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The conviction that technologies and technologists must be ethical is not new. It is, however, newly urgent. Ever-improving digital infrastructure, increasingly useful products and services, and intentionally persuasive interfaces mean technologies are widely distributed and almost universally adopted. It can be a vicious cycle. And so it goes that with great persuasive power comes even greater responsibility.

The Persuader’s Dilemma

To realize its intended outcome, a technology may use a combination of structure and information to force, persuade, and seduce a user. In the influential 1999 article “Toward an Ethics of Persuasive Technology,” Daniel Berdichevsky and Erik Neuenschwander introduce a framework for analyzing and principles for designing technologies. According to their framework, a persuader (i.e., technology designer) designs a technology that employs a combination of persuasive methods to change the attitudes or behaviours of the persuaded person (i.e., …

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The era of self-regulation for the technology industry appears to be over. In its place, a series of new government regulations are being implemented. The European Union (EU) introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 to ensure appropriate levels of privacy for its citizens and transparency from technology companies. More recently, industry leaders have advocated for similar standards to be applied globally. The issue for technology companies, practitioners, and users is that transparency and privacy are highly subjective terms that can serve contradictory ends.

Technology companies with valuable intellectual property and lofty growth targets are motivated to maintain narrow definitions of transparency and privacy. The more user data they can collect, utilize, and monetize the better. In a self-regulated environment, these companies have created their own transparency and privacy policies, signalled their virtuosity by publishing reports (see “Our Continued Commitment to Transparency”), and faced little consequence if any for policy violations. As such, a generation of technology companies has achieved hyper growth while their innovations and business models outpaced the law and lawmakers. …

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Let’s begin with the end in mind. To situate our investigation of ethics and its application to technology, we will focus on the individual ends we desire and the means by which we achieve them. That is, we will be the subjects of our own means-ends analysis; a fundamental philosophical concept and a design principle for artificially intelligent systems. We will stand on the shoulders of philosophy’s giants to define the concept, consider developments at Facebook, and finally, reflect on the role of ethics for our own projects. It’s the perfect place to start.

Means-Ends Analysis

The means-ends concept is so overused it’s worth defining to reclaim its utility. To get beyond everyday uses like ‘a means to an end’ or the Machiavellian ‘the ends justify the means,’ we will first turn to influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he defines means and ends like…


Jordan Eshpeter

Strategies and Philosophies of Technology | Director of Strategy @invoke |

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