Morality, Privacy, and Interface Design
Interface designs for human/human communications involve elements of surveillance and control of users. Security and protections for intellectual property are frequently given as the reasons for these design features. While institutional surveillance and controls seem appropriate for regulating the moral behavior of individuals in what cognitive moral theorist Lawrence Kohlberg calls the pre-conventional stage of moral reasoning, they are theoretically inappropriate for individuals operating at the higher conventional and principled stages. Learning and exercising higher forms of moral reasoning require the social conditions of what the theorist Jürgen Habermas calls communicative action, in which groups create communities with negotiated behavioral norms. Privacy is required in both computer supported cooperative work interfaces and in social interfaces in order for groups of individuals to operate in what the social theorist Erving Goffman called "backstage" areas. There, free from the immediate supervision of formal authorities, they can work out mutually agreed upon patterns of acceptible behavior. Without these shared private spaces, the theoretical conditions for communicative action and moral development are restricted by the interface design. Despite our enthusiasm to civilize the unruly world of online communications, social theory strongly suggests that we avoid the temptation to build technologies of surveillance and control as a solution to online behavior. Especially in educational and community environments, private spaces where social interactions among people regulate behavior are essential for moral development.
Keywords: Morality, Moral Development, Interface, Social Theory, Privacy
Prof. Judith Perrolle
Department of Sociology and Anthropology