Ending the Reign of Nihilistic Design

We fail to take tech seriously when we do not grasp its full impact on humans.

The widespread adoption of new technologies always has unintended consequences. Through the natural course of innovation, many technologies co-evolve to form distinct technology ecosystems with emergent and highly complex impacts. The development of the car, for example, has had a profound impact on humanity’s perception of time and space, which has affected how humans think and formulate values. The car shaped cities, shaping which places were valued and which were not, and thus laid the foundations for most of the developed world’s infrastructure. It determined how we distributed and accessed food, social interaction, and employment, which altered our relationships, families and livelihoods. At the same time, the car disconnected people from the local economy and community, generated harmful emissions, and had a major impact on health and wellbeing. There is almost no aspect of modern Western life that has not been impacted by the automobile.

In this article, we propose that there are inevitable and unexpected impacts of technologies on both the human mind and society as a whole. For most of history, the process of tech design has either assumed that such second- and third-order effects do not occur or that tech innovation is net positive. This approach is called “technological orthodoxy”, and it views technology as neutral with regard to human values. This must change if humanity is to survive in a world of ever-increasing technological presence and complexity. At this moment in history, it is essential that we adopt an approach to design that accounts for how tech affects the way people think and behave. This is axiological design. Axiology is the philosophical study of value, including both ethics and philosophy of mind. Axiological design is the application of principled judgment about value to the design of technology. This is not a single approach, but a general model for design that focuses on how technology is inextricably linked to our view of the world and our activities within it. Tech affects power dynamics in society, forms ecologies and habitats, and shapes the thoughts, values, and relationships of those using it. We must start to take tech seriously, before it changes our world in ways that may not be easy to repair.

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