Ethics and consumer electronics

Harold Thimbleby, Penny Duquenoy and Gary Marsden


The new British Highway Code, the guide to safe and legal driving in Britain, has recently been updated and now interprets the Road Traffic Act (1988, sections 2 & 3) more strictly: “There is a danger of driver distraction being caused by in-vehicle systems such as route guidance and navigation systems, congestion warning systems, PCs, multi-media, etc. Do not operate, adjust or view any such system if it will distract your attention while you are driving; you MUST exercise proper control of your vehicle at all times.” And, “Safe driving needs concentration. Avoid distractions when driving such as […] tuning a radio.”

These codes arise from an increasing recognition that in-car systems are potentially dangerous because of their complexity. At the same time, manufacturers are increasing the complexity of in-car systems. Clarion, a leading manufacturer, has announced a “car PC,” a radio-sized PC, which provides Windows access to the Internet for email and other services as well as to navigation, and normal radio and hi-fi functions; see for details. In 1998 the best-selling car radio in London had a user manual of over 500 pages.

We argue that this raises a range of pressing ethical issues. Further, the issues that are represented in a clear-cut way within this domain are indicative of more subtle trends in other domains. Our lives are becoming increasingly dominated by gadgets, and thinking clearly about the issues raised is easier in a clear-cut domain such as transport, which has a regulatory framework that makes distinctions between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behaviour manifest.

Specifically, there are three aspects we explore as they relate to the ethical conception of justice.

  1. In-car entertainment is promoted by marketing, and responds to actual and perceived consumer demand. For example, car manufacturers perceive that they can sell their cars more easily if they contain sophisticated in-car systems. Whether these systems promote a higher quality experience of driving – over a wide range of possible dimensions, such as safety, alertness, relaxation, navigational knowledge – or not is a question of fittingness.
  2. Given that the in-car devices have an appearance and functionality determined by the market, a second question is whether the devices are appropriately engineered. For example if using an in-car device requires understanding a long manual, then this seems implausible.
  3. The designer and user of a device do not have an equal relation mediated by the device. The designer is in control of the device and understands it deeply, but for the user, the device is fixed and largely unkown. Thus there is a lack of reciprocity between designer and user.

This paper shows that these points relate closely to justice. Point (1) relates directly to Geoffrey Cupit’s notion of justice as fittingness. Point (2) relates to John Rawls’ notion of justice following from a “veil of ignorance.” Moreover, the design community has closely corresponding concepts: (1) “task fit” and (2) “know the user” – but these have not been understood as aspects of justice. While point (3) relates to justice via the implicit social contract.

In short, there is a precise correspondence between the issues and clearly articulated notions of justice. Perhaps this is no more than interesting, but we can go further, in two ways. First, we can put ethical approaches into correspondence with various competing design paradigms (utilitarian=e.g., the ISO definition of usability; deontological=guidelines; virtue=formal methods; and so on) and thus see that there is unlikely to be a resolution of the various approaches within the design community. Secondly, Rawls’ conception of justice is operational; that is, it can be recruited as a method for designing more ethically. Thus, a Rawlsian approach can be used to change the world, rather than merely describe what is wrong with it. Since in-car devices represent a high-margin and leading-edge technology, finding ways to make these devices “better” – itself an ethical judgement – is paramount; it is pleasing, then, that there could be spin-offs into many other areas of our lives with high technology.


Cupit, G., 1996, Justice as Fittingness, Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J., 1972, A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press. (Originally published 1971, Harvard University Press.)