On diversity and the ethics of design
Yesterday was the last day of Beyond Tellerand 2018 in Düsseldorf Germany. I was honored to present alongside people like Jens Oliver Meiert, Tracy Osborn, and Miriam Suzanne. I’m still amazed at the thoughtfulness and attention-to-detail that Marc Thiele puts into his events. He truly curates an atmosphere. While I personally favor events that are more code-focused, I personally learned a ton at this event. I also walked away with connections to people who inspire me to think in new ways and hope to stay in touch with some of them.
Mike Montiero gave the closing talk, “How to build an atomic bomb”. Ultimately it was a talk about ethics in design – a topic that Mike obviously feels strongly about. There were lots of specific little things I disagree with in Mike’s talk. For instance, he had a slide that said “If you’re white in a white supremacist society, then you’re a white supremacist” These sorts of blanket statements are unnecessarily distracting from the message. As a white American male, I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that I’m a beneficiary of white supremacy, but I vehemently disagree with the notion that I promote it. Hell, I’ve literally fought white supremacists on the streets & bars of Baltimore.
The overall message I took away from it is that we must acknowledge what power one has and to use that power for Good. After the 2nd day of the conference was over, I sat with Mike to talk about design ethics and I think the best part of our discussion was that we need to have a conversation about what we’re doing. In my opinion, there are a handful of clearly defined absolutes: that happiness is better than misery and that “Good” and “Bad” can be measured on a scale that reflects the overall happiness vs. the overall misery. The ethics of design, therefore, is to be based on how we apply that and I think Mike would say that we should each place a stake at the point at which potential misery becomes unacceptable.
When it comes to issues of race, gender, etc., Mike’s frequent mention of “white dudes” is really an indictment of environments that lack diversity. Yes, that lack of diversity results in “white dudes” everywhere, but the issue isn’t actually about “white dudes”. The issue is a lack of diversity. A lack of diversity leads to a lack of different ideas, experiences, and perspectives. I would argue that we should seek out diversity for diversity’s sake because the side effect of diversity is always balance. A lack of diversity creates an echo chamber where the similarity of perspectives becomes self-feeding. Mike’s example of the leadership at Twitter is a perfect example of this. The problem of “white dudes” everywhere is they’re not exposed to anyone’s perspective but their own.
There are people who argue that attempting to curate a diverse atmosphere in tech companies is itself “reverse discrimination”. The objective viewpoint that we should hire whoever is the “best” employee misses an essential point. The long term benefit to the company and to society as a whole is too important to neglect. At the company level, ideas should be encouraged and diversity fosters different and ideas that may happen far easier and more often in a diverse and open atmosphere. At the societal level, offering opportunities to growth for disadvantaged-yet-qualified people offers an opportunity to make society itself better. As Montiero might say “Its just the right fucking thing to do”. This must also include accessibility.
People with disabilities are often left out of these conversations too often. Codes of Ethics, Codes of Conduct, Diversity Statements and the like hardly ever include people with disabilities. In terms of disadvantaged status, the median income in for people with disabilities in the United States is roughly between the income levels of Hispanics and African Americans. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is significantly higher than non-disabled people and 30% higher than for African Americans. It is still legal to pay people with disabilities sub-minimum wage.
Those of us who are lucky to have high privilege have a moral responsibility to help others. Selfishly wielding our advantage for personal gain does nothing but expanding our own advantage more and continues to hold down the disadvantaged. We should instead seek to give a leg up to others who are less advantaged than ourselves.