Thursday, February 13, 2020

Design can destroy the world—but it can also make it better. My opening remarks for the 2020 Data Intersections conference

Data Intersections, the University of Miami's conference about the ethics of data, design, and technology is this same afternoon. Some of you have asked me in private whether we'll record it, and the answer is yes. We'll make all talks available in few days, as soon as the videos are edited.

In case you're interested, here's the draft of the remarks I'll offer at the beginning of the conference (spoiler alert: there'll be a book about some of this in 2021):

Hello, welcome to the Data Intersections conference. First I’d like to thank you for being here this afternoon.  
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Alberto Cairo, the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the School of Communication of the University of Miami. I’m also director of visualization and information design at our Center for Computational Science, CCS, one of the sponsors of Data Intersections. CCS is about to become UM’s Institute for Data Science and Computingor iDSC,—as you’ll learn in a minute from our Provost, Jeff Duerk. I'll be the director of iDSC's Center for Visualization, Data Communication, and Information Design, so that's exciting news...
But before that, let me briefly explain how the 2020 edition of the Data Intersections conference came to be. It all begun in 2019, when Mike Monteiro, one of our speakers today, sent me an early copy of his book Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix it. 
You'll see, I’m a journalist and also a data visualization and infographics designer, so I was interested in learning about how and why I was destroying the world. 
I liked Mike’s book so much that I ended up writing a blurb for its back cover. I said about Mike’s book, and I quote, that it is “Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World updated for the 21st Century—and with much more swearing.” 
If you are a designer or technologist, you probably know Victor Papanek’s famous book. If you’ve never heard of it, go get a copy. As with Mike’s book, Papanek's Design for the Real World is a passionate discussion of how design and technology can go wrong, and what we can do to get them right instead.
The reason Mike’s book had such an impact on me is that I’ve always been fascinated by numbers, design, and science. That's why I make data visualizations and infographics, and also teach how to design them. At the same time, Ive always been interested in thinking about how we, the creators of those numbers, designs, and technologies, can make good and informed choices not ignorant or even destructive ones. 
This is related to a third interest: moral philosophy, Since I was in High School, I’ve been reading informally, as a proud amateur, into the literature of ethical thinking, so I'm somewhat familiar with the major debates and schools in the philosophy of ethics—virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism, and their multiple variants. 
That literature might help us answer questions that we all face: what is the difference between what we can do and what we ought to do? How can we train our moral intuitions, and our sixth sense of what is right or wrong? How can we weigh the possible consequences of our actions and creations? What is it appropriate—or not appropriate—to do with the data and technologies we design? 
Ultimately, I’d argue that the key question we should try to answer is: how can we use data, design, science, and technology to help human beings have better, happier, and wiser lives, and to make our societies flourish—instead of destroying them? 
This is what Data Intersections is about. Our four speakers today, Otávio Bueno, Heather Krause, Yeshi Milner, and Mike Monteiro, will surely inspire us to be more ethical data scientists, designers, journalists, and technologists. Or, in general, better human beings. 
Once again, thanks so much for being here this afternoon. I hope you’ll enjoy our great speakers and the reception at the end of the day. Now, I’d like to introduce the Provost of the University of Miami, Jeff Duerk. Jeff, thanks for being here. The stage is yours.