Designing for evil

Monday I listened ot a pretty terrific forum, a radio program on my local PBS station. Because their […]

Monday I listened ot a pretty terrific forum, a radio program on my local PBS station. Because their site behaves in a way I can best describe as erratic, here are the relevant links:

The show discusses the lure of “the dark side” with Philip Zimbardo. What makes good people do bad things? Where is the line between good and evil, and where does this line become blurred? Can we curb this seduction to commit immoral deeds?

Philip Zimbardo , professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the author of “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”

Listen (RealMedia stream)

ListenDownload (MP3)(Windows: right-click and choose “Save Target As.” Mac: hold Ctrl, click link, and choose “Save As.”)

I’ve long been fascinated by the Stanford Prison Studies, and the effect they had on research, but more so on the learnings they gathered so very quickly and so very deeply. In this talk, one thing I couldn’t help but fixate upon was the details– his choice of military-style outfits for the guards, including reflective sunglasses, or the hospital-gown style uniforms for the prisoners.

Because I spend most of my time considering which features affect community behavior, I wondered what is the online equivalent? What are those aspects of the fixtures of our design that create or dissuade evil (and how could it have affected the situation that led to Kathy Sierra’s life threats) Is anonymity on the web something we want to discourage? How can we continue on without flagging (which obviously PublicSquare has.) I’ve been told that people feel more kindly to me and respond more gently when my avatar includes my baby. How can photos change our communications? Does a icon carry the same weight as a photo, does a photo carry the same weight as a photo of a face?

Good and evil are not something we as designers think of all that often. In fact, fairly often we hand wave and point to Leni Riefenstahl as our icon of beauty in the face of evil (beauty as the face of evil?). But we are not just recorders of life who can choose to do so with or without style, we are the architects of life, just as much as architects of buildings or urban planners.

I think every design choice in PublicSquare is built with conscious or unconscious implications on user behavior. You are responsible for your actions. Your bio carries every comment, every story you write. Your photo hangs out next to your words, as does your reputation. The reputation on each comment reflects passer-by’s reactions. People don’t approve when you make a snarky comment, or even when spelling errors are publicly mocked. The community decides what’s acceptable and what’s not, if you give them the tools to do so.

I wonder what tools create abuses of power. The theory in Zimbardo’s book is most people have the capacity of evil within them, they just need the right situation to bring it out.

We can’t hand wave if there is even a slim chance he is right.

If we design community spaces, we must design with community mores, be it a small community or the community of man.