CSE 271 Class Notes 11 CSE 271: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
12. Values and Ethics

This section discusses an approach to ethical issues that is based on a general theory of values. There are also some notes on the Afterword of Shneiderman's text.

12.1 A Flame on the Information Scandal

It is said that we live in an "Age of Information," but it is an open scandal that there is no theory, not even a definition, of information that is both broad enough and precise enough to give such an assertion much meaning. An appropriate theory would help us to understand and to design information systems, in a wide sense that includes computer-based systems as well as systems that are based on more traditional media such as paper. However, a major motivating example is Information Systems in the narrow sense of computer-based systems for storing and retrieving information, e.g., database systems. User interface design also provides valuable insights into the kinds of problem that are important.

The need for a good theory of information is pressing. Society is demanding ever larger and more complex information systems. Billions, perhaps trillions, are spent each year on software, but many systems that are built are never used, and at least one third of systems begun are abandoned before completion. Moreover, many systems once thought adequate no longer are, while many others were never adequate. Among many sobering examples are the disastrous baggage handling system at the Denver International Airport, an IBM default on an 8 billion dollar contract to build the next generation U.S. air traffic control system, and a major IBM public relations disaster with its computer feed of real time sports data to journalists at the Atlanta Olympic games. Our knowledge of how to build effective information systems is very far from meeting the needs of society. Errors in requirements, that is, in understanding what kind of system is needed, have been identified as the most important problem, and it is also widely agreed that social factors are the most important source of difficulty in writing good requirements for large and complex systems. Thus it is very dangerous to ignore the social dimension of information!

This implies that an adequate theory of information would have to take account of social context, including how information is produced and used, rather than merely how it is represented; that is, we need a social theory of information, not merely a theory of representation. On the other hand, formal aspects of information are inherent to technical systems: computers are engines for storing, processing and retrieving formal representations. Thus the essence of designing such systems successfully is to reconcile their social and technical aspects. In addition to these practical problems, another important issue is the intellectual coherence of offerings within departments devoted to computer science, information science, etc. The lack of an adequate notion of information may be even more of a scandal here, due to the historic emphasis on adequate theoretical foundations in the academic world. The very widespread ignoring of the social aspects of computation and information is also highly problematic in this context.

But perhaps it is impossible to find an adequate theory of information. Bowker has discussed mythologies that support the notion of information, Haraway has given a daring modern cyborg myth, and Agre has argued that the notion of information is itself a myth, mobilized to support certain institutions, such as libraries. Nevertheless, in the paper Towards a Social, Ethical Theory of Information, I make an attempt to show how a notion of information can be grounded in the dual aspects of the social and the structural, and in addition, argue that information has an inherent ethical dimension. This theory is a social semiotics, and it could be taken as a theoretical foundation for this course, although I have chosen not to emphasize it; however it does seem that the practical considerations developed in this course lend much support to such a theory of information.

Undoubtedly the best known and most popular information theory today is that of Claude Shannon. Perhaps its most basic concept that of the bit, which of course is very fundamental in computer science. The number of bits associated with some information is really just a measure of its size, and is useful for determining the amount of memory needed for storing it, or how long it would take to download it. However, the number of bits in a file tells us nothing about its content. So, although this is a valuable theory in its proper domain, it is of no use for the broader challenges that we must face in this course, such as preserving the most important information when designing an overview of some information source (e.g, on the homepage of a large website).

Shannon's theory of information is a reductionist, scientific theory, with many real engineering applications, and so many attempts have been made to extend it to cover not just the size, but also the content, of information. None of these attempts have been successful, and I would claim that no reductionist theory can possibly succeed, because no such approach can take account of the concepts, methods, and values of the members of social groups, which we know from our study of ethnomethodology, are esential to understanding how real information/social systems actually work.

In fact, semiotics is an information theory of exactly the kind we need, provided it is considered to be grounded in social reality, rather than in Plato's abstract mathematical heaven. Thus, we have been studying information theory all quarter! Social foundations for semiotics are covered in some detail in the paper Towards a Social, Ethical Theory of Information, and are also briefly reviewed in the webpaper The Ethics of Databases, which is actually mainly concerned with the reverse process, of inferring the values of the designers from a structural analysis of an interface. This is a very interesting kind of exercise, with many potential applications; I use the name natural ethics for the broad project of extracting values from artificial objects, regarded as signs. The first key to this project is that the levels and priorities of sign systems, and the preservation properties of semiotic morphisms, reflect the importance that a designer has assigned to sign parts, and these should of course correspond to the values of the intended community of users.

12.2 Notes on the "Afterword" of Shneiderman

Shneiderman's text Designing the User Interface (4th edition with CAterine Plaisant, Addison-Wesley 2005) has an "Afterword" entitled "Society and Individual Impact of User Interfaces," which discusses a number of significant social and ethical issues associated with user interface design. Two major themes are (1) universal usablility, making computers more available to disadvantaged users (such as blind users, people living in poverty, elderly users), and (2) arguing against "animism" which is trying to design machines to be like humans. The latter is really a,n extension of the "agent squabble" that we discussed earlier.

It is very unusual to find something like this in a computer science textbook. Can you imagine it in a book on operating systems, or compilers? Most of this section is interesting, and some of it is inspiring. However, I would like to add two caveats. Shneiderman does not sufficiently recognize the ways in which social and technical issues are intertwined, as immediately suggested by the word "impact" in the title of this section. This is a common error, that can be corrected by the material on actor-network theory earlier in this section of the class notes.

As far as hopes and visions go, why not hope for world peace, universal human rights, adequate food, shelter and clothing for all on the planet, for happiness and a balanced state of mind for all? Of course, such hopes serve to emphasize the fact that these are primarily social issues, in which user interface design in the narrow sense can have little impact. But if we take user interface design in the broader sense suggested by semiotics, in which almost anything can be seen as an interface, this objection disappears, although we may be left feeling daunted by the magnitude of the tasks that are implied, both theoretical (how can we develop semiotics further in ways that will make it more useful for such goals?) and practical (how can we make some real progress towards such goals?). At present we can only make some small steps in these directions, but I agree with Shneiderman that we should keep in mind large scale goals and visions as we stumble forward. One thing we can do is try to help local civic organizations with web design through class projects; this benefits education as well as the organizations and the users that they serve.

Certainly user interface designers can expect to come face to face with many important moral issues in their work; indeed, I would go so far as to claim that designing "good" interfaces is already a moral issue. One need only think of UID for medical systems, nuclear reactors, and defense systems to see that there are important applications with significant moral dimensions. But even more prosaic applications raise similar issues; e.g., consider the design of web search engines. A semiotic study of some ethical aspects of search engines can be found in The Ethics of Databases, and the course CSE 175: Social and Ethical Aspects of Information Technology, goes into ethical aspects of information technology in some detail.

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