Designers, Morality and the AK-47
Recently Mike Monteiro wrote about whether the AK-47 is worthy of study for a design student. I agree and disagree with him at the same time, which led me to write this response. He wrote:
If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.
This sounds powerful but it makes little sense because it pretends design and ethics are the same and they’re not. I know he wants them to be the same (and in a way I wish they were too), but he’s mixing design, which is a practice, with ethics, which is a system of beliefs. They overlap but they are different lenses.
For example, a house cat’s front claws have evolved into a wonderful design: sharp, compact, strong, lightweight and retractable. But by Monteiro’s definition if you’re a mouse or a bird, the claws are a bad design, since they are made to kill you. It might be unfortunate, or even evil (from the bird’s perspective), that such a design exists, but for the purpose it was designed for it’s an excellent design. If you’re a starving cat, those claws are designed well enough to save your life, even if through killing. (Also consider assisted suicide devices, things designed to kill you, but by your own hand. Is that bad design?).
This leads to the very idea of violence: when, if ever, is it ok to be violent and to kill a person? An animal? These are good ethical questions, but not design questions as you don’t need to question the ethics of a supermarket or a slaughterhouse to design one well (as defined by the client), even if you should (and I agree with Monteiro that you should). Most people most of the time don’t ask ethical questions about their daily work, or anything at all.
Regarding the AK-47, I don’t like guns. I don’t like most violence on TV or in movies. I wish the AK-47 did not need to exist, but I can’t deny the staggering amount of violence in human history. Much of that violence thousands of years ago was necessary to survive in Darwin’s world, but just 70 years ago the entire world was at war for a second time (because the first world war just wasn’t bloody enough).
I hope we grow out of our violence but moral progress is far slower than technological progress. In which case, when guns are pointed at you by evil people, and there is no alternative, a good designed defense may just include having one of your own. Albert Einstein, a pacifist, encouraged the United States develop the Atomic bomb, because the prospect of the Nazi’s having one before the rest of the world was far worse than the alternative.
We forget that civilization itself is an experiment (Freud thought it’s one that makes us crazy) and in a short time we’ve threatened to end our experiment ourselves. Studying something like an AK-47, and the history of conflicts that surround its use, explains a great deal about human nature, which I’d hope any designer would want to understand. It leads to asking about Einstein (a pacifist) and the atomic bomb, and dozens of more complex collisions of ethics, violence and technology.
Design is an ethical trade.
No it isn’t. I wish it were, but it’s not. Who designed all the junk in our landfills? Who designs pop-up ads? Who designed TMZ? Who designed our culture of conspicuous consumption and the advertising that promises salvation if we just buy one more thing (that we don’t need)? Who designed newspapers that lie to us? Government technology that spies on us? It’s designers. Designers were paid to do all of those things. Some designers are ethical, but some are not. Some designers refuse projects because of their ethics, some do not. But both design things and both are designers.
Modern design is dominated by consumerism and while consumerism has been great for the U.S. economy it has also been bad for the planet and for the human psyche. If design were primarily a noble profession centered on the progress of humanity designers would worship Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller instead of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But we don’t. Most design students today don’t know either of that first pair, which makes me very sad. Most designers today, especially in the tech world, aren’t making the world any better at all. They are paid very well to make shiny things that attempt to solve largely superficial first world problems of extreme convenience.
And to design is to take purpose into account — as my friend Jared Spool says: design is the rendering of intent. You can’t separate an object’s function from its intent.
I’m friends with Jared too, and Monteiro and I have hung out together with him, but I disagree with both of them. I can use a hammer to build a chair, or a torture device, or to knock you unconscious. What the designer intended is mostly irrelevant once it’s in my hands. And even if the designer showed up and chose to tell me “Hey! You’re not using my object with the designed intent!” I could use the very object they’re talking about and bash them over the head with it.
All tools can be weaponized or used for evil, even a spreadsheet (“track the monthly wilding budget”), even an email application (“fire the missiles now!”) , even a calendar (“reminder: blow up building today”). Of course most tools are not designed to be weapons, and some designs are clever in minimizing their uses for evil, but so what. User intent trumps designer intent (See MacGyver, and then imagine him not as a hero but as a terrorist). Designers are arrogant and often forget they have the most influence only over the most trivial of their user’s decisions.
Monteiro wrote: Your role as a designer is to leave the world in a better state than you found it. You have a responsibility to design work that helps move humanity forward and helps us, as a species, to not only enjoy our time on Earth, but to evolve.
I do love this idea. The problem is almost no one who hires a designer sees this as what they are paying for, and as a result, most designers don’t see it either. It’s likely this ambition requires designers to make sacrifices, to do pro-bono work or to start their own companies that uphold a higher moral standard than their past clients. They have to redesign design which is far scarier than simply designing more things consumer companies hire them to do. If anything studying an AK-47 and its impressive and horrible history connects young designers with a world far larger, bigger and more inspiring towards truly noble works than the latest gadgets can. For designers to change the world for the better they first need to understand how the world works at all.
I wonder if The Plenitude is relevant to this discussion.
I’ve assigned this book in my MBA Creativity class.
That one is new to me. I’ll take a look. There are plenty of books about the morality of designing things – Cradle to Cradle is probably the most popular one I’m familiar with.
What’s interesting is how (maybe) industrial and product designers, where environmental impact / landfill impact is a real thing, have more professional exposure to the idea of ethics and morality than perhaps web and software designers do. Hard to measure but that’s my impression. Privacy protection is perhaps the closest equivalent topic, but how well shared are privacy ethics among web and app designers?
I wanted to rebel against this your article first but towards the end it makes sense. Its true that product designers need to think of landfills and the whole product cycle before production or even the design process itself. But design can change the ethics of people. And if killing is an objective achieved by a gun that has been designed, it is a question of ethics as well.
Lots to unpack here, and I only have so much time, so I’ll be brief with a few things that are niggling at me:
1) The claws on those animals serve a quite specific biological function regarding defense or hunting for food. The AK47 is not a weapon for hunting for your meal for the night in the more literal sense, but rather it is a weapon that was built to make killing lots of human beings faster and more efficient. Kalashnikov had expressed his regret of creating that weapon. I think this opening analogy used here is messy.
2) I disagree with some of Monteiro’s talk as well (I saw you all at AEA Chicago last year) but mainly for the more pragmatic reason. I may have an ethical obligation to not put out questionable work or work for a dodgy company, but I gotta eat. The notion that we can just quit and move onto greener pastures where we are working on things that, if not necessarily of importance, at least aren’t actively causing harm (I’ve been searching for about 2 months and it is not looking pretty).
On #1 I don’t see claw vs. AK-47 as different as you do – If a cat could make tools for more effective killing of mice it would. I see a line from making spears, to bear traps, to bows and arrows, to guns and to the AK-47, or nuclear missiles, or whatever we invent next. I don’t like these things but I understand why we compulsively invent them. There are survival advantages to being good at killing. As a civilization we’ve hopefully gotten past those advantages but that’s a hope that’s messy to prove.
“If a cat could make tools for more effective killing of mice it would”
Hmm… not a strong argument. Theres a limit to the effort a well fed cat will put into catching the next prey. As opposed to nation states (arguably the largest channel of design, demand and supply of weapons), natural systems have evolved with homeostatic characteristics.
It saddens me to read the comments on these threads showing designers don’t see the ethical and moral choices of their work as part of their degrees of freedom – and also that many folks don’t see the connection to web app design.
Have you owned a cat? They kill for pleasure. Start with The Oatmeal on the subject of cats who murder then go here for a more serious exploration of similar data.
Your distinction between cats and nations I agree with, but that wasn’t the comparison I made. Is a claw well designed? That’s the question I was after.
No…pointing out that designing for murder falls within the “bad design” category is VERY far from “pretending” (read: “lying”) to con people into believing “design and ethics are the same thing.”
No…your hallucinated telepathic powers do not constitute knowledge that “he wants them to be the same”.
No…evolution of claws is not “design” in the conscious sense entitling moral evaluation as we would, for example: to consider designing torture chambers is morally bad.
No…one cannot refute a claim by stating “no it isn’t”, and bolstering that with “…it’s not”, red-herring rhetorical questions, and poorly informed, unsupported assertions of first principles.
Icky post. Redraft.
Interesting points being made…I especially like the example in nature. I have a fascination with monkeys as they closely resemble our recent past. I find it amazing how monkeys can be loving playful and tame at one moment and tear the face off another monkey the next moment. It seems to me monkeys follow a definite protocol in their groups…probably for the groups survival. Maybe that is why we have AK-47s…to maintain the protocol which supports the life function of the group.
Life is messy.
It’s over simplifying to say the AK-47 is only for killing. A more accurate concept is to say it’s for both defensive and offensive killing. And for both military and civilian use.
Such abstract concepts can be useful, because thinking of consequences is useful.
I am Canadian. (We don’t have to defend the border to South Korea, the way our U.S. cousins do) Consider land-mines, of the anti-personnel (not vehicle) type. Bad?
For military use, they are governed by the Geneva Convention: always laid in fields that are marked with canvas mine tape (like police tape), and always laid in a pattern to be safely and easily removed, even when super-camouflaged. (I have done so) Even the Nazis would put signs, “Actung Minen,” on their fields. (The first German my dad learned) To me that’s good.
Canadians noticed, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that civilians were using land mines improperly. The consequences were awful. Since we couldn’t trust civilians in the former second world, and third world, to use mines properly we didn’t write laws that would be as useless as the Geneva Convention, rather, we encouraged them to destroy their stocks of mines, and we destroyed all of ours.
The consequence is that our next peace keeping/peace making/war will probably be in just those places where mines were misused. And where, without our own mines in front of our barbed wire, we will incur more casualties than otherwise. For us that’s OK, as long we are fearlessly facing the consequence. C’est la vie, chest la guerre.
Clubs and tasters are designed for only violence against people who are innocent (unless later proven guilty in court). The consequence, of course, is that police have an option to not kill people. Just as it’s better to send in marines with rifles, like AK-47s, (if you don’t mind your own casualties) than fly in big Bombs.
To me, Design is like freely voicing opinions at university. There are no “bad” opinions, just bad consequences.
Sean, if you can provide an example of some person or nation who used AK’s, landmines, or any other weapons and _didn’t_ claim (and plausibly believe) their use was “defensive”, I’d be very interested to learn of such an instance.
At least Mike’s article went into some details of this iconic weapon, here it seems the discussion focuses only on the design value of something “designed to kill you”. I don’t think of the AK-47 that way, since I’m not planning a genocidal war of aggression against Russia, followed by enslavement & extermination of the survivors.
It’s no doubt unfortunate that this weapon is associated with many who have fought against the U.S. Perhaps if each copy was stamped ‘This machine kills fascists’ the intent of it would be more clear.
Given the horrendous suffering the Soviets experienced fighting Hitler (see http://www.fallen.io/ww2/ ), I doubt this weapon was conceived in any sort of blood-lust, but more in a spirit of ‘never again’.
There’s a lively discussion of Montiero’s original post on Metafilter as well.
Buck, off the top of my head, the Japanese overtly didn’t have weapons for defence.
They felt no need to defend against the rest of Asia, since China, Korea and so forth were so economically inferior. You may remember from TV’s MASH how the Koreans had more outhouses and horses than flush toilets and vehicles.
Japan surely didn’t have a department of defence, but maybe they had a department of war, as did Canada. Luckily for the allies, China absorbed most of Japan’s forces, just as the Russian front absorbed most of Germany’s forces. (We normally forget this)
But now Japan’s weapons are overtly defensive, praise the Lord. Their fighter jets, for example, aren’t legally allowed to have a decent fuel capacity, as they are only for fighting over Japan. Good jets? The consequence is that the peace loving people of Taiwan, who have formally renounced any plans to re-take Mainland China, are on their own.
The specific episode to which you refer with Japan is unclear, but I’ll cite some of the thinking around the late 30’s in Japan with regard to its aggression against China, including the horrific Rape of Nanking. (I would also point out that weapons are to inflict damage or harm to living beings, structures, or systems. “Defense” is the prevention of that, but if a shield or armor is protecting the murdering sword strike, it seems the use is offensive.)
Please note, defense claims do not only exist within as self-protection “against” others, nor does relative strength have any bearing. Japan’s foreign attacks (like other empires, and countries like Canada) are bolstered against weaker opponents by the argument that the attack is for the benefit of people there “against” some harm. Remember: Jews were exterminated to “save” noble, civilized people whose societies were crumbling, therefore: defensive.
Like African slavers, Japanese widely believed that overthrowing backward cultures and the corrupt rule of evil governments that kept people poor was a noble, charitable act of mercy and beneficence incurring a price they “thought was worth it.” (in the infamous words of Madeline Albright)
In the book “Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo”
http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Empire-Avant-Garde-Propaganda-Manchukuo/dp/0774824379 , Culver documents zillions of examples of how what we call aggression is viewed by the Chinese as defending the poor workers from floods, starvation, etc., and that view could provide evidence of its validity by citing inspiring instances of heroic sacrifice by Japanese soldiers to save and protect poor Chinese at great cost to themselves.
As I said: this perspective appears to be universal, including acts of clear genocide.
Buck, I have no answer, at least not here.
Scott et al, another example of something as neutral as a hammer is rhetoric.
I love written rhetoric, like the ancient Greeks spoke in the forum. At my Toastmasters club some people truly frown when I say a member used good rhetoric.
Next time I might reply that rhetoric is like a gun: the Confederate South used guns one way, the North another. Both sides had rhetoric, but the classic speeches of Lincoln, reframing “the people” as being above “the states,” meant the U.S. would never resume their civil war.
…of the people, by the people and for the people…
OK. I’m always open to a counter-example if you can find one, but I take that thesis about as well-supported as any in history after being unable to find an exception when I read it in something by Chomsky years ago.
Also, a correction: “what we call aggression is viewed by the Chinese…” should have read “what we call aggression was viewed by the Japanese…”
I would take a slightly different tack, what matters more than the qualities of any single design is the culture in which that design is situated. Does that culture value life above commerce or liberty above entertainment? It isn’t enough for anyone to be simply a designer or engineer or artist. They have to be engaged in their broader community, a citizen, to speak with any moral authority regarding design or design intent.
I agree. I’d go even further. Engaged is not enough. They have to be a student of how cultures work and have an interest in history. The AK-47 connects with many important aspects of human history, specific to Russia and general to humanity, and that makes it worthy of study all on it’s own.
I had kind off the same discussion with one of my professors while still at university. In my master thesis I wanted to use a hammer as an example that a tool (or any other medium) is just that, a tool, and the actions of the person using it for his or her purposes defines if a hammer can be used for either building a house, of for killing your neighbor. The medium does not care about ethics. On the other hand, the actions driving the individual are more telling. That being said, this reasoning should not play into the hand of right wing, gun-nut NRA members. Mediums specifically designed for killing your fellow man, like guns, and that are used for this purpose 97% percent of the time (as sometimes Skeeter, Billy Bob and Bodean like to go hunting the other 3% of the time), should, although essentially neutral in terms of ethics, be regulated heavily by any governing body.
Gun regulation was the third rail I was trying to avoid. Monteiro avoided it too and when I tried to include the topic it took over the piece.
As I mentioned I don’t like guns. I’d like their use in America to be better controlled regardless of how (more responsible citizens, better laws, better enforcement – I don’t have a specific policy solution to what seems to be a complex cultural problem).
But to my point to study why we have guns at all on this planet, and why America sees to have more trouble with them than average, requires a designer, or a design student to understand history, cultural values, legislation and perhaps law enforcement, all important lenses a designer needs to understand to have the best odds of effectively putting good things into the world.
Good designers have intent when they design, and so they can work out who they think will ultimately benefit most from the work they create.
To reinforce the hammer analogy, it’s not the object but the benefit from using the object that matters most. In my book, Evil By Design [link added by berkun], I use the ultimate distribution of benefit as a way of distinguishing between good and evil design.
If the designer (or the designer’s sponsor) benefits more than their user, it’s likely to be evil design (think pop-up ads).
If there was equitable benefit between designer and user, it’s most probably commercial design (think ad-sponsored free email accounts).
If the benefit is skewed toward the user and away from the designer, it’s moving towards motivational design (say, fitness band apps). If the benefit is to society at large, then it’s probably charitable design (like giving campaign sites).
There’s overlap between these categories because life’s messy. Two individuals may disagree on the correct designation of benefit. Ultimately though society on average can decide these things.
Now, who ultimately benefits from the AK-47? Has it saved more people than it’s killed? Is it OK to kill even one person? Those are the moral questions that help determine ultimate benefit. Society as a whole makes those decisions, not the original designer.
However, to play on words a little, I don’t think that this allows designers to dodge the bullet of ethical design. Designers, if they are intentionally designing rather than just accidentally throwing things together, can make a pretty good guess as to how society will receive their designs.
“Ultimately though society on average can decide these things (ultimate benefit).”
If this were true, we’d all be a lot better off. Does one fitness band/app customer getting healthy show greater or lesser received benefit than the profits made by the manufacturer based on product improvements from aggregated behavioral data?
How does emotional satisfaction relate to benefit? How could we begin to measure? What is the relation of satisfaction and benefit to ethical decisions (eating ice cream daily versus regular workouts)? What is the benefit of saving the life of an unethical person? What is the benefit of protecting one nation while destroying another?
Admittedly, I haven’t read Evil by Design, but my experience so far tells me that distribution of benefit is enormously ambiguous and contextual, and likely not a reliable way to measure goodness or badness of design.
Above is asked, Is it ever acceptable to kill even one person? Normally, throughout all of history, we’ve accepted that this is a valid, acceptable tradeoff. You cannot /only/ build walls to defend yourself, but have to actively defend the walls with axes and pointy sticks and arrows and guns. You will certainly kill some bad guys when they come to attack you (which will happen and is above our pay grade here). You don’t kill because they are The Bad Guys but because you believe that they will kill many, many more of your people, or rape and plunder, or generally subjugate to their will when they come marching through their hole in your wall.
I know (and have worked with) lots of soldiers (and marines and sailors and airmen and guardsmen…) and they totally are aware of this. If pressed, almost all will admit that killing is to be avoided, but is absolutely required as there is no other way around it. The alternative is worse. This is why we also go help friends and neighbors and conduct peacekeeping operations and pre-emptively bomb stuff for people we don’t even like that much; if the rest of the geopolitics line up, a few hundred dead in exchange for a few thousand alive, free and happy is the math of wars.
Pretty much every one who carries a gun for a living will also accept a magic ray that puts the enemy to sleep instead. Winning is the goal, but we’re sadly far from any such tech if it could ever be achieved. On this track, we’ll rapidly get to addressing risk; tasers are significantly less dangerous that sticks or wrestling with people, but /nothing/ is risk free.
That’s a lesson I really got from design—from a security point of view—but which is true for everything. The hammer or box cutter cannot be made risk free; to do it’s job well it will be able to be misused and that may cause accidental, or deliberate, injury or death.
Steven, you are spreading propaganda that has caused untold, massive suffering. That you believe it is meager excuse, assuming some minimal awareness of reality and morality can be assumed.
Good kids leave high schools in the US for the noble rationalizations you parrot above, without a clue those messages and their delivery processes have been carefully crafted, honed, evolved, refined, and tested by psyop experts more thoroughly and longer than any corporate propaganda.
Those kids believe what the very few leaders who bother with ethical concerns decide to accept as the “noble lie”. Sometimes the indoctrination holds; Often, over the long term it does not. When these kids grow and realize that “Bad Guys” (and their wives & children) were just people, sometimes trying to defend their country against invaders as we would, other times just trying to survive in the only place they’ve ever known, a place that now has become a battlefield. When these former young men and women come home, have time to think, and realize what they’ve actually done – many cannot live with themselves. Those of us left pay the price for the ambition, greed, and needs of a system that demands blood sacrifices like some perverse, modern Aztec cult.
Our comrades’ suicides often don’t even count toward the already scandalous suicide rates of veterans – the number one threat to vets’ lives, last I checked.
Ignorance by design and the mythology you reproduce above, combined with effective propaganda and the insatiable greed of the war industry is a greater threat than ISIS, Al Qaeda, North Korea, or any other official enemy. All of those enemies would lose most of their support, shrinking to fringe groups popularly despised and ridiculed if US foreign policy was oriented toward the rule of law and principles of fairness.
It is a testament to perceptual bias that you think “throughout all of history” we’ve accepted killing other humans as “normal” and “a valid, acceptable tradeoff”. If we don’t know relevant facts of reality, we can’t make correct decisions. Unless you’re currently combat-deployed, it would seem you are fantasizing a murderous dystopia around you.
Anywhere in the US, even in the worst neighborhoods, we might accept the fact that killings happen, but no sustainable community accepts it as a morally “valid” condition. The worst homicide rate in the U.S. last year was Detroit. In a year, 1 person out of 2300 was murdered. What you call “normal and acceptable” is precisely what we don’t see 99.95959% of the time, in the most lethal place in the U.S.
Even within cultures that included cannibalism, killing was a rare, exceptional occurrence. Healthy humans have very good instincts not to kill other humans, and use of jingoist propaganda terms like “bad guys” shows part of what we must do to overcome that instinct, as has been known for a long time.
Since racial slurs are no longer viable, “bad guys” fills this need – and it the currently acceptable term for dehumanizing the victims of U.S. violence and aggression to justify it. Other militaries have their own terms.
Wartime propagandists universally seek to justify the use of military violence by portraying it as morally justified, defensive, and necessary, and they’re all profoundly wrong – morally, and nearly always factually.
“For example, a house cat’s front claws are wonderfully designed:”
No. Cat’s front claws aren’t designed at all. They are the mere result of evolution’s natural selection. Design is inseparably connected to culture. Design isn’t anything on it’s own, it only is because of culture.
“All tools can be weaponized or used for evil, even a spreadsheet (“track the monthly wilding budget”), even an email application (“fire the missiles now!”) , even a calendar (“reminder: blow up building today”).”
Although all tools (and therefor all designs) can be weaponized, it is a rather large difference wether one designs a tool with such an intention or not.
Both, a hammer and the AK-47, can be used to kill someone. The difference is, that an AK-47 is optimized for killing (because that’s the intention that was rendered by the designer). And although, you as a user, don’t have to use it that way (you of course can use it to let’s say cut down a tree: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9viM_2Zves) the AK-47 performs best when it’s used for killing not when used for cutting down trees. Unlike the hammer it can’t be imagined for much else than killing (because then different designs would turn out much more efficient or ergonomic).
A cat’s claw has a design even if it doesn’t have a designer. We’ve copied the designs from many natural things in products and engineered works, from the Wright brothers studying birds to Velcro being based on the design of seeds. The fancy name for this is biomimicry.
I agree about the difference between designing a weapon and designing a tool (that could be used as a weapon). But my point was about how a weapon can be well designed or poorly designed. There’s design thinking involved no matter what the ethics or morality of the designer are.
“A cat’s claw has a design even if it doesn’t have a designer.”
It might have a form but it has no design. How could something be designed if there was no designer? That’s actually the mistake Louis Sullivan did with his infamous “form follows function” mantra. He confused nature with culture.
I’ll use whatever what word you prefer as I don’t see the point of arguing semantics. How would you describe the effectiveness of your heart or lungs in keeping you alive? I’d call that a design of a kind regardless of the source, or lack of source, of the ideas involved.
To the degree claims not to care about semantics are taken seriously, they are self-refuting.
The claimant is literally arguing against ascribing any specific meaning to any claims.
We could simply call it their nature (as in ‘the way they happen to be because of natural selection’ not as in ‘the way they are _made_’, since claws aren’t willingly made).
The point of arguing semantics in this very case is, to clearly distinguish between an unintended (although not accidental) way of simply being (i.e. nature) and an intended way of how things are made by subjects (i.e. design).
You of course could use such a wide design concept that includes the unintended way of being (e.g. effectiveness of heart or lungs in keeping one alive). But this design-concept wouldn’t feature an ethical dimension at all (may it be ethical or unethical), since things that just develop the way they do can’t be bad or good in an ethical sense. Whether a design is ethical or unethical wouldn’t be up discussion at all, for ethics apply to culture only.
I guess God and evolution form a great design team.
Sullivan wasn’t talking about nature, but about his vocation of architecture. I learned about him from a footnote or link in one or more essays from computer nerd essayist Paul Graham. (And yes, from Paul’s site I found Scott)
Incidentally, there is a nice quote on the Internet (from an essay) about the concept. Graham begins by saying the Bxx school of thought was that form “should” follow function… and ends with observing animals in the wild as being different from domestic ones.