How Technology Encodes Values

As previously mentioned, email makes me insane. It’s gives so many people a double workday, and it makes it waaayyyy too easy to push your work onto other people, and it’s distracting from the loveliness of the present.

As my students and friends can attest, I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about email, how much I loathe it, and how much I want to change the whole paradigm. But of course, that begs the question of — change it to *what*, exactly? I want email to somehow devalue the workaholism that seems so endemic. Easy to say. How to execute?

For many years I’ve been writing and teaching about how values get encoded into technology design. Most of it is invisible to the majority of users. But some of it is really obvious once you start paying attention. Case in point: dissertation finding of Emma Rose, a PhD student just finishing up in my department. Emma studied transportation in low resource settings — both Kyrgyzstan and Seattle. And one of the really poignant findings had to do with how the new Seattle transit card system obscures information that is really essential to people with limited financial resources. In the old system, you pay a fare and you get a transfer slip. By looking at the transfer paper, you see how much time you have left to use it. But with the new ORCA card system (problematic for so many other reasons), you swipe your card, and it registers when you paid. But assuming you don’t have an eye directly on a clock when you board the bus, you’re never quite sure how much time you have left. If you’re near the outside of your transfer time, there’s no way to check which side of the validity line you’re on. Basically, you board the bus and swipe your card. If you’re inside the allotted transit time, nothing is deducted from your card. If not, the full fare comes off your card. And for some people, that might have been their way to work tomorrow. And that’s it for their cash this week.

It’s a design that obscures information to users, and in that obscurity it makes assumptions. Namely, that people using the system would never be so close to the financial bone that the minute of their transfer expiration would make them change their behavior — either to cut errands short, or walk a long way, or otherwise make different choices in order to save two dollars.

It’s a really great example of how design choices make assumptions about users and prioritize some things over others.

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