Ethical Technology, 5

Well, I think I’m winding down here. I can tell that I’m close to being out of things to say (for now, anyway); my mind has begun to wander back to my last multi-part monoramble on seeing time… Perhaps I’ll check in on that sometime soon.

In the meantime, the last few notes I had are probably not enough to chatter on about individually, so I’ll just briefly mention them here.

Is there a difference in the ethics of a user and the ethics of a creator? I think there is. When I began listing some ideas about ethics and technology, this was the first thing I wrote down. I never really fleshed it out, and still haven’t really. But what I’m thinking of is this: We all are users. There are no creators that are not also users. But there are some users that are not creators. Many of them, in fact. Therefore, creators have an ethical responsibility that users not only do not have, but cannot have. The user-creator has a scope of understanding that the user-consumer does not share, which creates the responsibility. What, specifically, is within the purview of that responsibility is probably very debatable. Does the user-creator have responsibility for issues of economy—the influence a technology might have on the world around it—sustainability—the resources required to create, distribute, and maintain a technology—or the well-being of the user—whether the use of a technology could have negative physical, mental or social repercussions? Are these questions being asked before an idea becomes a product? Are these questions being asked before a product is advertised?

The internet is a country. Or, perhaps better said, corporations dealing in data must begin to think deeply about the political and diplomatic issues that arise from what they do. In response to efforts within some countries to restrict their citizens’ internet access, Secretary of State Clinton recently said:

“When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled and people constrained in their choices, the Internet is diminished for all of us.”

I agree in principle, just as I agree that many people in the world would be largely better off if their country looked a bit more like ours. However, some of the freedoms and systems that we enjoy are inextricable from our culture, and therefore wouldn’t always be simple to export elsewhere. Political systems shape culture expansively, and are not as easily spread as, say, fast food franchises. What I’m getting at here is that I’m not sure we can say so simply that the internet is this meta-political, meta-cultural entity to which countries are subordinate. Perhaps this will end up being true—that the technological manifestation of the world population will supersede political boundaries in a way that restricts the level of control that sovereign nations have enjoyed for millennia—but at this point in time, it seems to me that internet companies should be acknowledging the political and diplomatic restrictions that are in place now. That is, unless they want to be international activists. If so, then go for it. But if not, I’d ask why a business dealing in information shouldn’t have to play by the same rules overseas as a business dealing in hamburgers.

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Ok, one last thing…

Here’s an ethical rule that seems to be an internet extension of the The Golden Rule: Ask not for that which you would not give yourself. This is a huge problem in marketing: On the one hand, I as an individual am unlikely to trust those to whom I feel obliged to share personal information (i.e. corporations, banks, etc.). In those transactions, I am subject to their terms and have no means by which to control the relationship. This structure is responsible for the trend we see online today, where applications and services enable users to sign in with pre-existing social accounts (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and the like) rather than have to create entirely new ones. But this is not necessarily a benefit to the user. Sure, it’s convenient in the short-term—one less username/password to remember—but it also creates connections by which your information is now shared in a greater network than you probably intended. If you declined that opportunity, and created a unique user account for every service, you’d be shocked to discover some day that Twitter knew your comings and goings on Mint.com, down to the transaction, and therefore was able to build a detailed profile of your interests, decisions, etc. enriched by your tweets and then sell it to advertisers. Of course, this specific situation is not happening right now with Twitter, but it could. It is happening with Facebook, which is the largest advertising network on the internet today, and operating in exactly this way. Regardless of whether your Facebook account information has any overlap with any other service or website, Facebook has taken it upon themselves to follow you everywhere you go on the web, and sells that insight to anyone who wants to advertise to their millions of users. The exchange is socialization and convenience for the monetization of human beings.