The Role of the Designer as Moral Intermediary

by Nick Gregory

In Peter-Paul Verbeek’s “Materializing Morality: Design Ethics and Technological Mediation,” the author argues that designed technology shapes both the way that we interact with the world and the way that we perceive the world. He defines technological mediation as “the role of technology in human action (conceived as the ways in which human beings are present in their world) and human experience (conceived as the ways in which their world is present to them).” In summary, designed objects affect us through mediation of perception and mediation of action.

Technology can shape the way that we perceive the world. mediating our perception of anything and everything. Objects such as glasses modify the way in which we see the world in a literal sense. A thermometer “establishes a relationship between humans and reality in terms of temperature.” These objects are tools that give us insight into situations that we previously may not have had. They facilitate our understanding of the world, and mediate by altering the way which we gather information.

Some objects shape the way that we interact with the world. These objects mediate our interaction with anything and everything. Some objects act as extensions of the body, such as the hammer. He argues that we don’t focus our attention on the hammer, but the nail. The hammer is an intermediary, and it facilitates our process of achieving a goal, it facilitates our involvement with reality. In that way, the hammer mediates the task of nail going into wood. Without the hammer, the nail would either be very difficult or impossible to use. In this way, the hammer provides context for use of the nail, and asks to be used in order to drive the nail into another material. The hammer comes with a “script” on its use.

Verbeek proposes that all objects come with a script. “Like the script of a movie or a theater play, artifacts prescribe their users how to act when they use them. A speed bump, for instance, has the script “slow down when you approach me” and a plastic coffee cup “throw me away after use.” He continues to explain that in the design of things, we should consider the script that we are writing. He suggests that, in designing objects that prompt moral decisions, designers are “doing ‘ethics by other means’: they materialize morality.”

In a way, all designers are “doing ethics” if they are designing for others and even for themselves. They are creating tools for good and tools for evil as well. While designers are not “doing ethics” any more so than a doctor, lawyer, or police officer, the impact of the designer’s decisions can stretch just as far. While most designers do not intend to create things that have negative consequences, sometimes these things can be used in unintended ways. It is important for a designer to consider possible misuses of a design, so that these misuses can be avoided.

Verbeek’s piece echoes the same idea, but goes a bit further. He states, “There are two possible ways to take technological mediation into account during the design process. A first, minimal option is that designers try to assess whether the product they are designing will have undesirable mediating capacities. A second possibility goes much further: designers could also explicitly try to build in specific forms of mediation, which are considered desirable. Morality then, in a sense, becomes part of the functionality of the product.” Verbeek is essentially saying that as designers, we can either design to avoid unintended mediation, or design to promote intended mediation.

Next, Verbeek discusses the process of designing with morality and technological mediation in mind. He discusses how the designer can imagine potential uses of a product, and use these predictions to shape the design during the process of iteration. He makes a distinction between the designer making predictions alone and the designer consulting all stakeholders in order to come up with a democratic way to assess outcomes. This distinction is made clear, but does not seem necessary.

Verbeek concludes by writing, “Technological mediation introduces new complexities in the design process. Designers, for instance, might have to deal with trade-offs: in some cases, designing a product with specific desirable mediating characteristics might have negative consequences for the usefulness or attractiveness of the product. Introducing automatic speed influencing in cars will make sure that drivers keep to the speed limit but at the cost of the experience of freedom, which appears to be rather important to some car drivers, judging by the fierce societal resistance against speed limiting measures. Also, when anticipating the mediating role of technologies, prototypes might be developed and rejected because they are likely to bring about undesirable mediations. Dealing with such trade-offs and undesirable spin-offs requires a separate moral decision-making process.”

This is followed by Verbeek’s final sentiment, where he charges engineers and designers with the task of rethinking their moral responsibility, and possibly considering that their moral responsibility is greater than previously thought. Although designers have the potential to create products that harm or cause negative consequences the designer’s responsibility should not extend beyond the product’s intention. Although designs have the ability to mediate, responsibility should fall on the end user or consumer oneself. Unless the design has an obvious negative intention, or a fault causes it to operate in a way that is not consistent with the designer’s positive intention, the designer should not feel responsible for negative consequences of a design.

Verbeek’s piece offers an insightful evaluation of morality in design, and explains how any design has the capacity to mediate either our actions or perceptions. The idea that designers are ultimately making moral predeterminations with each design shows that the responsibility of the designer is in transition to become more ethically focused.