Ana Popa
February 25, 2021

When design doesn’t meet ethics

A plastic gun

Ethics are not easy. It’s no accident that a user gets so hooked on a product, screen, or game due to the combination of people, studies, and research involved to make it addictive.

Gambling has been considered an evil for a long time now. Casinos are the place where people get addicted and lose their money, families, and themselves. Everything in a casino is carefully thought through so people get comfortable, focused, and believe they are in control.

Natasha Dow Schull explains in Addiction by Design, how in a casino each element plays an essential role in a successful gambling experience. It starts with the architecture. “[…] the whole point of a casino is to get people walking from the registration to the main body of the casino.” The lack of light and connection with the outside world drives the players to lose themself in space and time. There are no decorations in the casino “to allow the equipment to announce itself”. Temperature, sound, light, color, and aroma are all thoughtfully chosen; not only to induce the occupant to play, but also to keep them in “the zone.”

In 1992 the president of WMS Gaming said “You can rest your hand on the button … you don’t ever have to move your hand”. They were trying to ease up the efforts and speed up the game. Bills were introduced instead of coins because “some players don’t have very good motor skills”, which meant less time on inserting coins. Every small detail made it easier for a player to be in a chair, gambling. The next key factor was the “time-on-device” metric.

“I want to keep you there as long as humanly possible … that’s the whole trick, that makes you loose” — Jim Medick, machine designer.

Technology is not considered evil even though it is using the same techniques as gambling. In Future Ethics, Cennydd Bowles draws an analogy between three technological philosophies: instrumentalism, determinism and mediation.

Instrumentalism argues that technology is a tool and it does not possess any morality. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Ethically, it stands for the belief that people need to be educated to use technology for the purpose it was designed for.

Determinism argues that technology is not neutral, a contrary. It shapes culture and society “acting more as our master than our servant.”

Mediation as a third theory; Peter-Paul Verbeek presents instrumentalism and determinism are combined and through technology people perceive and manipulate the world. People do not fully control technology, as technology doesn’t fully control people but rather co-creating the world together. At the same time, Cennydd Bowles points out “Design decisions give technologies the power to enforce behaviour — and hence moral conduct in the designer’s absence.” People have the means to use technology to shape behavior, culture and society.

A design is considered victorious when the user is guided effortlessly towards the right information or action; an enlarged button is more visible, so more people will click on it; fewer choices reduce the time taken to make a decision; “Book now! There’s only one left” boosts the decision making process; a reward system reinforces user to come back; a notification reminds of new information; automatic “play next” suggests new relevant content and infinite scroll keeps the user “active” as long as humanly possible.

The gambling industry is very human-centric but for the wrong reasons. By creating addiction, they are using players as means to increase revenue. Big tech companies are using similar principles to achieve business goals. The difference is that the technology used is more subtle and not perceived as being evil. Hardly anyone understands the risks of technology, as they do when they decide to walk in a casino. The technology of today has limitless potential, it’s not about “Can we?”, rather it is about “Should we?”.

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