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Interview: Visiting researcher Taylor Stone on his work in Ethics Lab

This year, Taylor Stone joins us as a visiting researcher at the KIE. He is currently a PhD candidate exploring ethics in architecture and urban design at the Delft University of Technology, and plans to work with the personnel and expertise in the Ethics Lab to develop a localized segment of research on Georgetown’s campus.

Taylor’s research looks at the convergence of different areas in applied ethics: ethics of technology, environmental ethics, and ethics in architecture and urban design. His doctoral research project is investigating the ethics of nighttime lighting and how to responsibly light cities at night, with a focus on emerging concerns about light pollution.

We caught up with him to discuss his work and the impact his time at Georgetown might have on it.

KIE: How are you settling into Georgetown and the KIE?

Stone: Great! The team is friendly and welcoming, and Georgetown is a beautiful campus.

KIE: How did you initially hear about Ethics Lab? And what interested you in coming here for research?

Stone: I actually discovered the Ethics Lab somewhat serendipitously. I came across an interview with KIE’s Director of Communications, Kelly Heuer, on a site about philosophers pursuing non-traditional career paths. The interview introduced me to the Ethics Lab right around the time I was investigating places for a research visit.

I’m a member of the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology, and the graduate program provides support for a research stay abroad. The Ethics Lab provides a unique opportunity to spend time in an innovative environment combining design thinking with applied ethics.

KIE: To start, could you explain a bit how you ended up as a PhD candidate exploring ethics in architecture and urban design? What led you to your interest in that particular subsection of a field largely thought to be centered more on design and construction?

Stone: During my undergraduate studies I majored in architectural design. I took an elective course in environmental philosophy, which had a profound impact on my thinking and career direction. I became more interested in theoretical, and specifically moral, questions about architecture: who or what are we designing buildings and cities for, and why? What are the foundations and rationales for these goals? How can design be used as a force for social and environmental good? These sorts of questions have become the driving concerns in my (young) academic career.

KIE: You also have a great interest in environmental issues, and earned a Master’s in environmental studies earlier in your education. Could you explain a bit how this field intersects with the rest of your work?

Stone: My Master’s research was in many ways a continuation of my undergraduate studies, as I looked at the intersection of environmental thought and architectural theory. And my work experience and research since has incorporated these two interests, to varying degrees. So, there is a semi-coherent thread weaving through my work!

More generally, I see important overlaps between environmental philosophy and the philosophy of technology. While the fundamental tenets and questions of the two fields are different, in their ‘applied ethics’ manifestations they often deal with similar issues and cases. As such, I believe there is a great deal these two fields can learn from one another, and I try to incorporate insights from environmental studies into my PhD work in the ethics of technology.

KIE: Your current research “[examines] the historical significance of lighting technologies in cities coupled with an exploration of how contemporary design interventions, policies, and emerging technologies can be utilized responsibly.” I’m interested in the directionality of work like this–do you find that expanded potential in design and technology has historically driven changes in policy? Or does the fluctuation of “current” policy end up affecting the prospects of those more physical innovations?

Stone: Interesting question! What I mean to say is that my PhD research project on the ‘ethics of urban nighttime lighting’ is both backward looking, examining historical developments of nighttime illumination, and forward-looking, directly engaging with current and emerging issues.

The social and cultural influence of technological development is a complex issue that has been given serious attention in the philosophy of technology. Debates about technological determinism and related concepts are important issues, and ones that I cannot do justice to here. However, I can say that lighting technologies offer a unique case study. The technologies have developed rather slowly over the modern era of public lighting (mid-17th century onwards), with major technological leaps happening roughly once every hundred or so years. Because of this, the social effects of new technologies – and vice versa – can be examined in great detail, and historians such as David Nye, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, and Roger Ekirch have done so brilliantly.

In my current research, I am predominantly interested in the complex landscape of values that shape, and are shaped, by nighttime lighting. This requires an understanding of how these values have evolved, but with a focus on contemporary decision-making. Presently, concerns over the effects of light pollution are challenging long-held presuppositions about artificial light at night. What effects these emerging environmental values will have on nighttime lighting policy – and what impact these values should have – is an ongoing debate, and one that I am investigating in my research. Lighting infrastructure is relatively stable, with changes taking a lot of time and money. This adds import to any decisions made for large or radical changes (for example, retrofitting street lighting with LEDs), as these changes will likely remain for several decades. We need to make empirically informed and value-sensitive decisions about what sorts of innovations to develop and ultimately adopt.

KIE: We recently hosted our annual Conversations in Bioethics event, this year’s topic being Disability. At the forefront of that event, in both planning and execution, was accessibility. I’m interested, particularly regarding the design of new lighting networks in cities, how you balance sustainability and accessibility. Does one ever take priority? Or are they moreso developed in tandem?

Stone: To be honest, my research has not taken me in the direction of disability studies or accessibility, however it is certainly an important consideration in the design of any physical space, lighting included. From my perspective, a first step would be clarifying exactly what is meant by ‘sustainability’ and ‘accessibility,’ and asking how nighttime lighting fosters or hinders these goals. We could then look at these as competing values, and ask which to prioritize and why. However, I think there is a responsibility for both ethicists and designers to think creatively about such challenges, and explore ways to overcome a dichotomous, ‘either-or’ sort of framework. Another option is to consider these values in tandem throughout the design process, as you said, so as to avoid downstream conflicts and issues. A great topic to further investigate!

KIE: Your time at Georgetown in particular will be spent executing a case study on the campus lighting plan. In what ways do you see the Ethics Lab being a valuable resource for experiment/guidance moving forward on this project?

Stone: As I think the above questions have made clear, I haven’t followed a traditional academic path in philosophy, and have an abiding interesting in design. I’m very excited to draw on the methodological expertise and creative approach of the Ethics Lab in helping to move this project in an innovative direction.