On Design, Technology, and Justice


Limitations and Interruptions

According to the plan I made a few weeks ago, I’m supposed to be writing you today about about how folks in Portland have 24 hours left to get early pricing for UX Night School’s Fall Seminar on Technology, Design, and Ethics.

But instead I’m dragging my feet. I’m trying to keep it together.

My mind keeps turning back to the hearings last week and I keep getting devastated thinking about it. My heart hurts, my whole body hurts. I don’t really want to do anything or say anything or bother anyone - I’m tired, listless, and worried. 

Of course, I’ve felt this way quite a bit over the past few years, and it’s part of why I keep moving forward with UX Night School. I learned a long time ago that the way to deal with grief and horror is to find hope, and you all make me hopeful.

There is so much potential, so much real impact, and so much to gain when we learn together, and that’s why I’ve embarked on this (at-times-wacky) journey of running a new kind of school. Because I believe that we are all capable of doing better, capable of hearing new perspectives, of learning from each other. It’s why I’m teaching this new course. Because I need help finding the way right now, and I want to hold space for it.  

What is Justice Anyway?

One of the primary questions that any ethical inquiry has to address is “What is just?”. And indeed, the past few weeks (and past few years), I’ve had more questions than answers in this regard. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings have made this literal: is this someone who can serve justice? Is this someone whose ideas of justice are in line with American democracy?

I am a geek and will freely admit it. Thus, when I am lost, I look for the documentation. And sometimes I find a way of thinking about the problems we face with a new sense of hope. 

And it is very fortunate that human beings have been somewhat successful in recording what (certain) people have said about humanity over the past three thousand years or so. The internet,  bookstores, and public libraries make several millennia of human knowledge more readily accessible than ever before. 

(There is the lingering question of who exactly gets to talk about about these important, serious things: ethics and justice. There is the troubling question of who will be listened to, believed, or saved for history.

Like Chris Kraus asks, “Who gets to speak and why?

And then there is the very current question about who gets to speak freely. )

We have to chart a new course for justice, I’ll argue, just by thinking and talking and writing about justice. And we need to do this in a way that serves us all, not just some. 

What is justice? What do we even mean when we say that word? I’ve been wondering this every day. 

I’ve been re-reading Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and listening to the Hamilton Soundtrack with my daughter. 

I revisit Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and find hope in his definition of justice. Justice, as he writes in Book V, is twofold. The first is to act justly, and serve justice to others. The second is to achieve what he calls “a fair mean”, a just outcome. 

I need to be able to see just outcomes. I need to be able to know what it means to act justly. And not just as a judge: as a software developer, as a designer, as a manager, as a citizen.

Poets as Judges

This morning, after school drop off and my team’s morning standup,  I sat down with a cup of coffee and re-read Martha Nussbaum’s 1995 essay from the University of Chicago Law Review, “Poets as Judges”, written at the crest 1990’s legal reckonings with sexual harassment. 

To begin, Nussbaum evokes Aristotle’s definitions of justice, and reflects on the both the acts and fair means, by analysing the opinions of recent cases in civil rights and sexual harassment. 

The work of justice, and thus the work of a judge, she argues, is work of what Aristotle calls poetics, reading, writing, and imagining better outcomes.  It’s like Octavia Butler has said, that “All organising is science fiction”. In order to achieve a better future, we have to write it first. 

As Nussbaum argues, the work of justice relies part on “empathetic identification” in the face of tragedy and injustice, in order to “begin to think of ways in which that position might have been other than it is, might be made (for us, should we be in a similar position) better than it is. “

While being a poet isn’t necessary to do this work, it carries a similar skill profile. Moreover, like any “creative” job, justice requires “selling” the story to your audience.

(T)he ability to imagine vividly and then to assess judicially another person's pain, to participate in it and then to ask about its significance, is a powerful way to learn what the human facts are and to acquire a motivation to alter them… if one cannot imagine how women suffer from sexual harassment on the job, one cannot have a vivid sense of such harassment as a serious social offense that the law should remedy. In neither case does the judicious spectator stop with the experience of the other person's pain. She must then ask, from the spectatorial viewpoint, whether that pain is appropriate to its target, whether it is such pain, or anger, or fear, as a reasonable person would feel in those circumstances. But the sense of what was really experienced is a crucial step, without which any spectatorial assessment will likely be off the mark.

To serve justice is to deliver an outcome that takes into account all “human facts” and delivers a believable conclusion. 


Maybe it does just feel so maddeningly disorienting. I’m confused why I feel as powerless today as I did as a little girl watching the Anita Hill testimony in 1991. Historicizing this helps, I think, until I remember that Joe Biden manipulated the hell out of Anita Hill and then sold her out. 

I think this is what is so satisfying about Nussbaum’s approach to Aristotelian ethics, and something that continues to give me hope in a pragmatic way. That humanity outlives injustice, but that it also outperforms it!

Writing on Judge Richard Posner’s opinion on Carr v Allison Gas Turbine Division, General Motors Corp, (one of the defining sexual harassment lawsuits of its time), we see the relationships between rhetoric, poetics, and justice:

Posner thus concluded with a direct appeal to the imaginings and responses of a reasonable person-or a judicious spectator. He shows in his prose the well-founded indignation and contempt that such a spectator feels at the behavior of GM. In literary terms, the paragraph seems to refer to traditional devices and emotions of the genre of satire, whether in its ancient Roman form (Juvenal) or in more recent exemplars such as the works of Swift. He denounces the pretense that GM was helpless and expresses his view of both GM and the tinsmiths in the metaphorical "even when those problems were rubbed in its face"-comparing GM to an incontinent dog. The rhetorically effective sentence beginning "Its efforts" expresses indignation in a tricolon of ascending condemnation; the next sentence uses phrase "been able to integrate" to bring home the parallel between the task faced (and accomplished) by the Navy and the task refused by GM. 

Posner carefully positions himself as a spectator, detached and neutral in the appropriate ways. But imagination and appropriate emotion are crucial in the reasoning of his opinion. His indignation is not capricious: it is solidly grounded in the facts, and he can make his reader feel it in his narration of those facts. Indeed, his opinion does what good satire of the Juvenalian or Swiftean kind does: it inspires indignation through the mordant and factually convincing portrayal of human venality and cruelty. Here, as in the Stevens opinion, the literary approach is closely connected with sympathetic attention to the special plight of people who are socially unequal. Posner repeatedly draws attention to this aspect of his thinking, and to its relevance in answering the legal questions about intimidation and hostility. As Posner writes: "The asymmetry of positions must be considered."

Let us all practice judicious spectatorship, and let’s all start this work of imagining, and building, a just future. Not only are we all capable, we’re better for it.