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Finishing up the newsletter on Monday, I mentioned the Internet of Things design manifesto. It is in version 1.0 but it is a good first step to develop a process for integrating good practice into smart objects. 

It led me to think about how ethics has to be integrated into product development and management in the IoT era. 

Process Matters

Any designer will tell you that process is vital. You can come up with a good product without a good process but you probably cannot repeat the magic or scale your success without a good process.

When I look around at some smart devices, it looks like the process was a conventional manufacturing design process with the Internet of Things tacked on.

Sure there are some startups who are have baked ‘smarts’ and ‘intelligence’ into their product design but the real driver of the Internet of Things are the established companies with legacy product portfolios and legacy markets.

Sticking a product online is technically complex. It is also ethically complex. The ethics can get lost in the thicket of technical complexities.

Advocating for Customers

Development, especially in big firms, is a technical job. The product requirements are laid out and the teams go ahead and execute the product as best they can. The cycle of product ‘ideation’, verification of a business case and initial development works across departments like business developmen, marketing and product.

As companies drive into the Internet of Things, the process has to open up to an ‘ethics owner’ in the process. Customer advocacy is conventionally trying to present what customers want – from research, interviews etc – to the development teams and incorporating that into designs.

When these products are supposed to be connected to the internet – de facto gathering data possibly to use toward behaviour modification – it is not enough to advocate for ‘user needs’. Without an explicit responsibility in the design system to advocate for the rights or ethics, the logic of surveillance and people farming takes over.

Good Versus Legal

This is ultimately the problem for smart devices – in the short and long term. What is legal will vary. What is legal may not be sufficient. What is good will succeed and improve lives with less costly trades of freedom and privacy.

Yet, we have law for the very reason that behaving ethically is hard to do and it is not always clear what the right moral action is.

We know that responsibility is indivisible, when everyone is responsible no one is. When the potential harm from smart objects is so distinctive and clear, there is no excuse for going beyond legality and integrating ethics into the design process from day one.

For example: The logic of smart connected cars is tracking data for maintenance purposes. What about packaging that data for insurers who can then argue for discriminatory pricing based on your driving?

Or what about the use of biometric data inevitably gathered by VR companies?

Ensuring legal compliance with data is, currently, advantageous until (if?) the law catches up with the Internet of Things (even then, we are not sure that will happen)

Will a label be sufficient to explain how your VR headset is going to be taking over some of your brain’s functions?

Doing the right thing becomes more important in this context. The threshold of staying legal could remain below what would be ‘right’ for a significant time. In that time tens of billions of smart devices will be made and put online.

Professional Ethics

Professional ethics are associated with law and medicine for the precise reason that they work with individuals and have a opportunity to impart enormous harm on their clients. Professional ethics are a collective effort to enforce standards of behaviour that promote trust, expect higher accountability than law alone and place the customer (person) at the heart of their decision making.

Considering how sensitive the info is and potential harm shit product can cause, professional ethics are unavoidable. I think this is the level which will have to be targeted in order to provide a secure human-centred range of connected products. Reading the IoT Manifesto as a call to action for professional ethics makes it a very robust starting point.

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Does harvesting biometric data require a hippocratic oath?

Or as Voices of VR asks:

  • Should companies be getting explicit consent for the type of biometric data that they to capture, store, and tie back to our personal identities?
  • If companies are able to diagnose medical conditions from these new biometric indicators, then what is their ethical responsibility of reporting this users?

It might not be as strict as medical ethics but Gry Hasselbalch argues Data Ethics are the New Competitive Advantage.

My initial worries:

  • Is a market led solution going to address the problem? Or act like ‘green-washing’ did with climate change?
  • Can we construct a robust program of ethics that we can advocate for inclusion in product design processes?
  • The reason we have organised religion is because ethics are contested. Can we even agree on ethics for the Internet of Things era?

I would love to hear your feedback and am setting off to work on the the above three questions in the month ahead.


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