Ethical Programs

In Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software, James J. Brown Jr addresses the problem of how to deal with ethical accountability in the context of computational networks in which we can no longer see or make sense of the other.

Today, networked life means there is no such thing as being online or offline anymore, in fact those are concepts from the 1990s when most people had to plug in their telephone modem to get online, and there was a clear distinction to being on or offline. Now, with networked devices, we are always connected to the network, whether we have specifically chosen to be or not, and there is no separate and private space, whether we are in the home, at work, or in the city. Brown defines this situation in terms of a new notion of hospitality, but one without the traditional relationship between host and guest, and one that has deep implications for how we conceive of control, ethics, and accountability.

Invitations takes place all the time in the network, an invitation to be friends on Facebook, an invitation to contribute to a document on Google Drive, an invitation to share a folder on Dropbox, but most people do not contemplate the invitations that they receive and accept when they are not physically using their computer. Brown points to Wendy Chun’s research that explores how our computational machines constantly wander without us, engaging in dialogues with each other, extending and accepting invitations without us specifically agreeing to this, “it’s not that networked computing creates the predicament of hospitality, but that networked computing takes on the old problem of others arriving whether we invited them or not.” (p.2)

Brown refers to the work of Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker in The Exploit and their conception of the network as a swarm, an entity that has no face, no front or center, it is dispersed and distributed, it is in constant communication and can attack from all directions. It is unclear when it is a friend or a foe. He also looks back at ethical and political conceptions of the other from Levinas and Carl Schmitt, to ask how we can conceive of the other that has no face, that resists representation and quantification, that is always here and yet we can’t make sense of it. “This is the foe stripped of faciality. How do we deal with an other that has no face, what is an ethics in the face of the swarm? How do we ask about an ethics of the network, which is a swarm, which has no face? What are ethical decisions in a network? What rhetorical actions are possible? (p.4)

From financial transactions, to urban surveillance technology to our subway tickets, we are always in the network. “The extermination of the other is a technological impossibility.” (p.11) We have to engage the difficulties of our hospitality of the network, because we are ethically implicated in its actions, even though we didn’t accept them and cannot identify them. Networked systems “refigures ethics as something beyond individual choice. (…) It means to be implicated in or responsible for what others do. We might make discrete decisions about who can see my twitter feed, but that is in the context of “an ever-present exposedness to others.” (p.3) The network grants unconditional welcomes to faceless others, and we need to find a new way to address ethics of this new form of hospitality.

An ‘ethical program’ is Brown’s proposal for procedures to be enacted in the face of these networked arrivals. The term is meant to call into question the answerability and ethics of existing inside the swarm. Brown cites the document RFC761, which is the protocol for the transmission of information across the internet, “This principle insists the when transmitting information, a server should confirm to the rules and protocols for transmission as closely as possible, but that this same server should be flexible when determining whether incoming packets conform to that same protocol.” (p.9) Brown calls this principle of robustness into question because it was created during an early time in the development of the internet, a time that was more cooperative, now the world has changed and become more hostile, with greater security needs, this principle of robustness that enables incoming information to be treat more liberally, does not suffice for the complexity of the network or the society that we exist in. Thinking through this problem is an example of the need for a new ethical program to deal with the nature of hospitality in the network, and to open up to the possibility for different actions.

Works Cited:

Brown Jr, James J. Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software, 2015, University of Michigan Press


The Ars Electronica Festival in Vienna this year is titled AI: The Other I, and I enjoyed reading Brown’s book, which conceived of the network as a “faceless other”, alongside this attempt by a technology festival, to reconsider AI, usually addressed from the perspective of technology and economics, to rethink it in the context of culture, spirituality, and philosophy.