the software engineer who
cheated Volkswagen's emissions tests.
We live in a hybridised era where
products and experiences are
increasingly digital and physical and
the technologies we build most of them
run on electricity often from dirty sources.
The greenhouse gas emissions of
data centres are now equivalent to
those of the entire aviation industry.
So we have to examine our approaches and
the values that we hold dear.
Ours first for exemplary user experience has
created upgrade cycles among the most
aggressive in all of consumer goods,
people buy a new phone every couple of
years in pursuit of the latest hot app.
They IOT devices with irreplaceable batteries.
Indeed perhaps the very idea of
user centred design is part of the problem,
we trained ourselves to focus with laser like
precision on the needs of the user,
helping the user achieve their goal,
sadly that goal a lot of the time is buy more,
consume more, emit more, everything more,
more, more and that precision has blinded,
for years we have overlooked the
unintended consequences of our work,
the harms that might fall on people who are not users,
that fall on neighbourhoods,
User experiences is a dream come true for
an individual but a potential nightmare for society.
We should of course start to address these
issues but unfortunately,
I see our industry going in the other direction.
The main trends that I see in digital design
today centre on effectiveness, design systems,
they are about making the modern team more scalable,
more efficient, in other words making the
modern team more compliant and
acquiescent to business as usual,
the compact same scorched earth growth hacking
business as usual that's dragging us to
the five degree catastrophe.
Even the tech ethics movement has fallen into
habits of focussing on trivial and surface level stuff.
This has been critiqued brilliantly by three
scholars at the University of Washington and
they proposed a paper for Ki,
it's a very significant academic HCI conference and in this paper,
they talk about a hypothetical algorithm that
decides which senior citizens are
selected to be mulched and fed into high nutrient slurry.
They suggested changes to reduce its inherent
biosystem just as the literature on
algorithmic ethics suggests.
Such with the simple ethical sweets,
we have a way that we can be sure that
elderly people are selected for being
processed into high nutrient slurry and
fed to the living in a far more fair,
accountable and transparent manner.
We are squandering our global responsibilities on
minutiae and trivia;
we are stoking the engines more efficiently as
the ship is going down.
So where would our time actually be well spent,
what can we do to tackle this crisis at the properly level.
The climate crisis it requires interventions from
every aspect of society, it needs protesters,
it needs organisers, regulators, voters,
scientists, but there are plenty of
personal tactics we can deploy as well.
Here are some.
But I am not going to go into these.
This isn't really the right forum to do so.
Maybe take a photo if you are
interested and reflect yourself.
There will be more information at the
URL at the bottom.
But I do have a couple of comments on
this list before we move on.
Here we have a mix of changes that are individual,
personal changes, and changes or suggestions that
are intended to create some kind of
system level response and
we will come back to that die cot mi shortly.
But suffice to say one danger of the
modern world and its atomised nature is
that it tends to individualise problem.
Individual action on its own won't
really achieve much, but if you personally
feel driven to change your own habits and
I think many of us perhaps should,
then these may well be good starting points.
There are also useful professional tactics of course.
But again, maybe a surprise,
I don't really want to go into these too much either.
I don't want to provide a check list for
how we can try to tackle this problem.
I want to try and do something else here,
I want to talk about a new role for design amid the chaos.
How designers can lift our eyes to the horizon and
inspire change that's more fundamental than this.
Because I think we do have plenty that we can offer.
The technology industry holds an enormous amount of power,
more than perhaps any other group we get to
depict and to realise what happens next in our world.
You could argue that power is hardly
warranted and it's also been bestowed upon
us with far too little oversight and
that's true and that should scare us a
little bit but I think also the onus or
even the moral obligation is on us to
wield that power positively,
to try to build better worlds.
I think designers in the tech industry also
have remarkable power.
That might be hard to see from the inside,
we get browbeaten by imposter syndrome,
KPIs, smothered by the juggernaut of
process management and agile and
lean start up, but none of that really matters.
The superpower that designers have,
the talent that equips us to make meaningful
contributions on tackling the world's
biggest problems, is ewe make futures visible.
Society struggles to think intelligently about
the future I think,
because it is a thought interment.
We are asking people to imagine what
might happen and make decisions based on that hallucination.
Design can make this more real.
We can paint a picture of what
various futures might actually look like.
We can do that by making products of course,
but we can also create speculative objects that
invite discussion and inspire change.
We can prototype a world yet to come.
In the emerging field of speculative design,
these artefacts are sometimes called design fictions.
Sometimes they are designed objects themselves.
This is the transparent charging station by a
Dutch firm called The Incredible Machine and
I have seen this, it is a great big prototype,
trying to explore what charging infrastructure for
electric vehicles might look like in a decade or two.
And what's interesting about this is they have actually,
the designers have used this design fiction to
ask deep moral questions as well,
how do we avoid the potential inequalities
that might result from a system like that.
They prototype the RID cards you might use to
authenticate the system and
they come with different social statuses.
A doctor for instance has potentially priority
within the system whereas a recent offender
might find their energy use is capped.
So we can create these objects to invite that discussion,
to pre-empt it if you like,
or sometimes we need to tell a
design fiction as part of a wider and
larger story in which case designers compare
with writers and filmmakers, comic strip artists,
anyone really who can build hypothetical worlds in
which these designed objects feel at home.
This is a film called Frames.
I think it's a remarkable piece of design fiction.
It's an unnamed woman pushing against the
seams of total surveillance using mysterious generosity.
Works like Frames for me help to make the future feel more real, the hidden becomes more visible.
So they help people experience and
to feel what would otherwise be these hypothetical situations.
And that means it's easier for people to
understand what might happen next.
We might say it improves people's temporal
literacy and their ability to read and
understand potential futures.
Why is this so important,
well for me it's because people can then
have a fairer say, the future comes to the people,
it's no longer the domain of professionals and
nerds like ourselves,
the public gets to approve and
push back against any particular future.
We are talking about experiences here,
designing experiences and so this
should make us happy,
this is something within this room
we are pretty good at.
But today's practices for me I see that
they are near term and generally supportive of
these Silicon Valley ideals of bringing products to
markets, users to consume.
This new role for design is a bit different.
It's speculative, it's not just focussed on delivery.
It's critical, it's not just playing along
with a dominant ideologies.
It's focussed on the wellbeing of society and
of the planet, not just the success of the user.
Designers will always have to be
involved in giving birth to new technologies,
we don't stop doing the stuff on the left hand side here.
Hopefully those technologies become
more sustainable and more just technologies.
But I think it's crucial that we start to
balance those delivery mind sets,
with new modes of design,
speculative design, critical design,
longterm futures thinking.
Because our futures particularly those that
are influenced by climate are full of
maybes and perhapses, they really invite that
kind of speculative approach.
Some of these futures,
some of these frictions we tell will be dystopian,
we saw slaughter bots at the beginning here,
this is mitigation of shock by a
London speculative design studio called
Super Flux and they prototyped a
London flat from 2050,
built to cope with the awful impacts of climate change.
It is a kitchen sink dystopia of
desperate attempts to cultivate food
complete with a recipe for fox creole.
Those sorts of dystopias, they have value,
this is a fine piece of work.
Things like this can alert people to the
dangers to the risks ahead and
they can challenge some of the decisions that
we take today, decisions that look innocuous,
but then when taken to some harmful extreme,
soon become anything but.
So dystopias can create this appetite for evasive action,
But dystopias are also somewhat limited.
They can motivate change but they
can also paralyse and ostracise,
they can cause inaction, they can cause
us there's nothing left that we can do.
That fatalism is particularly dangerous
when it comes to climate.
It will cause us to withdraw from the problem,
to focus on coping rather than fixes.
It is a realm of the so-called eco-fashion
movement or the billionaire preppers who
are planning their escape to cabins in the
woods or to Mars, whichever one it is,
there are lots of guns involved in that scenario.
I think these cautionary tales;
these terrifying tales have to be broken down.
But we have to look at a positive world to come,
positive visions that inspire us,
I'm not necessarily talking about Utopias,
we have plenty of meaningless Utopias,
something like this Microsoft Vision video a
mere extension of where we are right now.
There is no message here,
except that the status quo will accelerate.
Work and productivity and capitalism will
be flung on to any available surface.
And of course, there are dangerous Utopias as well.
Political extremism has often come from Utopia,
the idea of perhaps a purity of bloodline or
the infallibility of the state or of the church.
I think what we need instead are meaningful,
realistic, imperfect but compelling visions,
visions that make us dream that we
want to help navigate toward.
Visions like Solarpunk.
Solarpunk is a part a literary movement,
part a collaborative work of design fiction,
part a protest group, part fan fiction,
all trying to answer the question:
What does sustainable civilisation
look like and how do we get there?
Solarpunk focuses on infrastructure as a
form of resistance, these are societies built with
resilience for whatever futures ahead of
us throw at us, with independence rather than
isolation, with community ingenuity,
not this top-down Messianic control.
This is optimistic, compare it to
Cyber Punk with a deeply nihilistic attitude.
It is futuristic, compared to steam punk
and regressive nostalgia.
And that to me is the power of these positive visions.
A dystopia gives people something to run away from.
Better futures give people something to run toward.
And with climate we already know the solutions,
we know what we have to do,
we have to cut emissions vastly,
perhaps 50% in the next decade and
down it zero within maybe 20 more than that.
What we lack is the urgency and
the will to make that change happen.
But we can help to create this urgency and
this desire for action by changing that narrative,
this fatalist narrative, twisting it around and
offering hope on the other side.
That morning that I talked about is vital,
but we also need hope on the other side to
drag people through it, and on to make positive change.
Hope is a political cliché and also a
climate cliché, if you read any climate literature there
has to be affection and uplift at the
end to say - we still have some
time to change this.
Some people disagree and
say the hope is gone; I refuse to believe that.
Hope is a way for me to cling to our humanity,
inoculate ourselves against fatalism.
The intention, the hope behind hope,
if you like, is, of course, that it drives some change,
but what sort of change do we really want?
Do we want to prioritise change within individuals,
or change within the overarching system?
And this is almost a who will holy war,
in any complex system or any community like
the climate or ethics community.
It is politicised.
The right leanings on individual responsibility
taking ownership of your own actions,
the left tends to believe that systems sort of
overwhelm all that stuff, so really,
we need to focus there.
But, surely the only meaningful response
is to do both.
When you see the iceberg right ahead,
carving off from a doomed glacier,
you throw every engine into reverse.
In truth, I actually think that is a false dichotomy,
they both affect each other.
The systems at play on the right here are
economic and political.
They are hard to directly attack.
They really only change with
external pressure from voters,
from consumers, donors.
Fortunately, with climate there is now some
evidence that building this kind of pressure and
support is easier than we once feared.
For example, friends and family play a
huge role in shaping individual beliefs.
This astonishing study was published a
couple of weeks ago and the conclusion of
this paper was - essentially that differences in
beliefs and attitudes around climate are
much smaller if people have close friends and
family who care about the topic.
Researchers call this
"high social condition census"
the green bars on the right.
The individuals who have people
around them who cared about climate change.
And even the simplest belief
- is global warming a phenomenon?
There is a huge increase in support for
that hypothesis, even amongst self-described
Conservatives in the US who have been
resistant to the huge increase as
close friends and family express an interest in the topic.
We have found this across the most
important question on climate,
that it is caused by humans,
that we should worry about the topic.
And that we should regulate carbon dioxide,
for example, as a pollutant.
These are remarkable findings.
I think they are promising for
people like us who are wrestling with
these wicked problems.
This suggests the concern and the
hope are contagious, even the most
ardent opponents can be challenged and views changed.
I think we should feel emboldened by research like this.
Most importantly, for me,
the study suggests that the real picture is
something a bit more like this,
individual change snowballed into collective change.
And collective change has a real chance of
permeating the structures,
the systems that have otherwise been impenetrable.
These economic and political systems.
Just this morning the UK Government announced
that we are going to aim for net zero emissions by 2050.
This is great news but I'm pretty sure
they wouldn't have done that without the
recent extinction rebellion protests which
have helped to permeate this collective consciousness.
So, this gives me at least some
renewed hope that we can make systemic
change by inspiring individuals and
by inspiring collectives alike by
helping them to see brighter futures.
Now, to do that, designers need new skills.
We need to learn from or partner with the artists,
the writers, the critics, the technologists,
already in this kind of space.
We will need to improve our knowledge of
- maybe we will call them the narrative arts
- of writing, story-telling, film-making.
We will need to better-understand the
worlds of futuring and foresight.
We need to increase our political and
ethical literacy and dive ever-deeper into
the complex world of systems thinking.
But I think our mindsets have to change along with that.
Particularly, I think we have to learn to
replace the crutch of empathy with genuine inclusivity.
It's not going to work if we just imagine from
afar what it might be like to live in a
developing nation that is at risk most from climate change.
We should instead involve those communities,
empower them to create their own
positive visions and solutions.
Decolonising our design practices,
dropping this pretence that we can just
step into someone else's shoes.
I think we need to develop and build understanding,
intuition to where we may be headed towards harm,
where the old patterns of design may be
undermining our best efforts at reform.
If I may, I will offer a few thoughts on that myself.
If your work is predicated upon endless growth,
if you have not stopped to consider the
potential harm your work might be doing,
if you are focussed entirely on shareholder value,
if you treat people as means and not ends,
if you spend weeks on onboarding for your
product and don't give a fig about the end of life,
if you try to increase inner central consumption or
productivity without considering wider social well-being,
if you focus just on the best case,
and not every case,
if you rely upon complex physical supply
chains stretching the globe and of course if
your work doesn't make you proud,
then you might just be contributing to
climate crisis and, likely,
other injustices as well.
Now, many of these are political points and
it has become a modern cliché to say that
design is and always has been political.
But it is true.
It maybe that it has appeared not to
be over the last couple of decades but
that's only because it is aligned invincibly with
the default politics of the time.
The supposedly non-political design that
we have practised all this time is the
same design that is now taking us towards climate dystopia.
And similarly, design has always been ethical.
Because when you design,
you are making a claim about what should be,
what should happen next,
about how we should live in years to come and
simultaneously we are discarding,
we are throwing away thousands of alternative futures.
So, ethics and politics have always
weaved their way through our work and
through each other.
Politics essentially acts as a moral multiplier.
So, this ethically and politically-loaded work,
it is going to be a challenge to
quite a lot of people.
It will upset and scare people.
Particularly our corporate peers,
the very people who we try to impress,
who we have learned to trust designs as
essentially a competitive advantage all this time.
They will tell us that speculative or
critical design are incompatible with a
way that we want to run our businesses and,
of course, that is the whole point of it.
Tech companies have tried,
for decades now to cling to
some semblance of neutrality on critical issues,
so scared of alienating half the user base or
of upsetting regulators or politicians but
I think the present crisis shows that
simply is no longer sustainable.
If in doubt, your loyalty now has to
be to the world and not to your employer.
I don't want a seat at the table.
I want to flip that table.
Now, of course I say that from a
position of significant privilege.
As an independent, and senior member industry,
I don't answer to anyone.
I have the luxury to be able to make
bold statements like that while stood on stage,
not everyone else has those advantages and
I don't criticise anyone who doesn't feel able to
take that strong a stand.
But I will say this:
If you feel safe and comfortable and
respected within your job, within your industry,
within your career, then you are in the
perfect position to use up just a bit of
that goodwill to push for the change
that we urgently need.
We shouldn't be dissuaded from
the magnitude of that fight.
Our peers in technology will tend to
fall back on technological solutions to climate.
We can expect to see a lot more progress in
geoengineering, spraying the sun's ray or
carbon capture schemes.
These may help and be part of the
solution but any new technology will come with
a set of unintended consequences that may be as bad.
They cannot be the only solutions.
The future needs people like us,
people who excel at behaviour,
at systems thinking, of analysing problems to
really identify and address the root causes.
I think these speculative and critical and
future-leaning approaches will help us to
make valuable contributions.
I would say design's most important role
today is to help us survive the century.
I don't think it is a melodramatic statement
given the magnitude of the task.
Hopefully we can address that with
more sustainable products but with
more new designs that will help people
experience a better world to come that will
mobilise people for individual and
collective and systemic change.
And we have got to do it quickly.
Alex, a climate campaigner has this
fantastic and horrifying quote
"When it comes to climate winning
slowly is the same as losing."
We shouldn't be under any
illusions there’s a chance we will lose the fight.
Maybe our weak ideologies are too strongly held.
Maybe the change that is so necessary lies just beyond our grasp.
But even if that is how it ends up,
even if those few shards of hope that
we have proven too insubstantial,
we still must try.
And I think find some fab and
proud comfort in the words of Kelly Hayes:
"If the end really is only a few decades away,
and no human intervention can stop it,
then who do you want to be at the end of the world?
And what will you say to the people you
love when time runs out?"
If it comes to that,
I plan on being able to tell them
I did everything I could.