Book review: Ruined by Design

We’re fucked. That’s not a phrase you’d expect to see in a book on tech ethics. But it’s a major theme of Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design (affiliate link). You might think an ethics book would take a detached, academic approach. Monteiro has no time for that. He is passionate and opinionated throughout a practitioner disturbed by the state and trajectory of his trade.

Many people have found themselves being more political in the last few years. I should say being intentionally political, because the act of design as Monteiro reminds us is inherently political. For too long, he argues, designers have served the needs of their managers instead of advocating for the needs and interests of their users. That is how we’ve ended up with the garbage fire that is the modern tech industry.

Monteiro argues that designers have a moral obligation to do more than “push pixels”. Designers must design, and do so in such a way that treats the users ethically. This means being an active part of the decision-making process from the beginning, not just implementing someone else’s decision.

Ethical design faces some structural headwinds. Most significant of these is a capital environment that values rapid growth above all else. This both encourages decisions that grow engagement but not healthy interaction and also leads companies to grow so fast that design expertise is passed over or diluted. And there’s no such thing as an ethical offset, Monteiro says. Palantir is his go-to example of a company whose very essence is so unethical that nothing an employee does in their off hours can make up for what they do at the office.

So is it hopeless? Monteiro doesn’t think so. Designers, he hopes, mostly want to act ethically. They’ve just never had any training or mentorship that brings ethics to the fore. Designers must first be aware of the bigger ethical picture before they can start acting with intent. The rising public awareness of how tech companies abuse their users will help.

Monteiro views regulation of design as an inevitable consequence of the industry’s inability to self-regulate. But he also doesn’t view regulation as inherently bad. The public benefits greatly from regulation of food and transportation, for example. He also sees unionization as a key part of improving. A union would give designers cover and protection when bosses push them to implement unethical behavior. It also provides opportunity for training and professional development.

Ruined by Design paints a bleak view of the present while still providing hope for the future. Monteiro’s writing style is engaging and irreverent. The lessons he presents are valuable to anyone who makes product decisions. I strongly recommend this book to everyone.

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