Appreciating Consequence

I'm snowbound on a small island. In New York this snow would have been plowed and dumped in the river by lunchtime on the day it fell, and nary a reservation at Nobu cancelled. Not here. No, here in the land of the hearty Northwesterner, land of anorak and parka, land of flannel and technical fabric, we have buses sliding down slight inclines. We have cars without snowtires trying to make it up hills, the drivers' faces cartoons of surprise at sliding backward.

Seattle is caught unprepared for this snow. We don't know what to do with it. I've been in my house for a week. Cabin fever doesn't do the feeling justice. There's just so long that you can obsess about folding fresh sheets. Sooner or later you are forced to think, and sometimes those thoughts are not cheery. Cheery and festive as I love to be, sometimes I think thoughts that are not popular. They are not popular because they do not point the way to a cheery, festive future. They are warning thoughts.

Today I was thinking about the tendency of some very personable people at American tech companies to push software with bang-zoom features into new markets all over the world, while at the same time displaying a total disregard for the effects these features and advances will have on global culture. The point of view seems to be, "If they buy it, it is up to them to use it responsibly." As a person who thinks about the ramifications of design, this disregard worries me.

Like the Gold Rush, the Silver Rush and every other "rush" in this country, our rush to the technological has destroyed a lot of things. In this case, they are invisible things. They are not buffalo, they are not tribes. In the name of "progress," we have allowed "features" to restrict freedom and privacy and our personal independence for some time. We've been able to do this because we live in a country in which the government really does exist because the people want it to exist.

You pretty much believe that when you call the police, the police will probably act to put things right. You pretty much believe that when you send a letter, no one is going to open it to check what you are sending to whom. You pretty much believe that if you are arrested, you will have rights and those rights will probably not be ignored. Corruption exists all over, but the basic government works, and you believe in it.

But as software expands its global reach, we are selling more and more to governments whose sympathy, unlike ours, is not with the people.
It really hasn't been a problem up until now, because so little of the world was really computer-dependent in the way we are. But now softwares and platforms are really taking hold in the governments of these countries. And their people count lost freedoms like extinct birds. This is happening solely because of our willingness not to look at consequence.

As individuals, we are caring people in a harsh world, and we will turn out in droves to help if there's a typhoon or a flood. But when we are working for companies, we often wear blinders. We want to believe the best of our clients, and were happy, for instance, to give code to our client China because they asked for it-- code that China then used to help Burma track down the people blogging against its dictator-run government. By handing over that code to please our client China, we helped Burma track, arrest and kill people. We helped them throw every person they could find who had blogged against the State into prison, with no prospect of trial or release. And all because of our individual inability to look at consequence.

Our forced, "Gee, those Chinese love our software," naivete has got to end. I suspect that it ended long ago in the higher reaches of many management structures. But even as lower-on-the-food-chain managers and employees, we need to grow up politically.

It's not just the "Big Software Giants" going at other people's freedoms. For some time now, the Burmese authorities have been " filtering" independent online newspapers, websites defending human rights or promoting democracy and publications supporting the claims of the Karen people (an anti-government ethnic group in the east of the country). To accomplish this task, the junta has, since May 2004, been using Internet filtering software sold by the US firm Fortinet. I am sure there are plenty of nice people working at Fortinet. People who would rescue you from a house fire. People who would save your drowning daughter. But when they work for that company, they've got blinders on.

As software use becomes globally entrenched, one country's freedom fighter is not another country's terrorist, as the old phrase used to go. No, he is every country's terrorist, because he has been branded "terrorist" in intra-global tracking software. There's no arguing that one at the airport gates.

Nothing for it but to don large boots, parka, scarf, hat and big mittens and stomp over the icehill that bars the door to understanding. Everyone in design has a chance to score a punch for thinking about consequence now and then. It may be a very small punch. But if your clients have gotten your message about sustainability and green, think about getting the conversation around to political consequence. What is the full potentiality of all those features?

It's a tricky conversation and it takes guts to have it. I leave it to your diplomacy. (If your clients look at you blankly as though you are spouting nonsense, remember, that's what they did to the first people who started suggesting using less paper. Now those same clients are all building "green" houses and boasting about their solar buy-back deals.)

No matter how vast the program, how big the budget, how many groups and organizations are involved, these days, no technological rollout is an island. Every "feature" we market creates consequences for global culture. We are foolish if we don't define these consequences and decide beforehand whether the risk to people is worth plowing ahead in the name of market share and stock price. If we recognize the potential for the destruction of other people's freedoms but market the product anyway, we are not branders or designers, we are hacks.