Reading Response #8
to Artful Design • Chapter 8: “Manifesto” + Coda

Jack Xiao
MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University

Reading Response: Design is the Embodied Conscience of Technology

The dictionary definition of the word “technology” is “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area” (Merriam Webster). So, it would seemingly be impossible to separate technology from its intended application toward a problem or task, given that the application of a technology itself defines its own existence. Principle 8.5: Technology is Neither Good nor Bad, nor is its Neutral explains this well. Despite the fact that technology (on its own) may seem neutral, like a computer with absolutely no software on it or a firearm with no bullets, se still cannot ignore the technology’s inherent “intent”. A weapon with no user is still a weapon and should be regarded as such, as much as we would like to treat it as harmless. These deviations from neutrality are indeed neither good nor bad, as “good” and “bad” are completely subjective terms that are beholden to the societal and personal values that one holds (for example, a man living in the world of ancient vikings might view brutal killing and death on the battlefield as desirable, while a student living at Stanford in today’s world would view killing and death as horrific and immoral). But, despite the lack of “good” and “bad” specifically, the non-neutral nature of technology still somehow manifests itself. This is where

- Principle 8.11: Design is the Embodied Conscience of Technology

comes in. Technology, while (at this point) not a living or self-thinking entity, has a conscience. Conscience implies morality and some semblance of moral thinking, and design is the process with which technology develops such moral thinking without thinking on its own. Principle 8.9 states that Technology is About What We Can Do, Morality is About What We Ought to Do, but while there is a clear distinction between the two sides of technology and morality, it is often necessary to think about them together as a single process. Technology ties itself to an application and some new world of possibility, and it is our responsibility to apply some moral code to justify the use of the technology. In addition to just proving that technology is capable of addressing some issue or completing some task, it is an equally important part of the design process to prove that the issue or task is itself morally acceptable.

Morality itself is also difficult to define and apply. It seems almost contradictory to say that technology is not good nor bad, but that it should also be moral (which directly involves determining right and wrong). But, I think there is good reason that these kinds of things are hard to put into words. Morality is usually intuitive in nature when it manifests. Our so-called “gut” is the first recipient of any moral question, and communicates its instantaneous decision with a gut feeling that we may or may not know how to decipher, but is there and very present regardless. We don’t need words to know when something “feels wrong” or “feels correct”. Our internal moral code, much of which we can’t see or understand, is a big part of what makes us human. So, when we take a look at The Laws of Artful Design (pg. 458-459), it makes sense that we see many references to “humanity” and things that make us human. When we are shaping our world into something useful and human, or aligning with our notions of purpose and the good, or designing from needs and values, or designing to understand and define ourselves, it much of I boils down to our own “humanness” and our intuitive moral code. Even beauty, when we make the effort to design beautifully, it means applying our own intuitive, unspoken and unseen desires and values. Design is how we impart our humanity on the uneven fabric of technology. Even though technology is not a pure blank canvas, it is still a medium with which we as the artists, innovators, and creators have he ability (and responsibility) to control and generate meaning.

In the end, for many of us, the greatest reward is happiness. As (mostly) rational beings, we make decisions that we think lead us to happiness. Even decisions we make that seemingly sacrifice our own time or well-being or current happiness, we make these decisions anyways because we think in our hearts that in the long term, it is the better decision that would leave us better off and happier in the end. In a time filled with new technologies left and right, many of which seem daunting and many of which may very well not have been subjected to a rigorous examination under our artful design principles, Principle 8.16: Worry, be Happy remains especially important. We need to worry because that means we care, and we need to care in order to design well. But, at the same time, this cannot come at the cost of happiness, since that really ought to be the goal. Because why would we ever go through the intense, often painful process of designing technology if it didn’t make us happier in the end?