Marching Beyond Mike Monteiro’s Code of Ethics

Note: The following is a raw dump of thoughts in response to Mike’s talk at CanUX 2018. Please suspend judgement and tolerate messiness in logic.

If you attended Mike Monteiro’s CanUX 2018 talk, How to Build an Atomic Bomb, or are familiar with Mike’s thoughts and perspectives, then you’re good to read on.

The Road to Taking Action

Mike’s emotionally super-charged shout to ethical awareness, his powerful argument using Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, and his call to action through his famous Code of Ethics for designers, are, and should be, the very reason we strive to be a practitioner in a profession we call design.

Can we all take action accordingly?

I don’t think everyone can give a solid yes, until we have in mind an action plan, both personally and collectively. And without such a plan that can prompt us to act immediately and start making real life decisions accordingly, Mike’s powerful ideal risks being diluted into sentiment.

“I agree but…” —that’s the words of sentiment, and that’s okay.

Unique, individual context prompts a lot of questions around taking action for real. During conversations on ethics, what often comes up is something this: I totally agree with you, but an ideal doesn’t inform me how to act, because an ideal is not designed to address my own circumstances, so my question still remains: what should I do? How can I do it?

The Need for Movement

That sentiment makes perfect sense, but if there’s ever going to be an actionable prescription, we must create a movement.

Acting individually is not enough. We need a movement to give individual actions a bigger context — a context that enables more people to take action. And we have to identify our roles in that movement: activist, advocate, protester, lobbyist, observer, enthusiast, saint, angel, and the spider from Mars. And each role plays to a different strength in the movement. Not all of us need to be an activist, but when we collaborate and orchestrate, we might enable activism for the common good.

Mike points to us a clear way to act inside-out, because his Code of Ethics is tied to personal development and virtue, something that can be acted upon individually. However, he didn’t prescribe an outside-in approach that informs us how to act  collectively and purposefully on a societal level.

That outside-in approach complements, on the societal level, the individually actionable, inside-out approach on the personal level, by inducing social pressure on reluctant or uninitiated individuals and orgs.

That approach is a movement. It’s a movement of designing ethically, of being a responsible designer, of exploring new balances between monetary tactics and social good strategy.

The Ethical Designer’s Leap

I call that movement The Ethical Designer’s Leap. Unlike a leap of faith, The Ethical Designer’s Leap is a leap of understanding. And that understanding is the basis for making real life decisions based on the unique context of each individual.

Sustaining ethics in real life decisions, like losing weight or taking Internet sabbath, is much easier said than done (at least to far more people than we’d like to admit). We need to accept the practical complexities in light of the ethical purity. Not everyone is always in a perfect position to act perfectly. In fact, no one can.

However, being ethical is not about taking on this single, ideal, perfect role model that’s implied by Mike’s Code of Ethics. There are many roles we can play in a movement to sustain ethics in making real life decisions. And as we grow stronger and circumstances change, we transition from one role to another. The role one identifies with oneself informs what one should and can do immediately.

In other words, we need a thinking framework to identify our roles in this movement. (Note: there’ll be another post about that framework.)

An Action Plan on Two Levels

The action plan is on two levels: personal responsibility (inside-out), and social responsibility (outside-in).

The action plan for the first is acting out virtue and, therefore, personal/intellectual growth. It’s about inducing inner pressure and having individual influence. We need to act individually by Mike’s code of ethics. In fact, many things in his code of ethics are exactly about personal development and intellectual growth.

The action plan for the second is a movement. It’s about adding social pressure and having social impact. And because we need to work together in that movement, we have different roles to play. Each of us needs to identify a role to play.

The two levels are two sides of the same coin. The personal plan relies on self improvement, virtue, and grit. The social plan, in the form of a movement, relies on groups of people collaborating, coordinating, orchestrating, advocating, and protesting.

(Note: And we need a diagram for it)

Why Must We Have a Movement?

When we take Mike’s Code of Ethics by heart, we’re taking it as virtue on the individual/personal level (the inside-out pressure).

However, every individual acting out his/her own personal virtue doesn’t necessarily guarantee that on a societal level, we can act accordingly and purposefully toward a common good.

Without that purposeful collective behaviour, it could be difficult to add outside-in pressure towards an entity like an organization. We individuals need to be orchestrated to form a purposeful collective to create that outside-in pressure on both reluctant individuals and inactive orgs. And in order to do that, we need a movement.

Individual awareness is not enough. Individual action is not enough. Collective awareness and purposeful collective action are the essential components of social change along with the individual.

Taking Mike’s criticism of Twitter and of Jack as an example. We may not be able to personally convince Jack to change his values and rationale, because it’s part of his own personal development. Some, like Mike, may hope he changes his mind, but hope is not enough. We shouldn’t just hope for that inside-out personal growth.

An outside-in, social pressure, when cumulated strong enough and sustained long enough, might force Jack as an individual and Twitter as an org, to take action. In fact, that’s exactly what many of us have been doing. But without an organized movement, I’m afraid it’s often not enough.

Gardening in Shitland

Final thoughts on Mike’s quitting Twitter. Even the biggest celebrities couldn’t make a dent on Twitter by quitting it, what does that say about Mike’s quitting Twitter?

When a place is full of shit, what do we do? Some merely leave and preach elsewhere. Others plant flower seeds, trees, and, oh my, vegetables (most of them die eventually, but that’s okay). And the latter, my friend, might just make all the difference.

We shouldn’t stop trying just because somebody didn’t do it.

And by the way, if you’re really interested in John Rawls, ignore Mike’s suggestion, and read a readable book instead.


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