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.

Other writing: August 2019

What have I been writing when I’m not writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Fedora/Red Hat

Lafayette Eats

Stuff I curated

Fedora/Red Hat

Other writing: July 2019

Stuff I wrote

Red Hat/Fedora

Lafayette Eats

  • El Maguey — A delicious Mexican restaurant in no hurry to get you to leave.

Stuff I curated

Red Hat/Fedora

Other writing: May 2019

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Red Hat/Fedora

Opensource.com

Lafayette Eats

Stuff I curated

Red Hat/Fedora

Other writing: April 2019

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Red Hat/Fedora

Opensource.com

Lafayette Eats

Stuff I curated

Red Hat/Fedora

Other writing: March 2019

What was I writing when I wasn’t writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Fedora/Red Hat

Opensource.com

Lafayette Eats

  • Bru Burger Bar — Lafayette’s newest burger restaurant is off to a great start.
  • Fishya — Lafayette has more sushi restaurants than you might expect.

Stuff I curated

Fedora/Red Hat

Book review — Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit

Who was Robert Francis Kennedy? To me he was always primarily JFK’s brother. That’s not fair, of course. Bobby Kennedy was an accomplished man — campaign manager, Congressional counsel, attorney general, senator, and presidential candidate. Fortunately for me, I recently grabbed Chris Matthews’ Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit (2017) from my local library.

In A Raging Spirit, Matthews explores what made Bobby Kennedy the man he was. Matthews explores how Bobby related to his parents and to the other Kennedy kids, particular older brothers Joe, Jr. and John. What I found missing was his other family relationships. His wife Ethel and their 11 children make only minor appearances in this book. While we know Kennedy’s professional life, we’re left to know what kind of husband and father he was.

It’s clear that Matthews has a deep respect for this subject, but the book is not a hagiography. We see how Kennedy’s desire to support the civil rights movements was tempered by his disagreement with Dr. King’s non-violent protests and his concerns for the political impacts in southern states. His caring and empathetic nature — perhaps a surprise given the wealth and privilege he was born into — often appeared after his fierce and tempestuous side. Matthews gave several examples of times when Kennedy would initially react with anger, only to soften over the next few days as he gave further consideration to a matter.

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit is a fascinating look at an influential figure of the mid-century who is too often overshadowed by his brother. It is a well-researched book that nevertheless reads lightly and quickly. The main narrative weakness is the occasional interjection of personal anecdotes from the author. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the man some have called America’s greatest attorney general.

Other writing: February 2019

What was I writing when I wasn’t writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Fedora/Red Hat

Opensource.com

Lafayette Eats

  • Fuel — My favorite coffee shop finally gets a review.
  • Yatagarasu — I finally have grown up ramen!

Stuff I curated

Fedora/Red Hat

Opensource.com

Personal branding doesn’t have to be BS

Last week my friend Chris O’Donnell (not that Chris O’Donnell) wrote a post on his blog titled “personal branding is BS“. Chris is not big on the idea of the personal brand. He writes

Most of you aren’t good enough to pull off the branding thing anyway. How do I know that? If you were that good, you’d be too busy actually working to post 20 tweets, 4 Facebook updates, and 2 LinkedIn posts every single day trying to convince us you are a thought leader in block chain powered whatever.

And you know what? That’s some pretty valid criticism. It’s easy to find people who are building their personal brand by puffing themselves up without doing meaningful work. Or maybe they did something really cool 10 years ago and they’re just coasting off it for the rest of forever.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Like with the label “thought leader“, it all depends on how its used. Chris is right to say that brands are “imaginary constructs”, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. A brand isn’t just the name you slap on the box to differentiate the otherwise identical dozens of detergents you produce. Your brand is what people think of when they think of you.

Building your personal brand is important if you want to get noticed for the work you do. You can get noticed without active effort, of course, but putting some work into it helps. Building your personal brand is more than just puffery. It’s sharing your work with others in social media, blog posts, conference talks, etc.

In the same way that companies have marketing departments to let the world know how great they are, people can do the same for themselves. Just make sure your ego’s not writing checks your body can’t cash.

Other writing — July 2018

Where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Opensource.com