Assessing the “Creepy” Factor: Shifting from Regulatory Ethics models to More Proactive Approaches to ‘Doing the Right Thing’ in Technology Research


May 8, 2015


Annette Markham


Aarhus University


What constitutes ethical design of technologies, ethical use of data, and ethical research? How can we pay better attention to the ways in which some aspects of our research or outcomes of our designs might seem ‘creepy’?

In this talk, I begin with the premise that “doing the right thing” is an outcome of rhetorically powerful tangles of human and non-human elements, embedded in deep—often invisible—structures of software, politics, and habits. Every action by individuals—whether designers, programmers, marketers, researchers, policy makers or consumers—reinforces, resists, and reconfigures existing ethical boundaries for what is acceptable and just.

Despite the development of nuanced approaches for ethics in digital and technology studies, the general language surrounding ethics has remained ensconced in that of regulations, requirements, and concepts, born from biomedical models that don’t fit well with contemporary research environments and practices. In this talk, I suggest a framework of ethics in digital research that focuses less on ‘ethics’ and more on what might be potentially ‘creepy’ about what we’re doing in our everyday research and design. This is combined with a future oriented ‘what if’ approach. Placing more responsibility on one’s personal choices is not the most comfortable position, but as the world grows more technologically mediated and digitally saturated, it is particularly important to speculate about future possibilities and harms.

I hope to conclude this talk by introducing and getting feedback on sample scenarios that could be used to help Microsoft Researchers include ethical considerations in both conceptual and practical research contexts.


Annette Markham

Annette Markham is Associate Professor of Information Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark and Affiliate Professor of Digital Ethics in the School of Communication at Loyola University in Chicago. She earned her PhD in organizational communication (Purdue University, 1998), with a strong emphasis in interpretive, qualitative, and ethnographic methods. Annette’s early research focused on how identity, relationships, and cultural formations constructed in and influenced by digitally saturated socio-technical contexts. Her pioneering sociological work related to digital identity is well represented in her book Life Online: Researching real experience in virtual space (Altamira 1998). Her more recent research focuses on innovative qualitative methodologies for studying networked sociality and ethics of social research and interaction design. Her work can be found in a range of international journals, handbooks, and edited collections, including the book Internet Inquiry (2009, co-edited with Nancy Baym).