To get started, can you give us an introduction to your work on creativity and ethics and how it connects to the creative industries?
In 2016, I was invited to give a talk with Creative Mornings. Each month, their talks will cover a specific theme, and one of the themes that was presented to me was ‘ethics’. I thought it sounded like a really interesting area to explore. As I was preparing for the talk and letting people know that I would be talking at Creative Mornings, they would say, “wow, that’s very exciting”. But then they would ask me, “what is your topic?” All of a sudden, I was hearing, “sorry, I can’t make that”, and I hadn’t even told them what day it was yet! What I started to realise was that the topic of ethics was ‘icky’ – that it was maybe going to be boring or going to make you think about things that you’d rather you weren’t thinking of. People were sort of just avoiding the topic! The talk itself was good. People were receptive to what I had to say and we had good conversation afterwards. But still, when I tried to get the talk accepted in other places the topic didn’t get a lot of traction. That was in 2016. Then 2018 rolled around, and suddenly we’re seeing all these talks and news articles about ethics in my field of User Experience and in technology. I started digging into why this was suddenly more interesting and I found lots of familiar headlines reading “Such-and-such is Selling Your Data.” I realised that the reason we were suddenly talking about ethics was because it was suddenly impacting us [the technology companies]. The field of tech was having their data sold and seeing their information not being handled well. Now that it was happening to us, we wanted to talk about ethics. It was really interesting that it took impact happening amongst ourselves in order for people to want to start talking about it. I wish that years and years ago, it had been a topic that people were happy to talk about, but I’m happy to see that it’s gaining ground now.
You studied ethics as part of your Master’s Degree. Do you think this has given you a different instinctive approach to your work compared to those with different professional or academic backgrounds?
I think anyone who has an academic background in the social sciences will have received training in ethics. It’s not just a course in most social science programs – it’s usually a component of every course that you take. So, I’m definitely not the only one who’s been applying ethics in this way. It’s just that now, people with academic backgrounds are working in the [creative and technology] industries more frequently and they’re bringing that reflexive pole towards thinking about ethics into the business world and into the tech world in particular. What we really bring is the idea that ethics is not a checkbox that you tick at the start or at the end. It’s something that you need to be considering throughout an entire project; when you’re thinking of how you’re going to enter the market and what impact it’s going to have. You need to be thinking about it as you’re launching the product and as you’re reaching out. For me in particular, doing user research, I need to consider ethics really early on in the exploratory phase – not even thinking about the product but thinking about the people who might someday interact with this thing that doesn’t exist yet. How I reach out, how I recruit, how I handle their data and how I consider what impact my own interactions might have on their lives – these are all things that come from the training that a lot of people in business and technology haven’t had because they entered the field through non-social science routes.
How do you synopsise the apparent dilemma between creativity and ethics?
There was a set of studies compiled by the Harvard Business Review showing that individuals in that study who self-identified as ‘creative’ were more likely to cheat in the test-exam that they were given. Digging into that, the study looked at how in organisations, the creative role is often seen as a single person who is a rock-star and that this rock-star should be allowed to express themselves and follow their creative vision because they’ll somehow use their awesome creative power to accelerate the team and the company. What the study showed was that the creative people who [cheated] more were also prompted to feel a more entitled condition. They had a control group who were not prompted to have that entitled condition. So, what we see here is that the rock-star mentality is the problem. It’s not that people who are creative are going to be more ethical or more likely to steal. It’s that when they are elevated into this rock-star, no-holes-barred role, they start to feel that of course they can break ethical boundaries or not even consider ethical boundaries – “because I’m special.” And so, part of what leaders need to do is break down the idea that creatives are rock-stars. This is actually something that the Creative Mornings group do very well because their approach is that ‘everybody is creative’. That’s a great way of saying ‘yes, we picked you for this role because of your skillset and because of the value that has, but no, you’re not this company’s only creative person.’ That keeps that sense of entitlement down.
With the freedoms offered by new technology, what ethical challenges are facing organizations and brands?
Our ability to accumulate vast amounts of data and the responsibility to be good stewards of that data is not something that people have always thought about. Our ability to connect data from different places enables us to know more about individuals than they perhaps would want. his is something that was not previously possible. We’re also at a point where people are kind of blind to things like ‘terms and conditions’ and checkboxes. People are often giving away information that they don’t realise they’re giving away and there’s no one to help them figure out a good way to handle their own data. Large companies and companies of all sizes are getting this data without having any scrutiny placed on them. This is starting to change but it’s something that audiences aren’t even aware is happening sometimes. Good companies are making things more transparent. But it’s just an awesome amount of power and responsibility that not everyone has started to take very seriously.
How would you challenge a creative who says that ethics cannot help them to produce great creative work?
A lot of times, people can work themselves into a creative corner where they think, ‘I can’t do this thing and be ethical [at the same time]’. They think that ethics are slowing them down. I would reframe that as a ‘lazy creative’. Aren’t you supposed to be problem-solving? How is a small matter of ethics holding you back and why can’t you use that awesome power of creativity to think of a better, more transparent way of doing things?.