Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Racism in Brazil, and American academic imperialism
  2. A quick lesson on race and class in Brazil
  3. Unlike Their Parents, Black Millennials Aren’t A Lock For Clinton
  4. The Rise of the Libertarian Technocrats
  5. Property versus Democracy
  6. Our Friendly Visitors

From the Comments: Trying to Make Sense of Left and Right (Again)

This one is from yours truly, in a delightful back-and-forth with Dr Amburgey:

Ok. Clearly we need to be using terms that mean the same things to both of us. It’s your thread so tell me what constitutes ‘The American Right’ and what constitutes ‘The American Left’. Once we have a common understanding of terminology we can resume the discussion.

I have been working on a post about this very topic, and this conversation is helping me immensely. Thanks.

First, I think there is a distinction that has to be made between the ‘ideological’ and the ‘political’. The ideological rests atop a higher tier than does the political, like a pyramid. The ideological tier houses philosophical and moral insights, which are produced through the academy and in think tanks. The political tier houses organizations dedicated to parties (I think that factions and parties are two different components of a society, and that factions represent a tier below the ideological and above the political).

The American Right is ideological. The GOP is political. (Factions would consist of actors like bureaucracies, trade unions, industrialists, banks, medical doctors, etc., but can also be used to describe intra-party, or coalitional, differences) The American Right is currently home to three broad ideologies: neo-conservatism (elite and moderate), libertarianism (elite and radical), and traditionalism (populist and radical). I emphasize ‘currently’ because neoconservatives and libertarians were at one point Leftist factions in US history, and could easily end up there again in the near future. In many post-colonial and post-socialist societies, for example, both of these ideologies are considered to be on the Left.

The American Left is currently home to three broad ideologies: fascism, communism, and racism. Just kidding! The three ideologies are, I would argue: New Deal liberalism (elite and moderate), technocratic liberalism (elite and radical), and progressivism (populist and radical).

New Deal liberals and neo-conservatives are only moderate because they are dominated by Baby Boomers and Baby Boomers dominate the population at the moment. Libertarians and the technocrats are broadly younger and more cerebral (hence the radicalism). Traditionalism and progressivism are ideologies for the vulgar mob, of course.

Ideology, using the pyramid analogy, trickles down from the top tier into the factional and political tiers. This is just how it works in societies governed by laws rather than by men. Libertarians have been dominating the ideological discussion for the last 30 years or so, and the technocrats have been playing defense, largely because they are politically aligned – wrongly, of course – with socialism’s failure, but also because technocrats are just libertarians who don’t have the chutzpah to become non-conformists.

Successful politicians from the Democrat Party have been trying to balance their New Deal liberalism with the insights of their technocratic betters, but have been calling themselves ‘progressives’ because of the populist narrative and the fact that they need the votes of the vulgar mob to be successful.

I already don’t like this because I don’t think the Left deserves to be considered ‘liberal’ at all, and there is also the shortcoming of being strictly American in scope. We have got to think in internationalist terms when we discuss power and liberty. NOL has tried to hash this whole issue out before, by the way, and numerous times.

Keynes on Free Trade

I found this great quote from John Maynard Keynes earlier today:

In a regime of Free Trade and free economic intercourse it would be of little consequence that iron lay on one side of a political frontier, and labor, coal, and blast furnaces on the other. But as it is, men have devised ways to impoverish themselves and one another; and prefer collective animosities to individual happiness.

I found this in a journal article (pdf) on political decentralization and economic integration. The quote is from 1920 (the article is a couple of years old).

John Maynard Keynes’s system is collapsing in front of our eyes. It is doing so slowly, but it is collapsing nonetheless. What is interesting to note is that Keynesians share much of their ideology with libertarians. We are all liberals of one stripe or another, but the Keynesians won the public policy battles of the post-war period.

I’m not entirely certain I know what these policy battles were all about. Again, it seems like there is very little that we disagree with the technocratic Left about ideologically. Yet since the Keynesian system is collapsing it seems like now would be a good idea to go over how they got to technocratic planning from what is essentially the same starting point as the libertarian one. I think we would do well to exercise a great deal of our thoughts to thinking about this divergence.