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Jorge Arango's

No. 11
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Ethics in Design

“If we can only discuss ethics when it’s revenue-neutral, we don’t have ethics.”

This bold statement is from a slide in Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s presentation at UX Week 2018. UX Week is the world’s premier UX conference, and most of the presentations I saw at this year’s event had strong ethical centers. (Mine included.)

After a long slumber, ethics has come back to the fore as a central concern for designers. This is due in no small part to the realization that as software eats the world, the way software is designed has a big impact on how well (or not) our societies function.

Design reifies the immaterial; it makes power structures concrete. When talking about physical environments, we can literally see these structures around us. In information environments, we have the added challenge that they appear to remain immaterial — because bits, not atoms — but they're reified nonetheless.

That’s OK as long as we understand what we’re doing and what consequences we can expect. But the fact that we’ve moved important parts of our civic discourse to venues that are monetized by selling our attention suggests that we don’t. It’s time we change that.

A better way to “read”

Audiobooks are an entertaining and productive way to make the most of a long commute. Thanks to our powerful internet-connected pocket computers, we’re living in a golden age of what used to be called “books on tape.” These are the two apps where I do most of my audio “reading”:


The market leader in the space is Audible, an Amazon company. The selection of books is outstanding, and the monthly plans a good deal.


Audiobooks can be expensive. But depending on where you live, you may have access to free ones on your phone. Overture’s Libby app allows you to borrow audiobooks (and ebooks) from your local public library.

Recommended Audiobooks

Here are five audiobooks I’ve greatly enjoyed. Most I’ve listened through Audible, but one or more may be available through your library. Check there before buying!

  • The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s extraordinary biography of Robert Moses. (This a must-read for all designers who aspire to a “seat at the table.”)
  • The Odyssey, brought to life through Sir Ian McKellen’s theatrical narration.
  • Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons (who played Humbert Humbert in the 1997 movie.)
  • A Triumph of Genius, the story of Edwin Land told through the lens of the Polaroid v. Kodak patent trial. (Sounds boring. Trust me, it’s gripping — especially if you work in product development.)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, which you wouldn’t expect to work well in this format, is astonishing. It features 166 narrators!

The (cognitive) science behind organization

The Organized Mind

By Daniel J. Levitin

Speaking of audiobooks, recently I “read” one that’s particularly apropos to information architects: Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. It gives a good understanding of the science behind how we make distinctions between things in the world.

Other stuff I’ve been thinking about…


About Living in Information

Living in Information book coverThe book's description and table of contents are on its web page. If you want a succinct overview, my presentation at Interaction 18 is a good introduction. You can buy the book from... 

... and other fine purveyors of the printed word.

Join me at Big Design 2018

Big Design is one of my favorite regional UX conferences in the U.S. This year's gathering has a new venue and an outstanding roster of speakers. (I'll be talking about Living in Information, of course.) Join me at Big Design in Dallas from September 20-22.

“Structure is strategy — perhaps the most important strategic choice you will make.”

— Robert Greene

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Copyright © 2018 Boot Studio LLC, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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