Working Ethically At Speed

Image by Louis du Mont via Flickr

Faster is Different

‘Faster is different’. Zeynep Tufecki made this point in 2011, to push back on commentators claiming that the digitisation of the public sphere wasn’t materially different. It was ‘only’ accelerating existing dynamics.

The Current Gap

If we want a society that is able to work ethically at speed, then the current division of labour is insufficient. The current system of checks and balances is made up of a diverse cast of characters: (often non-diverse groups of) inventors invent, activists mobilise to advocate for better controls of the inventions when they cause harm or marginalise groups, lawyers sue and suggest policy to address obvious malfeasance, researchers detail the ethical issues of inventions and situate the harmful disruption in historical, scientific and theoretical frames, journalists investigate and narrate the harm, and policymakers debate and legislate to prevent future harm.

Agile Ethics

The purpose of ‘agile ethics’ is to facilitate working ethically at speed, and it is a practice that can be designed to operate in tandem with agile development. For those unfamiliar with agile development, it is — in its simplest form — a process whereby ideas are researched, prototyped, and then shaped by frequent testing with a potential user group. It allows for zany ideas to take shape, and it allows for businesses to harness creativity as a way of finding market fit. It is the dominant ethos and way of working within technology organisations operating at speed, and is a process for creative and iterative invention where each iteration is an opportunity to learn more about the product and possibility you are working to shape. It is also a way of working, when not carefully managed, leads to haphazard and harmful creations that are flung into the world before their potential impacts are assessed. It is the management process for ‘move fast and break things’.

  • Prescribing a fixed approach to ethics based on vague values (policies won’t cut it)
  • Encouraging your staff to reflect on ethics without designing methods or allocating resources to aid them in the process
  • A bandaid for underlying problems with governance and leadership
  • Iterative development of process that supports decentralised consideration of the implications of any given idea
  • Dedicated staff time to manage the process
  • Inclusion of diverse and (when appropriate) external voices

Agile Ethics Job Description

In my experience, the team members most devoted to supporting ethical practice are either not embedded in the process or practice of inventing or are engaged in their ethics practices because they are particularly interested, not because they have been tasked with or supported to carry out the work. For an agile ethics process to work, some staff time has to be devoted explicitly to it. Ethics as a dislocated practice or outsourced process will always fail.

  • Facilitation of entire teams to reflect on ethical dimensions of their new work
  • Documentation of process that is both prescriptive (all staff know what process they are meant to be doing at any given time) and insights-focused (as you learn, you should reduce the cognitive load related to solved problems while keeping focused on upcoming ethical challenges)
  • Research and engagement with communities, researchers, and academics on the forefront of managing ethics
  • Management of a ‘diversity marshmallow strategy’ (i.e. what representatives from what communities should be included in design phases to identify and call out ethical blind spots that your team may have)
  • Influence on diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies to support the process of your organisation growing your ethical competencies by having more representative staff involved in your activities

Intentional technology @ Computer Says Maybe, co-founder @engnroom