In the most recent edition of Wired UK, Eli Pariser wrote a brief but insightful piece about the business ethics (or lack of them) of many of the huge internet companies. It’s worth a quick read. He starts by contacting the Google PR department to find out what their ethical policies are. And the answer is less than adequate: “we’re just trying to give people the most relevant information.”
Pariser accuses them of a ‘wilful blindness to how their design decisions affect the daily lives of millions’. But the reasons for this are not hard to see.
To further muddle the picture, when the social repercussions of their work are troubling, the architects of the online world often fall back on the manifest-destiny rhetoric of technodeterminism. Technologists, Siva Vaidhyanathan points out, rarely say something “could” or “should” happen — they say that it “will” happen.
“The search engines of the future will be personalised,” says Google vice president Marissa Mayer, using the passive voice.
Technodeterminism is alluring and convenient for newly powerful entrepreneurs because it absolves them of responsibility for what they do. Like priests at the altar, they’re mere vessels of a much larger force that it would be futile to resist. They need not concern themselves with the effects of the systems they’ve created. But technology doesn’t solve every problem of its own accord.If it did, we wouldn’t have millions of people starving to death in a world with an oversupply of food.
It shouldn’t be surprising that software entrepreneurs are incoherent about their social and political responsibilities. Once you’re on the road to riches there simply isn’t much time to think all of this through. And the pressure of the venture capitalists breathing down your neck to “monetise” doesn’t always offer much space for rumination.
This ought to give at least a pause for thought…
It shouldn’t really be surprising, though. In a world where the rampant pragmatism of modernism (‘it works’) is as unassailable as ever, and the postmodern abandonment of metanarratives prevents even the possibility of a shared or coherent ethical framework, it stands to reason. All that remains is: make as much money as you can while claiming to offer a global service.
Of course, this is not to say devising a google-era ethics is straightforward. But it is revealing, is it not, that an attempt doesn’t even seem to have been made?