Conference Theme: "Beyond morality: Ethics and action in MobileHCI"

Over the last 20 years, mobile & ubiquitous technology has advanced miraculously, both in terms of the capabilities of interaction-supporting devices in their various shapes and forms, and in the necessary infrastructure (e.g. heterogeneous networks, cloud computing), which are required to support our dreams of a ubiquitous computing environment. Therefore, in the words of Bill Buxton[1], "now that we can do anything, what should we do?", and further, "how should it work"?

Buxton's statement implies that we need a shift towards greater consideration of method in our practice, and we believe the MobileHCI community can, in its overwhelming majority, agree that our methods (how we do things) should, at the very least, be ethical.

Over the years, MobileHCI publications have frequently discussed ethics, mostly related to privacy-maintaining interactions and service provision. However, the term "Ethics" is often incorrectly used to express the notion of morality, while these two terms carry different meanings. Ethics are our deliberate effort to find answers to the questions of identifying good actions and choices[2], while morality is an attribute of those who follow pre-determined (inherited, learned or handed-down) rules that define good actions and choices (e.g. from legislation, cultural and social norms and customs, etc). Normative ethics can be approached from multiple viewpoints[3]. Three examples from different schools of thought, perceive ethical practice as that which:

  • Develops moral virtues in ourselves and in our communities (virtue approach), or
  • Produces the greatest balance of benefits over harm (utilitarian approach), or
  • Is only taken after a person affected by it is fully informed and treated only with their informed consent (deontological approach)

As a community, we have strongly developed codes of conduct in our work, handed down across generations of researchers, but mere adherence to our codes impart morality, and not real ethics to our work. For example, we adopt experiment designs, select population samples or design interventions and justify our choice by making reference to previous work, without much critique (in fact, this is all too common in our rebuttals too): What has been published before makes solid enough ground, which we generally avoid questioning.

But should it really be so? When considering a large in-the-wild experiment, how certain can we that participants with diverse digital literacy levels provide truly informed consent? How do we design a crowdsourcing system for a global audience with varying moral values (e.g. balancing personal benefit such as battery and bandwidth conservation, against community benefit such as the need to have frequent data updates from the crowd)? Why do we only consider some metrics as "benefits", (e.g. speed of mobile text entry), and disregard other benefits (e.g. time to reflect on the composition of a socially appropriate response, which may require slower entry speed?).

Stuart Reeve's critique on HCI as a science[4], places emphasis on the application of rigour in our work, and recommends that HCI might be viewed as an interdiscipline that catalyses research across research domains. While MobileHCI research has traditionally paired well with other scientific disciplines, such as biology, psychology or sociology, our bridges with the premises of ethical philosophy remain rather weak[5].

Greece, and particularly Athens, has been the cradle of Ethics (moral philosophy) since the 6th century BC - we feel the prospect of hosting MobileHCI in Athens is an ideal opportunity to push the reach of real ethics across the entire scientific program, rather than the confines of dedicated panel sections. In line with our proposal to host MobileHCI in Athens, we propose the theme of "Beyond morality: ethics and action in MobileHCI". We invite all authors to especially consider and discuss ethical aspects in their work, as part of their problem definitions, system design, experiment design, instrument and metric adoption and conclusions and generalisations of research findings.

[1] Harper, S. J. (2009). Ethics versus morality: A problematic divide. Philosophy & social criticism, 35(9), 1063-1077.
[2] Buxton, B. (2010). Sketching user experiences: getting the design right and the right design. Morgan kaufmann.
[3] Kagan, S. (2018). Normative ethics. Routledge.
[4] Reeves, S. (2015, August). Human-computer interaction as science. In Proceedings of The Fifth Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives (pp. 73-84).
[5] Brown, B., Weilenmann, A., McMillan, D., & Lampinen, A. (2016, May). Five provocations for ethical HCI research. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 852-863).