Values, Design and Information Technology: The front loading of ethics.

Professor Jeroen van den Hoven


I will sketch a conception of ethics that has been referred to as Value Sensitive Design. Value Sensitive Design is a way of doing ethics that aims at making moral values part of technological design, research, development, and production. It works with the assumption that human values, norms, our ethics for short, can be imparted to the things we make and use. This approach greatly matters since information technology has become a constitutive technology, i.e. it partly constitutes the things to which it is applied. It shapes our practices, institutions, discourses in important ways. What health care, public administration, politics, education, science, transport and logistics will look like within twenty years from now will in important ways be determined by the ICT applications we decide to use in these domains. ICT will also shape the way we experience ourselves and others.

If our moral considerations about the user’s autonomy, talk of patient centred-ness and citizen centred-ness, his privacy, her security and safety are to be more than empty promises, these values will have to be expressed in the designs, architectures and specifications, but also in technical standards and norms and protocols, of the systems that play such an important role in these domains.

If our laws, politics and public policy about corporate governance, accountability and transparency are to be more than just cheap talk we have to make sure that they are incorporated in the systems that we cannot do without when it comes to the implementation of the relevant policies.

If we want our information technology – and the use that is made of it – to be just, fair, safe, environmentally friendly, transparent, we must see to it that our technology inherits our good intentions. Moreover we want them to be seen to have those properties, and we want to be able to demonstrate and attest to the fact that they possess these morally desirable features.

We want to be able to compare different architectures from these value perspectives and motivate political choices and investments from this perspective. And finally, and perhaps most importantly we want our technology to be designed in such a way that it will be possible for users to work with them while retaining their status as responsible human beings.

I argue that we find ourselves at an interesting historical junction, which is favourable to the development and practice of Value Sensitive Design. ICT has become more sensitive to moral values, and ethics has become more attentive to design issues.