Elisa Ngan


Whole: Justice is a Living Thing

Advised by Michael D. Smith (SEAS) and Andrew Witt (GSD)

How to live a good life in a bad life? This is the question of morals that Judith Butler asked in 2012, borrowed from the question of ethics asked by Theodor Adorno in 1951. It is also a question that, in 2021, has asserted its solidity as intersecting environmental, social, political, and economic demands are distributed through the echoing chambers of a manipulative and manipulated technical infrastructure. It is a question that every conscientious knowledge worker will eventually confront, both in their mode of production and through their means of consumption; yet, “How to live a good life in a bad life?” is, fundamentally, a provocation that requires motion and an operative that resists resolution.

To flex with this refusal, Whole nurtures the functional program over the objective. It starts with the optimistic assumption that it is how we build technology, not what technology we build, that leads to ethical problems. It avoids empty principles, passive guides, and decontextualized recommendations while aspiring to operationalize the will of distributed product teams who desire to act, be agents, and advocate for good within the larger sociotechnical landscape they participate in constructing.

Working within the temporal constraints endemic to the practice of digital product development, Whole attempts to create dialectical preconditions for ethical decision-making through the materialization of otherwise immaterial forms as well as through the responsive unification of the fragmented lexicon typical of emergent technology. In doing so, Whole reorganizes the contested space of digital product development while enabling new models of regulatory possibilities fit for a data-spliced future.

Three comic panels with the same background image of a young man standing outside in front of a window and looking upwards with the caption “”Is this ethics?”   Top panel shows a butterfly middle panel shows logo and label Parntership on A I. Bottom panel shows color negative of bacground comic an has several logos and labels for facebook, Microsoft, Google, IBM, and  Partnership on A I on  color-reversed block.

Animation showing images of a desktop computer and a hand holding a smart phone, overlaid with a flow chart cycling through different iterations.

A series of multiple images of various flow charts, graphs and data.

Multiple images showing charts and data.

Two flow charts, the top is titled, “Start-Up System $ Process Map,” and the bottom is titled, “Employee Journey & Platform Intervention.” At the top of the page is written, “It is how we design product, not what product we design, that leads to ethical problems.”

Animated diagram with the word “Protocol” in the center, and three spokes radiating outward with images of people and the words, “Data Model,” “Media Articles, “Academic Literature,” and “Regulation.”