pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Sep 20 03:19:22 EDT 2000
Mail*Link® SMTP Value-Sensitive Design
Dear Colleagues -
Gary Chapman's Monday column in the L.A. Times about an interesting
NSF-sponsored workshop. For us in education, value-sensitive design
<http://www.ischool.washington.edu/vsd/> should start with a careful
look at the contributions of technology to education. Some work well,
others are doggedly pursued distractions from what teaching should
really accomplish. All are ardently championed by the technology
Note the passing mention of two contrasting approaches to "expert
systems." It says much about different attitudes toward people and
machines in our "knowledge-based" society.
All best, --PJK
Seeing the Value in the Social Impact of Design
By Gary Chapman
Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved
We're all familiar by now with the amazing capabilities of
information technologies and automated systems. But few people stop
to think about how these same systems impart and embed values into
That was the subject of an intriguing workshop on "value-sensitive
design" held last week at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Hosted by professors Batya Friedman and Alan Borning and sponsored
by the National Science Foundation, the workshop brought together
computer scientists, philosophers, social scientists, software
designers and humanists from academia and business. The
participants discussed how to integrate value choices into the
design of technical systems, which can be intertwined with
everything from issues of privacy to corporate power structures.
Some large companies now employ anthropologists, social scientists,
psychologists and even artists to help them think through the
implications of design choices. A few companies, including
Microsoft, have recently included "chief privacy officer" in their
At the Seattle conference, Jonathan Grudin of Microsoft Research
described his investigation of how companies use enterprise-wide
calendaring systems, for example.
Microsoft uses a calendaring system that lets employees see the
daily calendars of other staff members, but the software reports
only whether someone is available or not; it doesn't display
details of the person's daily activities.
Sun Microsystems, on the other hand, uses its own proprietary
calendaring software that lets employees see all the details of
another employee's schedule, such as where someone is, who they're
meeting with and the subject of the meeting. Grudin said the
employees of each company tend to be strongly attached to the way
their company displays and uses work calendars.
At Microsoft, the calendaring system was crafted chiefly by
programmers and researchers, who were averse to revealing the
details of their schedules, Grudin said. At Sun Microsystems, the
deliberate inclusion of clerical and administrative staff in the
design process led to the display of such details because these
employees believed that they could be more efficient if they knew
what other people were doing and where they were.
Who had power over the design made the difference, and consequently
the value choices came out quite differently.
There are many other examples of this phenomenon in the computing
field. In the United States, we have an entire class of software
applications known as "expert systems." These are typically
sophisticated databases of specialized knowledge with a user
interface that imitates the way one asks questions of an expert.
In Scandinavia, however, programmers and designers have developed
what they call "systems for experts." These are information systems
designed to augment and support the judgment of an expert, not
replace it. A simple twist of terminology reveals a stark contrast
in values: Is expertise something to be replaced by machines, or
something to be valued and enhanced?
There are also portentous controversies over design and values. In
the legal case over the music-sharing program Napster, for example,
federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel said Napster was designed to
violate copyrights; its illegality is inherent in its technical
design, she suggested. But a consortium of large companies and
industry associations, including Napster's critics, objected to
this sweeping characterization, because Napster's peer-to-peer
file-sharing design may be useful for legal activities.
We're also struggling over the politics of designing privacy into
Web sites and other online services. Should Web pages that gather
information from users offer an "opt-in" or "opt-out" choice --
that is, ask users whether they want to be included in a database
that might be sold to third parties? And if so, should the
automatic default (the choice when the user does nothing) be
opt-in or opt-out? The default indicates a certain value choice,
and that choice is likely to determine the economic value of the
At the Seattle workshop, the participants discussed whether there
are ways to formalize these evaluations of value choices in the
design of technical systems. There are a variety of techniques
that need more work, such as the "participatory design" approach,
in which a system's users are involved in its design process.
The biggest obstacle to a complete consideration of value choices
in technical design is speed to market. Most companies just don't
have time, or take the time, to ponder the social impact of their
designs. There is also an unspoken but strong tradition in
engineering that attention to values is "soft and fuzzy," not a
subject fit for engineers.
"Why is value-sensitive design important now?" the Seattle workshop
audience was asked. Because we're setting technical standards that
could last a generation, said one participant. Another answered
that, unlike the past, today a single programmer or a small group
of developers can influence the behavior of millions of people.
It's therefore imperative that we press for accountability and
And yet another speaker said that, given the importance and
omnipresence of technology today, technical design decisions are
increasingly substituted for what were once issues of public debate
That's why we have an emerging and increasingly urgent "politics of
design," politics with no candidates, campaigns or slogans, but
politics with serious consequences.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at
gary.chapman at mail.utexas.edu.
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