Note — Mar 21, 2021

All These Worlds Are Yours

Cennydd Bowles’ talk at the Mind The Product conference—both the written version and the pre-recorded video. It’s aimed at the event’s audience of product managers, yet more broadly pertinent. Starts with a good retelling of the early 2010s utopian visions for tech broadly and the internet more specifically, and the following and ongoing slump in reputation and associated backlash. Bowles then looks at the potential “dark futures” if tech keeps being developed the same way, to then place some of the blame squarely at the feet of “product managers [who] are the primary cause of ethical harm in the tech industry.”

Up to that point it’s well presented but relatively common terrain for readers of Sentiers, the rest though is the valuable read where he considers “empirical ideologies” like Lean, the resulting overquantification, business drift, and the externalities caused by user-centricity, as well as all the broader stakeholders it obfuscates and, in too many causes, negatively impacts. Bowles closes with a great section on ethics (his current focus) which I won’t summarize too much here, have a full read, it’s definitely the most novel and important part of the talk with making space for those discussions, learning, and committing to action.

Overall, timely read if you work in some form of design, and excellent context to grasp if you are looking at tech from more of a distance.

The public clearly still finds technology useful and beneficial, but the data suggests people also feel disempowered, resigned to being exploited by their devices. It’s as if the general public loves technology despite our best efforts. […]

Overquantification is a narrow, blinkered view of the world, and again one that makes ethical mistakes more likely. Ethical impacts are hard to measure: they’re all about very human and social qualities like fairness, justice, or happiness. These things don’t yield easily to numerical analysis. That means they tend to fall outside the interests of overquantified, data-driven companies. […]

So even if product managers position themselves at the heart of UX, tech, and business, they may well be missing their moral duties to this broader set of stakeholders, to non-users, to groups and communities, to social structures, nonhuman life, and our planet itself. […]

Ethics isn’t about dusty tomes and dead Greeks! It’s a vital, living topic, full of artists, writers, philosophers, and critics, all exploring the most important questions facing us today: How should we live? What is the right way to act?